“A novice can try and make a stone skip once or twice; maybe after an hour, five or six times,” says David Lewis, a friend who’s watched McGhee work his magic on a river bank. “But Jerry’s turned stone skipping into an art form.”
In fact, McGhee, 60, is known as one of the world’s best stone-skippers, according to the Guinness Book of Records. Although his amazing record of 38 skips was bested by two skips in 2002, his incredible record stood for nearly a decade.
McGhee, who lives in Wimberley, Texas (pop. 3,797), sometimes can’t believe it himself when he skims a flat rock across the water, and it bounces and flies for more than 100 yards before sinking. “When I was a child, I used to skip rocks for hours on cattle tanks at my grandparents’ ranch,” he says. “But I don’t remember who taught me.”
McGhee does recall, however, when his stone skipping became more than an idle pastime. It was 1979 and McGhee, an oilfield engineer, was on work assignment in Spain. In the evenings he would take walks along the beach to help ease the pain caused by a troubled relationship.
“I’d skip stones, too,” says McGhee, who still works as an engineer. “When you skip, you forget about other things. It was just me, the ocean and a flat rock.
“Then one night, it all came together. The bay was smooth as glass, and the rocks were perfect. They were flying, skipping, skipping, skipping. People started appearing on the beach, but I was totally unaware of them. I was one with this dance, the dance of the stone.”
After an extraordinary skip, a burst of applause startled him. “I looked around, and there were at least 200 to 300 people cheering,” he says.
At first, McGhee was embarrassed. But determined not to give up the pleasure, he returned each evening to the beach. So did his audience. It wasn’t long before people started lining up after McGhee’s “shows” to ask him to throw a special rock or show them his technique.
Amazed by the interest in stone skipping, in 1980 he established the International Stone Skipping Federation, then in 1989 the North American Stone Skipping Association. He also began researching how to make his own skipping stones, which culminated in the Jerdone Eco-Stone, a five-sided, flat stone made of clay that dissolves in water. “They’re five-sided because it fits in the hand, and rotation is the key to making a stone skip,” he says.
In 1986, he started writing his how-to guide, The Secrets of Stone Skipping, published 10 years later. He hopes to have an updated version published this summer. The book discusses throwing techniques, basic rock shapes and a history of stone skipping, which dates back to the 12th century.
While working on the book, McGhee decided to break the world record of 29 skips. Guinness editors accepted a video of his throw but would only verify 29 skips. Thus, McGhee shared the record from 1988 to 1993.
Not one to give up, McGhee had a friend videotape him throwing another rock in 1992 on the Blanco River in Texas. This time, close analysis of the film showed 38 skips. In 1994, the Guinness Book of Records officially added the amazing throw to its book.
Over the years, McGhee also has shared his love of skipping stones with others, especially children. “Kids in wheelchairs seem to love it,” he says. “As long as they can use their upper bodies, they can skip it. I’ve also worked with at-risk teens, and it really seems to change some lives. I’d love for it to be part of the Special Olympics one day.”
As for returning to the Guinness Book of Records, McGhee hopes to eclipse his best throw. “My dream is to skip my age.” He pauses to chuckle. “So I guess I’d better hurry!”
For more information on the North American Stone Skipping
Association, log on www.yeeha.net/nassa/a1.html.