A Skipping Skeme
Jerdone Coleman-McGhee, a soft-spoken, private kind of guy, never dreamed of becoming a world champion.
But one night, when his failing marriage overwhelmed him with frustration, he flung some rocks into the Mediterranean. And the rest is history.
Mr. Coleman-McGhee has for the past 10 years been named in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's greatest skipper of stones. This oil-rig engineer based in Driftwood, Tex., threw his most recent record-setter before stop-motion cameras at Blanco River, Tex., in 1992. It skipped 38 times.
His ambition to spread stone skipping around the world will reach the Saint John area on Canada Day, when the Rothesay Association for Community Living stages its First Annual Kennebecasis Valley Stone Skipping Championship.
If you're an engineer like he is - and you can conceptualize stone skipping in terms of leading edge, angle of attack, spin and precession, whatever those are - then stone skipping is for you.
This is the same technology by which intercontinental ballistic missiles are bounced from space against the atmosphere and back out to space again and again, until they're over their target, Mr. Coleman-McGhee tells you with enthusiasm.
In fact, the Community Living event, which gets underway on July 1 at 1:30 p.m. at Meenan's Cove Park, is the first competition in the Kennebecasis Valley to be sanctioned by NASSA.
But no, this isn't NASA, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It's NASSA, the North American Stone Skipping Association, of which Mr. Coleman-McGhee is founder and executive director.
And the truth is, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to skip stones.
If you're four years old and your grandfather has just shown you the secret of making a flat rock bounce across pond water, you will be drawn to stone skipping just as strongly as the engineers are, Mr. Coleman-McGee says. The same if you are a 70-year-old who has just taken a grandchild to the pond.
The fact that the sport embraces both genders was proven by the first stone-skipping world champion, in 1989, who was a 22-year-old university co-ed from Texas. Her rock bounced 23 times.
This potentially wide appeal caught the attention of the New Brunswick Community Living Association when somebody found Mr. Coleman-McGhee's "Stone Skipping Home Page," on the Web at www.yeeha.net/ nassa/a1.html.
If everybody loves to skip stones, then you can make a lot of money with it, the association reasoned. It sees this as an important future fund-raiser.
The New Brunswick group held the province's first NASSA-sanctioned stone-skipping festival last Canada Day and has another in store for this year. It wants to see the event spread to all 26 of its regional branches eventually. Rothesay and Miramichi will become the first branches to try it.
"I think it's an excellent idea," says Donna Holmes, president of the Rothesay group, "because everybody can do it. You don't have to be an athlete, and you don't have to be a great genius brain going up there to figure it out."
Her group hopes to raise $2,000 for its adult training centre and school-to-work transition program for mentally handicapped people.
Ms. Holmes can be forgiven if her back perhaps has been a little crooked lately. She has been gathering flat stones for the festival since the frost went out of the ground in April, combing the beaches of St. Andrews and Gondola Point, as well as roadsides. Participants will pay $1 per set of five to throw them.
"We've got to have at least a thousand. And it's not easy to find stones that are appropriate for this. You've got to look a long time."
She has the help of the 30 or 40 teaching assistants affiliated with her branch. They bend over to comb for stones whenever they take their students on any kind of field trip.
Mr. Coleman-McGhee, 53, doesn't remember where he skipped his first stone. He has practiced his unique skill on the Euphrates River, in Syria, the Mediterranean, the English Channel and several South American beaches - wherever his oil work has taken him. In the absence of water, he has skipped stones across the Sahara sand with Bedouin tribesmen.
He is working to follow his first book, The Secrets of Stone Skipping, with an autobiography entitled Stone Dancer.
His very first stone skip was probably at a cattle pond of his grandfather's ranch, in Texas, he says. But he's only guessing, he says, on the basis that "parents are too busy to skip stones, so it's relegated to the grandparents and the kids."
The first stone-skipping he does remember was at a secluded fishing village in northern Spain, where he lived while working on North Sea oil rigs in the 1970s.
Pacing the beaches, he threw slate stones against the water, and to dispel his anger at a tumultuous marriage, he threw them hard. To his embarrassment, spectators would crowd around.
One quiet evening, he thought he was by himself when he threw a particularly good stone.
"It just took off and skipped and skipped and skipped. And when it quit skipping, there was a burst of applause and cheers, which rattled me. I spun around and realized there were 200 or 300 people standing 20 metres behind me, very quietly watching the whole time."
By this time, his stones were travelling halfway across the harbour - a fact that robbed him of all seclusion, because there was no place in the village from which the splash-splash-splash of his work could not be seen. As evening came and the harbour fell still, locals and tourists alike would gather at the beaches to watch the American.
After he finished his nightly throwing, children would line up for instructions. Pretty soon their parents were in line too. "And then I realized I was on to something special."
Despite his continuing effort to establish an annual world stone-skipping championship, "I'm not enthralled by the idea of competition," he tells you.
"If you have a winner, you also have to have a loser, and I don't like that concept." But a championship is the only way to popularize stone-skipping, he concluded after pausing his project for two years so he could think the issue out.
"I didn't want to promote stone-skipping. I just wanted to have fun with it."
It's taken Mr. Coleman-McGhee two decades to figure out the universal appeal of stone-skipping, which is found in cultures around the world. Like fly-casting, it is an art form, he says.
"Stone-skipping is more of a dance. . . Like fly-fishing, it's an activity where one can concentrate on form, and the results will come automatically. But if you don't get the form down, the results won't be there."
Although he has collected enough knowledge to fill his book, most of the precise science of stone-skipping has been held by the Royal Air Force for the past half century as a military secret.
Using indoor testing tanks, mechanical throwing arms and sophisticated recording equipment still not available to Mr. Coleman-McGhee, an RAF team of aeronautical engineers worked out the exact physics of stone-skipping in developing the famous Dam Buster aerial bomb.
The bomb - a four-tonne spinning disk that was dropped from a low-flying Lancaster - skipped along the water until it met its target. The British used it to take out hydroelectric dams that powered war industry in Germany's Ruhr region.
Mr. Coleman-McGhee has been trying to uncover these secrets for more than two decades, combing through the British Museum and archives at Leichester Square, and in all the other places where this led. Producers of a BBC science documentary wanted in the 1980s to film him touring Sir Barnes' test tanks, which are still standing in Cleveland, England. But Mr. Coleman-McGhee's North Sea oil work got in the way. He also had to turn down a chance to meet the widow of Sir Barnes Wallis, the leader of the Dam Busters team.
Sir Barnes, the Texan said, "had a cottage in the country. He used to skip stones with his grand-kids. And it was in that process that he had this idea for skipping bombs."
In the meantime, stone skipping holds plenty more issues that Mr. Coleman-McGhee wishes he had time to deal with.
For example, if people float easily on the highly saline waters of the Dead Sea, does this mean these waters are also ideal for skipping stones?
"I sure wish I have the chance some day to find out," he says.
His oil work in Syria was only 160 kilometres away from Jordan's portion of the Dead Sea. But the Jordanian government turned down his application to visit the coast.
In contrast to the Dead Sea - which being below sea level is the world's lowest body of water - Mr. Coleman-McGhee also has his eye on the fresh water of Lake Titicaca, in the mountains of Bolivia. The rarified air around this highest body of water in the world would exert less drag against a flying stone, he theorizes.
And he hasn't even had time to ponder the Coriolis effect - by which the spin of the earth makes toilets flush clockwise in the northern hemisphere but counter-clockwise on the other side of the equator. Would this give south-paws the upper hand at an Australian stone-skipping festival? It's still one of stone skipping's many unanswered questions, he tells you tongue-in-cheek.
"There are unlimited frontiers yet."
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