OCEAN SHORES — The notion of turning sand into a bonding experience seemed like just a lark when the Sanders family visited the beach a few weeks earlier and saw the signs announcing this weekend’s Five Star Dealerships Sand & Sawdust Festival sand sculpting competition.
Although no one had much experience other than building sand castles on vacation, Stephanie Sanders and her sister Rachel Severson of Bellingham decided to give it a try Saturday morning. Their family members all volunteered to pitch in, too, despite a steady drizzle to start the day that had some of the adults thinking about backing out.
With a SpongeBob SquarePants centerpiece and a Bikini Bottom theme in deference to their children, the “Sandy Sanders” ended up surprising even themselves by taking second place in the family category.
“Bikini Bottom, nice. Very clean,” said veteran master sand sculptor Bert Adams, who helped start the Ocean Shores event in the 1990s as one of the many sand-sculpting events he sponsors, organizes or competes in.
“We saw the sign a month ago on Memorial Day weekend and it was something we thought would be a fun family thing to do,” Stephanie Sanders said of the eight family members on the team. “For the design, we just looked it up online and found the SpongeBob, and everything after that was on the fly.”
The teams compete for more than $5,000 in cash prizes in one of four categories and must finish their sand art displays between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., using only the sand in their allotted space and water from adjacent ponds dug into the beach to be used by the bucketfuls to keep the sand hard and compact.
The Sanders team included Stephanie’s husband Lyle, and their children, Derek, 9, Vanessa, 11, Nathan, 14, and Josh, 15. Also doing much of the finer detail work was Rachel’s husband, Karl Unterschuetz.
“We were a little leery of the idea at first,” Unterschuetz said when Stephanie called to pitch the idea of the sand competition. “But it was a lot of fun.”
Asked what experience he had previously, Unterschuetz recalled the last time he built anything close to a sand castle was “maybe when I was 9.”
The steady drizzle in the morning didn’t dampen the spirits of the teams on the beach. For some, it made building sand sculptures a little easier and made the effort all the more impressive.
“This morning they were pleased with the rain because it was compacting the sand,” said Ruth Biggs, vice president of the Ocean Shores Action Committee for Tourism, which organizes and coordinates the event.
Adams’ group, Wabi-Sabi, took second in the masters division, behind what he said was the oldest group of sand sculptors in the competition: the Orbital Sanders.
“Everybody looks like they’re having fun and that’s what is important,” Adams beamed as he checked out all the other novice, intermediate and family teams and their entries while the judges tallied their votes.
Adams inspired two of the teams in his Sand in the City competitions, the Form Finders, which placed third, and his Wabi-Sabi team, where each individual has an assigned role in the design that featured a dragon, knights, a king and a damsel in distress.
The former electrical engineer from Portland, known as the “Pied Piper of Sand,” inspired many of the others who were involved in the masters categories.
“Really nice design,” Adams tells competitor Jeff Strong of Tacoma, a member of the winning Orbital Sanders team, which has been building sand art for 27 years. The team also won the 2011 Ocean Shores event.
“This is a really great event in this category of beach contests. Here, you have to work between tides,” Strong said of the beach location.
While there were fewer teams this year, a fact many blamed on the weather and the economy, blue sky broke out in the afternoon by the time the sand sculptures were ready for judging, and Adams noted how many smiles he was witnessing in what turned out to be a fairly large crowd of onlookers.
“It’s always fun to help others have fun,” he said. “If you’re not helping others have fun and encouraging what you see, what kind of fun are you? One of my goals is to make sand sculpture an intramural sport in high schools. I want to have the art team come home with a trophy and put it next to the football and basketball team.”
Adams’ signature sand sculpture will continue to be on display through Sunday outside of the Ocean Shores Convention Center in the southeast corner of the parking lot. This year, it’s a sand sculpture of a girl with a bear on her lap driving a small car downhill with a delightful smile on her face.
Master chainsaw carving will continue today at the Convention Center from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., with more than $6,000 in prizes to be awarded over the weekend, along with an auction of the carvings after the competition ends.