Some people say that curling is like bocce on ice. Others dismiss it as a curious game of people in pajama bottoms furiously sweeping brooms.
But when I tried the sport for the first time this fall, I felt like curling resembled, in some ways, a tough SAT question. How much must Stone A curl to stop at Point B? And where will Stone B go if you hit it with Stone A – and at what velocity? Factor in the physics of differing ice speeds, player experience and game strategy, and you get the picture.
Still, I couldn’t help but be attracted to a sport where the post-game tradition involves tipping a few with your opponents. Not only do the winners clean the ice, but they buy the first round, too.
Where did curling originate?
No one really knows when curling first started, but its roots are definitely Scottish. One of the earliest curling stones dates to 1511, unearthed near Stirling. In 1760, the Edinburgh Cannonmills Club formed, and in 1838, the Grand Caledonian Curling Club was established solely to create standardized rules for the game.
As expected, curling is played mostly in countries that have ice: northern and mountainous Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, China and Japan. Scottish regiments brought the sport to Quebec, where they melted cannonballs to make stones due to a paucity of traditional granite. Curling has been played in America since the early 1800s, and it’s estimated that there are now 15,000 curlers and more than 100 clubs nationwide.
The Rochester Curling Club formed in 1961 after founder Lewis Elkin heard about a group of Kodak employees playing the game in Toronto. The first bonspiel (tournament) was arranged with upstate and Canadian teams, and the club was born.
After playing on RIT’s ice rink for a few years, the club invested in its own facility, located near the airport, which now offers four “sheets” of ice and a warming room. This year, the club is celebrating 50 years of curling.
How Do You Play?
Curling games last about two hours. Although it looks like a casual event, it’s been estimated that the aerobic activity of a single game is equivalent to two sets of tennis – plus it requires clever strategies that rival chess.
The captain (“skip”) calls the shots by giving each player a target to aim for. In the old days, players didn’t slide out like they do now, but literally threw the stone like a bocce ball – and often suffered the ensuing rotator cuff injuries. For those who can’t get low on the ice, special sticks can be used to push the stone forward.
During the game, the four players, including the skip, each throw two stones per “end.” Depending on the vigor of the sweepers, a stone’s trajectory can be changed by several feet. The game is played in eight ends, meaning shots are made from opposite ends of the sheet four times each. The stones that end up “in the house” (within the rings) and closest to the center earn various points.
“It’s a very precise game, much like billiards,” said Clark Raven, junior coach at the Rochester Curling Club. “An inch can make or break the game.”
The bottom of the stone naturally curls in one direction, much like a bowling ball. Players can put additional spin on the handle, which is needed to control final placement. “Without some curl, the stone just goes anywhere,” Raven explained.
A Family Sport
Curling is a perfect family activity. Participants can be ultra-competitive or laid back, depending on the level of play they enjoy.
Rochester-based painter Phyllis Bryce Ely first tried curling after winning a membership during the WXXI auction. Now in her ninth year with the sport, she can barely remember a time when her family didn’t curl. Unlike a sport such as golf, novices can get right into play with just a half hour of instruction.
“It makes the winter pass quickly,” she said, “and is a relatively inexpensive sport to try. It’s great to find an activity that you can become competent at as an adult.”
When she’s curling, Phyllis doesn’t think of anything else, making it a great stress-reliever. Off the ice, Phyllis is one of the few artists who paints pictures of the sport. (See examples of her work at www.curlingart.com.)
Curling clubs exist in Niagara Falls, Utica and Albany as well, and it’s fast becoming a popular collegiate sport. The season runs from October through April, offering games for all ages, from youth to senior, plus various adult leagues. At the Rochester Curling Club, you can curl every day of the week, including a couple daytime slots.
“There is a gentleness to this sport that many enjoy,” said Raven. “We never revel in another player’s errors and always compliment good shots. Plus, we get to meet and mix with other team members in a bonspiel. Overall, it’s a very social sport.”
So What’s It Like?
Curling didn’t look like a hard sport. Initially I thought it couldn’t be that challenging to slide a stone on ice and redirect it a bit with some fast sweeping.
How wrong I was.
The one thing I didn’t count on was one foot is slippery at all times. That’s the foot that slides in front when you push off from the hack. I was firmly warned never to stand on that foot, whose sole is coated with Teflon. Yes, Teflon on ice.
Then there were the changes in balance needed just to stay upright. Push off with one foot, balance on a slick foot pad, and then release a heavy stone. My first time out, I fell only once – more like falling over rather than falling down – but felt at risk each time I launched the stone.
And that was just getting started. I never managed to get a stone past the second hog line, which would actually put it into play. Until I could slide it far enough, I couldn’t begin to grasp the complexities and strategy involved in winning a game.
I’m embarrassed to admit that after an hour of practice, my thighs ached for two days, and just a bit of vigorous sweeping awakened long-dormant deltoids. This is definitely a sport for those who appreciate precision and skill, but also enjoy play that places good sportsmanship high on its list of attributes.
What’s with the Language?
The history of curling has endowed it with unique terms. Here are just a few from the extensive glossary on the Rochester Curling Club website.
Biter – A stone that just touches the outer edge of the 12-foot ring.
Burned stone – A stone in motion that is touched by a member of either team or any part of their equipment. A burned stone is immediately removed from play. Players use the honor system to reveal if they have burned a stone.
Hack – The starting block from which the stone is delivered.
Hog Line – The wide black lines 33 feet from each hack. A stone must completely cross the far hog line to be in play.
Pebble – A fine spray of water applied to the sheet before the start of each game. Curling stones slide along frozen pebble, which has the texture of orange peel, not on smooth ice.
Port – An opening between two stones wide enough for another stone to pass through.
Take-out – To completely remove a stone from play by hitting it with another stone.
Rochester Curling Club
71 Deep Rock Road
Rochester, NY 14624
Call or go online for information about open houses, membership, special events and the club’s extensive youth program.
by Joy Underhill