BELFAST — It’s the sound that Zac Perkins loves. When a curling stone smacks into another curling stone, and that baritone echo reverberates throughout the Belfast Curling Club, that crash hits Perkins’ ear in a comforting way.

“It’s a satisfying sound,” Perkins, a Unity College sophomore, said.

This weekend, the Belfast Curling Club hosted the 10th annual Maine College Curling Crash Spiel. Four colleges from Maine took part — Bowdoin, Colby, Unity and the University of Maine — along with teams from Harvard, Yale, Rochester Institute of Technology, Hamilton, Castleton, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The tournament is two days of matches, with a champion expected to be crowned early Sunday afternoon.

Curling clubs at Maine colleges continue to grow. The Crash Spiel was the first tournament for the Colby College team, now in its second season. The Mules opened play with an 8-2 loss to Hamilton, but used their debut as a learning tool.

“It was fun. We weren’t expecting to win,” Avery Munns, Colby’s team captain said. “You don’t have time to warm up in curling. You come in cold. We haven’t curled in a week. As the ends progressed, we curled better.”

The growth of college curling clubs mirrors the sport’s national trend. According to Terry Davis, the director of communication at USA Curling, there are 188 member clubs in 43 states, with a total membership of just over 26,000 curlers. Membership continues to trend upward, Davis said.

Douglas Coffin has been a member of the Belfast Curling Club since 1980, and now serves as  the organizer of the Crash Spiel and a curling mentor and tutor to the college players. The club provides the college teams three hours on Sunday afternoons to use the ice to practice and learn the game. In 2010, Coffin helped establish the club at Bowdoin College, and he’s helped and encouraged the formation of curling clubs at other Maine schools since.

In 2010, Coffin reached out to colleges across New England to gauge interest in a tournament at the Belfast Curling Club. The few teams that came stayed at Unity College — crashed, if you will — and the name of the tournament was born.

“Douglas is a great coach. It’s a lot harder than I expected it to be,” Munns said.

The basics of curling are simple. Two teams of four curlers work to place their 42-pound granite stones as close to the center of the target, home, at the other end of the ice. The game is divided into eight ends (the equivalent of baseball innings) and takes two hours. At the conclusion of an end, the team with the stone closest to the center of home gets a point. If you place two stones closer than the opponent’s nearest stone, it’s two points, and so forth.

Sweepers work to clear the path for stones when necessary. Sweeping vigorously wears the ice bumps down, eliminating the drag slowing the stone to a stop. Modern brooms are nylon. Old ones, like the two hanging above the Belfast Curling Club’s were corn strands.

“I learned with a corn broom,” Coffin said. “It was exhausting.”

Good curling ice is created by spraying hot water on the ice sheet. As it freezes, the droplets create bumps, giving the ice surface the look and feel of frozen sandpaper. The Belfast Curling Club is the only curling-specific ice facility in Maine. While Bowdoin’s curling team is able to occasionally practice at the school’s Watson Arena, the hockey ice doesn’t allow for practicing accuracy and release, Vakkur said. Curling ice and skating ice are similar in that both are ice. That’s where the similarities end.

“Ice hockey ice is so bad. It’s so pitted and crowned and greasy,” Coffin said. “It’s so awful.”

None of the four Maine team captains had any experience curling before joining their respective clubs. Perkins grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. Munns is from Topeka, Kansas. Bowdoin captain Izzy Vakkur is from Atlanta, Georgia. None of those hometowns are known as winter sports hotbeds.

University of Maine captain Alex Bair, a sophomore from Cape Neddick, was drawn to the curling club when he explored his recreation club options at the Orono campus.

“It was the only club I knew for sure I wanted to be in,” Bair said.

“It seemed like a quirky and weird thing to do. It seemed like it would be fun,” Vakkur said.

Bowdoin has the largest and by far most successful college curling club in the state. Vakkur said the club has more than 60 members, with between 20 and 30 regularly active. Bowdoin had two teams entered into this year’s Crash Spiel, the only school to do so. The Polar Bears competed in the national championships each of the last three seasons, and plan to attend this year in Fargo, North Dakota.

Last fall, Vakkur spent the semester studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. While there she found a curling club whose ranks included members of Denmark’s national team, who were happy to help her improve her game. Vakkur even found a curling club back home in Atlanta.

A grasp of curling strategy comes with playing the game, Bair said. You can have a Plan A, an idea of what you want to do, and a Plan B just in case. But by the time the stones start finding space on the ice, you have to think on the fly, and often you’re quickly down to Plan Z.

“Other sports are very loud. Curling is very much like chess,” Bair said. “You never know what you’re going to do 100 percent until something else happens.”

Players quickly overcome any fear of slipping on the ice. Moving quickly on ice without skates is not instinctual.

“As you grow up, you’re careful about ice. Now you’re expected to run on ice,” Perkins said.

“I don’t like hockey. I don’t like skates,” Bair said. “I’m 6-6. Skates make me nervous.”

Once you’re used to being on the ice, you can focus on improving technique.

“The first tournament I was focused on not falling over. The second, I could kind of put the stone where I wanted to,” Vakkur said.

For Maine’s college curlers, their sport of choice is always a conversation starter back home.

“They’re always like, ‘Wow, another cool thing you’re doing in Maine,” Munns said.

Added Vakkur: “I’ve never had someone be silent when I tell them I curl. They always have a million questions.”

Between games, Munns sat in the front row of the pews set up in the viewing room above the ice, and watched. The four-woman Colby team included players who have all of two and a half months curling experience. As the team captain, the skip, Munns wanted to watch a match and study and learn so the next time her team was on the ice, she’d be ready for more situations.

When she was younger, Munns recorded the curling matches during the Winter Olympics on her DVR and watched them over and over. Just getting the chance to try the sport was a dream. Why not try and get good at it?

“I know going forward I’ll be less nervous,” Munns said. “Different situations will pop up, and I’ll learn from them.”


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