The 38th annual Sandcastle Contest has a new location and date for this year's event, kicking off Saturday.
Having a rock as a foundation is usually the best way to go when building something, unless you’re making a sandcastle.
Darrell O’Connor’s knack for molding sand has led him to win nine sandcastle contests. The latest was in 2011, his last year competing.
The last couple of years the sandman and sponsor Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Chamber of Commerce have hosted a castle-building workshop for novices, to advertise the contest and give folks something fun to do. They’ll do the same this weekend.
O’Connor will give a free demonstration Friday, a day before the 38th annual contest. The works will be created between Brooklyn Avenue and Hickman Street.
“The whole idea was we bring some people in late in the day Friday and you show them how to do it,” said Wilmington’s O’Connor, who owns a beach house in Dewey Beach.
‘Play in the sand’
His passion for building grew in the mid-’80s when he and his wife would hit the beach. She’d relax reading a book. He found another way to kill time.
“I can’t sit on the beach in a chair and read and do nothing,” he said. “My wife would sit and read, while I’d basically play in the sand and build little sandcastles.”
Eventually O’Connor decided to enter his first Rehoboth contest during the ‘80s. He didn’t even crack the Top 10. But over time he got better, leading him to nine wins in a span of 25 or 26 years, he said.
The game-changer was when he began building his castles upwards of 6 feet and taller. “I think a castle that’s 6 or 7 feet in the air is more impressive,” O’Connor said.
His strength lies in making sophisticated sandcastles with multiple levels and a staircase.
“I’m very good at creating detail. For example, the detail is you carve a sheer wall into a stone wall,” he said. “It’s the details that separate a first-place castle from a second.”
Designing like that requires about eight hours.
O’Connor’s reputation for building topnotch sandcastles has led to commissions for weddings. And two years ago he had a castle featured in Nashville recording artist Sarah Williams’ video “Unfinished Road,” shot in Bethany Beach.
The sandman will keep it basic when teaching Friday, from 3 to 5 p.m.
He’ll demonstrate how to create a typical, two-foot castle with four towers. Participants will want to make sure their sand is wet and packed.
“Beyond that, the only big, high-level tip is to be aware of the tide,” O’Connor said. “You can tell when you go to the beach where the tide is coming in. If you want your creation to last, you want to build it outside the high-tide line.”
Contestants in Sandcastle Contest can begin building their castles any time Saturday, until 3 p.m. Despite the contest’s name, sand sculptures are allowed. Whimsical sculptures in the past have included mermaids and aquatic animals.
Guests can register their entry between 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Children younger than 18 must be accompanied by an adult.
Prizes will be awarded to the Top 10 Judge’s Favorites in both the adult and ages 7-14 child divisions. One Judge’s Favorite will be awarded in the Business category. Special awards will be given to all in the age 6-and-younger division.
There are two People’s Choice Awards. The general public can vote on their favorite adult and child-division creation by completing an evaluation card.
Gwen Osborne has been judging the contest for nearly a decade. She evaluates sandcastles/sculptures differently depending on the age group she’s looking at.
“With the adult group we’re looking for originality and attention to detail,” she said. “A lot of times they take current affairs and base it around things that are happening around the world.”
For instance, “one year for 9/11 somebody did a tribute to the firefighters,” Osborne said. “It was a firefighter’s helmet. It was amazing.”
The children’s group is judged based on their imagination.
“We're looking for creativity. It's great when a child walks you around their creation and explains it to you,” said Osborne, co-owner of Sign-A-Rama in Georgetown, along with fellow judge and co-owner Kaite Handy.
“There's a lot of detail you might not see as an adult. But as children explain it, the picture becomes clear to you," Osborne said.
Changing of the times
This year is the first time the contest will be in a new location, instead of at the northern end of the boardwalk. These changes were made to generate more interest.
“We had fewer teams registering to do a sandcastle,” said Carol Everhart, president and chief executive officer for the Chamber.
“One thing we could do was move the location on the beach and moved it in front of Funland. It provided nearby restrooms. It provided more space to offer more activities for the kids,” she said.
Around 100 teams register for the contest, down from a decade ago. Everhart blames the decline on this generation’s obsession with technology, such as social media and video games.
“You’re dealing with a lot of technology that the younger generation is into. It takes a group, typically, to build a sculpture. And it requires a commitment of time,” she said. “It’s fun, but it’s also work.”