Hogged stones, hacks, and icy tumbles: A novice curler’s diary

Many years ago, I fashioned myself as a pretty serious athlete (if, that is, you define “serious” as “getting mad whenever you lose”).

Belfast Curling Club members sweep the ice to help curl their rock during a league game at the Belfast Curling Club in Belfast in December.  Ashley L. Conti | BDN

Belfast Curling Club members sweep the ice to help curl their rock during a league game at the Belfast Curling Club in Belfast in December. Ashley L. Conti | BDN

It didn’t take long before I realized, however, that my chances of making it to the Olympics were pretty slim (If, that is, you define “slim” as “nonexistent.)

But every time the winter games rolled around, I’d perk up each time I saw the curlers waddling around the ice, chasing a big rock and furiously wagging their brooms back and forth.

“That,” I’ve said more than once, “Is probably the only sport I’d ever be able to be an Olympian in.”

In fact, I said those very words late last week, when I head to the Belfast Curling Club — Maine’s only indoor all-curling facility, I’ve been told — to try my hand at the sport for the first time.

Long before I even started waddling around on the ice and furiously wagging my own broom — a brush, actually — I learned how wrong I was.

I will never be an Olympic curler. Not even close.

It won’t matter if I purchase some fancy pants like the Europeans do. It won’t matter if I take personal curling lessons from Kevin Martin himself (He’s a legendary Canadian curler, I learned, and goes by the nicknames “The Old Bear” and “K-Mart”).

This sport, I learned, halfway out of the hacks on my first try, is much more difficult than it looks.

First, come the hacks. Those are the little starting blocks that sit at one end of the icy sheet. Our own personal coach taught us how to squat in the hacks, placing our right foot against one, and our left foot on a torturously slippery device called “a slider.”

Push off the hacks, and slide, while clutching onto a 40-pound stone that you’re preparing to gently nestle into the house — that’s the target-looking thingie — at the other end of the ice.

Sounds simple.

It looked simple, when our coach showed us how it worked.

About halfway between my initial thrust off the hack and the moment I landed flat on my back, still clutching my stone, I learned two things: Ice is hard (I knew that already). And so is curling.

Over the course of two hours, our group learned plenty about curling. To be truthful, two members of our group were probably over-qualified for such a remedial exercises. Both were former league curlers in Canada, and were clearly ringers.

They knew the magic words that I had to look up on Curling Canada’s website.. Words like “skip,” who, it turns out, is the leader of the team, the player who tells you where you’re supposed to throw the stone, and which kind of spin you’re supposed to put on it.

And words like “SWEEP!” which the skips always yell at us brush-wagging ice-waddlers as we chase after the stone. Most of those stones, I learned, were “heavy,” and didn’t need sweeping at all.

It took me about an hour to figure out that our skips weren’t able to determine the actual weight of stones from the other side of the ice, and that “heavy” had nothing to do with the stone’s real weight. It just meant that the curler in question had heaved it across the ice much too fast for it to land in the house.

It took me less time to learn about the hog line.

That’s the line your stone has to get beyond before it’s allowed to remain on the ice sheet for the rest of the “end” (or inning, or period, or quarter, depending on what sport you’re most familiar with).

Lesson number one: If you try to slide your stone while falling on your back and spinning like a top, it won’t make it to the hog line.

Lesson number two: At that point, you will have thrown a “hogged stone.”

Real curlers — those who actually know how to keep score, which isn’t as easy as you’d think — will tell you that’s not a good thing.

Me and my “lead,” and my “mate, and my “skip” know better.

We spent an evening doing two things very well, you see. We threw heavy … a lot. And we hogged our stones … a lot.

And each of us had a wonderful time despite all that.

John Holyoke can be reached at jholyoke@bangordailynews.com or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke

The Belfast Curling Club offers league play and learn-to-curl programs. To learn more, go to belfastcurlingclub.org or call 338-9851

John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.