California’s Humboldt County Kinetic Grand Championship is a local institution. It is also loads of fun, with fun. It has ingenious mechanical devices, parties and its own since of pageantry. It, however, also entails some real competition.
The concept of a Kinetic Sculpture Race was originated and first held in Ferndale, CA in 1969. The “triathlon of the arts” is a three-day competition of human-powered art over a 42-mile course along roads, through water and over sand dunes. While the concept of kinetic races has since spread to six additional cities, the Humboldt Country competition is the largest, most demanding and most elaborate of them and is generally viewed as the annual unofficial annual championship. We had been to this before and decided to go back in 2015.
The festivities begin on Arcata Plaza, where crews proudly show their devices to enthusiastic viewers and (hopefully) fix last minute glitches. Participants then mount their sculptures and take them around the plaza, during which safety and sobriety tests are administered and sculpture crews engage in brief, pre-race celebrations . They then line up to await the sound of Arcata’s noon whistle. The race begins with three spins around the square, and then down the highway toward the race’s first major challenge–crossing several miles of soft, sandy beach, scaling the steep Manila Dunes and then navigating down the even steeper Dead Man’s Drop.
This drop, a steep decline through deep,loose sand, has, in the past, claimed many victims. Many of the sculptures that were designed more for visual effect than for speed and stability, tipped or slid into the trees that surround the drop. Not this year: all of the roughly 20 sculptures that we saw (and a vast percentage of the others) barreled down the dune and made it in one piece. This being said, a few of those that we did not see (including Star Trek) experienced strains that resulted in broken axels, tie rods and struts (most of which seem to have been repaired or replaced by the time of Day Two’s water entry). The whale skeleton sculpture did have a run in with a tree and lost part of its jaw (which was partially repaired by Day 2.)
The sand drop was the last challenge of the day. After a bit more time plodding through sand, those who made it had to cross one long bridge before arriving at waterfront Eureka park. Here, some celebrated survival of the day while others nursed their wounds and their egos, repaired their vehicles and commiserated with others through an evening of partying.
The dunes, however, are only the first of a number of challenges faced by the intrepid racers. Peddling, pushing, pulling, and paddling their sculptures up and down hilly roads, through deep sand beaches, up and down steep sand dunes, and into, through and out of water through sloughs and channels.
Day two consists of two more big challenges: entering and pedaling, paddling or pulling their devices into and through Eureka’s Humboldt Bay, back onto the road and then up the challenging Houghton Hill. The morning entry into Eureka Harbor, where sculptures, after requisite safety checks and escape drills, roll down a boat ramp into the water and then peddle or paddle more than a mile to the exit point. This, however, assumes that the sculpture actually survives the entry, which can be a challenge for large, pontoon-retrofitted craft (with only very basic brakes) that have been designed primarily for varied terrestrial use. Given this, the entry point is the most interesting part of the water run, where the shock of entry may dislodge critical components (we saw about three of 15 entering sculptures sufficiently damaged as to require repair before continuing the race and one top-heavily entry, capsize and sink–twice in two attempts–before being eliminated from that part of the competition).
These entries, despite the pre-entry safety checks, have the potential of resulting in injury (at least one victim of one hard entry required bandaging) or dangerous situations. Therefore, the event’s two primary safety squads (Kientic Medics and Kinetic Cops, the later of whom “maintain public order” by issuing playful citations when required) were complemented by a third squad of kayaker who patrolled the course and congregated at the more dangerous entry and exit points to provide and required assistance. Then there are the corps of “civilian officials”, many of whom are attired in creative, award-adorned “uniforms” who actually manage the event.
The entry point also provided some additional, unscheduled entertainment. Despite its Sunday morning start, one kayaker had liberally partaken in another major Humboldt County hobby of hallucinogenic self-medication. This kayaker, after stumbling across a dock, dropping objects and puzzling over how to pick them up, got into a kayak, began wobbling uncontrollably, and capsized. After a comedy of errors in unsuccessfully trying to reboard the kayak, he made it back to the dock (in waist-high water) and repeated the process a few times before being removed for his own safety. Another folly, turned comedy occurred when a man, clad in wet suit and large life preserver, rode his bike (equipped with an inflatable flotation device) down the ramp and attempted to swim the length of the course. After about 20 minutes of making absolutely zero progress, the wind eventually won by actually more than erasing all the progress he had previously made.
Then those who successfully navigated the paddle and exited the water were off on a more than ten-mile road ride (including up and down a number of modestly challenging hills) to the second evening’s private resting spot.
The third and final day of the championship competition begins at the remote camp, backtracks to a crossing point over the Eel River, where the sculptures were again fitted with pontoons. While currents and sandbars caused problems for some of the craft, all made it. This, of course, did not mean there were no incidents. Getting the heavy craft from the water onto the beach, and exiting the craft proved challenging for some. But even when mishaps resulted in unintentional dunkings, even they became just another reason for a celebration. The challenges, however, did not end with successful exits from the water. Before sculptures could get back on the road for the last, short stretch to the finish line, they had to climb a steep sand bank. This often required more than a little help from crews and observers. Some of the sculptures, such a massive whale skeleton, emerged a bit worse for wear, as with a number of broken ribs.
From there, it was a four mile sprint to the picture-perfect Victorian town of Ferndale, where residents lined the streets to cheer the finishers, winners were announced and prizes awarded.
It is a fun event to watch, but we can only imagine how tired the event’s participants must be.