Dan Doubleday never dreamed he would be the king of the sand castle builders. It just happened. He was on the beach one day, kneeling in the sand, messing around, when the gawkers gathered. "Hey, man, you're good,'' somebody said, and a few weeks later a letter arrived, inviting him to a nearby contest.
He was 45. He had never heard about sand castle building competitions. But he went to the event in California and won $500 for a sculpture of leaping dolphins. Now, 13 years later, he is the king of the sand castle builders. He is the Tiger Woods, the Lance Armstrong of the sand castle universe. He has won eight world championships and earns his living building intricate sand sculptures for hotels, restaurants and conventions.
Commercial sand jobs all over the world, from Super Bowl celebrations to hotel openings, pay bills. Competition frees the imagination. This week Doubleday competes in the four-day Masters Sand Sculpting Competition and Music Festival that starts Thursday behind the Bilmar Beach Resort on Treasure Island.
A Pinellas County resident, he will enjoy a home beach advantage over contestants from other parts of North America. Each will start with a 12-ton sand pile and have 21 hours spread across three days to sculpt a masterpiece.
As Dan Doubleday attacks his pile of sand a part of him will be thinking:
"I'm doing the same thing as I did as a kid!''
• • •
He walks mornings on the Treasure Island beach for exercise. When he sees a kid with a bucket and a shovel he often stops and watches. Sometimes he hunkers next to the kid, and the kid's parents, and says, "You might try this," and his hands conjure up an elaborate castle, whale, dolphin or gnome. Only then does he march off and burn away those breakfast calories.
Sand sculptors such as Doubleday believe their art is probably the oldest on the planet, though nobody could ever know for sure. The wind and tide erased all evidence.
In west-central Florida, Spaniards waded ashore, armor clanking, in 1528. Perhaps a Conquistador stomped on a Tocobaga child's sand sculpture of a chickee hut where hotels stand today. But we don't know that either. We do know that modern sand castle history began in the late 19th century in Atlantic City, where hucksters sculpted sand for tourist tips. Near Jacksonville, gazillionaire Henry Flagler founded Florida's modern waterfront tourist industry. Sand castles must have come with the territory.
The first professional sand castle competitions were held in California three decades ago. In Florida, one of the first took place on Treasure Island in the mid 1980s. A young woman named Meredith Corson was among the spectators. The next year, she competed. In 1996, she saw Dan Doubleday win a contest and remembers thinking, "I've never seen work like his.''
Sure, he sculpted the usual things, even castles, the most elaborate castles she had ever seen. But he also sculpted what she considered museum quality busts and statues. He paid attention to detail and to musculature. His influences included Michelangelo and Dali.
Doubleday and Corson have been together since.
• • •
Sand sculpting hasn't made them millionaires. They can't afford a house on the beach. But they make enough on commercial jobs to live across the road from the beach.
She is blond, tan and nurturing. He is blond, tall, loose-jointed, nervous, finger-tapping, toe-tapping. He looks off into space, hums, sings to himself. He is barefoot, tan and smells of sunscreen.
"The beach is my office,'' he says.
He was born in ocean-free Wisconsin, grew up in Arizona and moved to California as an adult. Favorite childhood memories: "Making things with clay. Making things with Play-Doh.'' His dad issued the customary dad warning: "You can't make a living as an artist." He gave computer programming a try.
Hated it. He fished for salmon in Oregon during the summer and worked construction in California the rest of the time. He married, had four kids, enjoyed taking them to the beach.
Built castles in the sand. Got discovered. Turned pro. Marriage soured. Ended up on a beach at Treasure Island. Sand.
It's all about the sand. "First thing I look at,'' he says. Ambling onto a beach — any beach — he says to himself, "I can't do anything with that sand" or "That's great sand.''
The sand determines the physics of the sculpture. Sand sculptors loathe Florida's east coast sand. "It's coarse. The grains are like big ball bearings. They don't want to stick together.'' On the west coast, sand is relatively fine and binds better with water. Still, a sculptor can't build a 90-degree wall because the sand will collapse.
Professional sculptors believe the world's best sand is found at Harrison Lake outside of Vancouver, British Columbia. The site of the annual world championship, the beach is composed of silt, sand and mud. "It's more like clay.'' Given enough time, a sculptor can build a 20-foot wall to surround the towers and flying buttresses.
He builds elaborate castles, ancient mariners, sailboats, the Medusa. He sculpted Romeo and Juliet and the dead Jesus lying in the arms of his mother — La Pieta.
• • •
Michelangelo is his hero. Doubleday has traveled all over the world for work and for competition, from China to most of Europe, but loves Florence, Italy, most of all. He heads right for the Accademia Galleria and the masterpiece, David.
Michelangelo used a hammer and chisel to liberate the biblical king from that block of marble; in his work, Doubleday employs his hands, a shovel and a carpenter's level. In a small bag he carries, in addition, trowels, a pallet knife, a fillet knife, cake decoration tools, a dentist's pick and a half dozen paint brushes of all sizes. He carries a straw to blow sand granules from the eyes of a bust.
Professional sand sculptors are secretive about ideas, but they get them from art museums, magazines, movie titles, books and their own lives. Doubleday won a world championship with a surreal sculpture of a child repairing a cracked crescent moon with what seemed to be Cheez Whiz.
"It was after my divorce years ago. My youngest daughter was only 11. She was so upset we were going to be separated. I told her, 'Talk to the moon. When you talk to the moon in California I'll talk to the moon back at you from Florida.' ''
He likes edgy sculpture. One time, inspired by a Dali nude, he created a sculpture that got him disqualified in a Texas contest and prompted the "Doubleday Rule'' in American competition. Sculptures are now required to be family friendly.
"I don't have any problem with it, but I have to say, in Europe spectators are pretty relaxed when it comes to sculpting the naked human form. Here you can be arrested.
"Europeans generally are more respectful of the work we do. You can leave it on the beach all night and nobody will touch it. In the U.S., somebody would stomp on it the minute you get out of sight. At competitions, we hire security guards.''
He will attempt to do something original, yet wholesome, in this week's competition on Treasure Island. He will not say just what, of course. It will likely be something spectacularly large — after all, he will have 12 tons of sand to play with and three days to complete what he hopes is a masterpiece.
On Sunday, as the event winds down with a concert on the beach, nature will begin its reclamation project. The wind will blow. Perhaps it will rain. Perhaps the sun will beat down, drying out the sand.
By Monday, the sculpture will look like it is melting.
By the following weekend, only a hill of sand will remain.
Dan Doubleday won't come back to look. He never does. He will rely on his memories.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8727.