Whirling and curling

Why head for the slopes when winter sports await so close to home?

WINTER IS HERE. Skiers, snowboarders, and other outdoor enthusiasts clamor for information on snow levels and pass conditions, flashing their credit cards for every manner of gear, from the essential to the absurd. Many of us, however, have little or no interest in these pursuits. We tend to ask questions: Why leave the city? Why wear nine layers of clothing? Why break a pelvis? Posing such questions should not imply that we're lazy or that we lack an adventuresome spirit. We are fortunate enough to live in a town with an abundance of indoor recreational activities that allow us to exert some (but not too much) effort and receive thrills galore. Yes, there's always bowling—and Seattle is home to some top-quality lanes—but if you're searching for an unorthodox challenge, you need to know about two other options: WhirlyBall and curling.

Weekends are made for WhirlyBall

Pick a rainy Sunday; any rainy Sunday will do. Gather eight or 10 of your most spirited friends, get your collective ass on Highway 99, and head north to 234th Street, where used car lots dot the strip mall landscape, mullets aren't just for Web sites, and tossing whiffle balls from plastic scoops while scooting around in whirly bugs passes for sport. Welcome to Edmonds; this is WhirlyBall.

Part bumper-car escapade on downers, part jai alai for 8-year-olds, part polo match on crack, WhirlyBall is the best game you've never played. A 40- by 80-foot electrically charged floor provides fuel for the whirly bugs, the color-coded and cutely named vehicles that propel players up and down the court. The 'bugs are operated with an acceleration pedal and steering crank; one full crank in either direction shifts the car's bearing. They're difficult to master at first, but fun as hell to cruise around in. Whirlers wield a lacrosse-like scoop and vie to control a softball-sized whiffle ball. The objective? To toss this ball directly at the 15-inch netted hole in the center of your team's backboard. Sounds pretty easy, but it isn't. Agility is a real asset—not the kind of agility that allows you to navigate down the north face of a mountain, but the kind of manual dexterity that allows you to simultaneously speed, fast-break style, down the court, catch a pass from a teammate, line up a decent shot, dodge the defense, and set the ball sailing smack dab at the middle of the goal. Nothing but net? It's got to be that way, baby—in WhirlyBall there are no rims. Only in horseshoes and hand grenades is close enough good enough.

The rules prohibit schoolyard antics. Rear-ending is not allowed. Penalties will be assessed; fouls will be called. Now, I don't know what your friends are like, but mine don't appreciate such strict policies meddling with their sport, especially when the ref isn't looking. All's fair in love and WhirlyBall. It's also worth noting that while rules allow for 10 participants, you'll see way more ball time and really get your game on if you go with leaner, meaner teams. As a veteran player, I can tell you that three to a team is heavenly, but four's good, too. Five to a team clogs up the electricity flowing to each 'bug and slows down the game.

Rich Moffett operates and manages WhirlyBall of Edmonds, home of the WhirlyBall National Championship team for 13 years running (10 of the nation's 17 centers field teams in four divisions; a whirl-off is held in a different city each year). Moffett says the sport attracts all kinds: kids' birthday bashes; bachelor parties; corporate team-building events for groups, such as Microsoft and Boeing; and regular folks hungry for the competition. And we're in the heavy season; Moffett says there's currently a two- to three-week wait for weekend play. (Court time costs $130 per hour.)

Like any sport worth its weight in whiffle, the game comes with a set of strategies and tactics that reveal themselves to players only in the thick of things. But once you're out there, believe me, WhirlyBall is more fun than you can shake a basket-ended stick at. (L.L.)

Curling: It's not just for Canadians anymore

"Are you familiar with curling?" I ask the woman cutting my hair.

"No," she replies.

Assured that I have a topic of conversation truly worthy of competing with the din of the clippers and still abuzz from my previous night's initiation into the sport, I decide to press onward. I try all the keywords: ice, brooms, Canada, giant hunks of granite, late-night Olympic coverage. Still doesn't ring a bell.

"Is it a rough sport?" she asks.

It would certainly garner more media attention in this country if you were permitted to whack your opponents in the shins with your broom or if you earned points by dropping the 42-pound stones on their toes. But it's clear that I'm doing a horrible job of relating the noble essence of curling to my, um, stylist. Only when I liken it to shuffleboard on ice do I sense a flicker of comprehension.

"Huh. That's weird," she concludes.

Yep. Curling is a little weird. One of the many charms of the Granite Curling Club of Seattle, however, is that its members don't want to disabuse you of that notion. At a recent open house, our group's tutor takes numerous opportunities to poke fun at his avocation. A sense of humor is a necessity, for the plight of the American curler is indeed a difficult one. Aside from the curling hotbeds of North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, US curling clubs are exceedingly scarce. The Granite Club, founded in 1951, is the only facility of its kind on the West Coast. As such, some of the members travel considerable distances.

Mike Carlisle, a member and bartender at the club's lounge, makes the trek from La Conner several nights a week. He became intrigued by the club after driving past it dozens of times while living in Seattle. At first, he joined because it was "something to do in winter." After a few years, it's become an obsession, one he likens to golfing, with its reliance on simple mechanics and moderate level of cardiovascular exertion—though sweeping really fast while quickly shuffling your feet on ice is more taxing than it looks! The game of curling in itself is a pleasure, but the atmosphere of the club keeps Carlisle and the other diehards coming back.

"It's the best group of people I've come across," notes Carlisle. "It cuts through economic and social lines; there are no pretensions. It really is like a family."

The frequent tournaments/parties, referred to as bonspiels, provide additional opportunities to strengthen the familial bonds: Homemade food is provided, drinks flow freely, and, of course, there's curling, curling, and more curling.

Unfortunately, one cannot just show up at the club and play. Aside from visiting an open-house event, if you really want to take up curling, you're going to have to join the club. Even then, you'll find that playing on one of the league teams is a necessity if you are to log the ice time you desire. Once you let curling sweep you off your feet, this is a small burden to carry, especially compared to the commitment that snowboarding and skiing require. (P.F.)

WhirlyBall of Edmonds, 23401 Highway 99, Edmonds, 425-672-3332, www.whirlyball.net.

The Granite Curling Club, 1440 N 128th, 362-2446, www.curlingseattle.org. The next open house is January 20.

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