A hardy bunch of beach players celebrate 20 years of ‘frosty palm tree’ tournaments in Carmel.
Thursday, December 22, 2011
It’s a Saturday in November when a local crew shows up at Carmel Beach wearing costumes which will never be confused with gold medalist Misty May’s beach-volleyball bikini. One guy wears a black beard, a large hoop earring and striped cotton pants. Next to the pirate is a gypsy in a turquoise floor-length skirt. A guy and his wife show up as beach bummed Scottish Highlanders in red and green plaid. Then there’s the guy in a black jacket with gold braid and a Jheri curl wig sporting a white sequined glove – yes, Michael Jackson himself.
Moments later the two-on-two matches begin. The smells of sunscreen, seaweed and sweat mingle on light winds. Half of the kilted couple, Jung Yi-Crabbe, throws her body into the sand in pursuit of a ball. Low fives follow adept plays. One player yells, “Nice dig!” across the beach.
Then it’s Jackson’s turn to claim the spotlight. A set rises above the net, and the costumed pop star rises with it and delivers a blistering spike. He points a sequined finger at the opposing team and shrieks, “Euuoo-hoo!”
The spectacle seems a little out of place among kids building sand castles, retirees walking dogs and surfers paddling into white water, but the group has been gathering for three decades.
They include a fisherman, an engineer, building contractors, teachers, a realtor, a pilot and a consultant. Some have played since their involvement in a local volleyball league back in the ’80s. Named for the fact that each team was sponsored by a local pub or restaurant, the “Carmel bar league” fostered competition that proved addictive.
In 1991 league stalwarts Michael DeLapa and Digger Smallwood put on their first winter invitational tourney at Carmel Beach. Called the Torneo De Las Palmas Heladas Volleyball Invitational (or Tournament of the Frosty Palms), the competition just celebrated its 20th anniversary this month.
“Anyone can play when it’s nice out,” DeLapa says. “We love the game enough to brave the elements.”
“Carmel Beach rules” like “no whining” and “all disputes will be resolved in favor of locals” apply, and beer and pizza serve as the prize. “I promise to play hard, have fun and talk incessantly,” reads a pre-tourney waiver, “regardless of who is competing or listening.”
An unspoken rule: Weather the weather. No matter how nasty it gets, at least 20 have never let a chill spike their fun.
“Beach volleyball is a summer sport,” says lawyer and 15-year veteran Hal Light, “but we’re crazy.”
Eric Dawson won the 1997 tournament in spite of high winds, relentless rain and off-shore lightning. “High sets wouldn’t work,” he remembers. “You’d get blinded by rain.”
This year, though, the weather was perfect. Attendance surpassed 40.
Given increasing geographic distances, major injuries and family needs, that represents an accomplishment for one year, let alone 20. DeLapa makes a trek from Palo Alto to play once a month. Smallwood perseveres despite two knee surgeries. Steve Lough of Santa Barbara acknowledges that besting old age is a victory in itself. “I like my peas overcooked at this point in my life,” he says, “but I still make it out.”
Part of the draw: what J.C. Myers refers to as a “culture of heckling.” David Crabbe demonstrates: “DeLapa likes to tell us about his victories in the Bay Area, but we found out that he was playing kids and really old people.”
“David isn’t much of a player,” DeLapa says. “He talks a good game. And he has an incredible imagination.”
Elsewhere someone shouts, “You look like Tarzan and hit like Jane!”
Ages range from early 20s to mid 50s, but on the court, age doesn’t mean much. “The younger guys get flashier hits,” says a veteran, “but older guys move the ball around more accurately.”
Friendships have matured along with the participants.
“We’d do anything for each other,” Smallwood says. “The guys have stayed at my house when they’ve had family problems. I’ve borrowed cars, tools.”
DeLapa says the camaraderie fulfills a primitive urge. “We all desire to be a part of a tribe,” he says. “If there were animal sacrifice, we’d be into that too.”
At the 20th-anniversary game, where an engineer and a lawyer claim victory over 38 peers, the sacrifices are largely limited to a lot of sweat and a little swallowed sand. But as the group continues to welcome everyone to “stop by and bump the ball” there’s no limit to how long this winter tradition might last.
Carmel Beach volleyball can be found on most Saturdays and Sundays at the end of Ocean Avenue near the parking lot, starting at 11am.