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To explain what boatball is, first, understand what it’s not. It’s not kayak polo. Although that is what Memphis boaters called it when they started, it has evolved into a new and very different paddle sport. Boatball is to kayak polo, as American football is to soccer… similar, but different. Kayak polo and boatball both involve kayaks, teams, and a ball, but that is the end of the similarity.
Another not: it’s not for your kayaking group, if you live near whitewater…you just don’t need it, and you will have trouble getting enough people to play regularly. If, however, you are unfortunate enough to live in a community with an active group of paddlers; and you are far enough away from the river to get “whitewater horny,” you are going to love this game!
Kayak polo is an “off-season” game usually played in a swimming pool. There is specialized equipment, a lot of rules, referees, and beyond the reach of the average boater. Boatball, however, is a warm weather game played on a lake or wide flatwater…it is too wide and too fast for a pool. It is simple, cheap, and adaptable…the touch football of boating. If you are still reading because you live some distance from whitewater, you already know that paddling every other weekend just isn’t enough to stay in shape for real whitewater paddling. Playing boatball, twice a week, will make you a prince among paddlers and a king of the river!
THE FIELD: The field is marked simply with two buoys. We use two, anchored, large, plastic balls. These are the sit on and bounce type balls with handles. These anchored balls mark the goal lines. The distance between the goals is variable depending on the number of players…approximately 50-100 yards? The more players, the longer the field. There are no sidelines. We use a miniature basketball (souvenir type). It is easy to grasp when wet and easy to throw. These two simple goal markers and the ball are all the “special equipment” you need to play boatball.
THE GAME: Two teams are picked in the time-honored tradition of sandlot football. Two captains are chosen (always different). They pick teams with alternating “picks” from the group. The captain who got “second pick” gets the ball and the goal of his choice. The other team goes to the opposite end. This separation of teams is only necessary at the very beginning of the game or when new players join the game. The ball is brought into play from behind the goal line. The object is to advance the ball down the field to the other goal line, by passing and dribbling, to score. Once in possession of the ball, a player cannot paddle, only pass or dribble. A goal is scored by passing to a teammate beyond the goal line (an imaginary line formed by the buoy). The ball must be caught “in the air.” Once the ball crosses the goal line and hits the water, the play is “dead,” and the ball goes over to the other team. The ball is always “in play” between the goal lines…there is no “time out.” The exception to this is if a player capsizes. If the player rolls, the play continues. If not, all play stops to facilitate an Eskimo rescue or swimmer retrieval. Otherwise, the play stops momentarily after a successful goal or an unsuccessful attempt at a goal when the ball is “dead.” At these pauses, captains can call for a “water break” or a “spandex break.” A “spandex break” is to admire a fit jogger or rollerblader on the perimeter trail of our lake. When everybody is ready to play again, the game continues.
THE RULES: Remember, we are dealing with kayakers-there are not many.
That’s all the rules. The rest is simply common sense. In deference to my son, the kayak instructor and law student, all players must wear a PFD and helmet….duh! Players should know and consider the paddling skill levels of others. Excellent paddlers are more aggressive with other expert paddlers and lay off beginners. If another capsizes a player, good sportsmanship would dictate helping him up and giving him the ball. There are no referees, and violators of the rules are subject to the “shame” and ridicule of everyone. Repeat offenders of the rules and poor sports should be taken into the parking lot and beaten senseless.
THE PLAY: Bringing the ball in and moving the ball up the field is much like basketball. It is quick precise passing and fast break paddling. Play can involve familiar basketball terms such as “fast breaks,” “dribbling,” “picks,” “give and go,” etc. Defenses can be “zones,” “man to man,” “presses” etc. As the ball nears the goal, offenses and defenses resemble football pass plays into the end zone. Boat types have definite advantages and disadvantages. Long boats have speed, but short boats can turn quickly. As a rule, players tend to defend boats and boaters with similar characteristics and abilities. Speed paddling is the norm in this game. The fact that the ball is always “in play” results in non-stop paddling where blocks and steals can immediately reverse the direction of the play. Paddling 40 yards as fast as you can, or trying to out-maneuver a defender in the end zone 20-30 times, twice a week will give you paddling power you never knew you possessed. Paddling endurance increases phenomenally. There are no eddies in boatball. A good boatball game with 8 -12 players for an hour or two will leave you more exhausted than any river paddling.
Our season is during Daylight Savings Time, Tuesday and Thursday, after work, until sundown. Because there are no expenses, we do not need sponsorship or organization; therefore, no one is legally liable. An interesting fact is boatball is the only game played in the Memphis parks where all the players carry sticks and wear big knives! There are also a few unexpected benefits of boatball. Our game has become a fixture in a park lake surrounded by walkers, joggers, bikers and rollerbladers. Our game has been featured in news and sports stories on all the local TV stations. If you play boatball in a public place, your game will grow. People, who want to know about kayaking, make first contact with the boatball players just because we are out there in plain view. The local outfitter, sponsor of the largest bicycle race in Tennessee, has included an exhibition boatball tournament in this year’s race events. Who knows? If this catches on in another city, let me know. Your team can come to Memphis, eat barbeque, and be in the historic first intercity boatball game. There is only one small problem for spectators of this game. After watching the fierce competition and nonstop paddling action, a bystander will come up after the game and ask, “Who won?”
“Win? Heck, we’ve never kept score!”