NEWS FLASH: a foreign occupation is poised to amass on Amelia Island over the weekend of November 14 and 15. Wielding chrome-plated hollow steel balls called boules, nearly 400 contenders representing 13 foreign countries (and 23 U.S. states) will seek a share of $10,000 of prize money, bragging rights and, above all, a honking good time. It’s the Pétanque America Open and everyone is invited.
A cousin to bocce ball and horseshoes, pétanque, pronounced “pay-tonk,” will remind Northeast Floridians of a slightly more cosmopolitan version of cornhole, everyone’s favorite tailgating game. It’s simple, relaxing and as competitive — or not — as the players make it. Equipment is minimal, skill is a factor but not dispositive, and quite literally anyone can play.
In fact, pétanque was invented in France over a century ago by an arthritic former champion of la boule Provencale (another bowl game) who didn’t want his hindered mobility to keep him from playing; hence the sport’s name “pétanque,” which roughly translates to “feet planted.” The oldest member of Amelia Island Boules Club is
a spry 92; the Open allows players as young as 14.
Tournament co-organizer Tom Leon says that in France, where he is from, pétanque is played in similar settings as horseshoes and cornhole in the States, such as family gatherings and yard parties.
Leon, who works with Open organizer Philippe Boets, owner of Pétanque America, says he loves the camaraderie the game inspires. “Pétanque is like an Irish pub. You look at regular play, you look at people playing, you’ll have lawyers playing with block masons and 90 year-old people playing with 25 year-old kids or 15 year-old students.”
On a recent Saturday in late October, the weather was warm with a light breeze coming off the water at the Fernandina Harbor Marina where forty to fifty players soaked up the sun at one of Amelia Island’s two pétanque courts. This is where much of the Petanque Open action will take place. The majority of the shorts and sneakers-clad players were at or near retirement age, but generations represented ranged from the Silent Generation (note: much less silent playing pétanque than while watching Fox News) to whatever we’re calling the generation that comes after Millennials (“Boomlets” is one fun name for today’s tweens Folio Weekly found floating around the Internet).
In between turns, casual pétanque enthusiast Patrick Shaw kindly explained some of the basics tenets of the game. For the Open, the playing surface will consist of crushed limestone, but the game can be played on any surface. Equipment requires three simple items: 1) chrome-plated boules of between 7.05 and 8 centimeters in diameter and weighing between 650 and 800 grams; 2) a small wooden ball, formally known as the jack or cochonnet, informally as the pig (cochonnet translates to “piglet”); and 3) a small hoop that remains in one spot during each round, where players stand while throwing. When teams of three, or triples, compete, each player has two boules; in singles or doubles, each player has three. (Doubles will compete in the Open.)
To get the game going, the first player throws the pig, which becomes the target. Then the same team, often the same player that threw the pig, throws the first boule, typically trying to get as close to the pig as possible. “We chase the pig around the court,” Shaw laughed.
The other team throws next. Their goal is to get their boule closer to the pig and they must continue throwing until one of their boules is closer to the pig than the competition’s. Then their opponents do the same. Similar to shuffleboard and cornhole, hitting and moving the pig or one another’s boules is an acceptable, yet frequently groan-inducing, move.
At the conclusion of the round, the team with the closest boule to the pig gets a point; if they have more than one boule closer to the pig than the competition’s closest boule, they get a point for each. The first to get to 13 points wins. (This is a quick and dirty summary of the rules; anyone serious about learning how to play pétanque should consult an actual rulebook, such as that published by the Federation of Pétanque U.S.A., which was consulted for this synopsis.)
It’s oft said by pétanque players that no one can merely watch: Everyone must play. That proved true on the golden Saturday morn when this reporter was happily conscripted into a game of triples with some of the friendliest interview subjects ever encountered. Learning basic rules and strategy proved extremely simple; becoming reasonably proficient similarly expedient, though it probably doesn’t hurt to have Jaguars season ticketholder cornhole skills. One important difference from cornhole: The boule is thrown backhanded, rather than overhanded, in a pendulum motion.
All competitive sports have the potential to bring out the cutthroat side of people, but by and large the mood among players that day was light and jovial. (Not even getting whipped — twice — by a currently undefeated pétanque playing reporter and her team could wipe the smile off Leon’s face.) When Jimmy Weinsier, president of Amelia Island Boules Club, mentioned that he has a court at his house, one player griped good-naturedly, “Hey, that’s why you’re so good,” while another joked, “That’s cheating.”
Weinsier, 70, a skilled player who will compete in the Open this year, says that in five short years, AIBC has become the largest club in the country. St. Augustine also has a club, called Boules de Leon Pétanque Club.
In 2003 and 2005, the Pétanque America Open was held in Miami before moving to Amelia Island in 2009, where it has been held every year since. It has quickly become the largest tournament in the nation. “To put that in perspective, the largest other tournaments have 40 teams. Last year, we had 160, this year we increased it to 192,” Weinsier says.
Leon says that the Open has been so well-received that all 160 spots were filled five weeks after registration opened on May 1. Hoping to accommodate additional players, Leon and Boets asked the city if they could open a second court.
“Again the city, being the great sports that they are and showing that great support as always, agreed to let us use a second location,” Leon says.
One of the biggest draws of the weekend takes place Saturday afternoon after the conclusion of play, when the world champions, of which there will be six in attendance, will participate in a shootout where each has 100 boules to throw in a limited time. Leon says that the last shootout winner made an amazing 99 out of 100 shots.
Jay Robertson, Fernandina Parks and Recreation Manager, says that typically fifteen hundred spectators will attend the free event over the two days, some to cheer on their favorite team, some out of curiosity, others to sample the variety of local and French fare.
“They usually try to have some traditional French cuisine, we have a lady who does a crepes truck, they also provide a traditional French sausage with a spicy mustard on a baguette as well and then a traditional French liqueur, Ricard,” Robertson says.
In the grand tradition of all Fernandina Beach festivals, there will also be live music, arts, crafts and various other attractions and sundries to enjoy while mingling with what will surely be one of the most continental crowds ever found in Northeast Florida.
Following the 8:30 a.m. opening ceremony, Pétanque America Open will officially begin at 9 a.m. on Saturday, November 14. Play will resume at 9 a.m. Sunday, November 15, with the awards ceremony to take place after the conclusion of play.