Festival offers old-time contest

By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / August 7, 2011

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NEWBURYPORT - It was canoe against canoe, bow to bow.

In turbulent water, two rivals armored in life jackets jabbed at each other with long sticks - battering arms, legs, chests, stomachs. Finally, one lost his balance, arms fluttering as he fell into cloudy water, while the other held his lance up in victory, to the screams of the crowd.

“It’s like jousting, but in a boat,’’ explained Mike Volpone, the leader of soggy ceremonies at last Sunday’s Yankee Homecoming in Newburyport. “Instead of getting knocked off a horse, you get dunked in a pond.’’

Canoe tilting is a rollicking, precarious, waterlogged battle that bucks all the rules of boating, testing paddling might and challenging centers of gravity.

And in Newburyport, the unusual water sport has become a longstanding annual tradition at the frog pond on the Bartlet Mall, serving as a soppy beginning to the city’s Yankee Homecoming event. This year’s festivities also included fireworks, concerts, festivals, and dance parties throughout the week, and culminates today with a parade and downtown entertainment.

“It’s a water sport that people don’t get to see too often,’’ said Bill Greenwood, in charge of organizing Sunday’s events.

The goal is simple: Douse your competitors before they douse you. Teams of two - one paddler, one standing jouster - spar on the water, batting at each other with 12-foot-long padded sticks until someone falls in or a boat tips over.

Popular throughout England - and also known as “canoe jousting’’ or “canoe tipping’’ - the sport purportedly dates back to medieval Europe. Newburyport’s contest, which draws anywhere from 10 to 20 teams of teenagers and adults, has been going on for decades, although it took a hiatus during a pond preservation project before being brought back in 2004.

And it no doubt awakens something primal in its competitors - and their audience, too.

“It’s the uncertainty of who’s going to get knocked over. Maybe it’s sadistic to a point,’’ Volpone said with a laugh. “You want to see someone get dunked.’’

“I thought it would be fun to hit people - not hurt them, of course,’’ said first-place winner David Spencer, 17, of Rowley.

Still, it’s not an all-out brawl. There are some basic rules: no face shots, groin hits, or other blatantly dirty tactics. In Newburyport, jousts last five minutes, and the competition follows the basic tournament format of first round, semifinals, and finals.

In gladiatorial bouts involving 10 teams, an air horn blast signaled the launch of two canoes onto the murky pond - where the rivals not only had each other to worry about, but muck, weeds, catfish, and snapping turtles.

Hundreds of spectators seeking precious bits of shade under trees (and fighting their own battles with melting ice cream) crowded the slopes of the Bartlet Mall looking down on the basin.

About 30 feet out on the water of the frog pond, Erin Volpone and her paddler and best friend, Sydney Rybicki, squared off against two male adversaries, all swaddled in life jackets.

Squatting and hunched, occasionally shifting to keep balance, the jousters took shots; sometimes making contact, sometimes hitting air.

Paddlers ducked low to keep out of the way, positioning the red and green canoes around each other as they rocked and sent out ripples.

Waves of cheers and catcalls came from the crowd.

“Tip ’em ovah!’’

“Push her!’’

“C’mon girls, you can do it!’’

Finally, an official yelled, “30 seconds left! Who wants it?’’

Frenzy ensued. The green canoe threatened to tip; Volpone dropped her pole, but quickly retrieved it.

The group on the hills chanted a countdown as the shaky clash continued.

Then, with just two seconds left, Volpone took a hit and fell in, to the bleat of the air horn.

She and Rybicki stood up, drenched. As they tugged their boat, half-full of cloudy green water, to shore, Volpone exclaimed, “It’s like the Titanic!’’

After the near-sinking, 15-year-old Volpone of Newbury (daughter of Mike Volpone), stood by the shore in a soaked blue T-shirt and shorts, blond hair matted to her freckled face. “I like the rush I get,’’ she said as she dried in the sun. “Any second you could be tipping over, or someone else could be tipping over. It sounds corny, but it’s kind of like a life-or-death thing.’’

And their tactics?

“We try to keep ourselves calm. Otherwise the nerves would get us,’’ said Rybicki, also 15 and from Newbury, standing beside her. Plus, as lifelong best friends, they have a “good connection to interpret each other’s moves,’’ she explained.

The best pair-up, said Mike Volpone, is a rower who stays low and relatively still, and a hitter who has good balance.

After several rounds of water war, that luck finally came for 16-year-old Kam Mitchell of Salisbury and Spencer, who saturated all of their floating challengers.

And you might call it beginner’s luck - Spencer had never been in a canoe before.

“I didn’t even know how this was gonna work,’’ he admitted afterward, standing by the water with a group of raucous friends and his team’s first-place trophy. “It’s so out of the ordinary.’’