So how do you skim a stone 144 feet?
So how do you skim a stone 144 feet? That’s the astonishing personal best of the British mother of two who’s a very unlikely world stone-skimming champion!
As the late afternoon sun casts a glow across the surrounding mountains, the serenity of a little beach on the eastern side of Windermere is punctured by the occasional splosh, followed by muttered curses.
This, I’m afraid, is down to me. For I am here in the Lake District to learn a skill which has long eluded me — and yet seems to come naturally to many of my friends and even, gallingly, their children.
I’m talking about skimming stones, an activity which, much like our mysterious obsession with throwing coins into fountains, seems to have universal appeal.
As a boy, Charles I was said to have enjoyed what was then known as ‘ducks and drakes’ — perhaps because the circular ripples formed as the stones skittered across the water evoked images of splashing waterfowl.
The French have long called it ‘ricochets’ and the Ukrainians ‘letting the frogs out’. But wherever you go, it seems you will find the compulsion to skim stones seizing any human who finds themselves near open water.
Stone skimming Champion Christina Bowen Bravery, shows the Mail’s David Leafe how to skim like a champ on the shore of Lake Windemere
I am here in the Lake District to learn a skill which has long eluded me – skimming stones
Christina Bowen Bravery: From an amateur in 1985 to world champion 34 years later
I am no exception. But I’ve spent too many seaside trips staring balefully at stones which have sunk only a few feet from me, while others are seemingly capable of propelling theirs not far short of the French coast.
Well, maybe not quite that far. But the men’s world record is an astonishing 122 metres (400 ft) — achieved by Scotland’s Dougie Isaacs — in 2018. My best so far has probably been no more than about ten metres (33 ft).
But I hope to improve under the tutelage of Christina Bowen Bravery, the 43-year-old nursery worker and mother-of-two who won the women’s category at the World Stone Skimming Championships back in 2019.
Yes, there is an international contest for skimming. While that might seem akin to elevating Poohsticks to Olympic status, it is but one event in the calendar for this unlikeliest of sports.
Indeed, Christina, who was also crowned No 1 female stone-skimmer at the Welsh championships last July, and won again at the All England contest in September, is preparing to compete for the first time in the British Stone Skimming Championships in Shropshire next month.
It’s a mark of the endearingly amateur nature of the ‘sport’ that you can win the world title, as Christina has, before the British one. As this suggests, there is no governing body for these contests, which are good-natured charity fundraisers run by volunteers. But make no mistake, many competitors are in it to win, Christina included.
Although new to the British contest, Christina will still be a formidable opponent — her competition best being 44 metres (144 ft), thrown at the 2018 All England meet.
A sporty type, who is clearly very motivated — she recently completed her first marathon after taking up running only a year ago — she arrives at Windermere with her children, Imogen, 13, and Ethan, 11. Both were placed first in their age groups at the Welsh Open in 2022 — Imogen throwing 21 metres (69 ft)and Ethan 31 metres (102 ft).
The serenity of a little beach on the eastern side of Windermere is punctured by the occasional splosh of a skimmed stone
I hope to improve under the tutelage of Christina Bowen Bravery, the 43-year-old nursery worker and mother-of-two who won the women’s category at the World Stone Skimming Championships back in 2019
But Christina is undoubtedly the family’s skimming star — an achievement which means all the more to her because of the poignant story behind her success.
Her father was in the Navy and, although she and her younger brother, Andrew, grew up in Wales, the family often went on sailing holidays on the Cornish coast.
‘There were countless times when you’d be on the beach, waiting for your parents to pack up the boat and you’d just pick up a stone and start skimming it.
‘It’s a primal thing. How far can you get it? Can you make it skim? Can you make it glide? My dad taught me a little bit, but natural instinct kicked in, too, and I would skim stones and see if I could get them further than my brother.
‘I’d say he was more of a stone thrower than a stone skimmer, but he probably wouldn’t agree!’ The word ‘competitive’ crops up quite often in conversation with Christina and, while her stone-skimming success has come later in life, she thinks that in some ways it’s rooted in the tragic death of her mother from cancer when she was only 15. ‘It made me realise that we’re only here for a short amount of time, and I started thinking, ‘I need to experience life, I need to do as much as I possibly can.’ Since then, I’ve always been extra competitive with myself, trying to push myself as far as I can go.’
After leaving school, she embarked on a series of adventures — becoming a high-rise window cleaner in Australia, cycling across Asia, working with Aids orphans in Africa — before returning to the UK to work as an outdoor pursuits instructor and marrying Craig Matheson, a well-known rock climber who has made the first ascent of many of the Lake District’s most difficult routes.
In 2017, she saw some publicity for the All England Open Stone Skimming Championships, which takes place here on Windermere, about half an hour’s drive from their home in Ulverston.
The following year she won, and she did so again in 2019, when she entered the world championships on Easdale Island in Scotland.
Started in 1983 by local Bertie Baker, it takes place in a disused quarry and attracts more than 300 entrants from across the world, including the U.S., where they use the term ‘stone skipping’ and measure not the total length covered by a stone but the number of bounces it makes along the way.
Christina is undoubtedly the family’s skimming star — an achievement which means all the more to her because of the poignant story behind her success
Easdale presents a particular challenge to skimmers. For the English, Welsh and British versions, competitors are allowed as many attempts as they are prepared to buy — four stones costing £3 at this year’s British championships. But on Easdale, where the September nights draw in earlier than further south, time is limited and so they can have only three stones each.
The maximum diameter is three inches and so this makes it all the more important to pick exactly the right shape and size from the island’s beaches.
The ideal stone is generally held to be flat and of even thickness throughout. ‘Otherwise, it will become unbalanced when you throw it,’ says Christina, who has amassed a pile of suitably-sized specimens ready for us to throw today.
Since they can vary so much in shape and weight, some skimmers have suggested it would be fairer to use standardised synthetic versions, cast from moulds, but for Christina this would take away some of the fun.
‘I’m always on the lookout for stones when I’m walking the dog. Although it sounds a bit cheesy I love the idea that there’s a little bit of history to each one.’
The grip is very important and Christina shows me how to lay a stone flat on top of my crooked middle finger, then extend my index finger around the edge, while placing my thumb on the top.
As research by French physicist Lyderic Bocquet has shown, the secret to skimming is making sure that the reactive force of the water, which pushes the water up when the stone hits it, is greater than the gravity pulling it down.
To achieve that, the index finger should be the last to touch it, giving it a flick which creates the spin that separates champion skimmers from wannabes like me. For this reason, the best stones have a ‘corner’ which gives that finger more purchase.
With her chosen stone in hand, Christina raises her arm behind her, stands sideways on, and puts her weight on to her bent back leg as if she’s about to throw a javelin. Then she does a last-minute check for wildlife and swimmers.
‘There was a duck hit at the All Englands one year,’ she says. ‘Luckily, it didn’t seem to hurt it too much.’
The coast clear, she lunges forward, sweeps her throwing arm downwards and around and sends the stone speeding across the lake — one satisfying bounce after another until it finally sinks about 35 metres (115 ft) away from us. Not bad for a warm-up.
When it’s my turn, Christina explains that the stone needs to hit the water at an angle of 40 degrees. ‘Any less than that and it will just hit the water and sink, any more and it will flip over and divebomb.’
No run-up is allowed in the competitions so, with my feet firmly planted in the javelin position, I hope for the best and throw my stone. To my amazement, it skims across the water — bouncing four times before landing about six metres (20 ft) away. It’s no world record, but it’s a start and, suddenly I understand the thrill of a good throw.
‘When you do the best skim, it just glides across the water, and that’s when you get this feeling of pure satisfaction,’ says Christina.
‘It makes me very, very happy but that’s just part of it. It’s also showing my kids that, no matter what age you are, anything is possible.
‘Even if you don’t make world champion, that doesn’t matter. You have that experience and you learn from it, but you don’t learn anything if you don’t give it a go.’
Wise words. As the sun sets over Windermere, but hopefully not my skimming career, I am no longer the beginner I was — my progress a reminder that in this pebbly pastime, as with so much else in life, failure needn’t be set in stone.
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