Taking to the woods, a paintball team goes in. Photos by Ralph Stewart
Christopher Aring-Sharkovitz, 9, bends over the barrel of his semi-automatic handgun, sweat beading from the matted hair poking under the top of his mask. His quick fingers pop shots at his friend Oliver Lane, 10, cowering under a piece of plywood, pellets bursting over his head like ripe fruit exploding on pavement.
Christopher and Oliver are two of a growing community of Islanders who come to play paintball every Sunday afternoon behind the NSTAR building on the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. Today, there are only six boys, aged 9 to 18. But, explains Christopher between the gaps in his teeth, "more people come in the spring and fall when it's not as hot out," because the amount of equipment they wear is uncomfortable in warm weather. The Sunday group can have up to 40 people on four teams when the temperature is cooler.
The Vineyard paintball group has been organized for over 10 years, according to Matt Cromwell, an Island paintball aficionado who helps supervise the games and brings paintball supplies to help players upgrade and repair their guns, or "markers."
Michael O'Rourke prepares to do paintball battle.
"I heard about [Island paintball] through word of mouth and thought it was just another fad thing," said Mr. Cromwell. "Then I went to play with my stepson and felt the adrenaline rush, learned the strategy, and understood the elements of safety behind it. It brought my stepson and me closer. Now, instead of wanting to be on another team to shoot at me, he wants to play with me."
As Mr. Cromwell learned, paintball seems to have an almost supernatural power to bring people together. The Vineyard paintball group often includes players as young as seven and as old as 60. It includes men and women, boys and girls, strong athletes and weak ones. After all, as Mr. Cromwell says, "Some people can't run too fast, but everyone's paintballs travel at the same speed."
And the paintball group is sporting an increasing number of Brazilian players. "There is a language barrier with the Brazilians who come, but their play is stronger than most," said Mr. Cromwell. "The game supercedes the communication barrier."
The Island group plays a game called "woods ball." The players are split into teams, and they spread out on a field strewn with large wooden spindles that once held hundreds of feet of cable, plywood walls, wooden pallets, and pine trees splattered with opalescent paints (collectively, "bunkers"). The object is to hit all the opponents with a paintball, called "elimination." But there is strategy involved; the game rarely deteriorates into a mindless painty massacre.
"There's a trick called 'running up,'" said Christopher, "when you keep shooting at an opponent behind a bunker while you run up to it and shoot him." The players also use a variety of commands to communicate, develop a game strategy, and support each other while playing.
Paintball means a lot to the weekly regulars. Sam Marlin, for example, a 2007 graduate of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), found in paintball an extracurricular activity that really appealed to him. "I had played other sports in high school - baseball, football, track," said Sam. "Then a few friends asked me to play paintball. I got beat badly at first, but I'd work at it and help other players who came along. This is the sport for people who haven't found their niche yet. It's a good stress reliever, too."
Drew Nelson found a similar outlet in paintball. An incoming senior at MVRHS, Drew has been playing paintball since fifth grade, or about seven years. "It's a great adrenaline rush, a great way to bring friends together on a weekend," he said. "It's great when you're down three teammates versus 10 enemies to defeat them all, to win when everyone is against you."
These players see paintball as pure recreation. Christopher, for instance, has no interest in going hunting, and there is little interest among players in joining the military. Drew describes it as a glorified video game, a great simulation he and his friends play for fun.
Safety is the utmost concern of players and parents alike. "Paintball is one of the safest sports out there because everyone is so compulsive about equipment," said Sam. No one goes on the field without a mask, and the paint inside the ball is edible in case you accidentally swallow some through your mask.
The player reloads.
"We wear a lot of stuff," said Christopher. "Two pairs of pants, a helmet, and chest armor if you want it." Or if your dad wants it. Christopher practically swims in a thickly padded shirt that his father, Dan Sharkovitz, insists he wear. And for good reason: "It stings when a ball hits you in the arm," said Christopher. "If you're not wearing a shirt, it will leave a big bruise for a week."
As a parent, Mr. Sharkovitz appreciates the sense of community that paintball has developed among the Island regulars. "There can be up to 40 people of all ages and backgrounds on four randomly assigned teams," said Mr. Sharkovitz. "I like that Christopher can be on a team and make friends of different ages when so much of his life is divided by age groups in school."
The Island paintball group meets at 2 pm every Sunday behind the NSTAR building in Oak Bluffs. Call Matt Cromwell for more information at (508) 693-2584.
Duncan Pickard is a contributing writer to The Times.