Life is a living laboratory.
Last Sunday afternoon, a young teenager stood on the edge of a group of women waiting to sign up for the 20th annual Skillet Toss at the Ag Fair in West Tisbury.
“What’s a skillet?” she asked of no one in particular. A woman in her group turned to a reporter nearby. “Clearly, she doesn’t cook,” the woman said.
More than two and one-half hours later, the teen had seen a couple hundred skillet tosses, perhaps a half-mile’s worth of orbiting cast-iron tossed by about 80 women in one of the Island’s more refreshing traditions.
Clara Pitts was doing toe touches before her rookie year as a skillet-toser. The Philadelphia-based artist, accompanied by her parents, Island residents John Pitts and Deborah Byers, was ready. “Of course, I’m ready to make my dad proud,” she laughed. “She’s going to combine the strategy of an artist and the litheness of a dancer,” Mr. Pitts said in an analogy faintly reminiscent of a Muhammad Ali line.
In all, representatives from more than a dozen states, the District of Columbia, and two countries toed the line in the center of the pulling ring and attempted to hoist a 3 pound, 11-ounce cooking skillet farther than anyone else.
The contestants were in luck because Maggie Riseborough, the reigning champ with an all-time record toss of 60 feet, five inches last year, wasn’t in the field this year. Jane Bollin of East Sandwich walked away with the trophy, pitching 55 feet in the final round. She threw the skillet even farther (56 feet, 7 inches) to win her division.
The most endearing toss went less than ten feet, delivered by Natalie Barmakian. Ms. Barmakian is 88, the oldest competitor and winner of the First Annual Silver Skillet, given to the oldest competitor in the event.
A crowd of 300 roared when the steely-eyed Ms. Barmakian strode confidently to the line and flipped the skillet down a 50-foot long sandy pit in the center of the ring. The Silver Skillet award was created this year by Sarah Kenyon and Emily Moehnke, daughters of Judy Jahries, a longtime skillet-tosser who passed away in May.
For competitors like Happy Spongberg, the Silver Skillet was a special touch honoring a longtime friend. “Judy loved the Fair and she loved this event. She was an award-winning gardener at the Fair and competed every year in the skillet toss,” Ms. Spongberg said.
The skillet toss is arranged by age groups: 65 plus, 46-64, 45-30, and 29-18. Competitors had two throws from behind a red striped starting point. Distance and accuracy are paramount. Throws are measured at the point the skillet touches down and if the missile strays from a centerline stripe, that distance is subtracted from the distance thrown.
As you might expect, distance thrown increases as the age of competitors decreases, creeping from the 30-foot range for older groups, then into the 40-range. This year, the winning toss came from the 30-45 group, who know the ways of the skillet and have the strength and mobility to air it out.
More than 100 women signed up to compete, but cranky kids and ferry schedules thinned the field as a late summer afternoon unfolded in its own time.
Mostly, the skillet toss is fun and the contestants’ personal style creates that mood. They sashayed, skipped, and strode purposefully to the throwing line. They played to the crowd, or covered their faces after an errant toss. They high-fived each other, stylin’ after their efforts.
The crowd loved it, yelling encouragement, roaring approval and becoming completely silent as each competitor readied to throw.
Like most sports in which an object is thrown or struck, it’s all about timing. But the objects in most sports are symmetrical, don’t have handles and curved edges, or weigh nearly four pounds. The most successful tossers answered the age-old question: how do you throw a skillet? For many, the handle is the obvious choice. But the long-tossers wrapped fingers around the edge and a thumb around the base of the handle for best results.
Skillet-tossing ain’t easy. Release too soon and you get a low line drive that doesn’t go far, though they make a loud, satisfying “boink” as they land. Hold on too long and the result is major height and occasionally a landing behind the starting line. When it all comes together, it’s, dare we say, beautiful. Ms. Bollin’s winning toss, for example, was a perfect arch, rotating leisurely, beyond the landing pit and ended, handle in the ground, with the open pan side facing a bleacher full of fans going nuts.
All of it unfolded under the watchful eyes of John Mancuso, who has seen a skillet or two over the past decades. His wife Jane Mancuso and Aaron Swinderman measured the throws and kept an eye out for errant tosses, employing duck-and-cover techniques several times. Back at Skillet Central, Lydia Chidsey kept the stats and Garrison Vieira worked the mic.
At the end of the day, under slanting early fall sunlight, only four remained, champs of their age groups. Julie O’Connor, Karena Hammarlund, Ms. Bollin, and Tara Greeley each had one throw and each got good distance before Ms. Bollin dropped another 50-foot bomb and was crowned champion of the 2017 Ag Fair Skillet Toss.