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On Greenbrier Lake, war is hull, or whatever else your warship hits

July 22, 1997

GREENBRIER STATE PARK - Admiral Halsey must be spinning in his cargo hold.

Or maybe not. Maybe the crafty old South Seas sailor wished he could have waded into Leyte Gulf to retrieve a sunken battleship. Perhaps he fantasized about being able to pump out his bilges with a turkey baster.

Yes, he might feel right at home this week during the annual championships of the International Remote Controlled Warship Combat Club, which is going on right here in Washington County.

No, I'm not kidding. I know, because after seeing the press release I decided that this was one I had to go see for myself.

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Members of the warship club readily, even happily admit to their fringe status. "We're almost a legitimate hobby right now," one said.

Almost. You have to understand, this - I'll go ahead and call it a hobby - started when a couple guys floated a couple of model ships onto a lake and began firing on them from the shore with BB guns. I heard this and thought - no, wait, I invented that." In fact, every kid has probably invented it. But these guys took the idea to the moon.

The fastidiously constructed balsa wood warships are to 1/144 scale of actual boats commissioned between 1905-45. Gas canisters mounted below decks provide the firepower to the guns, each of which are loaded with 50 BBs.

The two fleets (Allied and Axis) sail into a shallow backwater of the lake and, under radio control of their captains, begin blowing each other away. The winners are determined by the number of recorded "sinks" and the number of holes counted cumulatively in the ships' hulls. (Wouldn't it be nice if real naval wars were fought this way? By counting holes?)

I'm trying to decide whether this is more fun than it sounds or not.

My first reaction is that it would make a really neat way to fish. Bass not biting? Who cares? Send the HMS Invincible after them. Fishie plays hard-to-get and we make ole Charlie Tuna eat some lead.

The battles are definitely fun to watch. The captains, about 40 of them, are bunched up on the shoreline with their antenna wanded radios in hand looking for all the world like some high-tech fishing derby gone horribly wrong.

All those four-foot warships having at it really do make a sight. (They can be seen in action at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. every day through Friday.)

It's all very safe. The BB guns are low-power - just strong enough to penetrate a 1/32 of an inch balsa hull - and everyone on shore is required to wear safety glasses. When a boat sinks and its captain has to wade into the water to scoop it up for repairs they call "Man in the water" and everyone stops firing.

This is probably the biggest reason I will never be asked to join the Warship Combat Club.

Because if I have under my control a model warship... And if that warship is loaded to the gills with BBs... And if I see someone bent over, reaching into the water...

Well, let's just say there are certain constraints within which no man should have to live.

I'd also like to see a little fire, but this is personal preference. I'm thinking if the hulls are made of heavily varnished sandpaper and the guns are firing flint it might add a little drama to the high seas. Just a little incendiary device for color - they could call in the NBC news team for technical advice.

Not that these guys need technical advice. Although hold on, I know what you're thinking. You are thinking that there might be more than one Star Trek fan or computer software programmer among the captains. So it may surprise you that the number one occupation among the captains is: Dentist.

Think about that next time you're getting your teeth cleaned.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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