Model ship builders fight it out at Greenbrier Lake

July 14, 1998

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer


Battling BoatsBy LAURA ERNDE / Staff Writer

GREENBRIAR - John Messere spent more than two months building a miniature battleship, but it took opposing forces fewer than two hours to sink it Monday morning.

Under cannon fire from two warships, Messere's ship went down after it was illegally charged by a third ship he couldn't identify.

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"I was holding my own until somebody rammed me," said Messere, who got soaked up to his neck pulling his warship out of Greenbriar Lake. "That's the name of the game."


Messere, 51, of Richmond, Va., planned to repair his ship's delicate balsa hull in time for the afternoon's sorties.

All this week, the firecracker sound of BBs will be heard at the park during the 20th annual national competition of the International Remote-Controlled Warship Combat Club.

This is the second year the competition has been held at Greenbriar State Park east of Hagerstown.

From a distance, the 48 captains of the miniature ships looked like fishermen lined up along the shore.

On closer inspection, it became clear that their "fishing poles" were actually remote-control radio antennae used to guide the battleships, which are 1/144 the size of the real thing.

The model World War I and II ships range from 3 to 6 feet long and weigh up to 60 pounds.

The two fleets, the Allies and the Axis, carefully plan their battles. But once in the water, chaos ensues, with captains charging into battle and firing with reckless abandon.

The force of the BBs, launched with carbon dioxide canisters, can destroy a $2,000 ship in five minutes. Bilge pumps allow the ships to take a certain amount of damage before they sink.

Emotionally, it's a rush to hit the enemy, they said. Sometimes, two boats go down together in a frenzy of fire.

"That's the ultimate," said club President Frank Pittelli, 39, of Annapolis.

The hobbyists have a nickname, "blinders," for a captain who is so wrapped up in shooting the enemy that he doesn't notice that his own boat is sinking.

A few captains, including the hobby's founding father, Stan Watkins, try to stay out of the fray.

"When you put a lot of detail on your ship, you're a little more careful," said Watkins, 51, of Knoxville, Tenn., who emerged from the first sortie without a scratch.

Down to the tiny flues in the smokestacks, Watkins spent 250 hours perfecting his miniature USS Washington to look just like the real one did during the Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942.

The battleship took on and crippled the Japanese ship Kirishima.

Rumor has it that a miniature Kirishima is coming to the competition.

"I'll be looking for it throughout the week to repeat history," Watkins said.

Large battleships like Watkins' are popular this year, although some captains prefer smaller ships for their maneuverability.

Monday was the first battle for Orrill Ferguson, 30, of Inwood, W.Va., who learned about the club on the Internet.

Ferguson came across the club while searching for information about the German battleship Bismarck, which has been his favorite since he was 8 years old.

The hobby also appeals to fathers and sons. Messere initiated his son, Joe, 12, on Monday.

Spectators can watch the International Radio-Controlled Warship Combat Club's competition this week at Greenbriar State Park east of Hagerstown.

Battles are scheduled for 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. today and Thursday.

Admission to the park is $2 per person, but watching the battle is free. Safety goggles are provided for those who want to get close to the action.

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