Pétanque players find it’s a whole new boule game

Brennan LaBrie
blabrie@ptleader.com
Posted 7/22/20

On certain afternoons throughout the summer, those walking through Fort Worden’s main campus near the upper campgrounds may hear the sound of clinking metal and cheers of “Allez!” …

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Pétanque players find it’s a whole new boule game

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On certain afternoons throughout the summer, those walking through Fort Worden’s main campus near the upper campgrounds may hear the sound of clinking metal and cheers of “Allez!” ring out through the historic military buildings. 

These are the sounds of the Port Townsend Pétanque  Alliance’s weekly play days at their home courts along NCO Row, adjacent to the campgrounds. 

The clinks and cheers could not be heard for a period this past spring, when Fort Worden State Park’s closure forced the alliance to pause their meetings. 

However, as the county slowly re-opened, the alliance found a way to return to the courts, or “pistes” — with a set of protocols to keep them all safe while playing.

In late April, while Jefferson County was still in Phase 1 of reopening, PTPA’s board began discussing how they could return to play. They drafted a list of protocols that board president Tom Niemann sent to the Fort Worden Public Development Authority and Washington State Parks. Niemann negotiated with the two agencies and came away with an official set of protocols. When Fort Worden opened May 5, the group could once again return to their pistes.

The protocols include having an empty court between each court of play with all players standing 6 feet apart, everyone handling only their own boules (balls), and frequent application of hand sanitizer. The throwing circle from which players must throw was swapped for simply drawing lines in the gravel, and the scoreboard and the cochonnet (the small target ball at which players aim their boules) are to be handled by one designated person. 

Initially, the PTPA agreed to only have up to nine players on the pistes at one time, but as Jefferson County moved into Phase 2 of reopening, the group was able to allow up to 15 players at one time, with no more than five on any piste at one time.

“We’re being very careful, making sure we’re 6 feet apart from each other and staying healthy,” said Honey Niemann, a PTPA regular.

Sam Cavallaro, an avid member of the PTPA for the past four years, said that the sport lends itself well to social distancing, and that even with the protocols the experience of playing is very much the same.

“When you play Pétanque, you don’t have to talk all the time but you’re still interacting,” he said.

While the group was apart, members found themselves playing in parking lots and other ideal terrains throughout town. The game can be played on pistes of gravel, sand, or rocks of varying composition, reflected in the PTPA’s variety of pistes at Fort Worden. Four bocce courts built for the Port Townsend Special Olympics Bocce team sit to one side of the Pétanque courts.

Pétanque in its current form originated in the southern French province of Provence in the early 1900s. Pétanque  is related to the English game Bowls and the Italian game Bocce Ball, all of which can be traced back to the Roman Empire. Players stand in one place and target their boules at the cochonnet, aiming to get their boule the closest to it, often by knocking opponent’s boules out of the way. 

Cavallaro believes that the transition back into playing as a group went smoothly.

“I think we all saw it as being pretty successful in terms of we weren’t all bumping into each other all the time.” he said.

The players who gathered on a recent warm afternoon all expressed how much they missed the group camaraderie while they were apart for much of March and April, as well as “the joy of competition,” as Tom Niemann put it. 

Honey Neimann said that she still misses hugging old friends at the play days and shaking the hands of her competitors. In addition, she is looking forward to the return of the potlucks often held between sessions.

Tom Challinor of Sequim has been coming to PTPA practices for over a year, initially attracted by the “beautiful piste” and the friendly people. 

“It’s a really positive, supportive environment,” he said. “It’s a small tight group that’s very connected, but it’s also pretty big, with a lot of people coming out. Before the pandemic we’d have 20 to 25 people playing, and we’ll get there again.”

Due to the protocols and the limited number of players they allow, the PTPA is waiting until it is once again safe enough for more players before inviting the community to join them at their Fort Worden pistes. 

“Pre-COVID, we gladly welcomed newcomers on our weekly play days,” Niemann said. “Now however, it is challenging for club members to offer loaner boules and to teach throwing techniques and game strategies.”

For now, the alliance’s dedicated members will continue to perfect their craft, all while keeping a safe distance apart.

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