CAMDEN, Maine — It’s probably not every day that Santa Claus and Dutch royalty cross paths, much less find the time to discuss the finer points of, say, wardrobe choice and competitive sledding.
But on Sunday afternoon, there they were: two Santas (plus a headless reindeer) exchanging pleasantries in the snow in Camden with four “gentlemen” dressed wig-to-boot in the orange and gold of Holland’s royal class.
Welcome to the U.S. National Toboggan Championships.
They were seven among thousands of contestants who participated in the annual toboggan event at the Camden Snow Bowl that is part sledding competition, part costume contest and part social event for those who enjoy a weekend in the snow.
More than 400 teams from across Maine, the Northeast and — in the Dutch group’s case — the Atlantic took turns zipping down an icy chute at speeds approaching 40 mph as thousands of spectators watched and cheered.
Racers competed on two-person, three-person and four-person sleds, all of which had to meet a long list of design specifications. Each team had two runs on Saturday, and the top 140 competed on Sunday in the finals.
For some, speed was the top priority during a bumpy, 400-foot-long ride that typically lasted eight to 10 seconds. Crowds cheered as toboggans loaded with two, three or four supine riders zoomed by and out onto frozen Hosmer Pond, often losing goggles, gloves and wigs along the way.
A team of “Four Wingnuts” set the fastest time on Sunday, at 8.77 seconds, and also took home the title for the four-person sled.
But for most tobogganers, the championships were a chance to spend the weekend goofing off in the snow along the coast of Maine.
“We like it. We’re coming back,” first-timer Chris Cannon, one of the two Santas, said Sunday afternoon.
Cannon and his teammates, Chris Erkens and Joe Kusmierski, decided to drive the eight hours from their homes on New York’s Long Island to Maine after hearing about the event from the father of one of the team member’s girlfriends.
Members of team “Grandma Got Run Over by More Than a Reindeer” were hoping to score big for their costumes, which is a prize category along with speed. But Cannon didn’t anticipate the Royal Dutch National Toboggan Team.
“We didn’t know the costumes would be so outrageous,” he said, glancing at the four Dutchmen. They’re going to have to step it up next year, he added.
Whether or not they are recognized as such by their government back in the Netherlands, the Dutch team members are royalty. They were last year’s kings in the costume division. It was obvious they came to defend their crown this year.
For their tobogganing uniform, Jacques Verest, Oscar Verest, Hans Haan and Robert Vrolijk chose poofy gold shirts and pantaloons with bright orange vests and socks. Their faces were painted gold as well. But it was the orange-and-gold wigs that resembled bonfires that made the outfit.
While Oscar lives in Camden, Jacques, Hans and Robert all made the trip across the pond to Maine for the event.
Members of the Liberty Navigation team didn’t travel as far. The four team members, Pam Wallace, Ed Strollo, Paul Chartrand and Rocky Judecki, all use the same gym in the midcoast area.
Standing on top of the chute hill after squeaking into the final run of 75 teams, the first-time racers said they were enjoying the atmosphere.
“It’s great to be standing up here in line, meeting everyone and having a good time,” Wallace said. “Finally, we have a winter with real snow.”
Because of an injury, Liberty Navigation had recruited a stand-in, Kyle Scully, for Sunday’s events. Scully already had competed on a team from Rhode Island, one of nine teams totaling 17 people to make the trip up to Maine.
With the weekend not even over yet, Scully said he and his fellow Rhode Islanders already were planning for the 2012 U.S. National Toboggan Championships.
“Sled building begins next weekend,” he said.