Ocean City -- They say it's all in fun, that they're just in it to have a good time. But you don't spend six hours of your vacation sweating like a pig, getting sunburned and lugging buckets of water on the beach without some dreams of glory.

"I feel like I won already, because I like doing it for the fun," said Mike Mongero of Yorktowne, N.Y. He paused as his wife threw him a skeptical look. "Well, the fun and the three-night vacation."

That -- and bragging rights -- are the grand prizes in Ocean City's annual sand sculpture contest, sponsored by the Castle in the Sand Hotel. The 17th edition of the event was held Tuesday, drawing 151 adult/team entries and 50 from kids 13 and under.

Mr. Mongero, who won first place in 1989 and was invited to help judge the 1990 contest, came back to compete in this year's event. He and his friend George Patisso, of New City, N.Y., were first in line at 9 a.m. Tuesday to register. By 10:30 a.m., with marker No. 1 posted in the sand, they and their conscripted families had built a mountain of wet sand about 6 feet high and 12 feet long from which to carve their design.

Titled "Freedom," the Mongero-Patisso creation featured a 4-foot bald eagle swooping over an American flag, with stars, jets and a giant ribbon completing the tableau. As if to drive home their theme, Mr. Mongero and Mr. Patisso sported patriotic T-shirts as they sweated over the detailed design. The hundreds gathered on the beach to watch the contest were impressed.

"Those folks worked real hard," said Roy Bryan of Odenton, who watched the Freedom sculpture take shape and singled it out as one of his favorites. Mr.Bryan was here for last year's competition, and came back to observe again this year.

"There were a lot more original ideas this year than last," he said.

When the competition started in 1967, most contestants built pTC castles in the sand. This year, there was a 15-foot pepperoni pizza, a statue of a Michael Jordan dunk shot and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

One sculpture even rose to the level of performance art. Shay Rigger and Ryan Handley, both 15, built a very lifelike 9-foot-long shark for their entry. But their friend Tim Odachowski, 12, had the most critical job on the project. He lay in the sand for more than an hour with the shark's jaws wrapped around his middle as the judges and spectators gawked.

Many people also gathered to root for 20-year-old Tara Ballard of Newtown Square, Pa., who had collected trophies in the contest in 1988 and 1989 with statues of Assateague ponies and sea monsters. This year she created a coiled dragon with flaring nostrils.

"I hate castles," she said, as she hauled out her paint brushes, trowels, buckets and spray bottles filled with a water and powdered milk mixture. "They're too square, they're too perfect."

Tony Crespo of Sinking Spring, Pa., drew an admiring crowd for his two-part sculpture of a fisherman. The seated figure wore a real baseball cap and sunglasses and held a fishing pole. Ten feet away, at the end of the fisherman's taut line, was a second sculpture of a shark.

"There are three main areas we look at when judging," says John Cassidy of Sand Sculptors International, who flew in from San Diego to help judge the competition. "We judge originality, creativity and artistic ability." Mr. Cassidy is a professional sand sculptor who has taken his art to Japan, Austria, Taiwan and the Netherlands. The elaborate sand castle his company built for Ocean City last year still holds a North American record for its height.

The other judges for Tuesday's competition were Pete Richardson, organizer of Ocean City's annual Sunfest; Mary Pat Carozza, who is semiretired from the town's hotel-motel-restaurant association; George Zaiser, an art teacher at the Worcester Country School who served as local project coordinator for Sand Sculptors' record sand castle; and Randy Hoffman, the evangelical sand sculptor who carves magnificent religious-themed sand designs every summer night on the beach at First Street.

Each judge was instructed to rate the sculptures on a scale of 1 to 10. As they carefully walked the beach to survey the entries, their judgment seemed influenced by their own philosophies about this fragile art.

Mr. Cassidy, with the educated eye of a professional, awarded no 10s. Mr. Richardson and Ms. Carozza, whose views of the sculptures were undoubtedly affected by the hundreds of happy tourists who flocked to the contest, gave many high marks. George Zaiser, a local but also a sand-sculpture pro, gave moderately high marks. And Randy Hoffman seemed to grade based on effort, giving praise and generous marks to those who worked hardest.

But there was no disagreement about which sculpture was the (( winner.

"That's amazing," Mr. Hoffman said as he and the other judges came upon entry No. 1, the patriotic collage created by Mr. Mongero and Mr. Patisso. "I think that's a winner right there."

When the votes were tallied and the sculpture had collected 48 of a possible 50 points, it was official. A replica of the Eiffel Tower took second place, and after a tie-breaking vote by the judges, Tony Crespo's fisherman placed third, edging Tara Ballard's sea dragon, which won the fourth-place trophy.

In the youth competition (for kids 13 and under working with no adult assistance), the top prize went to three 12-year-olds from Sterling, Va., who built a sand copy of Memorial Stadium.

A crowd of several hundred people, including most of the competitors, gathered at the hotel to hear who had won. Though disappointed when they didn't win, most contestants went away laughing about the fun they'd had. And that, John Cassidy said, was the point.

"There's a certain youth and vitality that building sand sculptures brings out," he said. "No one is ever grumpy around a sand castle."

Sand scuoptors George Zaiser and Randy Hoffman offer these tips for great sand art:

Water is the key ingredient (but don's build so close to the surf that the tide can wipe you out). If you dig down about 6 inches, you'll find a layer of moist sand. Start there, and keep adding water as you build.

Don't worry about the details when you start. Build the larger forms and then go back and carve in the details.

Be creative about your tools. In addition to buckets and shovels, try plastic tubing, pallet knives, an ice cream scoop or melon baller, or any hollow form that can be used as a mold.

A spray bottle filled with water helps keep your creation wet whild you work, and adding a little powdered milk to the water improves the structure's wind resistance without harming the


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