Don’t take curling for granite
Follow Dan Wetzel on Twitter at @DanWetzel
VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Jutting its rounded self from the waters off the west coast of Scotland is Ailsa Craig, an uninhabited 104-acre island that’s home to the only known supply of the granite needed to make a proper curling stone.
It’s called blue hone granite – an intensely hard substance that is uniquely suited to slide smooth and true down a 146-foot long sheet of ice, withstand countless crashes into other stones and prevent even trace amounts of moisture to seep into it. That would cause it to pit and thus move unpredictably.
“This is the best type of granite in the world for this type of purpose,” said Donald Macrae, managing director of Kays of Scotland Curling Stones, which has exclusive rights to the island’s granite.
You could say without blue hone granite there is no sport of curling. The Olympics refuse to use anything else. There’s only one problem.
“It is not going to last forever,” Macrae said.
Yes, one day Kays is going to run out of granite and curling is going to run out of stones. It’s a strange concept, like if the world just ran out of baseballs, ending – or changing – the sport forever.
There’s no need to panic or hang up the brooms; the sport isn’t going to end tomorrow, or by the next Olympics. Or even anytime soon after that.
When “one day” is, however, no one knows. It could be 20 or 30 years. It could be decades longer. It depends on demand for curling stones, British mining regulations, puffin breeding levels and if technology somehow allows for a non-blue hone granite solution.
No one has a specific answer to any of the aforementioned. And while no one is currently all that concerned, this is a sport that dates back to 1511. One day means something.
Besides, have you ever heard of another sport where this could ever be possible?
“This is only place that we harvest from, but we feel good that it will be a long time before it runs out, especially given the level of demand,” said Macrae, whose company has operated on the mainland, not far from the famed Royal Turnberry golf course, since 1851. “If curling suddenly exploded in popularity and our orders went up dramatically, we would have to take another look at the situation.”
Another look may actually be required. This game that resembles shuffleboard on ice is suddenly hot. Since becoming an Olympic sport in 1998, it’s enjoyed a surge in popularity.
Television ratings are strong. The 6,000-seat venue here has been packed and rowdy for every session of the Games. On Thursday night, ticket brokers worked the streets outside seeking marked-up prices. According to the World Curling Federation, participation has grown both at the highly competitive and the grassroots levels, especially in Asia.
China is competing here for the first time, and the game is gaining prominent television exposure in the world’s most populated nation.
“People want to play because they see it on their TVs,” said Joanna Kelly of the WCF. “It’s grown all over the place.”
With more growth comes more demand for the stones – hunks of granite cut and polished into a 36-inch circumference disk that weighs between 38 and 44 pounds.
Despite centuries of looking, the necessary amount of blue hone granite to make the stones has only been discovered on Ailsa Craig. There’s plenty there, it’s just not all accessible. The island is a closely guarded environmental treasure.
In the 1960s, native birds, most notably the puffin that for centuries used the island as a prime breeding ground, disappeared. The British government later decreed it a Site of Special Scientific Interest and concluded that rats, which miners had brought to the island, were eating the bird eggs. In the 1990s, the government stopped all commercial activity and grew poisonous wheat to cull the rats. Birds began returning, including a couple dozen breeding pairs of puffin. Today the island is managed as a bird reserve by the Royal Society for the Protection of the Birds.
Kays of Scotland had to work out a special one-day permit in 2001 that allowed it to pull blue hone granite off the island. It wasn’t allowed to quarry or blast the island’s high rock walls. It was merely allowed to scoop as much already displaced blue hone – rocks already lying around – as possible. The company says it gathered 1,500 tons onto a ship that day.
There is a debate over how much rock Kays still has. Richard Harding, the curling development officer of the WCF, said Kays’ current supply will last 10 to 20 years, depending on demand. Macrae says Kays’ supply will last “many years.”
However, Macrae also acknowledges that with demand up, “we use around 180 tons per year.” At that rate, 1,500 tons would be tapped in just over eight years. The harvest was nine years ago, and even at previous lower usage rates, simple math says the supply is dwindling.
Both Kays of Scotland and the WCF say there is plenty of already detached blue hone waiting to be scooped up if another one-day harvest is permitted. That would offer a short-term solution. For the long run, Harding points to new blasting technologies that have less of an environmental impact, although that would require a considerable rewriting of the island’s current conservation statutes.
To be sure, the immediate future of curling is not in any known jeopardy. The entire debate is more about intrigue than alarm.
Grassroots demand can only grow so fast, since it costs up to $30,000 to outfit an entire team with elite stones. Those have long shelf lives – up to 30 or 40 years, and protective rings have been introduced to extend life beyond that. Meanwhile, a Canadian company produces a curling stone from Welsh granite that is serviceable, although not for elite levels, according to the WCF.
Still, the fascinating possibility of a stone shortage looms. The granite can’t last forever, and with each surge in popularity, forever gets a little closer.