If you are in the area of 220th Street and Old Mill Road this Sunday and a small, fluorescent orange or yellow steel cannonball flies by, don’t be alarmed — it’s just some locals participating in an annual game of Irish road bowling.
The game, which originated in Ireland in the 1600s, involves competitors pitching a 28-ounce steel ball down a pre-determined course of “country roads.” The player whose ball reaches the end in the fewest throws wins. Not surprisingly, the island is home to a group of road bowling enthusiasts. In fact, the Vashon Island Road Bowling Association is celebrating its 10th birthday this year, though according to member and ambassador of spin Bob Williams, the sport and its supporters have a history on the island that stretches back to the late 1800s.
According to an association press release — which Williams described as “probably fake news” — “The early history of road bowling on Vashon Island is rather vague, as all written records of the sport were destroyed in the Great Vashon Fire of 1892. However, legend has it that the sport of road bowling was brought to Vashon Island by Brian O’Sullivan, an Irish sailor who jumped ship in Seattle and made his way to Vashon in 1872. Setting up one of the first illegal stills on the island, O’Sullivan soon started, and sponsored, several road bowling teams among the early Vashon settlers as a way to advertise and promote the consumption of his product. While the sport of road bowling reportedly enjoyed great success here during the late 1800s — briefly surpassing even geoduck tossing as the favorite sport among islanders — participation declined when O’Sullivan sold his still, and his sports franchise, to a group of investors from Oklahoma and moved back to County Cork in Ireland.”
But it would seem that die-hard road bowlers, much like unforgiving Sonics fans, are a hard bunch to keep down, and the sport was revived here in 2007 with the formation of the association, which has been holding an annual road bowling match on the island for the past nine years.
Traditionally held during Strawberry Festival weekend, this year Williams said the group decided to push the event to August in an effort to minimize traffic conflicts. If turnout is good, the later date will likely be continued.
The rules of the road for the Vashon group are a little different than traditional road bowling, Williams explained, going with a points-for-distance tally instead of fewest throws.
“Farthest throw each round gets two points, next farthest gets one, then everyone moves up to the spot of the farthest throw to start the next round,” he said. “Most points at the end — if anyone can remember them — wins.” The change was made both in an effort to speed up the process, as well as give everyone a chance to watch their fellow competitors. Williams noted that no special gear is needed, unless you count fluorescent paint, a metal detector and (cannon) balls of steel.
“We paint the balls for better visibility, and when they do end up in the blackberries, I bring the metal detector out,” he explained of the seemingly unorthodox equipment.
Williams described a typical road bowling match as “an enjoyable afternoon, like golf but without the green fees or bad clothes,” and added that bringing refreshments is encouraged for “hydration therapy.”
The group welcomes participants of all ages. To keep up with the association’s activities, look for the Vashon Island Road Bowling Association on Facebook.
The ninth annual Irish Road Bowling Match takes place at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 6, at 220th Street and Old Mill Road. The event is free and open to all. For more information, call Bob Williams at 206-403-5202.