Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Seven Steps to Successful Stone-Skipping

This is something I created as a 'tutorial' for an online application, and I thought I'd use it as my post for the day because it exhaustively details something that's generally simple and instinctive. Let's get to it: skipping stones like a BOSS!

Step One: The Water.
Your first task, as an aspiring stone-skipper, is to find a body of water and wait for a calm day. The closer to absolutely flat the water is, the easier it will be to skip stones upon. For safety’s sake, make sure that there are no people or boats in the area where you’re going to be skipping. If you can’t find calm water but still want to skip, your best bet is to skip parallel to the incoming waves, not straight into them. This gives you a decent chance of throwing into the relatively calm troughs between the wave crests.

Step Two: The Stone
Your second task is to find a good skipping stone. The ideal stone is flat on both sides, has its weight evenly distributed (so there aren’t any lumps that will throw off its flight) and fits comfortably in your hand. The stone should nestle comfortably into the natural curve of your relaxed hand, which goes from the tip of your index finger to the base of your thumb. However, any reasonably sized flat stone is a good candidate for skipping. If you live in an area with lots of slate or shale rocks, I’d recommend those; they tend to be very light and flat, and are thus easily skippable. If it’s your first time, make sure to use your worst rocks first—you won’t get your stones back, so be judicious.

Some good candidates.

Step Three: The Grip
Now that you’ve got the stone, you need a proper way to hold it. Relax your hand and hold it with your thumb facing up. Hold the stone lightly with your index finger and rest it on your middle finger, with your thumb on top of the stone (again, lightly) to provide balance. The stone should balance on your middle finger, about on top of your knuckle.

For your index finger, rotate the stone and let your finger slide across the circumference of the stone. Pick a point on the stone that ‘catches’ your finger instead of letting it slide past. That is going to be the point that gives the stone its spin. If you’re right-handed, the stone will come out of your hand spinning clockwise (counterclockwise for lefties) because that point catches against your finger as you throw. (For heavier stones, use your middle finger, or even both at once.)
That point at the top of the stone is an ideal "catch".

Step Four: The Angles
You want the stone’s surface to be parallel to the surface of the water when it strikes. When you throw, aim about 10-15 feet in front of you. The distance will vary depending on the size and weight of your particular stone, but that’s a good distance to start with. The stone should leave your hand on a horizontal line, sinking downward through the air instead of arrowing through it. For lighter stones, aim closer to yourself while still keeping the stone flat in your hand; a light, flat stone thrown over a long distance (25 feet or longer) will usually turn over in flight and sink immediately.

Step Five: The Wrist
Skipping has little to do with your arm muscles. The power comes from the snap of your wrist when you release the stone, which is also what facilitates the spin. The snap also determines the speed at which the stone leaves your hand.

As you throw, your upper arm should remain more or less stationary. Draw your hand and wrist back, to gain power, and then snap both of them forward when you release the stone. At the instant you snap the wrist, your index finger should be the only part of your hand that is affecting the stone’s flight. The thumb and middle finger are there to keep the stone flat, but they should be relaxed enough that the stone spins out of them without effort. Your index finger, hand and wrist should all work together to impart spin to the stone. Remember: your index finger should be mostly unmoving throughout the throw. It’s the stone that spins around your finger and, hopefully, leaves your hand on a flat line to the water.

Step Six: The Stance
Stand sideways, with your non-throwing hand closest to the water and your feet parallel to each other. Your side will be facing straight towards the water, and your feet facing about 45 degrees to the left or right of your side (if your side is 12:00, your feet will be at around 1:30 if you’re right-handed and 10:30 if you’re a lefty). As you draw your hand back and prepare to throw, shift almost all your weight onto your back foot. I find it also helps to drop your back shoulder a little, which will help you get the stone closer to the ground and make it easier to throw a flat trajectory. The entire motion looks a lot like a baseball pitcher’s throwing stance.

When you release the stone is a matter of preference. Some people find it easier to release when all their weight is on their back foot and the hand/wrist is the only thing going forward; others like to have their torso moving forward slightly, shifting the weight partially onto the front leg, as they throw. This is a matter of taste; experiment and find out what works for you.

Step Seven: Putting It All Together
The most important thing to remember is to keep the stone flat. Make sure it’s flat when it’s in your hand, and make sure to throw it so that it’ll be flat when it hits the water. This is key to getting the most skips out of the stone. A good grip and good angles will help you do this, and a good stance will make it easier for you to make a nice flat throw. After you’ve mastered this, you can play around with the speed and power of your throw, and find a combination that fits your throw best.

Finally, have some fun with your newfound skills! Get some friends, head to the beach, assemble your stones and start skipping as a group. Once you all have mastered conventional skipping, you can try more exotic things like skipping with your non-dominant hand, skipping multiple stones at once or skipping backhanded (like throwing a Frisbee). Enjoy!

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