It was boredom that led Atlantic City firefighter John Gowdy to pick up a shovel and dig in the sand 26 years ago while on Albany Avenue beach with his three children.
It was inspiration that led him to turn that small sand pile into art.
"I never thought about carving the sand until I had my children," says Gowdy, now retired, speaking from his current home in Castelfranco, Italy. "When my twins were about 2 years old, I would take them down to Albany Avenue. I would take a shovel with me because I was bored. I would dig a hole … and mistakenly I made a pile of sand when I dug this hole."
Once he realized he could create sand art, Gowdy began entering local, national and international competitions - and winning. His achievements include two first place awards in 1997 and 2001 at the World Championship of Sand Sculpting in British Columbia, Canada.
But Gowdy had a bigger goal - bringing the world championship to Atlantic City, where he felt it rightfully belonged.
"When I started carving sand, I guess about 30 years ago, I picked up a book called 'The Art of Sand Sculpting,'" Gowdy says. "In the front of that book, he mentioned Atlantic City being the birthplace of professional sand sculpture. This was the first I had heard about this. These sand artists were very well documented. It's a big deal to me that this started in my hometown."
On Thursday, June 13, Gowdy will get his wish. Sand sculptors from around the world will gather on the Missouri Avenue beach in Atlantic City to carve castles, creatures, celebrities and everything in between out of nothing but sand and water when the World Championship of Sand Sculpting comes to the resort for the first time.
The competition runs through June 30 and features 27 sculptors from 13 countries competing in both singles and doubles competitions for more than $16,000 in prize money. The event is free and open to the public and will be run from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
The Atlantic City competition marks only the third time this event has been held in the U.S. since it began in the 1980s. Gowdy is one of the event's producers, along with Atlantic City Alliance and event directors - and professional sand artists - Charlie Beaulieu and Suzanne Altamare.
"People can see astonishing works of art in the shape of sand, way beyond what they would normally see in their normal every day experience," says Liza Cartmell, president of the Atlantic City Alliance, which helped bring the competition to the resort. "It's a throwback to the history of Atlantic City, which is really the birthplace of extraordinary sand-sculpting work. We wanted to bring it back here where it really began … and celebrate the beach and the boardwalk."
The logistics of bringing a large-scale, sand-sculpting competition to the beach are trickier than one may realize. While it may seem there is plenty of sand to go around, more than 1.2 million pounds of fine-grade sand will actually be trucked in to allow for better carving, Cartmell says.
"Because of the size and the scale of these works, they needed a special texture of sand that can be packed in densely," Cartmell says. "They carve at it with toothpicks and toothbrushes ... so you need to bring them the right materials. It really is the creation of a major structure."
The sand sculptures will remain on the beach for all to view for as long as they last, Cartmell says. Completed sculptures are sprayed with a 1/16th-inch coating of a biodegradable mix of Elmer's glue and water to help them weather the elements.
"It's a very informal atmosphere," Cartmell says. "There will be demonstrations going on … people can sort of meander throughout the process. It's very relaxed."
Gowdy, for his part, will not be competing in this year's event, he says - though he will be doing sand-sculpting demonstrations and helping amateur carvers throughout the event.
"It's just great to bring it home, to bring it back to its roots," Gowdy says.
of Sand Sculpting
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily from
Thursday, June 13, through June 30.
WHERE: Atlantic City Beach at Missouri
Avenue, between the Pier Shops at Caesars and Trump Plaza Beach Bar
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: Go to