Downtown gets sandy

Posted: August 4th, 2017 | Features, Special Events, Top Story | 1 Comment

By Jess Winans

The sixth annual U.S. Sand Sculpting Challenge & Dimensional Art Exposition this Labor Day

Imagine 300 tons of sand being dumped on the Broadway Pier in Downtown San Diego. That’s exactly what’s going to happen this Labor Day weekend.

As part of the sixth annual U.S. Sand Sculpting Challenge & Dimensional Art Exposition, 11 World Master Sand Sculptors and 21 Cool California Carvers in seven groups of three will each be given 15 tons of sand to mold.

One of the Cool California Carvers teams focus on their entry from last year on the B Street Pier. This year the Labor Day event is moving to the Broadway Pier. (Courtesy

“It’s amazing what is capable in sand sculpture now compared to the old days,” said Bruce Phillips, a World Master born and raised in San Diego who is in charge of the sand for the exhibition. “Sand sculpture used to be just a sandcastle but now anything you think of can really be done in sand. The sky’s the limit.”

Sculptures from San Diego’s past competitions are so much more than life-sized versions of the sandcastles you made as a kid. They are stand-alone works of art. Those with faces have detailed lines, facial features and life-like characteristics. In one sculpture, a saxophone player looks like he is making melodies right in front of you; in a sponsored sculpture of the MTS rapid bus, it looks like it is on its way to bring you to work; and in another piece, the Olympic runner at the end of the tunnel looks like they are racing to the end in the distance.

The event is produced by Gordon and Joyce Summer, two very active Downtown residents, who began doing so after the Imperial Beach U.S. Sandcastle Competition ended in 2011 after nearly three decades. Gordon said the event got too big with nearly 300,000 attendees and because it was on the beach, legally they couldn’t contain it or afford the mounting security costs, so they had to shut it down.

So, at the urging of Scott Peters, then a San Diego Port Commissioner, Joyce and Gordon took over, brought the competition to the Embarcadero and kicked the competition up a notch.

“We brought in artists from all over the world, put in a prize budget, just upgraded the whole thing,” Gordon said.

In addition, they source a special type of sand with clay content from a quarry, which many sculptors say is the best they’ve ever worked with.

“It can be cut and built very vertically,” Phillips said. “The sand is really key,”

The main feature of the event? The world masters who are flown in to compete each year.

The World Master Sand Sculptors are a group of nearly 50 professionals from all over the world that have won various competitions and exhibitions. Sculptors invited to compete in the San Diego event have two requirements; one being that they have won a major competition previously, and the other that they are available Labor Day weekend.

“They travel around the world together, it’s a gregarious sport,” Gordon said. “Most artists work in a studio by themselves and it’s lonely; a glassblower or a potter or a painter, they are all by themselves, it’s an individual art. These guys travel all over the world [performing their art] together and it’s like a party wherever they go.”

Participating in a sand-sculpting event of this level has a lot of plusses. For the sculptors, they receive appearance money, prize money, and expense coverage. In fact, this year’s competition includes more than $60,000 in prize awards. For audience members, they get to see art from some of the most skilled sand sculptors in the world.

“The skills that these people have that virtually no one else has is the ability to do cutouts in the sand,” Gordon noted. “They can build a sandcastle or sculpture with a big hole in the middle, or lots of holes in the middle, and somehow the top stays there and it doesn’t collapse.”

Returning World Masters this year include llya Filimonstev from Moscow, the 2016 grand prize winner; Melineige BeauRegard from Montreal, the 2015 grand prize winner; Rusty Croft from Carmel, California, the 2012 grand prize winner and co-host of Sand Masters on the Travel Channel; Fergus Mulvany from Ireland, the 2016 second place winner; Thomas Keot from Melbourne, Florida, the 2016 third place winner; and Sue McGrew from Tacoma, Washington, the 2014 second place winner and a Sand Masters TV personality.

Also competing this year are two new World Master participants: Jihoon Choi from South Korea and Abram Waterman from Prince Edward Island, Canada.

The masters will compete for a grand prize, as well as second and third place. They will also be in the running for People’s Choice, where attendees vote for their favorites, and Sculptor’s Choice, where participating masters also vote.

The Cool California Carvers class will also be competing. The class consists of seven teams of three California-based sand sculptors that once competed in the old IB series. There are first, second and third prizes, and each team member will also vote on the seven group sculptures, deciding which are the best.

The sand sculptures are close enough to touch. (Courtesy

As part of The Dimensional Art Exhibition there will also be over 1,000 original works of art available for purchase like jewelry, handmade clothing and wall-art made out of things like metal, wood, glass, acrylic, fabric and gemstones.

The event definitely features something for every member of the family, including a Kid Zone with rides, sandcastle building lessons by professional artists, over a dozen gourmet food trucks, a beer and wine garden and live entertainment including various tribute bands (Beatles, Elvis, Beach Boys, Journey) and other classic rock and blues bands.

A portion of the proceeds from the sixth annual U.S. Sand Sculpting Challenge & Dimensional Art Exposition will to go charities, such as Arts for Learning, The San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, It’s All About the Kids Foundation, and Maritime Museum kids educational programs.

“We’re very passionate about children’s charities and really think it’s the way to go,” Joyce said. “This year we added The Princess Project.”

The Princess Project provides free prom dresses to high school students in San Diego who couldn’t afford them otherwise.

In addition to donating to local charities, on Friday organizers will be holding a fundraiser to benefit Arts for Learning, formerly known as Young Audiences, from 6–8 p.m. with food like gelato and tacos, live music and the opportunity to watch the World Masters in action.

Something else new this year? The location.

The Port of San Diego requested that the organizers move the event from the B Street Pier, where it was held the last five years, to the Broadway Pier and Port Pavilion at 1000 North Harbor Dr.

“The Broadway Pier is about one-third smaller, so it’s been a bit of a challenge because we don’t have the space we had before,” Joyce said, adding that they are making it work and vendors will be along the Embarcadero.

Gordon said that the impact of moving the sand sculpting competition to Downtown San Diego was notable and brings about $3 million to the city.

“Culturally we think we bring a lot, there are only a couple of dozen of these events in the world that are at this level, there’s no other event in the U.S. There’s one or two that are bigger than we are but not in the middle of a Downtown,” he said.

The event is sponsored by The Port of San Diego, MTS, GEICO, the San Diego Padres and many others. Organizers are still seeking additional sponsors and you can email for more information on how to become one.

Public transportation to the exposition is encouraged and you can get $2 knocked off of your ticket at the gate with proof of transit. Just take the MTS trolley or bus to The America Plaza or Santa Fe Depot stations.

The event runs from 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. Friday, Sunday and Monday, with additional hours on Sunday for the awards ceremony.

Tickets at the door Friday are $11 for adults, $9 for seniors and $8 for children. On Saturday, Sunday and Monday at the door they are $15 for adults, $12 for first responders and active military, $12 for seniors, $10 for children and can be bought as a family 4-pack for $35. Tickets can also be purchased online now at an early-bird rate. Visit

In addition to standard admission you can purchase VIP tickets for $39 each day, which includes easier event entry, access to a special VIP area at the end of the pier, special upscale facilities, two beverages and special discounts at Seaport Village and The Headquarters.

For more information visit and to become a sponsor email Gordon at

—Jess Winans is an intern at San Diego Community News Network. You can reach her at

One Comments

  1. Sally Massarsky says:

    Sorry I cannot attend. I am missing a wonderful event. Best of luck in this wonderful venture.

Leave a Comment