If you weren’t looking for the San Francisco Bay Area Curling Club’s new facility, you might not know it was there. The club, founded in 1958, finally has a home of its own and it’s in the unlikeliest of places for an obscure winter sport: tucked in the back of a parking lot between 85th Avenue and Hegenberger Road in East Oakland.
Curling is a tough game. But when you watch it at the Winter Olympics (where most people come to learn of the sport) the grace of the athletes belies its true difficulty. The game is played on ice and involves two teams, each competing to place round granite slabs called “stones” inside a 12-foot wide target area called a “house.” Players push the stones down icy lanes called “sheets” and use brushes to sweep the ice in front of the stone’s path to help it along or change its course.
The club’s new facility has five sheets of carefully minded ice, more than twice as many as most other dedicated curling facilities. It’s been described as the best new curling facility in the country. The playing surface signals the club’s values, with each house featuring a different image: Black Lives Matter, LGBT pride, Latinx history, and the East Bay’s indigenous Ohlone culture are all honored with illustrations below the ice. On the wall in the entranceway hang lengthy explainers for each house design.
If you spend any amount of time at the club, you’re bound to hear mention of the spirit of curling, a popular maxim in the sport that describes the deeply-held shared values of sportsmanship, comradery, and respect among players. Except at the highest levels, curling is a self-officiated sport, meaning that it relies heavily on the honor code when it comes to things like illegal contact between players, or the placement of stones. An oft-mentioned feature of the spirit is “broomstacking,” or the period after a game when the winning team buys the first round of drinks and both teams come together to unwind and bond.
While the Oakland curling facility has been operating daily, it hasn’t officially opened yet; a two-day celebration to mark its debut is scheduled to begin on Sept. 23. For its grand opening, the club will be hosting a bonspiel, a weekend-long curling tournament that will welcome 24 teams from across the U.S. and Canada. Bonspiels are a big deal in the curling world, serving as focal points for the larger curling community. Members of the SFBACC have attended bonspiels across the globe, some making regular trips to Iceland or other countries to test their skills.
One of the SFBACC’s most discussed points of pride is its relationship with multinational teams whose members call the Oakland club home. The India, México, and Philippines national teams are all represented at the SFBACC. Team India’s “skip” (or captain) P.N. Raju has been curling for about eight years. Ever since watching curling in the Winter Olympics during its first live airing in India, Raju was dead set on hitting the sheets.
“The community was a big part of it, which made me stick with the sport,” Raju said, standing outside the lengthy glass windows of the facility. “It can get cutthroat on the ice,” he said, “but it’s never too serious.”
Curling doesn’t pull in the same attention (and in turn, money) as other sports, meaning that curlers who make a living on the sport alone are few and far between. Despite being the skip of a lauded national team and receiving a healthy amount of press over the years, Raju and his teammates all hold down day jobs. One of his teammates is based in Manhattan and made it a point while in the Bay on business to get in as much time on the ice as he could.
“The community here, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, has been known to travel to other events and stuff. So it’s always been a community that would travel long distances just to be able to play,” Raju said. “Hopefully the next big team that will represent the U.S. in the Olympics will come from California. That’s the hope and the dream.”
Until now, there had only been one facility in California exclusively dedicated to curling. Now the Oakland-based SFBACC has the distinction of being the only dedicated curling rink in all of Northern California. Before the facility opened, club members would curl at the Oakland Ice Center, a facility primarily visited by hockey players and ice skaters. The nature of the blades cutting into the ice meant that the curling had to take place on ice that was nowhere near ideal.
“When we were [at the Ice Center], we had a lot of people who would come who were from Canada or had curled in other places and they were like, ‘I don’t want to curl here, because it’s like not even curling—the ice is so bad,” said Kate Garfinkle, an avid curler and current club president. “So we’re hoping that this fall, we’ll get a lot of them back.”
For the curling faithful, there’s a lot to love about the new facility. The cold, warehouse-like rink is kept brisk by a cooling system that hums pleasantly overhead. An adjacent, high-ceilinged (and warm) locker room is outfitted with round tables for broomstacking, a rack of shoe covers, and an oversized bucket of curling brooms. A front-page story about the SFBACC in The Mercury News hangs framed above a growing library of donated books on the sport.
Members volunteer to maintain the ice before every event, each learning to master the job in their own way. The process, called pebbling, consists of scraping off any residual ice from the previous game with a machine resembling a large lawn mower, then sprinkling an even layer of cold, then warm, droplets. When perfected, the air between the pebbles allows for more nuanced control of the stones as they travel over 114 feet of ice.
The focused grace of the curlers is undeniably captivating. But many who are new to the sport quickly find out that operating skillfully on the ice is no simple task.
“It’s actually quite awkward,” Garfinkle admits, speaking off to the side as dozens of masked first-time curlers prepare to hit the ice. “This is what we call a ‘learn-to-curl.’ They basically come out for 90 minutes and we teach them the basics. And then we have them play a game together, because the game is really the most exciting part.”
The club also offers a more in-depth introductory course, a three-week series allowing newbies even more opportunity to build their confidence on the ice and get to know the modestly sized but dedicated group of SFBACC regulars, who sometimes help out with instruction.
Finishing and opening the facility was not without its challenges. The pandemic slowed the process, and the entire effort was on the verge of falling through due to financing concerns. In what might have been the final days before plans were abandoned, a passionate curler who insists on going unnamed negotiated a $1,000,000 loan to the club.
When speaking to club members, most can’t seem to help but talk about what makes the sport special—the collective values, the community, and the thrill of the game itself. Players swapped fond memories of the trips they’ve taken to countries like Switzerland, Italy, or Canada to participate in tournaments over the years.
Nonetheless, once the matches start heating up, a tongue-in-cheek animosity can sometimes be observed spilling out between players. While jabs are being exchanged on one sheet of ice, another is filled only with the sounds of the soft scraping of stones gliding into place, and the occasional pop of a stone being knocked out of position. When a team is in full focus, the players become agents of beautiful synchronicity, like swans in steady formation, as the stone begins to push forward.
Player and club board member Adriana Camarena takes her love of the game seriously, a quality that was essential in making the club what it is today. Camarena is a proud member of México’s national women’s team and many at the club look to her as a guiding force, conscientious of what the club has achieved and focused on moving it forward.
“As a Mexican curler, sometimes people see me as a novelty, just like they see Team India as a novelty. We are the emerging curling nations,” Camarena said, acknowledging that there was no local group explicitly for Hispanic curlers. Now, she’s glad to give anyone curling lessons in Spanish if needed. “I told [the club], why don’t we just create a group called La Liga, to just make sure that people know we’re here to stay and to make sure that this spot is open to them.”
When curling first opened the new facility, the club had 60 members. The rolls now exceeded 170. With its new home in East Oakland, the SFBACC seems poised to be a mainstay in both the curling community as well as the larger mosaic of Oakland as a whole.
One curler, when asked how their day was going, responded, “I’m curling, there’s nothing better. Came up from L.A. just for this.”