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Tiny battleships can't find a place to fight tiny wars

The county declines to let BB-firing model warships clash in Bluebird Springs Park, citing firearms regulations. Hobbyists say their combat is very safe.

[Times photos: Ron Thompson]
Tony Stephens guides his warship in Blue Springs Park on Thursday.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001


HOMOSASSA -- With some cloth-like patches and a coat of glue, Tony Stephens has repaired the spots where BBs tore through the balsa wood siding of his model warship, a 41/2-foot-long version of the Italian battleship Andrea Doria.

Stephens, 26, belongs to a group that builds and battles with scaled-down versions of World War I and II ships, using BB-firing cannons to sink each other's remote-controlled boats.

Stephens' Andrea Doria -- not to be confused with the luxury Italian liner of the same name that sank in 1956 -- is modeled after the Italian battleship that first saw action in 1916 and was refitted for combat in 1940.

photo
Tony Stephens says his boat's 6-inch cannons fire single BBs using about half the pressure of an average BB gun.
Having repaired the damage from last week's battle in Perry, Ga., Stephens has his warship once again ready to fight.

But finding a place to float his boat is another matter.

While cities such as Winter Springs near Orlando have opened parks for model warship combats, Citrus County has denied Stephens' request to use Bluebird Springs Park for such a battle during the Memorial Day weekend.

County rules prohibit the use of firearms at county parks, and the tiny BB cannons could be considered a kind of firearm, said Karen Barnett, county parks and recreation director.

"Even though (Stephens) claims they don't go very far, we don't want to set any kind of precedent by allowing any kind of firearm or weapon in a county park," Barnett said.

The reasoning is lost on Stephens, who said his boat's 6-inch cannons fire single BBs using about half the pressure of an average BB gun. The cannons are angled downward to fire at passing model ships.

"I don't consider them being firearms. I think it's ridiculous," said Stephens, a water utility technician who joined the Model Warship Combat Inc. club within the past year.

"It's not like I'm running out there with a BB gun and pointing it at people," he said. "I want to look it up in the dictionary and see what they mean by "firearms.' "

Battling with remote-control model warships, a hobby that started in the late 1970s, has evolved with its own safety measures, said Jeff Lipp, an Orlando member of Model Warship Combat.

The club, which includes about a dozen Florida members and about 300 nationwide, has insurance to cover anyone or anything damaged during battle by a wayward BB, he said. The club's $60 annual membership fee helps cover the premium, he said.

Depending on the terrain, model owners and other spectators stay about 50 feet away from the water's edge, Stephens said. Everyone is urged to wear long pants and required to wear safety goggles, which are provided by the club as people approach the battle site.

"Most of the guns are angled so the shots are aimed downward, so the only real concern is ricochets," Lipp said. "They're not moving fast enough to break the skin, even if they're aimed right at you, so the only real danger is if you're hit in the eye or the tooth."

"I don't think we've had a serious injury, other than a welt, in seven or eight years," Lipp added. "And that's holding events nationwide."

A lifelong Homosassa resident, Stephens hoped to host an event at Bluebird Springs Park. Stephens remembers swimming in the spring as a boy, and recently has worked with Springbusters to improve the park's facilities.

Because the water is clear and shallow, boaters could easily retrieve their sunken vessels at the end of the battle, he said. An event there could draw anywhere between 25 and 40 model boats, he said.

"It doesn't get used and it's an excellent spot for us to be because there's plenty of parking, it's secluded to a point, there's room for spectators and there's shelter," Stephens said. "There's plenty of places nearby for people to go grab a quick bite to eat."

Although parks director Barnett turned Stephens down, she suggested he try the two cities. But Crystal River was just as reserved about allowing the BB cannons at its parks.

"I don't see where we would have any safe place to conduct that," said John Lettow, the city's assistant public works director.

Inverness parks director Pati Smith is still considering Stephens' request, saying Wallace Brooks Park or the closed-off State Road 44 East boat ramp might work.

Like the county, the city's regulations prohibit the use of firearms at a park without the park director's permission.

"That's basically saying you can't come in with a gun or a bow and arrow and start shooting," Smith said. "But to me, (the model warship battle) sounds a little bit different."

Smith said she still needs to learn more about the boats and the club's safety regulations. She also needs to weigh the safety of other residents using the park.

"My only concern with him is (he wants to use the park during) Memorial Day weekend, and we basically have no control over closing Wallace Brooks Park for a special activity," Smith said. "A lot of people are calling us wanting to use Wallace Brooks Park that weekend."

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