Accusations Fly in Battle of Model Warship Clubs

Enemy warships are closing in. The USS Iowa veers back and forth to defend the Allies as well as go on the offensive—a risky move. But Admiral Fox is new to the command. And it’s beginning to show.

The Axis combat boats play a game of cat and mouse, luring Admiral Fox further from the vessels it is his duty to protect. In an attempt to sink and destroy, he has left his own fleet of cargo ships open to enemy fire. Pummeled by artillery, three of the Allies’ ships sink to the deep. In time, others suffer the indignity of surrender, including the formidable French battleship Dunkerque.

The Axis of Evil wins this balmy September day. The victors, bragging rights and remote controls firmly in hand, let loose a hearty round of high fives.

“It’s a fight to the end,” says Rob Wood, second-in-command at Western Warship Club, a group of model boaters that meets at north San Jose’s Penitencia Creek to re-enact World War I and World War II battles with 3- to 6-foot-long replica battleships. “People love it. They’re having the time of their lives out there.”

But a greater battle is brewing—one with political implications and public safety concerns that threaten to run the club out of town.

“Someone out there has a vendetta,” Wood says ominously. “I don’t know what they stand to gain … but it puts our hobby in the crosshairs.”

Not long after the great Axis & Allies skirmish of 2013, someone sent an anonymous letter to San Jose’s city attorney warning of the pond battles, with their projectile fire and radio-controlled boats careening around in public drinking water. Batteries in sunken vessels could leach toxins into the percolation ponds, the letter warned. And BB-caliber ammo could peg someone in the eye or pelt a duck. (Skippers protest that cease-fires are called whenever waterfowl paddle through one of these maritime onslaughts.)

In January, the Penitencia ponds became part of the city parks system, shifting permitting responsibilities from the Santa Clara Valley Water District to San Jose’s parks division. Worried about the public safety risk and a municipal rule that outlaws projectile launching, the city held off on approving a permit to Western Warship. Wood lobbied Councilman Kansen Chu for an exception, since the ponds lie in his district.

The motion is being held up to give Steve Hammack, a deputy director in the parks department, time to study the issue.

“We want to make sure that if we go through the trouble of changing the ordinance that we protect against toxins in the ponds and make sure the wildlife and the public is safe,” Hammack says, hinting that the back-and-forth between the clubs only complicates matters.

It’s a moot point for the time being, because the water district drained the ponds to cope with the drought.

“But it would be nice to have access to this spot in the future,” Wood says.

The delay was a coup for Pacific Model Warship Club, an upstart faction that builds boats twice as long, twice as wide and, in some cases, several times as heavy as Western Warship’s. Deryk Haole, head of the new club and an embittered ex-member of Western Warship, accuses Wood’s group of jeopardizing safety for the thrill of hurling projectiles.

“What you have is a private group trying to gain a political favor while compromising the health and safety of the general public,” Haole says. “You know what I heard? I heard that they brag about having Councilman [Chu] in their back pocket.”

Wood scoffs at such a suggestion.

“Kansen wrote up a motion because he likes us,” says Wood, seemingly flustered over the allegation. “Years ago, him and his wife, Daisy, were walking around the park and ran into our club during one of our big events and they were impressed by what we were doing, seeing people of all ages enjoying the park and having a good time.”

When it came time to ask for help, Wood reached out to Chu, who obliged.

“Not only are their activities social and recreational in nature, but the club also provides educational outreach to the entire community, offering classes and workshops for local families who wish to learn model building, robotics and U.S. history,” Chu wrote in a glowing February memo, while also asking the city to allow Western Warship to continue its pretend warfare. “In addition, the club honors and seeks to provide integration help to returning veterans.”

Hammack expects Chu’s proposal to come up for discussion at an August council meeting.

“There’s an exception for bows and crossbows and an exception for firearms ranges, but not one for model warships,” Wood says. “The reason? An exception has never been necessary.”

He needs one now, though, or risks losing a rare spot to “play war” and cultivate an obscure hobby that’s actively recruiting. Radio-controlled (RC) warship combat originated in Texas in the late 1970s—just a few dudes, some of them Navy veterans, indulging in war fantasies and childhood impulses to blow stuff up.

Today, the hobby remains relatively unknown. Unlike many models, which can be bought in a kit of parts, scaled-down warships have to be built from scratch. Ships can cost upward of $1,000. Many of them get outfitted with pneumatic cannons and are modeled after early 20th-century battleships like the USS Des Moines, HMS Dreadnought or the infamous German Bismarck.

“All I want is for more people to learn about this hobby,” says Wood, who plans another Axis vs. Allies showdown before an audience of 1,200 at the Maker Faire in San Mateo this month. “I have nothing against any other club. … I just don’t want ours coming under fire.”

The feud between the two clubs goes back about a year and stems over a disagreement on the size of the boats and the level of artillery. Years ago, Haole and some of his colleagues in the Pacific Model Warship club were members of Western Warship. But the group splintered, and the new club formed with the focus on building larger-scale warships, with more modeling detail and fewer guns.

“Our emphasis was as much on the craft of building and the attention to details as the combat,” Haole explains. “You look at their ships and you’ll see duct tape and two or three times as many guns. One of their ships has 32 guns. On others you’ll see that the superstructure isn’t even built.”

Public officials have been hesitant to permit armed 12-foot model ships—basically the size of a manned canoe—on a small park pond. Pulling up sunken boats can also be a herculean task, as some weigh close to 400 pounds.

Last year, Haole and his Pacific Model Warship club rejoined Western Warship in hopes of jockeying for a permit to play. When that didn’t happen, and Haole saw the city working with Wood to come up with a plan that would permit only the smaller-scale ships, he quit and went on the offensive, firing off blog posts about political favors and stray BB bullets hitting folks in the leg.

“There’s kids, parents, animals at risk of getting hurt,” Haole’s Pacific Model Warship ally Gary Marshall says. “We don’t have a way to control that very well. If we’re firing those large bearings with 21 or more guns at one time, there’s bound to be some damage.”

Wood calls those lines of attack untrue and childish.

“This is about toy boats and these are grown men,” he wrote on a blog post. “Does [Pacific Model Warship] clamor to have these ‘dangerous’ activities banned from San Jose parks? No, of course not, because this is not about safety at all. It’s about personal feuds and vendettas.”

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth. Or, click here to sign up for text updates about what she’s working on.

14 Comments

  1. Good grief, give these guys their exception already! How is this even a question?!?

  2. It’s a PARK , for God’s sake. People are supposed to have recreation in parks. Haven’t you ever heard of the “Parks and Recreation Department”

    Where is Rodney King now that we need him?

    “Can’t we all get along?”

    • You are correct in your statement it is a park. What about the other people who use it. What protection is offered to those people who are in this park.

      This club last May did a show Maker Fair. Around the man made pond was a 15-20 foot high lexan protective fence to protect the spectators. With that each spectator was issued safety googles. So. Will this protection be around the Penetetra site when the WWCC will do this activity? My huntch NO. One of the projectile types is 1/4 inch ball bearings. One can obtain these project tiles at your local sporting goods store. It is sling shot ammunition. You go hunting with it. Seriously. Is this type of ammo wanted to be shot at at a city park where you have the public safety at risk.

      Make no mistake these are not toys as Mr Wood keeps stating. One can not go to Toys R Us or Radio Shack for one of these items. They are very complex models. Models that have a big bite to them no matter what air pressure these projectile are exepelled at.

  3. Jenn,

    I hate to waste my time but this is a very dump post, who cares, you must have more important issues. Remember you have about 20 members who even read this site and none is posted in the news. Sometimes you have good insight but it does not make it out to the local news. It needs to make it to at least TV but most do not watch.

    Sad

    • “Out out brief candle. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

      retired, This story is no more and no less important than anything else that’s written here.

  4. It is quite a site to see, and 12000 spectators at Makers Faire just love it. The kid have smiles from ear to ear. This is enjoyed so much by young and old,most of the spectators return every year to see the toy boats due battle.

    • Maker Fair again is not the problem as safety is in place there. The problem is taking this from a confined area, protected by Ice Hockey type fence protection and putting it into a city park with none of this protection to stop these projectiles from coming out of the pond and hitting people. This is a real issue.
      I wish the Toy Boat reference would be dropped. These are working MODEL WARSHIPS. Mom and dad can not purchase one of these at a toy or department store and put it under a Christmas tree. These are scratch built models.

  5. This article contains several inaccuracies:

    First, as Jennifer Wadsworth knows, but chose not to mention, in our 26 years of this activity, there has not been a single case of a trip to the emergency room, a call to an ambulance, or a lawsuit being filed against Western Warship Combat Club or any of its members due to an injury of any kind. No batteries have been left on the bottom to “leech toxins,” and no wildfowl have been harmed.

    Second, the photo Ms. Wadsworth chose to use as the cover of this article is 5 years old. If you want to know who we are today, and want to see the diversity in our club, check out our website: http://www.westernwarshipcombat.com/

    Third, Ms. Wadsworth misquoted a statement I made on her own blog. Let me rephrase it: People get hurt riding bicycles, playing baseball and softball and every other sport in San Jose parks, yet no one is attempting to get those activities banned. Why are people so obsessed with our hobby, suddenly after 26 years?

    The answer is very simple: Former members of Western Warship Combat Club who broke away from the club – not last year, as Ms. Wadsworth reported, but over 14 years ago – are conducting a campaign against us with one motive: To prevent our club from enjoying our hobby/sport in San Jose, because of a personal vendetta.

    You might ask, “But if they succeed in getting this activity banned in San Jose, won’t that also apply to Pacific Model Warship Club?” Yes. They’re willing to get an activity with a 100% clean safety record banned, even though it means they won’t get to play either, just to harm the men, women, teens and children of Western Warship Combat Club. It may sound crazy, but it’s not, really. Pacific Model Warship Club operates on private property in Placer County – not in San Jose – so they have nothing to lose.

    • Mr Wood. Where Pacific Model Warship Plays it is not against any ordinance discharging an air powered projectile gun. Each county sets up their own Ordinances and you know that. All counties in the San Francisco Bay Area do not allow the discharge of any Air projectile gun be it on public or private property period. So it is against the law. Pacific Model Warship wants to make it as safe as possible with the minimum amount of risk. Less guns and firing the smallest shot available. BB’s.

  6. One other major inaccuracy in this article: We conducted 10 battles last weekend in San Mateo, not before 1,200 spectators, but before 12,000 spectators! Number of injuries? Zero. Isn’t it clear by now that Western Warship Combat Club conducts our activity safely? If you who are reading this could contact your city council members and other city officials, and say something in support of our continued operations in SJ, we would appreciate it. The vote to pass the ordinance exception is scheduled for August.

    Thanks!

    Rob Wood
    VP, Western Warship Combat Club, Inc. A California non-profit corporation.

  7. Again as I explained in a post I response to earlier. The pond that Mr Wood talks about is only about 100’X80’X12-14″. It has protection around it like an Ice Hockey Rink. ALL spectators are issued safety glasses.

    MY question Mr Wood then is this. Will this safety system be in effect all around the Penetentra Pond? If it is not Western Warship Combat Inc. cannot guarantee 100% safety. All it would take is one time someone gets hit and it would be all over.

    Maker Fair is a carefully closed show with safety seriously considered. The pond that is in normal use for the WWC Inc group is in a park. This is an apples & oranges comparison as there will not be an Ice Hockey type protection all the way around the pond.

    • Mr Wood right here and now let’s get together and hash this out. You say this is a personal vendetta. Someone is out to get the WWCC. Not anymore than you have done to former members myself included.

      That was the past. We are talking about now and the future. Both clubs were suppose to get together and hash this out. How many meetings were there to do this before the August City Council meeting to vote on this? ONE. Unions and managements do better. I thank The Lord someone had enough sense to drop this off the city business agenda. I really think the City Council and the Parks and recreation department have idea on this hobby.

      Here’s what I would like to see done Mr. Wood. I would like to see 1/4 ball bearings, which are the common projectie used by your club, and shoot it into the Jelleton used on Myth Busters. Shoot it at a range that a spectator might get hit. Take in consideration that people might not be wearing safety glasses also. This could potentially knock a persons eye out as the eye has less give than our skin. Also shoot it at that safe 200 PSI you talk about. That’s the kind of test that needs to be done and studied. Real tests and not theory needs to be done. Otherwise it’s hearsay.

  8. This meeting still has not taken place. The proposal was dropped from the SJ City Council to do list in August. Thank you Mr Wood for not having a meeting as I suggested.