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Boomerangs : Optometrist Finds a Sport to Flip Over

Times Staff Writer

You couldn’t wallop a wallaby or dent a dingo with Joseph G. Siegel’s boomerangs, but that doesn’t bother the Sepulveda optometrist.

“These are the thinking man’s Frisbees,” Siegel said of his creations, which include triangular and other unconventionally shaped boomerangs.

Boomerangs have become a high-tech international sport, said Siegel, who practices at the Nordhoff Recreation Center in Mission Hills. His tri-rangs, as he calls the three-cornered models, and other competition boomerangs could not be used for hunting, as the Australian aborigines used theirs. The new models are far too light.

But they fly higher and farther, return more reliably and are easier to catch, he said.

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“They’re much more refined. Those old-fashioned ones wouldn’t come back all the way.”

Siegel, 33, said he first became interested in modern boomerangs in 1985 when he read about them in a science magazine. He bought some by mail, and later that year learned to his delight that the U.S. Boomerang Assn. was holding its national competition at Cal State Northridge.

That event “was the first I saw anyone else throw a boomerang,” he said.

In his debut, he said, “I won second place in the consecutive catch,” an event something like musical chairs. Contestants begin throwing and catching their boomerangs, and those who miss a catch are eliminated. But the requirements become progressively more difficult, he said, “first a two-handed catch, then a one-handed catch, then you have to catch it behind your back, between your legs, between your legs and on your back, just keep eliminating people until only the winner remains.”

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Other events include maximum time aloft--the record is more than 3 minutes--a contest for the most consecutive catches within 5 minutes, and juggling, which requires keeping at least two boomerangs in the air at all times. There are team competitions “and the Australian round, a combination of distance, accuracy and catching.”

“I was buying a lot of boomerangs, so in 1986 I started copying the designs to learn how to make them, and in ’87 I started designing my own.

“It’s a hobby you can do yourself from start to finish that requires a lot of different skills--an aeronautical engineer to design them, a woodworker to cut them out, and an artist to paint and decorate them. At the end, I have a good recreational sport that reduces stress.

“It takes about 3 or 4 hours to make one. I trade them with other boomerang people or sell them for about $15 or $20.”

Why do boomerangs come back?

“First of all, they have aerodynamic lift. The arms are shaped like airplane wings, so they stay up as long as they’re moving fast enough. Next comes the principle of gyroscopic precession: A spinning object moves at 90 degrees to the direction of any force applied against it.”

In the case of a boomerang, the leading arm creates more lift than the trailing arm, because the leading arm is moving faster through the air--the trailing arm cancels out some of the speed by spinning against the direction the boomerang is traveling. So the leading arm generates more lift, he said.

“That pressure keeps pushing at 12 o’clock, so the boomerang keeps trying to move at 90 degrees, away from 3 o’clock.” So the boomerang keeps making that 90-degree turn to the left until it’s made a circle.

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“It sounds complicated, but it’s kind of like a no-hands turn on a moving bicycle,” he said, with the rider changing the bike’s direction by shifting weight to one side.

To complicate matters, competition boomerangs are hurled vertically, but most of them drop onto their sides as they lose momentum and return horizontally, he said. “There are competing theories about why they do this that you don’t even want to hear.”

He came in fifth overall at a regional meet in Oakland this summer, including a second-place finish in the juggling competition, he said. The top three competitors at the U.S. national meet advance to the international competition against teams from other nations, including Germany, France, Switzerland, Japan “and Australia, of course,” he said.

Competition boomerangs are strictly modern creations of plywood, plastic, fiberglass or aluminum, he said. Although two-armed boomerangs were once required in competition, all designs have been accepted in American competition since 1986.

Even before then, he said, he had never seen an aborigine-style boomerang demonstrated. Their widely angled arms make them difficult to catch and the heavy hunting weapons “would be kind of dangerous,” he said.

The Australians have not completely abandoned the traditional roots of their sport, he noted.

“In Australia, my tri-rang is still illegal in competition.”


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