Oyster shuckers gather to compete and crown their champion

Heini Petersen of Norway displays his oyster shucking knives.
(Necee Regis / For The Times)

Out on the flats of Galway Bay, late September’s ashen clouds hang low over the gunmetal sea. Faded gray seaweed cushions the muddy, rock-strewn shore where the wind is brisk and scented with salt.

Standing in an inch of muck, a bunch of oyster shuckers are talking about knives. Not just any old knives or any old shuckers. The knife-wielding guys assembled this afternoon are the crème de la crème of competitors in the oyster-shucking universe. They’re here for the Guinness World Oyster Opening Championship, the centerpiece of the three-day party, now in its 55th year, known as the Galway International Oyster Festival.

The Europeans call it oyster opening. Americans call it shucking. Either way, winning in Galway is like snagging gold at the Olympics, and these participants, from 14 countries, are ready for battle.

The American competitor, William “Chopper” Young, knows a lot about knives. And oysters. A shell fisherman in Wellfleet, Mass., home to the famed Wellfleet oyster, Young is a two-time American champ who’s returning to defend his 2008 Galway title, where he was the first American to win in 32 years.

There are several ways to open an oyster, and in shucking parlance Young is a “hacker,” meaning he opens the shell from the side. His knife of preference is a modified Japanese blade inserted in a Dexter Russell handle. Last year, Young discovered that European Flats -- with their layered feathery edges -- cracked with his method. With less than 24 hours until the competition, Young borrowed a more rigid knife and became a “stabber,” one who enters the oyster at the hinge. He won anyway.

“You have to be one with the oyster,” Young said. “It’s you and 30 oysters. It’s the luck of the draw. They say they pick the best ones for the contest but you can never tell. One can crumble. It’s oyster shucking.”

The rules of competitive shucking leave little room for error. Each competitor is given 30 oysters (24 in the U.S. nationals) and has several minutes to arrange them on a tray and examine them for flaws. (A defective oyster can, with the judges’ approval, be traded for a new one.) Each competitor has his own timekeeper. When you finish shucking, you raise your arms and ring a bell.

Speed isn’t the only asset needed to win. Results are determined by time and presentation, and the best competitors strategize to balance speed with perfectionism. Penalties include four seconds added for each of the following no-no’s: oysters with grit or damage to the shell; cut, sliced or wounded muscles; and oysters not severed from their shells or not presented upright. The worst penalty, for unopened or missing oysters, or a spot of blood, adds a steep 30 seconds to the score.

Most of these men -- they’re all men this year, though Deborah Pratt of Virginia won the American nationals three times and took second place in Galway in 1997 -- are employed in the food industry as chefs, bartenders, sommeliers, restaurateurs, fishermen and oyster farmers.

To qualify, each has competed in local and regional competitions in his home country and subsequently won a national title. Some competitions, those hosted by commercial venues, offer substantial prize money -- up to $2,000 for the top spot. Other events, like here where the prizewinner takes home a Waterford crystal trophy and a few hundred euros, are all about the glory.

Tools of the trade

Back out on the flats of Galway Bay, talk quickly turns to the finer points of technique. That’s when the knives appear. Anti Lepik, from Estonia, wears a thick cloth glove on his left hand, with the tip of the index finger cut off. He shows two knives with handles wrapped in putty-colored tape with curved blades that mimic an oyster’s edge. One of the knives has a second, narrower blade at the opposite end, used to sever the adductor muscle from the shell without damaging the meat.

Heini Petersen of Norway, ranked first in the world and attending his fourth consecutive Galway competition, has three of these dual blade knives. Wearing a black cloth glove with leather reinforcements on the index and middle finger tips, he demonstrates his technique, deftly wielding his knife to pop open the succulent bivalve.

“What you’re looking for is a shell without too many little holes,” Petersen said. “A shell like that will crush when you open it.”

The competition involves a weekend of festivities, which proceed like this: Friday night Mardi Gras party with live bands, sumptuous buffet for 500 and dancing on chairs. On Saturday, the shuckers join a parade that weaves its way through the cobblestone streets of the medieval city, carrying their nations’ flags behind marching bands; pink-cheeked, pompom-shaking young colleens; antique cars; and anyone who feels like joining the procession to the next event, an all-afternoon party featuring oysters, Guinness, live music, Irish step dancing and the oyster-opening competition. Saturday night is a black-tie ball, with more dancing on chairs. And, in case you haven’t had enough fun -- or oysters and beer -- there’s a farewell party on Sunday.

On your mark . . .

On the day of the competition, the shuckers warm up by gathering round a table in a makeshift work area behind a curtain in the ballroom at the Radisson Blu Hotel, opening oysters for the revelers dancing to jazzy Frank Sinatra tunes. The cavernous ballroom, decorated with strings of tiny white lights, gossamer fabric and pink and white balloons, hosts 1,600 Guinness-quaffing guests who truly, madly love their oysters.

Eamon Clark, representing Canada, works with a knife hand-crafted in Alberta. The smooth, reddish wood handle is less than 3 inches long and the blade, about the same length, tapers to a sharp point. There’s a two-year wait for a knife like this, and it will cost anywhere from $900 to $4,500.

As in many competitive situations, the mental preparation is as important as the physical.

“I visualize a perfect tray of oysters -- that’s my little trick,” said Michael Moran, 2006 winner and Galway’s hometown favorite whose father won the event twice in the 1970s.

When it’s time to compete, the band retreats and tables are whisked onto the stage. The shuckers are summoned in three heats and assigned noms de knives called out by the crowd. The fake names ensure anonymity in the judging process while creating a surreal atmosphere worthy of Fellini as the play-by-play announcements boom throughout the room.

“Three for James Bond! Seven for Obama! Thirteen for Tiger Woods!”

Young’s name this year is Beckham, and the crowd chants as the shells go flying. After he raises his arms and rings the bell, he tosses an empty shell down to his girlfriend, Allison Paine, who confides they have a collection inscribed with the name of each competition.

It takes more than an hour for the trays to be evaluated and the results tabulated. Tom Grealy, the official “scrutineer,” makes sure all the adjustments and calculations are correct, down to the decimal.

The results are announced in reverse order. At the end, the U.S. and Belgium competitors stand side by side. The room holds its collective breath. The 2009 winner is Xavier Caille, a Frenchman representing Belgium, with Young coming in one second later. Moran places third. A Champagne bottle is shaken and popped. The band strikes up a familiar tune, and the party resumes full tilt.

“Sweet Caroline / Good times never seemed so good.”