Many Happy Returns

A boomerang booster bravely inducts beginners into the pleasures of a flying stick

A light breeze stirs the eucalyptus trees of Jarranoble Park as Duncan MacLennan begins his Sunday morning boomerang class - two hours when neighbors haul children inside and joggers avoid the open grass. With good reason.

During the Australian summer as many as 50 hot-shot beginners show up to learn how to fling the aerodynamic L-shaped piece of wood invented by the Aborigines to hunt ducks and kangaroos.

Throwing one is not difficult. But throwing accurately is nearly impossible for the unschooled. And getting it to return from whence it came requires the sort of fearless tutoring that only Mr. MacLennan seems willing to provide for free.

MacLennan has been ducking errant throws and cheerleading boomerang neophytes for four decades. On this day he has eight students from Germany, Denmark, and Holland, as well as a reporter and photographer from America.

First, however, the master delivers his most urgent instruction: "Don't take your eyes off the boomerang," he says. "That's how you get your head knocked off."

As she cocks her arm, ready to throw, Gudurn Lissau - a grandmother from Copenhagen - glances at the man fine-tuning the angle of the boomerang she grips in her hand.

"Hold it at the 1 o'clock position," he says, tilting the boomerang slightly. "Now, get set, and throw it at 45 degrees to the direction of the wind. Aim over there, at that hotel."

Mrs. Lissau lets fly. The boomerang goes straight up, wobbles, nearly hits a startled pigeon, and drops like a rock about 15 yards away.

"That's a girl! That's a mighty tall throw for a kangaroo," MacLennan says. "That's the duck-hunter's throw."

As Lissau retrieves her boomerang, MacLennan coaxes Peter Heymeyer from Utrecht in the Netherlands.

"Come on, step up: The more you throw, the better you get," he says, sounding like a carnival barker. Adjusting Mr. Heymeyer's boomerang, MacLennan steps back just before Heymeyer lets fly with a mighty effort. The twirling projectile arcs gracefully around and back toward the gaggle of students who leap in different directions to avoid being hit.

"That was a beautifully throw, a beautiful throw!" MacLennan exults.

Boomerangs are as Australian as apple pie is American. And MacLennan, who has sold boomerangs from his shop for decades, says he just naturally started teaching after he taught himself how to throw one in the late 1950s.

That was also about the time MacLennan met and befriended legendary Australian boomerang champ Joe Timbry, who was so adept he could catch a boomerang with his feet. "He was a genius," MacLennan says.

MacLennan's Sydney shop specializes in hand-carved boomerangs, all made by Aborigines from acacia tree roots. They cost between A$60 and $160 (US$47 to $117).

"It used to be a good business," he says wistfully. "But the market's glutted now with cheap boomerangs from Korea and Taiwan. They even mass-produce them in the Czech Republic."

Boomerangs clutter the walls of every gift shop in Australia, most of them cheap, painted-plywood models. These may or may not return, and most would certainly not knock a duck out of the sky, MacLennan snorts.

By contrast his boomerangs, like the "King Billy Hook" model, are special because of their Aboriginal crafting. MacLennan travels to the bush twice a year to check on the operations and buy hundreds of boomerangs.

"This is the cheapest, simplest, most entertaining of all the sports," MacLennan pronounces to his students. "I can make anyone a champion in a week."

Soren Leth, a blond youth from Esbjerg, Denmark, is ready to test that claim. His first throw immediately hits the ground. But his next arcs smoothly back toward the group, slapping the arm of Mark Mehlin, a construction engineer from Germany.

Mr. Mehlin winces a bit, but soon steps up for his own toss, which goes almost 150 feet before soaring straight up into the sky and slicing steeply toward the ground.

"Try it this way," MacLennan says, moving Mehlin's arm closer to his body. "If you take it out over the shoulder, it automatically distorts the angle of the throw."

Mehlin tries again and this time the boomerang swings around smoothly, hurtling back toward the group.

"Watch out! It's going to hit that reporter!" MacLennan yells in mock horror. Instead, it buzzes the photographer, who has not heeded MacLennan's earlier warning about keeping an eye on the boomerang.

"I've been doing this for 40 years," MacLennan says, stuffing the beginner boomerangs into a sheepskin pouch for the trip home. "Nobody else is foolish enough to do it. But it gets you out of bed."

How To Throw a Boomerang

1. Face the wind. Then turn 45 degrees to the right. (For example, if the wind is from the north, you would face northeast.)

2. Grip either end of the boomerang, making sure that the flat side is against your palm. Hold it upright and nearly perpendicular to the ground. It should tilt away from you slightly, about 10 degrees to the right.

3. As you step forward with your left foot, swing the boomerang back behind your head while maintaining the proper throwing angle.

4. As you step forward with your right foot, fling your boomerang arm forward, releasing the boomerang when it is even with your face. Snap your wrist at release to give the boomerang a rapid spin. If the boomerang circles to your right, turn more toward the wind before your next throw. If it lands too far to your left, turn away from the wind a bit more.

5. As the boomerang returns, it loses speed and spin. Catch it when it's chest high by sandwiching it between your palms.

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