Students show off their building skills at the 40th Annual SF Sandcastle Competition

Pop hits from the past few decades rang out to the Ocean Beach parking lot on Saturday morning, where thousands lined up a mile of coastline prepared for the 40th Leap Sandcastle Classic – a competition that brings together 4th and 5th graders year. schools across the bay to showcase their talents as architects and sculptors in the soggy Pacific sands.

“It’s very competitive,” said Jill Dineen, executive director of Leap, the San Francisco nonprofit that runs the competition each year to raise money for arts education in Bay Area schools. . “These teams come to play.”

And they came to play: 20 teams of students and their assistants from local design, architecture, engineering and construction companies. After initial chaos as children sprinted with shovels as they heard the starting horn, the teams, all dressed in matching shirts made for the event, focused on executing the plans they had spent weeks working on. work.

“They were so excited for this,” Jackie Phung, a 4th grade teacher at Alice Fong Yu Alternative School, a Chinese immersion school in the Inner Sunset, as he watched his students pile sand in what were supposed to become models of San Francisco Monuments.

Cleveland Brown helps build a sand version of Lombard Street at the 40th annual Leap Sandcastle Classic building competition in Ocean Beach.

Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

The Phung students had prepared for the competition in three sessions with their adult teammates from design and construction firms Wood Rogers, Assured Partners, Saylor Consulting, Towill and RRM Design Group. During the first session, Phung explained, the children brainstormed and made some sketches of what their design would be. On the second they worked with clay to see what they could really build, and on the third they made a complete clay model of what they would build on competition day.

“Anything that can take learning outside is great,” he said.

Darren Choy, head of engineering services at RRM, led the children, holding a poster with photos of the landmarks they were trying to emulate – including the Transamerica Pyramid, Coit Tower and Lombard Street – and a sketch of the where everything would go on their 20 by 20 foot building plot.

“That’s the vision,” he explained.

A few sites further on, students from the Tenderloin Community Elementary School worked on their castle, supposed to adapt to their “let’s play!” ” theme. A design poster next to their site showed an elaborate maze with various video game stations throughout – including a giant PacMan.

“The kids made it all up themselves,” said Monica Fernandez of Build Group, one of the companies working with the school. “We had two final designs, and that’s the one they voted with.”

Katy Vergara, 14, sculpts a whale with Team Shore Thing during the sandcastle contest.

Katy Vergara, 14, sculpts a whale with Team Shore Thing during the sandcastle contest.

Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

As the students tossed sand from the trenches they were digging to bring their maze to life – which the strong wind was quickly blowing back towards them – Fernandez said she hopes she and her colleagues can inspire children to believe that they can build the things they envision and become architects or engineers.

“We wanted to remind them that we were once kids like them and anything is possible,” she said. “I feel like building something cohesive with your own hands is something that’s lost right now.”

And while the kids were certainly enjoying the activity, laughing and screaming as they tossed sand with their shovels, the adults seemed to be having just as much fun – and were equally invested in the competition.

“It’s really cool to do something that takes you back to your kid,” Fernandez said, before being dragged back to work by a co-worker.

While Fernandez and his colleagues bought Clipper cards to take their teams to the beach, some competitors had to come from further afield. Students at Oceanview Elementary in Albany said they traveled more than 45 minutes to the beach on Saturday.

A starfish sculpted by Team Shore Thing during the Sancastle competition.

A starfish sculpted by Team Shore Thing during the Sancastle competition.

Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

Meena, Tenzin, Valentina and Melody, all 5th grade students from Oceanview, explained that their team is called Otterwordly Castles because their mascot is an otter. They were building a fairytale-style castle with an otter in the middle – a sculpture they hoped would be the tallest in the competition.

It all started at an assembly, they explained, when their building and architecture partners came to visit and talk about the competition. From there, the whole team brainstormed design ideas.

“They understood everything we wanted,” Tenzin said.

As they carved tall pillars in the sand, they were confident of their chances in the competition.

“I have 100% confidence that we will win,” Meena said.

Melody was a little less sure.

“I’m 99% confident,” she said. “I bet all the other teams have good designs too.”

As the students put the finishing touches on their castles – completely transformed from piles of sand to giant, detailed sculptures in just a few hours – their rivalry melted away as they all joined a fast-paced Culture Shock dance lesson. Oakland. Children, parents and teachers learned from the dancers on stage to put their own spin on the steps they learned.

But soon the competitive spirit was back when the prizes were announced. Oceanview didn’t take it all the way Meena predicted – the team won an honorable mention for best traditional castle instead, falling just short of third prize, which went to Central Elementary School and second, who went to Commodore Sloat Elementary School.

Finally, as students held their breath for the announcement — perhaps the quietest moment of the day — the top prize went to St. Gabriel’s Elementary School in San Francisco, a Catholic school located in the Outer Sunset.

The winning students ran to the stage to collect their prize from the golden shovel. Holding the victory plaque and shovel aloft, the students were eager to show them off to their classmates.

“We’re taking this to school!” one shouted.

Danielle Echeverria is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: Twitter: @DanielleEchev