A Whole 'Nother Ball Game: Pétanque on Martha’s Vineyard

The French game of pétanque (or boules) was brought to the Vineyard in the early 1960s 
by Yvette and Max Eastman. 
It has since become quite an 
Island subculture and many 
Islanders have added pétanque courts to their landscapes. Yvette Eastman’s court in Aquinnah is the site of many spirited contests, right up through Columbus Day.

The french game pétanque (pronounced pay-TONK) is played outdoors on a course roughly ten feet by forty feet, along which players throw one-and-a-half-pound metal balls, intending them to land closest to a small wooden ball. The rules are simple and there’s no dress code. The game is portable and adaptable. 
Pétanque lovers keep a set of boules in 
the car for road-trip recreation breaks. At the original Martha’s Vineyard Airport you could wait out departure and 
arrival delays while playing on a 
sandy patch within range of the public address system.
Akin to Italy’s bocce, the French jeu de boules became hugely popular in Paris and the suburbs in the middle of the nineteenth century. Games and their spectators filled municipal parks and areas near cafés. Artists drew vivid pictures of players – all men – in energetic displays of run-up and toss, as well as profound contemplations of measurement, and outrage at scoring decisions.  
Tradition says that pétanque, a variant of jeu de boules, emerged in 1910 in a small town in Provence, where a famous player became wheelchair-bound, benched, and depressed. Friends devised a style of play without run-ups. The toss would be from a standing position within a two-foot-wide circle drawn on the ground to situate the wheelchair. 
Pétanque is the specific name of this game; players often call it boules.
Like many games that begin as 
social diversion, pétanque stayed 
sociable while also developing tournament-level play, with courts built to particular standards, and in Europe, semi-professional players. Twenty-nine clubs compose the Federation of 
Pétanque USA, one of fifty-seven 
national federations. The first World Championship of Pétanque was held in Belgium in 1959; the first with a women’s division was held in 1988. Regulations limit teams to three people; 
the rules also define the position 
of wheelchair users and one-legged players in relation to the throwing circle, 
and stipulate course dimensions and 
composition, weight and marking of balls, and tournament eventualities.
But for social pétanque, a few basic rules and common sense suffice. Teams are usually made up of one to four players. On teams of one or two people, each player uses three balls. On teams of three or more, each player uses two. The first team to make thirteen points wins. The starting team may be decided by tossing a coin, but at a private court the host’s team usually starts.
The first player draws a circle at one end of the course and stands within it to toss the small wooden cochonnet (piglet), meaning the target ball, which should land twelve to twenty feet away and no closer than eighteen inches from any obstacle. This player or a teammate then throws a metal ball, trying to land close to the cochonnet. This first ball on the course is automatically the “best ball,” no matter how close to, or far from, 
the cochonnet it lies.
An opposing player then occupies the circle and tries to land a ball closer to the cochonnet, which is a movable target. Ideally, the metal ball makes contact, 
then comes to rest touching the 
cochonnet in its new location.
When a team has best ball, play changes to the other side. If one team has no balls left, the other team continues throwing to gain points. An “end” occurs when all balls have been played. The team with balls nearest the cochonnet gets 1 point per ball: if team A has two balls close to the cochonnet, and the third closest is team B’s, team A makes 2 points. Only one team scores per end.
Play resumes from the far end of the course, where a new throwing-circle is drawn around the cochonnet, and so on, back and forth. Owners who don’t want circles gouged into their courses use a stick as a marker; players must keep both feet behind the stick to throw.
An end is suspenseful until the last ball is played. A team may have balls nicely clustered around the cochonnet only to see the opposition roll away the cochonnet and win the end. It is usual to play until one team has 13 points. In a tie, one more end is played, to 14-13.

Vette and Max Eastman brought pétanque to Martha’s
 Vineyard in the early 1960s 
after seeing it played in the south of France. Their friends – artists, writers, and theatre people – became eager players. Mrs. Eastman’s archives include photographs of the Chilmark Chumps, who contested the Gay Head Flickers in a regular parking-lot game at Squibnocket Associates Beach.
In France pétanque is played on any flat, hard, sandy surface, or “natural terrain” – a widening in a country road, a shady area in the municipal park, a provincial-town plaza. Natural hazards – a tree root, uneven ground, pebbles – add an element of luck to the game, which comforts less-skilled players.
On Martha’s Vineyard we have no generally accepted public venues for boules, but an expert player, whose job frequently took her to France, practices in Sunset Park. Other lovers of the game play at home on their own natural terrains – on scraped earth, or part of the driveway reserved for pétanque – just as others have a setup for backyard 
basketball. I weed, rake, and roll our extremely natural Chilmark course, once the site of boisterous games by La Boule Chilmarquaise. It is quirky terrain, slanting in several directions, but fun to play.
Others who enjoyed the game while living in France have gone to more trouble. A Vineyard Haven resident was delighted to discover people playing pétanque here when she came to the 
Island in 1988:
“Yvette and some others used to take a brown-bag picnic to [the Chilmark town beach at] Squibnocket on Fridays, and we’d sit and talk. One day I saw Yvette looking at the parking lot and she said, ‘You know, we could play boules here.’ We began to meet around five on Fridays; Yvette brought the balls she’d had for years. We weren’t terribly sure about the rules, so we followed what we knew from memory, and then other people joined us who’d also played in France and that helped.”
While renovating her house in the winter of 1988–89, she figured out there was room for a court.
“I told the builder I wanted a boules court. He didn’t know about the game, but I explained that I wanted just sand, packed hard, and railroad ties around the edges.” She sited her woodpile along one long edge bordering a dirt road, and lined a row of benches along the opposite side. Trees shade the course, which is thirty-nine feet by eight feet. There are lights in the trees, not for night play, but for the pleasure of looking at the court.
Yvette Eastman’s up-Island court, built in the early 1990s, is forty feet by eleven feet, with a water view, and a mellow distribution of sun and shade. Made of hard-packed sand topped with stone dust and bordered with railroad ties set flush to the ground, it drains so well that you can play after an all-night rain.
Another up-Island court, built in 2003, was inserted into a hill bordering wetland. It was hand-dug and filled so as not to disturb the native shrubbery any more than necessary. As the owner said, “If you bring a bobcat in, you tear up plants which take five years to re-grow.” Forty feet by ten feet, it was dug about one foot deep, flush-bordered by ten-foot by two-foot boards set on edge with wooden stakes driven vertically for support. Fill is eight inches of gravel with a weed barrier laid over it, topped by four inches of brownstone dust, mechanically tamped. Perforated pipe covered with coarse brown gravel borders the uphill length, and feeds into buried outlets so water runs off into the woods. This court, completed three weeks before I saw it, fits so naturally into the landscape that it seems to have been there for years.
A mid-Island pétanque court, completed in October 2002, testifies to the owners’ fondness for the game. Ten perfectly matched pear trees set into the gravel border stand guard beside the bluestone-dust course (fifty feet by twelve feet) delineated by bluestone edgers. A large stone with a central hole – an antique cannon-embrasure from Fort Knox in Bucksport, Maine – dominates the far end of the course, framing a distant view of marshland. An antique iron roller, trimmed with a frieze of heart-shaped cutouts, stands ready to smooth the surface. This spacious course, a formal arrangement in a woodland setting, complements the architecture of the stucco-walled house. Fieldstone retaining walls support the foundation, which levels a six-foot lengthwise grade change, work which required the use of heavy machinery. Four inches of bluestone dust top the court’s compacted gravel base. Once the court was in place, complete replanting was done with native plants.
Some pétanque lovers build courts, others cultivate future players. In June 2004, in addition to traditional games 
like capture the flag, students attending the annual field day at the Oak Bluffs 
school had a taste of pétanque.
Rebecca Geary, a sixth-grade homeroom teacher and Spanish-language 
instructor, set up a pétanque-demonstration booth with a course marked by stakes and yellow caution tape. Placards displayed photographs of pétanque rules and games in progress. Geary provided standard balls for the older students, as well as a set of smaller, lightweight plastic ones for the third grade and under. (The plastic balls have four different 
colors, making it easy for young children to know whose ball is where.) Sixth-grade volunteers assisted with scoring and making sure nobody threw carelessly – boules must not be hurled like baseballs.  

Here’s a weekly game whose players change often, their ages ranging from forty to ninety. 
Today’s loyal teammate is next week’s 
ferocious opponent. Players wear colored wristbands, which helps keep the teams clearly delineated.
“Red’s third ball is one centimeter closer.”
“That calls for measurement.”
 “If you insist, but it’s obvious from here.”
“You know that the geometry changes with the angle; you have to stand at the cochonnet like the peak of a 
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, look again.”
Someone unreels the metal tape measure. Players loom over the cluster of metal balls. Meditative silence prevails. The measurer crouches and extends the tape from the red wooden ball to each disputed metal one.
“Blue, eleven centimeters. Red, ten-and-a-half centimeters. Three points to Red.”
Visiting youths, throwing with the authority of varsity ballplayers, have been stunned to see a one-and-a-half-pound metal ball land closest to the 
cochonnet after an effortless high lob by someone’s grandmother, who grins at the gallery like a teenager.  
Pétanque can be fierce and funny, hard-fought, and a wonderful way to visit with friends and make new ones. As the French song goes, “Une partie de boules, ça fait plaisir”: “Happiness is a game of boules.”