There's a strange scene unfolding on Long Beach's National Beach as the sun begins to set. Adults and kids are furiously shoveling sand into piles, dumping buckets of seawater strategically onto the sand and hitting the piles with the palms of their hands.
They're not digging for treasure or burying someone. This group is getting a sand-castle lesson from professional sand sculptor Andrew "Andy" Gertler, 53, of Sea Cliff.
Over the next two hours, the 21-person group will learn how to make stairs, walls, rooftops and windows out of sand that's been mixed to the perfect consistency. Their tools? L-shaped plastic carving instruments, plastic straws for blowing excess sand out of the way, bottomless buckets and lots and lots of water.
Gertler, who is one of the stars on the Travel Channel show "Sand Masters," will give tips, show off some advanced techniques and polish the sand castle to perfection.
"He's really an artist," says Lori Castoria, 51, of East Williston, who has taken two sand castle lessons from Gertler. "It's amazing what he does."
Throughout the lesson, beginners encounter numerous difficulties, such as figuring out the best way to make stairs and how much sand they can shave off the compact piles without having the entire structure collapse.
"The hardest part is packing the sand and getting it firm enough so that when you dig into it, it doesn't all fall apart," says Donna Casali, 50, of East Williston, who was at the recent lesson with her daughter.
While most of the creative process and structural decisions are led by the group, Gertler steps in when trouble beckons. Asked what she does when sculpting gets difficult, Emma Casali, 14, of East Williston, says, "Get Andy to help you." Gertler's basic advice: "Get your sand as wet as possible -- that's the most important part."
At the end of the evening, the four 3-foot piles of sand have been turned into a large castle compound, complete with moats, winding stairs, an Olympic-size pool and solar panels.
The group of friends who signed up for this lesson are proudly snapping pictures of their creation. And many beach strollers have stopped to marvel at the creation.
He's really carved out a niche
Lori Castoria says her group planned its July outing through Andrew "Andy" Gertler's program called "Cocktails and Castles," in which he gives a group of up to 15 people a two-hour sand castle lesson for $20 a person. The group supplies the cocktails (not permitted on the beach in Long Beach, but check with your selected location), and he brings all the tools needed to build a sand castle.
"I think they take away a great memory and a great photo op," Gertler says.
Gertler began carving sand more than 15 years ago, after he witnessed a professional sand sculptor in action on Jones Beach. "I came back and just started doing it, and I fell in love with it."
After discovering his new passion, he made a life-changing shift from repairing instruments to sculpting sand.
Gertler eventually started working with a professional sand-sculpting company for about five years before he went solo. Now, through his company, SandSculpt USA, he does sculptures for marketing campaigns, runs corporate team-building events, handles special carving requests and gives private lessons.
Aside from sand castles, Gertler sculpts gigantic statues of characters, people, places and things out of sand and also works with ice, pumpkins and snow. On the side, Gertler runs an animation company called Flash Booty Inc. and plays guitar.
Gertler's customers and fans say his artistic judgment is what makes his sculptures so incredible. It's "so amazing that you could make these huge things," Castoria says.