All hands on deck for model warship BATTLE this weekend
By Unsie Zuege
Staff Writer

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Bob Hoernemann used to build ship models that were pretty to look at. Now he builds miniature battleships that get shot full of BBs and often sink. And that is just fine with him. In fact, he and his friends get together as often as they can to compare battleships, put them in water, and fire away.

Welcome to the world of radio-controlled model warship combat -- MWC. While ESPN has yet to cover its battle royales, MWC is a sport enjoyed by enthusiasts throughout the U.S. and Canada, even Australia. Hoernemann of Chanhassen belongs to a club called Port Polar Bear that has members from across

the Twin Cities, including Roseville, West St. Paul, Chaska, Jordan, Mora, and St. Cloud. Battlers, as they call themselves, include out-of-staters from Iowa and Wisconsin.

Hoernemann, a Chanhassen resident, always had a fascination for naval history. He remembers a family trip to San Diego when he was just a little kid. The family went down to the Navy shipyard and he never forgot seeing the U.S.S. Texas moored there. He grew up building ship models and reading navy history.

He'd probably still be making pretty ships for display cases if it wasn't for the Internet. It all changed when he went online looking for a battleship model with a motor.

He typed "warship" into the search engine and what came up were links to model warship kits outfitted with motors, miniature CO2 powered BB guns, and bilge pumps. He'd never seen anything like it before.

"I thought, ‘this is the ultimate!'" Hoernemann said. The more he read and saw, the more he was fascinated. He ordered a kit online and built his first ship, the U.S.S. Minneapolis, without ever seeing one being operated in the water. But he was hooked. "Pretty didn't interest me anymore," he said. Not that the warships he builds now aren't pretty in their own way. But what he likes is all the engineering and creativity that goes on inside the hull.

The ships are on built on a 1/144 scale. Their size can range from two feet long air craft carriers to battle ships of about three feet or more in length, weighing from 26 to 34 pounds. Inside are the batteries, radio components, CO2 bottles, BB magazines, copper tubing, wiring and pumps. The hulls are made of fiberglass or marine-grade plywood, and designed with thin balsa wood skins that are intended to be shot up by enemy fire. The whole point is to shoot and be shot at, and try to sink another battler's ship. Repairs are simple. Battlers pull their ripped up ships out of the water and patch the holes with tissue and glue. Then they're ready for another sortie.

Three men and a boat
Hoernemann sat in his laundry room/battleship workshop in the basement of his Lake Susan Hills Drive home and told the story of how MWC began in the early 1970s. It all started with three Texas men who were fooling around with their model ships. They decided to motorize them and put them on the water. They then initiated naval battles by first shooting at each other's ships with Daisy BB guns.

The technology took a giant leap when one of them figured out how to rig his boat with copper tubing "cannons" that could fire BBs powered with CO2. One thing led to another. Other advancements included miniature bilge pumps that help shot up boats stay afloat longer, waterproof casing for batteries and radio transmitters and more accurate firing guns.

For many years, most battlers built their ships from scratch. But now ship enthusiasts can go online and buy basic warship kits ($80-$300), the radio systems ($150-$180), running hardware like motors, propellers, rudders and throttles ($150-$180), BB cannons ($98-$300), CO2 bottles ($22-$55), regulators ($30-$52), and bilge pumps ($26-$35). A ship can cost anywhere from $500 to $1,000, Hoernemann said, depending on how skilled and handy a person is. An electrical contractor by trade, he likes making a lot of his own parts because he can customize them to his ships' specifications.

Being handy means he can save a lot of money. "I go to garage sales, Home Depot, Axman Surplus," he said, while pointing out features on a battleship model. "The smoke stack is an electrical conduit that I heated and flattened. The drag disks, I pounded out a copper disk."

Battle royales
The local club that Hoernemann belongs to gets together once a month from spring through fall at ponds throughout the city, including Lake Susan Hills Park. Battlers like bodies of water that are about chest deep, giving them enough room to maneuver, battle, and blast away at each other's ships, yet shallow enough to let them wade out and retrieve a sunken ship.

There's rhyme and reason to the ship battles called sorties. Ships line up across the pond from each other -- Allied ships on one side, Axis ships on the other. They face off and challenge one another. On Saturday, the battles will consist of two sorties, lasting 15 to 45 minutes. Then there's a break where ships reload ammunition and fresh batteries, and then the second sortie takes place.

Battlers are also willing to travel cross-country to do battle. Hoernemann makes an annual trip to Siloame Springs, Ark., every Memorial Day weekend to test his ships against captains from Michigan, Minnesota and Arkansas. In July, the national competition, called "NATS," draws approximately 60 battlers who spend a week in epic battles, trading stories and tips on ship modeling and guns..

While club members are in it because they love the modeling, the nautical history of their ships and the battles, they stay because of the friendships, Hoernemann said.

Most of the guys have backgrounds in engineering or the trades. Skills in soldering, wiring, electronics, and motors come in handy as does craftsmanship. And it helps to be a little obsessed.

"We're all a little off center," he admits. "One guy is a dentist in Texas. We always say we think he's had too much laughing gas."

Unsie Zuege can be reached at