It Takes a Little Touch

NOWRA Roe-D-Hoe winners find skills developed on the job help them in competition – and vice versa.
It Takes a Little Touch

Interested in Education/Training?

Get Education/Training articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Education/Training + Get Alerts

Charles Webb, grand champion of the 2012 NOWRA National Backhoe Roe-D-Hoe at the Pumper & Cleaner Expo in Indianapolis, says the solitary nature of his job might have something to do with his skills at the controls of a backhoe.

Webb, who won a trip to the national contest when he was crowned the champion of the Delaware Onsite Water Recycling Association (DOWRA) state Roe-D-Hoe, often uses his own equipment for more than just moving dirt – when alone he saves time with some tricks he has picked up over the years.

Webb and other top finishers in the national Roe-D-Hoe drew some parallels between the skills needed for backhoe "golf" and "bowling" and the touch it takes to be an effective operator in the field.

Being creative

"Instead of getting on and off the machine to do things, you learn to let the machine do the work," says Webb, 50. "You lift things, you move things or you slide them out of the way." Although his business, R. Webb Excavating in Hockessin, has a mini excavator in its fleet, Webb still had to make some major adjustments for the national competition.

"Being 6-foot-5 and trying to get into that little machine was a challenge," he says. Webb also had to adjust to the joystick controls on the IHI/Compact Excavator machine, noting that he has worked on machines with pilot-style controls for at least the past 15 years.

Runner-up Mike Smallwood of Smallwood Excavating in Hamilton, Ohio, had experience as his greatest asset going into the competition. Now 35, he says that when other kids might have been inside tweaking the joysticks on video games, he was down at the family pond honing his eye-hand coordination on excavating equipment.

"I grew up doing this kind of work," he says. "My father is in the business and my grandfather was in the business. Basically, I've been doing it all my life." Although his experience comes from operating full-size equipment, Smallwood found it fairly easy to adjust to the mini machine used at the Roe-D-Hoe.

Takes touch

His only concern was that the machine was a bit touchy. "If you missed the bowling pin a hair, it was hard to move over to it without going past the eyebolt," he says. "But it was fair for everybody. We all had the same challenge."

The 2012 Roe-D-Hoe was Smallwood's second go-around. He was watching the 2010 competition two years ago when his father talked him into entering it on the spot. Though just a rookie, he also took second place that year.

Smallwood says good excavators develop the skills in the field that make for good competitors in the Roe-D-Hoe. "If you're able to feel a rock or feel a cable and you can react quickly, you're going to avoid a lot of problems on the job," he says. "You just have to get a sense of things like the angle of the bucket and the sound it's making."

Given those criteria, Smallwood may be lucky his father didn't enter the competition. Once on a job, "My dad stopped and said, 'I can feel a phone line.' We looked down in the hole and he was right." Although Smallwood's main motivator was competitive pride, he was pleased with the $300 cash prize for second place: "I didn't even know there was a cash prize this time."

Starting young

Early access to excavating equipment was also an asset for third-place finisher Ryan Bassett, who earned a trip to the nationals when he won the Iowa state championship. At 27, Bassett was the youngest prize winner, but he has run machines since he was 10 years old.

Bassett, owner of Bassett Excavating in Knoxville, Tenn., says, "(The competition) definitely tests your finesse and how quickly you can adapt to a different machine."

Acknowledging a degree of pressure at the Roe-D-Hoe with a small crowd watching and cheering, Bassett notes, "I dig around major utilities every day. A guy really has to be careful because you don't want to cause any damage or get anyone hurt. But it's a confidence thing and you learn to do the job safely."

The NOWRA competition may have been Bassett's last go-around: "I've been there and done that. Now I'll let someone else have the opportunity. It was a great experience and other people should enjoy it, too."

First time's the charm

Fourth place nationals finisher Mark Schairer of Campbellsport, Wis., went to the Wisconsin Onsite Water Recycling Association Conference in January and saw the Roe-D-Hoe competition for the first time. He entered "on a whim."

"I never practiced – never did anything like it," he says. Schairer, 33, found concentration was the key to success – a lesson he learned in his first try at the state competition.

"The first time I tried it, I wasn't first, but the guy I came with was ahead so I decided to go again," he says. Patience was a virtue for Schairer, who learned to let the twirling golf ball settle down against the traffic cone before trying to place it on top of the target. His persistence paid off, and he bumped his buddy, Nick Laudolff, out of the lead in the state contest.

The win earned Schairer a trophy and a trip to the Expo for the nationals – and he took his friend Laudolff with him. It sounds as if the two friends are psyching themselves up for a rematch: "We're definitely coming back next year," Scharier says.

Friendly rivals

Smallwood and Webb agree that the Roe-D-Hoe was a good place to meet new friends.

While all the contestants were working hard to set the low times, "All the guys there were very supportive," Smallwood says. "They'd cheer the other guys, too. It's a friendly competition."

Webb was a little disappointed that he didn't get to take the gaudy wrestling-style championship belt home with him after winning, but observes, "It was so heavy, I'm not sure I'd want to wear it much anyway."

Webb and wife Laura quickly made good use of part of the $1,000 first prize: They took Kansas state champion Joe Seiwert and his wife out to lunch to celebrate after befriending them during the competition. Webb's plans for the future competitions depend on DOWRA: "If the state still has the event, I'll definitely enter."


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.