Thomas Koet of Melbourne, Florida, races the U.S. Sand Sculpting Challenge clock and also his departure time at the airport. Photo by Chris Stone

Thomas Koet felt unique pressure as he finished his work about love Saturday at the U.S. Sand Sculpting Challenge at the Broadway Pier and Pavilion.

He kept an eye on the clock, so he could catch a red-eye flight to his Atlantic coast home in central Florida.

Back in Melbourne, Koet’s wife was waiting for Koet to secure their yard for Hurricane Dorian, which could graze the Sunshine State on Sunday.

“I’d better get home and protect the home, make sure nothing blows out of our back yard into the windows, just sort of take care of things there,” he said.

Koet has invited Florida friends who live closer to the coast to ride out the hurricane at his house.

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“We’ll probably be facing some damage to our yard,” he said, “and maybe some missing shingles, but we don’t expect the worst of it.

“It’s a bunch of distraction,” said Koet, 44, who won the solo category last year. “It’s tough, and I just have to remain focused on the sculpture here.”

He had until 4 p.m. to finish his piece and catch a flight at 7:30 p.m.

Koet is one of 12 world master sculptors from Canada, the United States (Missouri, Illinois and Florida), South Korea, Italy, the Netherlands and Russia.

Competitors had to have won a previous major competition to be invited to the eighth annual U.S. Sand Sculpting Challenge and 3-D Art Expo at 1000 N. Harbor Drive, according to Gordon Summer, co-executive producer.

The challenge and exposition runs through Labor Day and features more than 1,000 hand-crafted metalwork, ceramics, paintings and more.

Tickets are $13 for seniors (62 and older), $15 for those 13-61 and $10 for children two to 12. Tickets can be purchased online or on site.

The event — which includes food trucks, crafts, entertainment and a sandbox for kids — runs from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday.

Koet won’t be able to stick around to see if his sculpture wins. Koet in the past has won first, second, third place, Sculptor’s Choice and People’s Choice in competitions throughout the world.

“My sculptures have been really daring, how steep (angles) they can be, how much I cut through the sand,” he said. “I look for the limits of the sand and I think that has been appreciated by the judges.”

Koet praised his fellow sculptors. “A couple of my colleagues have been really pushing the limit. … It’s a tough field of incredibly skilled and talented competitors out here.”

Koet’s toughest challenge Saturday was completing the piece.

“The fact that I can finish my work, that will be an incredible satisfaction because it’s a very ambitious design that I’ve got, so it’s a race against the clock,” he said.

Wonder is the theme of the competition, and entrees include Wonder Woman, Stevie Wonder and wonders of love and the mind.

Other sculptors had a different kind of pressure. Two couples were competing against each other.

One of the married couples, Martijn Rijerse and Hanneke Supply, shaped very different pieces yards from each other.

Rijerse’s art depicts a maze of thought in a man’s head, while Supply’s depicts the changing perspectives of people’s connections with each other.

Rijerse describes his wife’s art as “soft but more conceptual” than his own, while Supply sees her partner’s work as “rougher and more expressive.”

These days with three children to raise, the couple rarely compete in the same venue. They have to take turns traveling and competing, while the other cares for the children.

“(Competing together is) nice actually because we have both grown in a different way the last couple of years,” Supply said. “It’s nice to find each other again in this same passion.”

The both talked about helping each other with their pieces and spoke of the importance of growing as a artist over winning.

“Growing, for me for sure, is always the most important thing, said Supply, 38, who started sculpting sand in 2000.

“Winning is nice,” Rijerse said, “but most important is I want to make a sculpture that stands out in my portfolio, something that brings you forward in being a sculptor.”

But the competition remains.

“We are always trying to push ourselves to get better to get something more steep or more fine and there is always this line of excitement. It gives us adrenaline for sure,” Supply said.

Sculptors gave high marks to the 300 tons of sand that arrived Monday.

Unlike beach sand that has rounded particles, the San Diego competition sand comes from a Kearney Mesa quarry and has a higher clay component.

While San Diego gardeners often curse the clay soil in back yards, the “sticky” nature of the medium was praised for its strength.

But while the sand dries into harder forms, it shrinks as it dries, causing cracks.

Sculptor Chris Guinto’s work “On The Loose” features a cage. Earlier Saturday, he was working inside the cage that he had hollowed out. He was urged to stay outside the structure because of several cracks observed.

Meg Eckles, a biology professor at Southwestern College — creating bees for Sand Squrriel’s team sculpture “Eye Wonder” — said extracting herself from a sand collapse is harder than she anticipated.

Sand from an arch she once helped create in a beach competition fell on her.

“I didn’t suffocate, but I needed a hand to get out,” Eckles said.

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