Written by Katrina Andaya, photos by Ryan Leibrich
“The noise you are hearing is a sonic boom,” Daren Wilkerson, a semi professional whip cracker, says under his brown Indiana Jones hat.
“The tail end of the whip is going to exceed seven hundred and sixty-eight miles per hour. That is the speed at which sound travels, so if anything is traveling faster than sound can travel, you get the sonic boom and that’s the crack.”
Whips have been used for the past five-thousand years in Ancient Egyptian and Chinese cultures as well as in the American West with cowboys and horses using bullwhips to drive cattle. Wilkerson describes one of his favorite images of a Pharaoh who is often depicted with a shepherd’s crook in one hand and a whip in the other. The crook is a symbol meaning he will protect his people, but the whip symbolizes him making his people work.
They have been used to motivate people, but can also be utilized as weapons and tools for punishment. Whips have been popular in adventure novels like Zorro and in the Indiana Jones films, which is where Wilkerson first got his interest in whips as a child.
Wilkerson is proud to say that Anthony De Longis, known for cracking whips and training Harrison Ford for the fourth Indiana Jones film, trained him in whip cracking back in 2008.
“It’s a tool. It’s a weapon. It’s something of a swash buckler-esque kind of weapon or tool and it’s just a lot of fun,” Wilkerson says. “It’s a fantasy weapon is the way I put it.”
While there are different subcultures of whip cracking, Wilkerson participates in sport whip cracking. This includes practicing rhythms, routines, and different types of whip cracks such as the cattleman’s crack, overhead crack, fast figure eights, and two-handed combinations. He has been whip cracking for six years and does Indiana Jones impersonations for birthday parties and corporateevents.
Wilkerson is currently practicing rhythm with his whips made by famous whip maker, Simon Martin. He is learning to use the whips to make various notes using different techniques.
“I’m a drummer, so for me trying to translate what I do on the drum set to whips is a really fun challenge and I am working on putting it to music,” he says. “If I can do it with a pair of sticks and a snare drum, I want to be able to do it on the whips.”
Though the community of whip crackers is very small, Wilkerson says that the skill has transformed his life through the friends he has made. The whip makers who customize each whip to his taste have become best friends of his.
“All of these whips right here are made by one person,” he says pointing to his collection of whips, which he refers to as beautiful functional art. “They’re all done by hand. There are no machines involved. There are tools, but no machines.”
He currently owns twelve Indy style bullwhips, five Aussie style bullwhips, and three matched pairs of stockwhips.
Nissabelle Vidal, a nineteen-year-old SF State student, took up the hobby of whip cracking last summer when she succeeded on her first attempt at cracking a whip.
“If you get a really good crack, it could sound more powerful than even a bullet,” she says. “It’s kind of empowering. You move your arm and there’s this huge echoing sound coming from this little motion.”
Though she just started whip cracking not too long ago, she has already perfected three of the basic techniques- the cattleman’s crack, reverse cattleman’s crack, and the figure eight crack.
“It’s really goal oriented,” she says. “One day I’ll go out and I’ll learn a technique and I won’t go home until I have it down perfectly.”
Wilkerson says when he goes out to practice that there is a certain meditation to it.
“When you are out there by yourself just practicing, it can be really calming,” he says.
“There’s points where if I perfect a technique, I keep doing it over and over like to the right and left of each side of my body,” Vidal says. “I forget what’s around me and I am only listening for the cracks trying to make it work.”
Whip cracking has become an important part of Wilkerson’s life. He is a high school English teacher and says he loves to explain and teach people things. When combining that with the little kid in him that has always wanted to be Indiana Jones, his passion for whip cracking truly shines.
“It just changed everything in terms of my approach and my abilities. It made other whips that I had suddenly make more sense,” Wilkerson says pointing to his handcrafted white whips made by Martin. “There is always something new. There is always some new attraction.”