Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Secret to Success

After last night's party the morning was a bit rough. The sky just kept getting better, so up the hill we went. On launch I found a shady spot and worked on my hydration levels while the usual gaggle formed in front of launch. Eventually I couldn't put it off any longer and staggered off the hill. The climbs off launch were ragged, weak and inconsistent, sort of like my thinking. But I just didn't care. The ground looked really hot, and I just wasn't up for that level of suffering. Eventually I flew down the ridge to the edge of the start cylinder and got to base, then up the side of a cloud. Suddenly it started to be fun--edging along a cloud, way up high, that's what flying is all about. I forgot about the start cylinder until I noticed gliders turning back for it. There were four start "gates," and I exited about five minutes after the third start--not ideal, but I was at base so I just kept going. Keith was just below me, we had a quick conversation and decided to just head out rather than play start games.

For the next two hours the flying was just super fun--some real climbs, lots of flying through cloud canyons above base, just great stuff. I wasn't racing hard or worrying about other gliders ahead of me, just flying along. I pushed out front a couple of times with a few other pilots, each time we would get caught by the horde, but each time there were less gliders, and those in my thermal were fun to fly with, good pilots who were flying the lift and not the glider in front of them. Suddenly I was with the lead four gliders, and high. We worked the next 20K as a team, and for once nobody was circling in anemic lift, everybody left and fanned out looking for the next climb, which one of us would find. About 20K from goal we started what might be our final, and had a great glide under a dark cloud. A little bit of bar to stay out of the cloud, then I got left as the other three gliders went hard when it became clear we were going to make goal with some altitude. I have been convinced I had goal in this meet before only to dirt, so I had a snack on glide rather than push hard, it sure was nice up there. I came over goal line around fourth for the day (other pilots may have been faster than me with later starts), but it sure was fun to be at base over the goal line. Keith and Tom came in a few minutes behind me, then Josh about 30 minutes later (he took the last start so that's really only 1o minutes back).

Today was a good illustration of how fun competition flying can be. Conditions weren't great, but they were better and the cloud edge surfing was just stellar. I could pretend that I had skill today instead of better luck, but this been the most random, frustrating competition I've ever flown in. My best memories will be of the people I've met here, especially our hosts at the River Gums, David and Lee, as well as the ranchers, school bus driver, bar tenders and just the general population of Australia. If I had to sum up the flying, I would say, "Never have so many pilots flown so close together in so little lift for such a long time." We saw what it can be like in Manilla during the XC comp--fantastic. This Worlds was like a big-wave surfing contest with six-inch waves; it takes skill to do that, but it's a different game. I now know what I like about competition flying and what I don't, I hope I can carry a more balanced attitude into future paragliding competitions both as a competitor and meet organizer.

I'm going to close this off with one experience that stands out and puts the whole deal in perspective. One day I didn't make goal and ended up there only after a car ride. Goal was about a K from the River Gums (our campground), so after doing the GPS download I started the walk of shame back to the campground. There was a beat-out old Holden "ute" parked in the shade, and as I walked by an old guy stuck his head out the passenger side and asked, "Are you a pilot?" I didn't feel like one, but I said, "Yes." He said, "That sure looks like fun--you get so high up there! What's that like?" I was hot, tired and pissed off that I hadn't made goal, but his lined face showed such enthusiasm that it cut through my pissy attitude in an instant. I said something about the clouds being really nice to fly under, and he said, "Wow, I'm 89 years old and that's just amazing, never seen that. I'll bet it's just great." In that moment I realized that I was really missing the point of the day and experience--it sure is fun up there, and it took this old guy to make me realize that beating other people isn't why I fly. I'll try to keep that guy in mind next time I'm short of goal and getting pissy. The flip side of that is getting all wound up with doing well--both are external judgements, the true quality of a day is not found in the results card. That said, I sure am fired up to fly in Golden when I get home, a good strong thermal is a good thing.

Going up the hill

Yesterday was a little bit rained out in the same way that Britney Speaks is a little bit nuts. The rain was was biblical--BBC and I went running in the morning and watched the storm develop, Oz sure has some great storms.

Last night turned into a stellar birthday/farewell party here at the River Gums--David and Lee have really made this trip for a lot of us, thanks to them for last night (although my head has mixed feelings this morning). My favorite part of this whole comp has been the people here in Oz--ten years from now I'm not going to remember the competiton in detail, but I sure am going to remember a lot of the good people here.

There's a John Prine saying with the line something like, "Got into a staring contest with my oatmeal--and lost..." That about sums up the interior of my head, but it sure was fun. The sky is clear this morning with little moisture balls condensng out like crazy, we'll see if they stay reasonable or turn into monsters. One more task would be really nice. I'm sitting here in the shade with various loud birds going nuts, and a view out over a landscape that looks more like Ireland after a wet summer than the near-desert we arrived in, amazing to see the change. The ranchers and farmers visiting town all have smiles on their faces from the rain, it was really, really needed. The paragliders aren't smiling so much. Maybe the World Championships should be renamed, "The Drought Busters" and charge real money for coming into drought-stricken areas. This is the wettest it's been here in years--even the sheep seem to be smiling at the sea of green grass, it's a far cry from the desperately dry stubble they were working with a month ago. We see the sheep and cows every morning when we run, they truly have a visible different attitude, it's as though all of the Manilla area has finally won the lottery. Grumbling about the bad weather for flying would miss the gift these rains have brought to this parched land.



Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A day of it

This morning didn't look promising, but by about 1:00 things had cleared out enough to try a task. There was a big gaggle cluster immediately after the window opened and I wasn't into it, so I waited until it cleared out a bit. I had vivid memories of the gaggles from the last task and just wanted no part of it, too much random chaos. While waiting for things to mellow out I watched one solid mid-air that resulted in a stellar bit of piloting to solve a bad cluster of lines on one glider and a reserve ride for the other pilot. I continued to sit and chill out in the shade then got right onto launch and off when things settled down a bit. It was all going well, with a nice if weak climb about launch level when two gliders about 50M below me flew straight at and then into each other with a really bad sound. One pilot was a meter below the leading edge of the other glider so she was pretty wrapped in the lines of the lower glider. Both pilots weren't all that high, and both seemed to be looking up at their wings (good idea) and not the ground (bad idea) so I started yelling, "RESERVE! SECURITY!," two common terms for reserve parachutes in English and French. I doubt either pilot heard me, but I had to try. Neither wing was flying and the ground was coming up fast. Eventually both pilots got their reserves out and went into the trees together. I was still thermalling directly overhead, and unfortunately could hear the yells of pain from one pilot. They were directly off the road to launch and there was an ambulance five minutes or less away on top that was already in motion down the hill so I didn't try to land (no safe place to land anyhow).

After that the rest of the task seemed somehow less relevant; I just flew and thought about flying, ended up landing a K from goal. I'm not sure what I could have done better, there's a whole lot of luck and skill in these very light conditions.

I am thankful for not having a mid-air in this comp, it's been nuts. The individual/start gates are supposed to cut down on the gaggles, but as usual they don't--everyone rushes off the hill together, and then thermals around waiting to go on course... A larger start circle would be better to spread pilots out, and then a race start. The more I see of individual starts/gates the less I believe in them, they just don't do what they are supposed to. Great idea, but in paragliding comps they seem to lead to far more problems than they are supposed to solve.

Tom and Kari both made goal today, Bill, Keith and Nicole went down around 30K. Petra must have had a really bad day as she didn't get many points, bummer for her. The forecast for tomorrow isn't good, but who knows, it's paragliding.

A big thanks to JJ and the Oz Team for having us all over for dinner tonight, good fun.

I hope the injured pilot is OK.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Blowing in the wind

This morning the clouds were going overhead at speeds well above what a paraglider might hope to accomplish, but up the hill we went. This was actually a good call, we're here to fly. But conditions on launch were marginal at best, with a very low but extensive base and enough wind to make things interesting. Maurer went and flew for "fun," and amused us all with various tricks. The guy has some damn fine wing control, and the confidence to make use of it--he gave an impressive demonstration of stalling about on a high-aspect comp wing at low altitudes and some other tricks, then hopped on the bar and blasted away from launch. I don't think I would have felt happy about being on the bar in those choppy conditions, but Maurer made it look smooth, even the collapsing parts.

The highlight of the day was finding a local church group on top of the hill with an insane amount of baked goods, which we did our best to eat while listening to good local stories. I really like the scene here, it's pretty "real."

The weather for the next three days looks pretty good if the wind stops blowing. Hopefully not too much Vegemite will be eaten...

Thanks to all those who posted info and suggestions in the comments pages, yeah!



Sunday, March 04, 2007

Vegemite for breakfast, thunderstorms for lunch

The scene around the breakfast table this morning was grim; seven pilots and seven small containers of Vegemite, seven pieces of dry toast. Nobody made goal yesterday, it was time to pay. Keith went with the "A moment on the lips, a lifetime in the stomach" tactic and skipped the toast to slam his like a shot-glass of congealed axle grease. The rest of us went for the toast, and it went down well enough except for Nicole, who had to try a couple of times after the first bite went down slowly and up fast. Personally, I didn't find it too bad after the initial rotten taste. I've had far worse foods over the years (the very worst was rotten shark in Iceland), but I can't say I'll be trying to bring any back home with me. We pledged another Vegemite session if we don't make goal next task, but were given a reprieve on flyng after we drove up the hill with thunderstorms all around us. Even if the sky had been blue I don't think I would have flown with those cells. On launch Godfrey chose to send us back down the hill, but it was fun to get out of town a bit.

We've had a lengthy discussion going for days now on why we're such losers at this event (with the exception of Tom and Josh, who did well until yesterday), and the general conclusion is that turning endlessly in the gaggle only happens when you really, really want a result. I don't think many people would argue flying in rush-hour traffic for hours is all that fun, but you do it when you want something else badly enough to tolerate it. We all ran out of patience yesterday, as did many of the pilots who are normally in the top at PWC or other major competitions. This style of flying just isn't what I enjoy about the sport, and unless you're in the running for a podium placement the motivation for flying in this style is in short supply. It would be really fun for an hour or two with some friends at local site, but with 140 other gliders for five or six hours, well, it's not, at least for me. But we have a new, stepped up motivational plan: Tomorrow we're all going to fly with little packs of Vegemite strapped to our shoulder harnesses; if we even think of leaving the gaggle in search of a better climb (which doesn't exist in these sodden conditions) we'll open the pack of Vegemite, get a sniff, and stay in the gaggle.

I do have to thank our "caravan park" hosts, David and Lee, who are a big reason we haven't headed for the beaches of Sydney yet. In fact, the Manilla area is good, I'd really like to come bak here again. Those epic days during the XC comp are blazed into my mind, and I think this competition would be very different if we had XC comp conditions during the Worlds. One person described yesterday as, "Worse than Brazil," which had bug-flatulence conditions for a lot of the comp as well. Anyhow, I know we're not seeing the bes of Manilla flying right now, and with the good local scene I'll be back.

In other news, Petra is winning the competition overall. On launch today there was a discussion about a woman possibly winning the overall competition. I think that would be pretty cool, but it does raise the question of whether or not they will declare a "Male Champion." I'm just sexist enough to think this would be stupid... If Petra does win then perhaps competitions will drop the male/female categories, a female world champion would be a strong argument for the idea that flying skill is not based on gender. There are several sports based more on skill than physical strength where they don't split the genders into different categories (race car driving, equestrian events), maybe it's time to drop that distinction in flying as well...

Hopefully we'll get to fly a few more tasks here, I'm feeling psyched to fly. A lot of that is understanding what's required to do well at this sort of event (gaggle up in micro-lift, fly in styles that I normally never would), and what I love about flying (freedom and exploring the world). I'll do my best to gaggle up and relax about it, but I'm not willing to take the same risks as yesterday, this competition is important but not worth a mid-air accident. I always find it a bit harsh to finally understand that something I put a lot of effort into isn't what I actually want, but that's part of figuring this game of life out. No regrets.

OK, that's a monster rainy day post...

Churning in the sky

Today started off so well. Launched off the uncrowded east launch while the hordes pushed and shoved in line on the west launch, straight to base. We had about 45 minutes before the start opened, so I did some long glides out away from a perfect cloud--fixed my speed system, did some high-altitude irrigating, ate a granola bar, then back into launch, back to base, brilliant. Had an OK start with the other 100+ pilots, then did a very silent glide into the first turnpoint--little bumps of lift, but that kind of air normally means dirt pretty quick. But put 100+ pilots into a small area and something is bound to be found, and was--a thermal so weak any self-respecting hawk would have left it, but I had the Vegemite incentive (see last post) so I stuck my glider into the seething madness and turned with the worst of them. There were multiple mid-air bumps, at least two full-on mid-air collissions, cursing in at least five different languages, road rage and lots of spins from trying to work the light lift. I was INTO it--fully prepared to mid-air rather than leave the "lift." It was stupid beyond any reasonable definition of the word, but I was in the air. I watched gliders lawn-dart all around me with the thought, "Vegemites!"

Four hours later I lost it, left the gaggle and landed along with about 50 more pilots over time at the 40K mark. My helmet liner was soaked, my hydration hose empty and my mind cooked. I'm eating Vegemite for breakfast, can't wait. Nobody from North America played the conditions all that well, Nicole, Tom and Keith were in the same field about 45 minutes after me, which was an exceptional act of mental toughness to stay in the air so long. A few pilots who really, really wanted it were seen on glide toward goal, I'll bet about 10 made it in. These pilots deserve full aerial honours for the day, amazing mental tenacity.

Tomorrow I'm going to launch wearing only a thong and a pair of cut-off speed sleeves, it must have been 30 (90 American) at base today, I have never sweated so much in flight.

Vegemite for Brekkie, yeah!

The real probem is the wet ground--the field I landed in was mostly mud. Today should have been good for drying things out...