Sunday, February 21, 2010

NSW Titles

After so many years of supporting others who competed in hang gliding events, I've finally come to the point of wanting to compete in one. I've been flying sailplanes for 40 years ago (since I was 14), powered aircraft for 38 years, and hang gliders for 18 years. In all that time, however, I've only flown for the singular joy of the amazing experience of being up in the air, carving turns, climbs, and descents through space however I choose.

I'm not generally competitive by nature and perhaps even quite the opposite. Yet I do see the merit of bringing the best out of ourselves by competing against others. And so I set my glider up with 57 others in Manilla, Australia on the first day of the NSW Titles. In this competition, the highest placed finisher who is also a resident of the Australian state of New South Wales is declared the State Champion.

Being a bit too involved in the competition to take photos myself, every picture here and in the slide show below, excepting one (its identity will become obvious) was taken by my driver, Gaynor Schoeman.

Of the seven possible days of competition, the weather cooperated for five. I flew the first four but, having trashed my glider by landing in a tree, was forced to miss the fifth. In 51st of 58th place at that point, missing the last day altogether still only dropped me to 57th. I actually beat somebody.

Tree landings are not so terribly uncommon in hang gliding. I know someone who has had three in the last two years. They usually come about when an intense sense of competition overrules logic and judgment. As I'm not that competitive, there should be no reason I'd ever land in a tree. Or so I thought.

In retrospect, I can find at least six consecutive errors in judgment which compounded each one before it and concluded with me spending two and half hours hanging perilously 20m above the ground. It would take too long to explain all of them but one surprises me the most: excessive competitiveness, i.e., as I was so determined not to land, I stayed too long in a place that, from it's topography in relation to the current winds, should have provided me the lift I needed. It didn't and by the time I finally gave up, I was already trapped.

When I landed on the trees and seemed to be stable, I nevertheless shot my left hand out to the nearest significant branch I could find to hold on. An extension to my radio's PTT (push-to-talk button) is attached to my left index finger and activated by pressing my thumb against it. In grabbing the branch, I had also unknowingly pushed and held down the PTT. The pilots on my frequency (I was told with a laugh that evening) where treated to about twenty seconds of heavy breathing and profanities.

My dilemma was witnessed by many of the pilots waiting to launch on the ramp at the top of the mountain and some of those already in the air. Once I determined I was stable and finally released the grip on the branch to my left, this also released my PTT. Only then was Gaynor able to call me and ask if I was okay. Advised that I was, she and a friend of mine from Norway, Thor Landgraff, drove down to find me.

Once below me, Thor made the wise suggestion of deploying my parachute over the nearest major branch I could reach to ensure that, if the branch holding me gave way, I would not fall completely to the ground. Before I let the parachute go completely free, I made sure the bridle attaching it to my harness had enough wraps around the branch to ensure it would lock if I fell.

The most notable aspect of the rescue was Thor. I was so high in the tree that there were no substantial branches near me that anyone could climb. Furthermore, the local volunteer unit that responded within 30 minutes had the equipment and ropes needed to bring me down but weren't really up to the task of climbing the tree. The alternative was waiting for a ladder truck from the nearest major town's fire department (an hour away). Pondering this, Thor graciously volunteered to don a harness and climb the tree himself. He got to within five meters of me and, after a lot of effort, finally got a line to me.

It would have been a much bleaker afternoon and perhaps evening as well, had Thor not be there with his wisdom and enthusiasm.

So many lessons learned, some of them for the second time in as many months (e.g., how foolish it is to cling to the hope of lift while your options of escape diminish by the second). Though I still contend that the most dangerous thing I do is ride two-wheeled vehicles (responsible for three episodes of broken bones while all my other activities have left me free of injuries), I know I'm very lucky to have escaped this with nothing but ripped sailcloth and broken aluminum tubes.

The glider will be fixed in a week. I, on the other hand, have no consequence except a profound experience which hopefully taught me a thing or two (or six).

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Van Down by the River

Coledale sunrise

I bought a Ford Falcon station wagon here in Australia just before Christmas. Though Chris has been so gracious as to give me her small Volkswagen to use while she's away in Africa (for almost the entire time I'm here in Australia), I still needed a car to which I could subject the typical abuse a hang gliding vehicle must endure...and one big enough to accommodate five people, five hang gliders, five flying harnesses, and more.

The Russians have been using it these last few weeks but now they all have gone home (excepting Zhenya, who's still working at the Moyes factory). So I've parked Chris' car back in her garage in Bathurst, caught the train to Sydney, took possession of my own car once more, and have begun living a kind of life I've been wanting to live for some time; that of a vagabond with means.

There's no shortage of friends here who would give me a place to sleep and, even if that weren't so, I could still afford to stay where I wanted. But what I wanted to experience was a life of chosen simplicity, something a bit like my year on a boat from '07-'08 as I circumnavigated the earth.

This time the goal is merely to experience various places I enjoy here in Australia with a sense of being as low maintenance as I can. So I park by the sea (different places each night so as not to be too intrusive into what are often residential streets) and sleep in the back on a pad, waking at sunrise without effort as the light begins to pour in.

This morning found me at Bronte Beach, north of the harbor. In the night I'd been woken by the sounds of heavy rain but, rather than being disturbed, it was actually very pleasing. When I woke, it was still raining. I left the car, barefoot and bare-chested, clad only in boardshorts, and walked along the beach in the warmth of the air and the coolness of the rain.

Bronte, like so many other beaches in Australia, has pool built at the edge of the surf that is, in effect, a man-made tidal pool. There is no need for plumbing, chemicals, pumps, or maintenance because the pool is naturally flushed out and cleaned each day at high tide.

It was high tide this morning just after I woke, it turns out, for time to time I watched the people swimming laps be momentarily disoriented by the waves that would breach the walls and pour foam and turbulence into the lanes.

I joined them for a while, swimming a few laps without goggles, opening my eyes in the saltwater to orientate myself as needed, then took a cold shower in the public showers nearby and strolled the beach once more, feeling strangely animal-like and natural, cool rain falling on my bare skin, content with the simplicity of my needs.

I dried my head and chest and put on a t-shirt (leaving my boardshorts to drip dry), then went to a coffee shop on Bronte Road to enjoy the feeling of cleanliness and warmth so simply attained while I sipped a latté, watching the rain continue to fall.

It was, in truth, an illusion I created for myself. Warmth and dryness were, if not just a car's door away, then also an open door away. Bill and Molly live in Bronte beach and it was nearly right in front of their home that I was living my private fantasy. All I needed, were I to feel any true sense of distress, was to simply knock on their door.

Still, I had the freedom to live this way and so I wanted to. Though I'll be at friend's homes from time to time as my final weeks in Australia come to a close, I'll also be living this way whenever I can.

Twelve years ago, before my daughter left to go to college, I had told her that once she moved out, I was going to move out, too, and live in a van down by the river, just like the Chris Farley's "Motivational Speaker" character.

It took a while, but I'm finally there.