Lighthouse Run!

[ Happy Mood: Happy ]
It was the day after my trip to The Trail, and a weekday to boot, but the forecast was on. Wellfleet is flyable only from October to mid-April due to town regulations (protection of nesting birds), and this was the first day all season when I had seen a favorable forecast — all other easterly days with suitable wind speeds had been in snowstorms. It wasn’t a problem to get the day off from work, and though I had things to do in the morning, I looked at the tide table and saw that high tide would be at 11AM, so showing up in the afternoon would be perfect.

After the previous day’s outing at the Trail, Jeff and I had just thrown all of my gear into my car when we got back to my house, so I was able to just hit the road. I got to Wellfleet at about 1 PM, and was surprised to not see any wings in the air — despite the fact that it was a weekday, I expected that people would have been eager to fly. I saw some people standing around the parking lot, so I pulled into the far lot and walked over to see what was going on. It looked like a couple of PG pilots and Phil A. I waved to Phil as I pulled out my wind gauge, and he walked over and said, “Tide’s coming in”.


Did I really do that? Did I misread the tide table? High tide was at 11, right? No, he said, low tide had been at 10. Dammit, dammit, first good day all season and I missed it. He went on to say say that it had been a great day, he had flown for a couple of hours, Dan G. had flown lighthouse-to-lighthouse, and Captain Matt had done the north lighthouse but decided not to go along for the southern one. The wind had been stronger, earlier, he said, and it was lighter now.

In terms of coastal flying in New England, going lighthouse-to-lighthouse at Wellfleet is the milk run for experienced pilots, and the holy grail for relative newcomers like myself and most of those who had been there earlier. It consists of launching from White Crest Beach in Wellfleet-by-the-Sea (the only legal launch site these days), and flying to both Nauset Light in Eastham to the south and Highland Light in Truro to the north. The two lighthouses are about 15 miles apart, and the task is complicated by the fact that there are some gaps in the coastal bluff that can be tricky to cross. I had aspirations of doing a lighthouse run at some point, but my most ambitious flight at Wellfleet had ventured only about a mile and a half from launch.

Well, no sense feeling sorry for myself, I had just spent two and a half hours in the car and was looking at the same to get home, so if I wanted to keep the day from being a complete waste, the only thing to do was to set up quickly and get as much flying in as I could before the beach disappeared beneath the advancing waves. The wind was blowing just over 15 mph, and I was able to assemble my glider in the lee of the restroom building with no trouble. My haste had me working hard enough that I didn’t feel cold, and the thermometer in the car said 41F, so I figured that temperature wasn’t a big deal and I dressed lightly, with light gloves and not bothering with the bar mitts. Because I was in a hurry, I tossed the glider bags into my car, putting only the sail ties in my harness, figuring that I wasn’t going to be going very far.

Phil was ready to leave, but he offered to hang around for a few more minutes if I wanted help launching. He held my nose wires as I carried the glider across the street, and the wind was quite smooth. At the top of the slope I let the glider fly up off my shoulders and I moved my hands to the control bar; Phil indicated that he was doing nothing on the wires, and I stepped off into the easiest, sweetest launch I’ve ever had. Not an elevator, just a gentle hover off the ground, and as I pulled bar in a bit more, the glider eased forward and I was off to the races.

I started out northward, because that’s the section that I’m more familiar with. First, a half-mile from launch, I went by the place where I had my unfortunate “toplanding” experience a year ago.

The smaller building on the left is the garage that I barely missed. I landed basically in the bushes on the edge of the driveway in the center of the picture, missing the garage by inches. No worries about the glider seeing this spot, reliving the trauma and freaking out, because that had been the Falcon, and now I was flying the Mark IV. I did have another problem, though: I realized that I was definitely underdressed, and was feeling a bit chilly, my hands in particular.

The first “gap” is at the Beachcomber restaurant. I used to consider it a gap, at least, but I’ve learned a bit since last year, and I now realize that although the bluff is lower right there, it’s still tall enough to provide ridge lift and there’s no trouble crossing it. I went a bit further, and got to the gap at the little pond. This was as far as I had ever gone, though I had seen Jeff C. cross it. I decided to give it a shot, and made it across successfully, though with not a tremendous amount to spare. The wind was a bit cross from that direction, so I figured it would be easier going back the other way. I continued into unexplored territory until I got to the big gap at Newcomb Hollow. This had been the end of the line for Jeff, he had thought about how to cross it, but hadn’t tried. I looked at the 700 yards or so that I’d have to cross, though better of it, and turned around.

Some PGs and one HG (Jimmy the Broom) were setting up and launching as I went by launch, but I didn’t stick around. Jeff had made it to the southern light last year, so I figured the gaps were more manageable that way, and I wanted to see if I could get a little bit of distance in. So far it looked like there was still enough room to land, so I wasn’t worried yet. Southbound, there’s a small gap at Lecount Hollow, not far from launch, then it’s smooth sailing past Marconi Station (kind of a pity I hadn’t bothered to turn on my radio in tribute to this historic site), and a small but manageable gap at Marconi Beach. Before too long, I had the lighthouse in sight. I was assessing my risk this whole time; there wasn’t much chance of sinking out with the consistent bluff, and where there were gaps, there were also parking lots, so if I landed I could pack up and then walk or hitchhike back to my car and come back for the glider.

I made it past the lighthouse, and flew to the last soarable dune before Nauset Marsh, then turned and headed north. I managed to get a lucky shot of the lighthouse when the beam was pointing at me, looking just like the bag of potato chips.

Well, at least I managed the Nauset half of the lighthouse run, and this was the greatest distance I had ever traveled from launch. What now lay ahead of me looked like this:

This, my friends, is a drag strip. Consistent laminar wind from the right, consistent ridge on the left, land wherever you need to, and it extends for fifteen miles (though it’s not that consistent the whole way).

The wind had straightened out a bit, so it was now coming straight in, and I was able to make very good time on my way back to launch. Beach still looked okay. As I got closer to White Crest, I could see that the other gliders were now in the air.

My hands were really cold at this point, and I wondered whether I should call it a day, or at least land and get warmer gloves (I had brought all the clothes that I could need, but they don’t do you any good if you leave them in the car). I decided to tough it out for a while longer, and cruised by the PGs that were boating around near launch.

I flew as far as Newcomb Hollow, and then I had the tough decision to make. It looked like a long way, and if I decked it, it would be a lot more work to get loaded up than if I landed near where I was parked. But… I was about 160 feet up, and if I was sinking too fast, I could just turn around. The key element required was the willingness to make the commitment and to face the consequences if I landed here. So I kept an eye on the dune at the far side of the gap, and gave it a try. As I headed across, the angle to my destination remained constant, so I stuck with it, and was rewarded with sweet lift on the north edge of the gap. Yeah!

The bluff up north gets taller, and the flying therefore even easier. I continued up to the other large gap, maybe about 1200 yards (though with a low dune partway across), at Ballston Beach. There’s also a parking lot here, so it was the same situation. There was also a group of at least a dozen people who all looked up and waved enthusiastically. If I didn’t make it, there was a chance that they could give me a ride back to my car, so I went for it, and made it across this one as well.

I didn’t know what else lay ahead, but pretty soon I saw Highland Light in the distance. No more gaps to cross, and it was easy to get there. I took a few pictures, but this is the only one that came out.

Once I was past the lighthouse, I didn’t bother to fly the last diminishing bits of dune up there, but just headed home. When I turned around, I was moving slower than I expected, because the shoreline curves around up at the north end, and now the wind was slightly cross from in front of me, but not enough to be a problem. Up here in front of the Air Force Station, the beach was pretty narrow, but I could see that ahead of me it still widened out. I had the same nail-biting crossings on the way back, but the decisions were easier, because there was no benefit to not trying. I kind of lucked out, because there I think there’s a magic window of wind speed for any glider where this all works; too slow and you can’t get enough altitude to make the crossings, too fast and the crab angle will be too high and you can’t fly fast enough to bridge the gap before sinking out. For a higher-performance glider the window will be wider, but for the Mark IV, the wind was where it needed to be.

The rest of the flight back to launch was easy, and when I got there I decided to just do some short passes back and forth, with steep turns at each end, until I had been in the air for 1:45. Even though it was pretty much high tide when I finally set her down, the beach was plenty wide, because it was close to neap tide, and it was fine all day. The landing was a sweet no-stepper for a change, but my hands were in agony for a few minutes afterward as the blood rushed back in and they thawed. My own damn fault.

It turned out that the issue with the tides was that I used to have a website for tides that I really liked, but it went away at the beginning of the year. I found another one, but when I bookmarked it, I inadvertently did it in such a way that it always came up for the day that I bookmarked it instead of the current day. As a result, I was looking at the February table instead of the March one. Didn’t matter, though, it was an excellent day for flying no matter what time you showed up, and if I had known that high tide was going to be at 4:15 PM, I wouldn’t have even gone. So it’s all for the best. The sun even came out for a while during my flight.

flights: 1, airtime: 1:49


About cleversky

Hang glider pilot in New England since 2004. Also an avid orienteer, and an embedded systems firmware engineer. And some other outdoor stuff.
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