Racing against the storm

Wellfleet, on the eastern shore of Cape Cod, is our prime coastal flying site. But since we’re on the east coast, it works in east winds, or more specifically, east through northeast. However, we also have a well-known weather phenomenon around here called a “nor-easter”, a winter storm that blows through with strong northeast winds. What that translates to is that sometimes the winds that we need to fly are accompanied by ugly precipitation.

We got a forecast for east winds on Thursday, and I sent out an email asking if anyone wanted to give it a try. Some had to work, and some thought it was going to be too light, but John M was interested. One hitch was that the winds were going to bring a storm, and it wasn’t clear whether we’d get hit with rain if we went to the beach. Before going to bed Wednesday night, I checked the forecast, and it didn’t look encouraging. In the morning, one of the forecasting tools was showing conditions that might be okay, but the rest did not. I gave John a call to see what he thought, expecting him to be unsure, and I would just say we should forget it, but he said he still wanted to give it a try. Oh. Um… well, okay, I guess. He lives about a mile from my office, so I swung by his place to pick him up, and we drove to the Cape.

As we approached the parking lot, we saw a couple of paragliders in the air — a good sign, at least there was enough wind for them to stay up. I walked out to the lip with my wind gauge and saw 15-20 mph: no need to delay, let’s get these gliders assembled and get into the air! John had just installed a headset in his helmet the night before, so we’d be able to talk while flying. I helped him straighten out the wiring and figure out where to stash the radio, then walked him out to launch and wired him off. I was on his nose and just hit the dirt when he called “clear”, so when I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and spit out the sand, I couldn’t see him. I scooted out to another spot that allowed me to see further down the beach, and watched as he caught the lift and climbed up over the bluff. Great!

I was just about set to go, so I changed my jacket and shoes and got one of the PG pilots to help me move the Mark IV out to launch. We were launching from a different spot than I’ve used before, further to the left, in part because the wind was crossing from the right. The sand forms a little spur right there and allows the wings to be up in clean air. Solid launch, got up with no trouble, and then I looked around for John. He had never ventured far from launch here (this was only his second non-sledder at this site), and I spotted him in the distance off to the right, looking like he was making a run for Nauset Light. I gave chase, and caught up with him around Marconi Beach (he’s on a Falcon 195, so I had a slight speed advantage). We made radio contact and were able to make the trip south together. It’s a bit over five miles from launch to the lighthouse, so this was a first taste of XC flying for him. After making the turn, we had a bit of a tailwind, and I pulled in for some speed, covering the 6.5 miles from Nauset Light to Doane’s Bog Pond in just over 15 minutes, a bit over 25 mph, not too bad. As I was going by the Beachcomber, I heard someone hollering, and looked to my right to see John G scooting along the lip of the bluff in his Bobcat speedwing paraglider. Earlier I had heard him saying to some other PG pilots that he could pass hang gliders with it. I don’t know whether he was just saying hello or if he wanted to drag race, but with him on the lip and me out over the beach, he was clearly keeping up, though when I sped up some, he gradually fell behind.

John M caught back up, and I turned and headed for another trip down to Nauset. On the way I flew over a number of people at the various beaches who looked up and watched — I waved, they waved back, and many of them took my picture. At my Nauset turnpoint I did a graceful turn and buzzed the smiling woman on the stairs, then found myself in a bit of a pickle as I realized that I had traded a bit too much altitude for speed and was dangerously low. Not dangerous in the sense of worrying about a bad landing, but dangerous in the sense of not being sure if I might sink out five miles from my car. I was out front, below the top of the bluff, and the longer I hung on and tried to climb back up, the further I was getting from the Nauset stairs, meaning the further I’d have to carry the glider to get off the beach. I was just about to reach for the unzip line on my harness when I managed to start gaining a little bit, and worked that up to where I was comfortably back in the good lift. Phew!

John radioed that he was going to land because his arms were getting tired (he had been in the air for about 80 minutes, a personal best). As I headed north to join him, my glider started making an unfamiliar noise, a faint popping/rattling sound, which momentarily had me concerned, until a drop hit me in the eye and I realized what it was: rain on my helmet. Time to wrap things up! I flew up to Newcomb Hollow, where John was taking his glider apart, and landed right in front of the parking lot. We got packed up quickly and I jogged back for the car.

Fortunately, I had tossed a couple of lengths of plastic tubing in the car to slide the gliders into, because on the way home, we ran into serious snow, the beginning of the April Fool’s Storm of 2011. Blame for this goes entirely on John, because he admitted that he had been telling people that he hoped that we’d get one more snowstorm before the season was over, maybe a foot. Only a couple of inches at his place, I think, but I’d guess there was at least 8 inches where I live (hard to tell because it’s wet gloppy stuff that compacts quickly, and the warm surfaces are melting it down fast).

Alas, it appears that I misplaced my camera somewhere on the way home, so I have no photos of the flying. I did get a picture of what my car looked like in the morning after sitting overnight in my girlfriend’s driveway.

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Update: I called the Marconi Beach Restaurant, where John and I stopped for BBQ on the way home, and it looks like I forgot my camera on the table and they found it. I should be able to post a few pictures when I get it back next week.
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Additional update: The package arrived with my camera. But it seemed a little light. When I opened it, it contained a black case holding not a camera, but a pair of reading glasses. Hard to know how somebody could confuse those two things. Looks like I need to get another camera.
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Yet another update: I called the restaurant, and apparently they have the address of the guy they were supposed to have sent the glasses to, sitting next to my camera. I talked to the cook, who unzipped the case and confirmed that it’s my (pink) camera. So it looks like I will get it back after all, once I mail the glasses, but it will still be a few more days…

flights: 1, airtime: 1:22, XC distance: 3.5 km

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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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