Beach weather

There’s a particular weather forecast that Jon A describes as a chocolate eclair. It’s when conditions are just exactly right for flying at Wellfleet. I think I had looked at the forecast early in the week and it showed barely any wind at all, so it wasn’t even on my radar when Pete J posted a note on Wednesday morning asking if anybody was thinking of flying on Thursday. Kevin said he was considering it, and I took a look and sure enough, it looked promising. There was a bit of dispute about the timing of the tides, but it boiled down to low tide being in the morning, so flying early should work. I had a 2 PM meeting at work, but figured I could still make it as long as I left the Cape by 11:30, and the coworker in charge of the meeting said that my attendance wasn’t really essential anyway. So I hit the road Wednesday night after the last Clinton/Trump presidential debate, and spent the night with my friend George, who lives on the Cape about 40 minutes from Wellfleet.

I woke up repeatedly during the night, each time glancing at the clock and realizing with relief that it wasn’t time to get up yet. At 6 AM I did get up, slipped out the door, and headed for White Crest Beach. Pete had posted a message at 5:22 AM saying that he was on his way (from Boston), and he arrived shortly before me. Neither of us had managed to bring a wind meter, but the wind seemed to be straight in, the velocity felt good, and it was warm! 60 degrees at sunrise, which is quite a contrast from the typical day at this winter-only site. The sun peeked over the horizon just as I started setting up my glider. I have two beach gliders these days (too many, anybody want one?), and I had selected the Mark IV, figuring that conditions might be light and I might as well bring the larger wing.

George came by about 7:30, and just as Pete was ready, Kevin rolled in as well. We helped Pete bring his glider out to launch, and he quickly confirmed that it was soarable (Kevin had a wind meter, and I think he said it was 15-18 mph). No reason to wait, so I finished my preflight, gobbled down half a doughnut, and walked my glider across the road. The forecast had predicted that it would be gusty, but as far as I could tell, that never happened, it was perfectly smooth the whole time we were there. Launching was a piece of cake, I didn’t need any assistance, the wind lifted the glider off my shoulders, and I pretty much just picked my feet up and I was flying.

Pete was off to the north, so I headed up that way, and went up to Doane’s Bog Pond, the first small gap. It looked like it would be easy enough to cross, but just in case it wasn’t, I didn’t want the flight to end embarrassingly early, and I turned and headed south to follow Pete. I radioed back to George that we were headed down to Nauset, and we made our way to the easier of the two lighthouses. The wind was very slightly cross from the right, which makes this trip even easier, and strong enough that I had no trouble at all crossing the slightly dicey section between launch and Lecount Hollow. I was able to pretty much keep up with Pete’s faster Sport 2, and on the way he appeared to be surrounded by a big flock of gulls (though he said from his perspective, he didn’t notice that).

At the Nauset parking lot, I did a few swooping turns for the amusement of some beachgoers. On the trip back, I spotted a seal in the surf — there were probably plenty of them out there, but I only noticed the one. The trip back was uneventful, and this time when I got to Doane’s, I went ahead and crossed it and flew up to Newcomb Hollow to check that out. I was able to get pretty good altitude just before it, and the crossing looked feasible, but I decided to hold off on that for a bit. Pete and I spent the next while shuttling back and forth between launch and Newcomb, not wanting to take the chance until we had racked up a decent amount of airtime, and also waiting for Kevin to finish setting up so he could join us in the air.

I didn’t see Kevin launch, but I spotted him a few seconds later, heading north but a bit low. He had waited for a lull in order to be able to more easily handle the glider, and turned a little late, missing the lift band. I suspected that he’d sink out, and I was right, in about 30 seconds he was down. His nose went over gently, and I commented on the radio that George would need to help him bring the wing back up to try again. However, when I flew over, I saw what appeared to be a bent downtube. Sure enough, he had caught a corner of his control frame on the ground and the left downtube crumpled, spelling the end to his flying for the day. In a weird twist, he ended up needing medical care, but not for any kind of injury from the landing. Instead, he broke out in a massive case of hives, apparently being allergic to something at the beach (he’d had a similar reaction on his previous visit to Wellfleet).

So, it was just Pete and me. On his previous flight here, he had tried to cross Newcomb Hollow, but hadn’t made it across. He asked what I wanted to do, and I said I was thinking of letting him try first, because his glider has VG. He replied that he was thinking of letting me try first, because my glider doesn’t. Somebody had to try, so I was willing to be the one. I crossed Doane’s again, and got as much altitude as I could and worked my way out toward the water, then went for it. For a while, it seemed like there was enough lift to maintain my altitude, but then the descending glide kicked in, and it looked like my glide slope would be enough. I got to the bluff on the north side of the gap, and it took a few hundred yards to be sure that I was solidly in the lift, then I radioed that I was soaring on the north side, and Pete called back, “Nicely done”.

Around this point, I missed the shark. It was a dead shark, that Pete said was 6-8 feet long, washed up on the beach, and there was a group of people around it taking pictures, but I was too focused on what I was doing to pay any attention to what was going on underneath me. I did fly through my own big flock of gulls.

But shortly after that, I saw the whales.

Glancing out to sea, I saw the distinctive plume of a whale spouting, and then more spouts close by, and watching more, I saw other groups. I keyed my radio and said, “Whales! There are whales out there, Pete!”. He said he thought it was just whitecaps, but I could tell the difference, and I could also see the occasional fluke poking out of the water. (Later, after landing, he watched and agreed that it was whales, and from the beach I could also their backs from time to time.)

I’ve flown down south to Nauset many times, but up here on the north side where I had been only once before, it was adventure territory. Pete crossed Newcomb, but I was quite a way ahead of him, so I turned back briefly to sample the crosswind: I could still make progress going back, but it was slow progress. The next obstacle was Ballston Beach, which looked different from what I remembered. I think the erosion on the southern part of that gap has improved the situation from a soaring point of view, because the ocean has chewed its way into some higher ground and created more of a bluff, but north of the parking lot, it’s completely flat, with waves at high tide washing clear over into the marsh that drains across to the bay, thereby making North Truro and Provincetown intermittently an island (and maybe that will become permanent before too long). With the tailwind component, crossing that gap was pretty easy, and it was onward to Highland Lighthouse.

I didn’t push my luck by going very far past the lighthouse, and when I turned around, I was pretty much parked. I considered the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to make any southerly progress at all, and would have to go a bit further north and land at the Coast Guard beach, but I pulled in some more and was able to crawl forward without sinking out. So, patience, patience, and I worked my way back,and as the shoreline curled around, the headwind gradually lessened. But the Ballston Beach gap looked pretty wide from this direction. I doubled back to the tallest part of the bluff and slowed down to get as much altitude as I could, then pulled in for best glide speed and gave it a shot. A pathetic attempt, I think I got a little more than halfway across, but I’d had the foresight (pessimism?) to unzip, so I got upright, and had a landing that was the complement of my launch: I slowed to a stop just above the sand, and didn’t need to flare, I just put my feet down. There was enough wind for the glider to keep flying once my weight was off it, so I kited it over behind the dune next to the parking lot and set it down, then grabbed my camera and went out to cheer Pete on.

He also got as high as possible, and with full VG and still zipped up, he went for the crossing. I thought he very nearly made it, he thought he was pretty short, but in any case he went further than I did and coasted in for a gentle belly landing (turned out that he was still zipped up because he forgot). Since the zipper on a pod harness is on the bottom, I knew he was kind of trapped until I came by to unhook him (been there, done that), and he therefore had to pose for pictures.

Pete got in touch with Kevin by phone, and he relayed to George where we were, and George hopped in my car to come pick us up. While we were packing up, a young lady stopped by and asked what we were doing, and when she heard that we were hang gliding, she said that was something she’d always wanted to do. Pete always carries business cards to refer interested people to Morningside Flight Park for lessons, and it turns out that her sister lives near there, so maybe we’ll see her in the sky at some point.

OK, so, that 2 PM meeting… well, I had to stop for gas on the way back, and I needed something to eat so I grabbed a sub, and those things slowed me down a bit. By the time I was approaching the office I had already missed enough of the meeting, and it was still such a nice day… ah, screw it. I took the rest of the day off and went mountain biking.

flights: 1, airtime: 2:13, XC distance: depends on how you look at it. I landed 8 km from launch, but if you consider the lighthouses as turnpoints, then it was more like 35 km.


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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