Wednesday, July 21, 2010

RIdge soaring '10

It's the fourth day of the clinic. I'm driving to the site with the windshield wipers going to fend off the mist. A big jet materialises out of the gloom overhead, flaps downs, contrails spinning off the edges. It's setting up a landing approach, east to west. That's not a good sign as I'm looking for west winds, soaring, west winds.

This is the trip of anomalies. There's never been a trip before that has had three days of no soaring. Now there is. Then again I've never had a trip where most of the people's names start with "J". (Jeff, Joan, John, Jon, Johannes, Janel.) Or where twenty percent of the pilots are women. Or where so many people lose their phones.

I've gotten a bit despondent. The beach is where you go to escape flakey weather. Hot land, cold water, these are big powerful weather influencers. Even as I drove that morning I could see the branches of the trees bent from the trunks to the east. This is the sculpting of the westerly sea breeze day after day. It's what happens most of the time, west wind, why can't it happen now?

It's not that we're not flying at all. There are short flights off the dunes. People are working on spot landings and kiting skills. The group has been hiking at point Lobos and up into the redwoods. But as the organizer of this I'm starting to twitch. All these people have taken off time for work, bought plane tickets and paid me to take them ridge soaring but the weather won't let me do my job.

Janel was the victim of the weather's rude humors. She just getting back into flying after a serious accident. She could only get time off for half the trip. And it was, to the minute, the bad half of the trip. After days of short flights and hikes back up the dunes, Janel's last day had come. She hung out till she had to pack up and leave. The winds were still light. Twenty minutes later the winds finally starts to pick up. It's a bit cross and it's already late in the day so we decide to scramble down to the far end of the dunes where the curve of the bay would hopefully make the winds straighter. Wind chasing in usually a goose chase but this time it works. The more experienced pilots are launched immediately upon their arrival. I start getting the newer pilots flying. And then the phone rings. It's Janel, she's driving down the highway seeing us all in the air. If only the wind would have held off five more minutes at least she wouldn't had to see everyone else getting the flights the weather wouldn't give her.

The winds are medium strong so everyone is getting plenty of height and there's lots of room as the lift band is fat. I'm playing air traffic control. The new guys need a some time to fly without traffic and get use to soaring the dunes. I give each new pilot a piece of dune to fly alone, then one of the other pilots flies the rules of the right of way with them. I then send them further down the dunes to fly with the rest of the group before launching the next pilot. Soon everyone is up. The group is now spread out over the entire five miles of dunes. I keep the newer folks closer to my end of the dunes to keep an eye on things. I find a good place to sit in the sand and feel an incredible sense of relief. If nothing else, everyone will go home with a great flight. I give some occasional input over the radio as the flights turn from minutes to hours.

With the sun getting lower in the sky the winds lighten a bit. With five miles of dunes to explore some of the pilots have landed out on the beach. The dunes are not a consistent wall, there are gaps that have to be crossed to get to the next section. With the lighter winds some of the crossings are getting harder to make. After a bit all the newer folks are on the beach. This my chance to get in the air. I launch and head south along the dunes. I soon find the whole group, either airborne, packing up or hiking back. Bob is down on the beach. I see his back pack was left behind on launch. Hmmm.. Could I....? I swoop onto launch, pause for an instant to grab the bag between my feet, kangaroo launch back into the air, fly down to Bob and drop the pack.

Now the day is giving up and everyone is landing. There will be a bit of the "who can stay up the longest" game but our day is not over. There is a picnic to be had in the redwoods. I land and call my sister Martha and tell her we are on the ground and packing up. They have the grill lit. We now have to collect everyone, pack gear, get in the cars, drive to the store for supplies and get to the picnic. This group had a tendency to come unraveled, but we finally get everyone in the cars with food bought and head down the Big Sur coast.

Right before the the Bixby bridge is the turn off, one dirt road to the locked gate, then down the narrow track carved into the hillside. The flowers have stayed in bloom late in the year. It's evening but still light, colors surrounded by shadow make up the hills, the bridge is a black silhouette with the ocean brilliant in the low evening sun. Our wagon train of cars poke slowly around the bends in the steep road. Then we enter the redwoods and it might as well be another world, tall trees, ferns, the stream.
The cars are parked, stuff unloaded. The dogs barks as we approach. I can smell the grill going.

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