All Around The Downs

All Around The South Downs

By Flybubble Instructor, Greg Hamerton

The Southern Foot or Fly course links eight of the club’s flying sites in a circular course of 65km. You can progress in the air or on foot, but no wheeled assistance is allowed. It’s like the X-Alps, without the X. Without the Alps too, come to think of it.

The event starts in July, but after an interminable winter, I wanted to get some practice in.

The Foot or Fly course

Forecasts for the day showed unflyably strong NW for the first half of the day, weakening to 17mph NNW (strong) for the afternoon, with climbs going up to 3500ft and scattered shallow cumulus. A good lapse rate suggested good thermals too.

I only arrived at the Dyke at 13h00, so was planning to do a quick triangle before the day ended.

I nipped over to Truleigh to set a convenient end-point, then returned for the upwind transition to the Ditchling ridge. The air felt alive and full of punch, but the strong headwind and appalling sink between thermals stopped me in my tracks. Having been at cloudbase on my first attempt, I was soon scratching below takeoff!

Here’s an animation of the flight to help you visualise the various strategies:

Getting high at the Dyke before setting off is vital, so I took my time. Once at base again I pushed full bar and aimed for the back of Wolstonbury hill, where the sheltered south face often releases a thermal. I tried to sneak upwind in weak bubbles of lift before gliding towards the Jack & Jill windmills, where I had to pass through the dead air of the accelerated flow through the A23 gap.

Coming in just over the windmills, I found just enough wind on the ridge to soar and scrape my way past Ditchling turnpoint to the thermal at the point beyond Ditchling road. I’ve often found my best thermals here. The strong drift sent me far over the back, but I had enough height to cross upwind of Lewes.

The funnelling effect of the Lewes gap caused the next the thermal to drift SE which helped me near the Mount Caburn turnpoint. I came over high and aimed for Firle, where some pilots were soaring in what looked like strong wind. I found a thermal just where I needed one (before getting trapped by the accelerated laminar flow), and didn’t leave it until it was done. I figured that the last climb would be at Firle Beacon, and then I’d have a glide to the coast and a long walk.

Flight trace

Firle Beacon delivered the goods as promised, and after bagging Bo Peep turnpoint and whizzing downwind to High and Over, I had just enough height to sneak along the back ridge and (maybe) make a landing beside the Seaford Golf Course, which would make the walk easier. The good thing about this back ridge is there are some fields upwind of it, facing into the sun. I flew into a weak thermal that soon became stronger, and I looked ahead as my landing options improved, from the golf course, to the beach front, to Newhaven, to … OMG, I’m at cloudbase again, and going out to sea!

I stared at the GPS to make sure I was actually going forwards not backwards. The English Channel looks very wide when you’re considering you might land in it! And the Newhaven turnpoint is very close to the sea, when you’re flying in a strong northerly!

As soon as I passed Newhaven I pushed inland again, in case the wind increased. To my delight I found another good thermal and rode it up to base. In retrospect this was possibly a chance to work further upwind up the cloud street and through the Kingston hills, but I opted for another long crosswind glide, which took me low into the outskirts of Brighton.

Brighton racecourse landing

Wow! What a great flight, I wasn’t expecting that so late in the day. It was 5pm. I knew there was 10km of roads between me and the Dyke, where I’d possibly be able to soar the last piece of the course. Google Maps estimated 2 hours, and sunset was soon after that. The bots didn’t know I had a paraglider to carry.

Last sip Soarable!

Jogging with a paraglider is no fun. My mind remembered the good shape I’d been in by the end of last year’s event, when I’d done many FOF attempts and had been regularly jogging. My body had lost that memory altogether.

It remembered the last six months of sitting at the computer and eating easter eggs. Oooff!

I quickly drained my water and food supplies, and could only muster a shambling jog on the flat sections. Unfortunately, most of the way is uphill.

Luckily a big carrot dangled at the end of Dyke Road. They were soaring! I could see five wings cruising around, showing signs of sustained Northerly wind. If I could get to launch in time, I could soar the last 3km (and back). But I was running out of time, and also out of legs.

Rolling out my wing on the Dyke was the most satisfying feeling ever. The breeze was good, some friends were soaring, and Truleigh was just there, at the end of the ridge. When I got there, I found an aerial reception committee of one Simon Steel waiting for me at the finish line. Priceless!

Truleigh finish line

The smooth sunset soaring back to the pub was sublime. Beer-on-tap has never tasted so good.

sunset soaring

Because I ended at the Dyke, it gave an added bonus of being able to use that as my start point for the course, so my course time was improved to 4h49. I don’t expect to better this during the event in July, but it will be fun trying!

Happy landing

Flight track on