Never having been a part of the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (BHPA) British Club Challenge (BCC) I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. In 7 years I’d not quite got beyond being a lone ranger of the skies (well, ridges, more accurately). Whenever I’d previously thought about attending, the dates had never coincided with my being free of other responsibilities.
As with much of my experience over this weekend it was fortuitous that I’d already planned a lone trip to Wales on the basis of the good weather forecast, before the round was called there on the Easter weekend. The additional prospect of flying with friends, having help finding new sites and a competition to fly in was a bonus.
My previous personal best was 33km, logged in 2014 from Devils Dyke to Black Boys. After many years messing around with kit that wasn’t up to scratch and having ‘life’ stuff get in the way of flying, it felt like time to do it properly; Maybe, having recently been honoured with admittance to the Flybubble Team, over a weekend in Wales, with no responsibilities weighing on my mind and nothing to do but concentrate on my flying, I could put my shiny new equipment to good use.
Day 1 of the BCC and Easter Sunday dawned bright and clear. Given the good RASP forecast I was hoping to get a decent distance under the wing and I was also looking forward to flying the Blorenge for the first time.
[ed: RASP shows good wind but very low cloudbase and associated spotty climbs due to shading, definitely not an easy day]
The briefing in the car park was easygoing and straightforward; simple rules: turn right; maintain good separation in the air; avoid airspace infractions; longest straight line distance wins. After the talk followed a pleasant walk to take off with the 70 or 80 other hopeful pilots, some somewhat optimistic (so I thought) programming of XC Soar with Porthcawl (on the coast) as goal, and much joking around and placing orders for the ice-creams at Rossilli. Then it was time for take-off.
My day nearly took a very early bath; after 10 minutes and pushing forward of the gaggle in search of a better climb the lift dropped right off, only a very precarious slope landing in the bowl saved me from a long walk back. When the lift came on after 10 minutes, the thermal which had previously killed off the ridge lift was pulling nicely up the slope. A single beat cleared the top of the hill and after a quick few 360’s I was in good established lift with a couple of other wings, and clearly on my way. Game on!
The first climb earned a very usable 3,600 ft. With recent advice from Mark Watts’ Southern Club talk on XC flying still fresh in my ears, after topping out I immediately pushed full bar and headed downwind, a small ridge beckoning me in the distance. As I quickly burnt my height and dropped below the top of the ridge, I wondered if I’d taken my chances prematurely. I arrived lower than the Mantra leading me and only just connected with the ridge, leaving me wondering how long I’d be stuck for and whether I’d get away at all, given the land in front looked concave, damp and unlikely to generate thermals.
Little do I know; a very short while later a Red Kite showed me the way out, climbing 20 yards away in a very tight fast thermal, which took me off the ridge and up to 4,200, leaving the Mantra trailing below and behind. This is more like it I thought. I like Wales. A lot!
At this point, being slightly ‘near’ the top of a cloud, inexperience caught up with me and I got disorientated, heading South down a valley towards Abertillery while ignoring good clouds off on my intended flight path to the West. Watching the aforementioned Mantra soar on towards those clouds I sheepishly reflected that I might just have stuffed it. My first lesson of many on the weekend – maybe better to stay oriented and fly in the right direction rather than grab an illicit extra couple of hundred feet…
On the forested ridge above the town, the 15 minutes trying then abandoning climbs which seemed to evaporate, felt much longer and was testing my stamina. Watching the sky over develop to the East with clouds slowly shutting down the day, I gave up on my position to head back up the valley in the direction I’d come from. At that point three Kites restored my hope and the flight by shooting upwards in front of me at 45 degrees. This surprising, quick and glorious climb petered out around 3,200, while a five minute glide to 1,900 found me under the next dark cloud on route. This was followed by a pleasingly restful period under a cloud street, which gave me a quick 30km over the next 45 minutes. A new personal best and a good flight to boot, I was cold in the overcast sky but chuffed to bits, rewarding myself with congratulatory whoops of joy.
The confusion of 60 pilots using the same frequency had earlier led me to give up on the radio near the start and not having seen another wing in the air for over an hour I was on my own. Luckily this meant there was no-one else around to see me trying to get to grips with mid-flight peeing without the useful XC pee which was sitting forgotten under my desk.
Another of many firsts for the weekend was enjoying flying the sea breeze (previously a mysterious beast known to me mainly from tales told by the ‘real’ pilots, who would allude to it in knowing tones, speaking confidently of its fickle ways). This time, it was a pleasure to be up there experiencing the turbulence and observing for myself its effects on the clouds and my wing.
It was clear from previously eavesdropped conversations that heading further seaward and into the blue was not likely to be good for my prolonging my XC, so I turned West-North-West to stay away from the coast and fly under the last good cloud in that direction. That welcome lifty friend kept me aloft for another dozen minutes and 5 or so km, setting up a good glide out to Cwmafan, just short of the coast at Port Talbot.
On landing I received a (well-deserved in my mind) hero’s welcome from the local football playing kids (I’d landed on their pitch) who gathered round to be amazed by tales of flying all the way there from Abergavenny.
One celebratory kebab later, I shared news of my new 53 kilometre personal best with Southern Slacker team mates and girlfriend Karen, receiving some lovely encouragement that I could do it all again. Roll on Monday!
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