Sunday, July 22, 2007

Rat Race 07: A personal perspective

This is about Rat Race 07 from my perspective. First of all, this was a fairly stressful trip for me. I had a few external issues that constantly competed for my attention. Foremost, my father was in the hospital in the ICU for lung complications. I rented a car to have the flexibility to leave at a moments notice in case his situation worsened. 2nd, I'm the lead on a huge base project and had to manage it from Oregon. This meant that I had to goto base camp early in the morning each day to "take care of business" on the Internet. And finally my final exam for one of my poli-sci classes was due during the rat race. I'm not complaining, but I just wanted to say that there was alot going on in my noggin. Nevertheless I was extremely excited to be in a competition. It would be cool to meet the pilots you read about and to see all the new equipment and techniques.

I flew into Seattle a couple of days early to visit my sister. She talked non-stop about every issue under the sun (we don't talk too much so she feels the need to catch up). Had a nice evening with her friends, who are all exceptionally beautiful. A typical "grass is greener on the other side" story. But at the end of the day/night, you have to remind yourself that you live in Hawaii...

Off to the rat race! I peeled the plastic off of Suicide Pete's brand new Garmen 76S GPS he let me borrow. I really wished he'd let me borrow the used one because I didn't want to scratch up the new one! Practicing on the GPS during the drive was great. It even had highway information even though I think I can manage navigating I-5. Unfortunately I should have practiced more. I remember passing through Grant's Pass thinking, wow, this is a turn-point in the competition, I'm still 30mi away from Ruch! I can't do this!

I'm now nearing Medford Oregon, I decide to call up Pete since I plan on crashing in his tent for the duration of the event. He immediately dispatches me on a search and rescue mission to find Quentin. This dashes my plans for stopping by a grocery store to stock up on supplies. I find Q and 3 other pilots in a field. They all can't fit into my car so I end up taking Mike Steed to the HQ. He just happens to be the Master's winner from last year. I actually recognized him from the website and proceeded to suck all his knowledge from him. He didn't seem to mind the vulcan mind meld grip I had on his head. Better than walking I imagine.

I arrived at camp and discovered that Paul had Ray's old tent that I could borrow. Sweet! A huge tent to myself. During the previous day, Rich had setup a one-man tent, but moved to the big Pete/Paul tent. Rich's tent was an uneven shanty shack compare to the other mansion-like tents. Scrappy arrives out of nowhere after some snafu at the airport. I thought about directing him to Rich's tent-shaped piece of nylon, but decided that it would be rude. Instant roommate, no chance for inviting random Oregon hotties. Of course I'm just kidding/dreaming. Scrappy proved to be a great roommate overall, I just felt like we were fierce competitor's throughout the competition.

In addition to our huge tents, Pete and company erected the "poker" tent. It was huge and surrounded by tiki torches. A picnic table dominated the interior. There was a cartoonishly large amount of alcohol stacked at one end of the table. I'm really surprised the table didn't flip over. I won the first poker tournament, which was good because the buy-in took my last $20. As the week wore on, my new-found fortune would be redistributed.

Later that night Pete and motorhead Paul decided to play together. It was pretty much a lose-lose situation for Pete. If he won the wrestling match, he would only beat an older man. If he lost, well, you know. I'll let the pictures tell the story. We did not make for good neighbors that night. Neighbors complained of mysterious groaning throughout the night. A few neighbors strongly urged us to settle down. I must say that I was overall impressed at the toleration of the camp. I half expected a torch bearing mob to appear. Or maybe people just thought it was passionate man-on-man action and didn't want to actually see it as hearing it was damaging enough.

DAY 1:

The next morning was crisp and cold, woke up to the sound of sizzling bacon. Rich was kind enough to cook anything in sight in the morning. His only rule, "I don't do dishes!". Fair enough. The first pilot's meeting was cool because I got to see all of the Hawaiian pilots from the other islands. It was nice seeing familiar faces amongst the unfamiliar. I got an idea of the personalities of the competitors there.

The ride up was very special to me. This was the first time that I have ever been driven "UP" to a launch site, aside from one sled ride from Ed Levin high launch in Cali. As we twisted up the narrow roads, I remember thinking that this will be my first taste of mountain-flying. Granted this is not the alps or the Rockies, but it's alot different that the coastal stuff I'm used to. The horror movie of my bus careening down the hill did not play out as we arrived at the top. Wow, nice view and what a huge launch! My cellphone works, woohoo! The windtechs were already skying-out. Everybody was excited. Programming the GPS was easy, writing down the task as a backup proved to be handy later on.

I really didn't get any butterflies, until standing in line. The first takeoff was a little nerve-wracking with all the pilots watching. Having those huge ski gloves did help either, but I managed to get-off without a problem. The camera man swung his camera under me as I lifted off and yelled "good-one!" Since I'm so used to taking off in lift, the sink alarm was disconcerting at the beginning. I felt sure that I was bombing out immediately. But sure enough I started to catch a little thermal here and there. I tended to stay away from the gaggles and find my own thermals. I was still getting used to my glider pitching every which way and didn't want to also worry about hitting someone. I could see that the start time was nearing, but I could only manage get to about mid to low altitude compared to everyone else. The only gliders I could recognize was Scrappy's, Bob's, Alex and Q's, Greg's and John Ivey's. I later learned to recognize Ray's. I could see some people over on Burnt ridge tanking up, but I was nowhere near high enough to make that crossing. I stayed close to mother launch and squeaked up.

My fears of collisions were not unwarranted. I saw John Ivey's glider shudder, collapse and he immediately threw his reserve. He took forever to sink out while thermalling under the reserve. I managed to extract my camera, but my gloves were too thick to press the tiny buttons. I finally flew out to some smooth air, removed a glove and snapped a hurried picture of John on silk. The race is getting more interesting. I'm doing this for fun right?

The start time came and went. The gaggles raced off on course and left the sky to me. I finally got enough altitude to head out to Rabies, but my GPS is acting up. Somehow my arrow is not pointing to where rabies should be. I try reloading the route, but end up activating the man-overboard mode. Anyway, I think that I finally sort out my nav points and hit Rabies and head back to the launch area. I tank up again and start to head towards goal. It's about a 14km leg down a valley. I try to stay over the ridges and milk the thermals, but I make a mistake and leave a thermal early. My mentor had told me to not worry about time and just worry about making it to goal. Don't pass up any available lift. Well the triggers I was betting on, were not pumping any thermals. I ended up landing in a field about 4 km away from goal. One unknown bonus to me was that I didn't realize that the competition counted your max distance on course. The end result was that I was only about 2km from goal as far as scoring was concerned. I was concerned about my landing because the valley winds were blowing dogs-off-chains and I thought that I was landing in a bit of a wind shadow. I expected some leeward rotor, but never got any. The retrieve came quickly and transported me to goal.

On the way to goal we saw a glider barely squeak it over to goal for what looked like a spin-landing near some trees. I would later learn that it was Jetflap! Brazilian Ray was at goal and I handed him a well deserved brewski. A keg at the goal, this is a very well thought out comp! Later we learn that the DZ was not fully coordinated. Landowner #1 didn't tell landowner #2,3,4,5,6... that he had authorized us to use the LZ. Oops. They later all agreed to let us land there in future, but no alcohol. That was the last time I went to that LZ! I went back to the HQ to get my hard 2.2 hours of flying scored only to find out I missed the first turn point. Duh! The track log on screen showed me going to a point, but it wasn't the correct point. I think it was the man-overboard point?? Still not completely sure to this day.

Anyway I get back to camp and the poker tent is in full swing. I was going to study for my exam, but who are we kidding? There was this young blonde sitting in the tent playing poker and doing well. I remember thinking that she could be no older than 21. I quickly learn that she's, well, less than that, alot less. This is probably the finest example of jailbait that I have ever seen. She had the looks(ie. good looks and great equipment) and the maturity of someone far older, very dangerous indeed. I could say more, but have to protect the innocent and the not so innocent.

DAY 2:

Pretty much the same task as day 1. Same story as the previous day except I made a huge error by forgetting that Rabies had a 2km turn-point cylinder vs the normal 400m. I spent over a hour try to close that distance. I finally realize that I had the turn point made and raced back to the launch area. By this time, I was clocking 4 hours flight time. It was getting really windy. The next leg of the race was 14km all into the wind. No way. So I just landed out in the normal LZ. At least I didn't miss any turn points and got some decent points.

DAY 3:

This task was a ball-busting 70km task. The launch was pretty windy. I thought they would cancel the task, but ended up curtailing the task down from the epic distance. The thermals were sharp and shredded. I made the mistake of following a thermal too far behind the ridge line and getting sucked into the valley between launch and burnt ridge. Had I been smarter about the wind direction I would have ran towards burnt ridge and try to get up. Instead I was in the middle of valley fearing rotor from both sides, on the speed bar trying to make an LZ and not end up in the trees. It was nerve-racking to be on speed bar in such turbulent air. I landed out safely in a huge field and was joined by about 12 more pilots to include Scrappy. This day was worth minimal points due to the short course and all or nothing nature of the task.

DAY 4:

"The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; 'tis dearness only that gives everything it's value." Thomas Paine.

It was another mega 72Km task. I blew my launch, it wouldn't be the last time. As usual, I didn't play in the gaggles and they consequently left me behind at start time. This time I wasn't too far behind. I got up high enough to start heading towards Rabies and caught some good stuff on the way out there. I saw Bob working some stuff around Rabies Peak and we more or less left Rabies at the the same time to head towards Wellington Ridge. I was a little higher and ahead of Bob en route to Wellington. While en route, I was trying to figure out where the lift was at Wellington by watching the other gliders in the area. Unfortunately everyone was in hunt mode and nothing was revealed. I was flying in a headwind and there was not a beep of lift the whole way. I knew I would arrive low and was prepared to bombout somewhere in the valley. This was the first time I was looking for a gaggle, I desperately wanted to find a gaggle.

I drove in towards the turn-point, tagged it and retreated back to the foothills. Now would come the hardest part of the whole comp. The distance from the turnpoint back to rabies ridge was about 5 miles and I had to work for every feet of it. Lot's of leeside thermals. I lost track of all the asym collapses, must have been over 30. Most of them were just 20-30% collapses, but a few were bigger. The thermals were really sharp and small. I was really using the gliders around me for lift cues. Everyone was taking collapses, you could hear the fabric whacking all around. I just hoped that no one would fall into my lap! Although the air was rough, I liked it because I knew I wouldn't bomb out, there was lift! Beggers can't be choosy! I would turn back for the rough stuff and bench up. Look down the line for the next glider going up and beeline over there. This is how I made it back to rabies ridge, back to familiar territory, back to my house thermals.

Scrappy had also made the difficult journey to Rabies, but we ended up on opposite sides of the ridge. He was in the bowl and I was outside. Instead of landing out inside the bowl, Scrappy performed a nice top landing on the ridge. I thought he would relaunch. He then broad casted his position and I relayed it to HQ/rescue. That fumbling with my radio got me really low and I decide to leave the ridge because the rotor/leeward thermals were kicking my butt. It's one thing to be a ridge height on the leeward side, but now I was pretty low. Besides, there was the main LZ right there for the taking. I ended up hooking a nice little thermal high enough to let me shoot for burnt ridge. I got over there, but couldn't find enough to get up, beside I was getting blown into the same valley like yesterday.

I decided that enough was enough and set myself up for a landing at the main LZ. Reaper was in the air with me with a tandem although I never saw him. There was another pilot in my same predicament also coming in for a landing. I was about 400 feet off the ground when I got some substantial beeps. This is before Bob let me borrow his vario. This whole time I was using my audio vario. The beeps represented about 400ft/min climb so I decided to turn in it just for the hell of it. It kept going up and up and up! It was super smooth and broad! The other glider didn't catch it/want it and went on to land. Reaper congratulated me on my catch. I used the altitude to run to the launch area. Now I had the wind on my side and I got high enough to make a proper run to Burnt ridge. I scratched around the ridge to get up for a little while, very nervous about getting sucked into the valley. I was completely alone at this point. Then I hit the convergence lift. Yeehaw! 1200ft/min. It was so smooth, but scary fast. I had to vasalva to clear my ears! It got cold quick. Up to about 8600'. Ruch looked very small at that altitude.

I'm now gazing upon the area where I pickup up Q and company at the very beginning. I'm grinning at the fact that a few minutes ago I was coming in to land and now I'm on top of the world...with cold hands. I've never been this high before (in a paraglider). I wuz smashin records left and right. My own records. The next couple of turnpoints came easily and now I'm heading towards the Poorman's turnpoint fairly low. I see a few gliders hunting for thermals as I arrive in area without any luck. I'm not catching much on the way to the turn point. I even deviate off course to a peak in hope that this trigger would be working but no luck. I was really low working some very weak stuff. This was a right turn day and I was turning left due to the lack of traffic and personal preference. I saw another glider head towards my thermal so I switched to a right turn and lost it! Damn! To rub salt in the wound, the other glider just flew straight through my thermal and didn't even turn in it! He just went straight to the ridge, in the lee, and...started to go up! Then it dawned on me that this is the other side of burnt ridge! If I can make it to the ridge top I can catch the converge again. Well I'm super low and in the lee, I fly down the length of the ridge to the end where it peters down to the valley. I finally get on top the ridge and work a few light thermals.

Then pow! Convergence again and I sky out again. I even out climb the other guy. I'm now high enough to hit the Cemetery turn-point and then some. Cemetery comes and goes (never saw the actual cemetery) and I switch to my "home-stretch" mode that Ray taught me. (Compass screen with glide-ratio to goal). I'm looking for the magic 7:1 glide ratio to goal that would assure me of goal. Right now it's about 10:1, gotta work it down. I manage to find some weak stuff along the route. I have no idea where Donatos is even though I've been driven there before. It's looks a lot different from the air. I have a nice tailwind to help out, about 55-65 km/hr ground speed! I finally get the magic 7:1 and start to beeline it to the goal, passing up niblets of lift. Then I realize that there is a ridge in front of goal that need to be cleared. Crap, I just passed up some good lift. I hope I find more! I guess that if I can get that ratio to 4:1 I'll clear the ridge and leeward rotor. Luckly I find plenty of lift. I can see two other gliders. One is ahead and is working the ridge to get up and over (did he forget the about the ridge?). And there's another glider to my right about equal distance to the goal. Race time! I have to beat the other glider! Now I have the magical 4:1. Turn to goal and punch it! I get into an aerodynamic posture and go full speedbar. The air is fairly stable and I'm poised to immediately release if I feel any bumps. The glider in front of me had successfully made it over the ridge and shows me the goal!

LZ visual now, I get butterflies realizing that I'm going to make my first goal. All the work and luck that played out to get to this moment is indescribable. I got the other glider beat and I cruise through the goal cylinder with tons of altitude. I can see all the pilots already on the ground. I'm wondering if there's any beer left, there's an awful lot of pilots down there and I can see them pumping the keg even from up here. My hands are frozen so I take my time getting down. However thoughts of the beer running out results in a B-line stall to get on the ground now!

Once on the ground, I'm given a hero's welcome by the Hawaii crew. My mentor, Pine, is beaming approvingly. Bob and Ray even fold my wing for me. Wow, what a reception! I certainly felt like a different person that day after that ordeal. Then I find out that I'm the only Hawaiian pilot to make goal that day, it made it even sweeter. Needless to say, I didn't feel like studying that night. That same day, a pilot took a bad collapse down low near the area I was scratching in at Poormans. We went to the crash scene and collected his equipment. Again, no reserve deployment, too low? Luckly he survived with a few fractures.

DAY 5:

I get recognized at the pilot's meeting for my virgin goal and even get ranked in the serial class. Cool. We drive up to launch and it's windy again. The common strategy is to launch early before it gets too windy. I launch (badly) and can barely gain any altitude in the shreaded thermals. This time I'm willing to play around in the gaggles more. The start time comes and goes and some gliders take off on course. Some of the top pilots report back that conditions are 2-3 to 3. They end up canceling the task in mid-task. I see that Alex and Q had landed near the vineyard and figured that I had enough altitude to make it. I had orginally thought that I would make the main vineyard LZ, but the headwind was vicious. I stand on the speedbar. I had to land short where Ray and Q landed. The land owner was super nice and offered us a ride to the vineyard. We tested the suspension of the old car to the max. The vineyard was open for business and we were ready to give it a nice bump in revenue. It was one of the nicest times I had in the comp. It was like a typical Hawaiian LZ party, but classier.

DAY 6:

My name was called again during the pilot's meeting, but this time it was Hawaii getting scolded for not signing in immediately. The meet director gave us all a 10% penalty for the task. That really hurt the 0 points we all got for that day. Message was received however. Today, you either made it to goal or you bombed out right away. I fell in the latter category. I think this is also the day that Irene fell out of the sky and luckily into some trees. No reserve deployment.

DAY 7:

Last day. Goal is at Donatos again. Still windy, but not as bad as before. The trick was getting to Burnt ridge, if you could hit the convergence, you made it. I made the convergence again, but this time it was a little rougher. The air was way colder too. My hands were in trouble! Another nice memory is catching up to Ray and coring together. We were close enough to shout. It was awesome hooking that thermel with a friend in a far away land... Ray soon outpaced me to goal. Bob also made it to goal, his first! I'm sure he has a story to tell.

I'm now in a rush to pack up camp and drive to Portland to catch a flight. Everyone else is in a hurry to get to nationals. I'm trying to leave a day early in order to get back and manage my huge project (which went great by the way). Joey decides to come with me to do the same thing in order to visit his family a day early. We pack up and say our goodbyes and unfortunately miss the awards party. We finally arrive in Portland late that night and spend an epic 2 hours looking for a freaking room. Joey and I are remarkable patient and calm throughout the whole affair. Everything was booked due to multiple conventions. The hotels were telling us that you have to go 40 miles away to find vacancy. Now its getting super late and I'm not liking the idea of spending $150 to sleep 4 hours. So we grudgingly check into a motel. I prefer the tents! Hard to fall asleep with the intermittant police sirens in the background. I catch my flight and Joey takes the car to Seattle which saves me the drop-off fee.

This is definitely my longest article, but that's my Rat Race story and I'm sticking to it!


(some of the pictures, I stole from windlines, especially from Scrappy)


Gravity said...

Awesome story Nick. You did great at the Rat Race in very tough conditions, as did all the Hawaii pilots. I couldn't have been any prouder of you guys...

That was a fun comp, and yea Paul kicked my butt. Good thing we settled down for the rest of the event. Paul and I were comparing scars from our wrestling match at the Nationals, haha


sandy said...

Excellent article, Nick! I'll be sure to come back and study it before the next time I go mainland flying. I wanna make goal, too!

Thanks for including the extra tidbits, not only the glory, but the blood, sweat, and tears, too. We need to remember that taking chances doesn't always work out so well, but when it does, how sweet it is.

Congrats on some great flying.

Anonymous said...

Nick . . . Thanks for the write-up.

Not going to Rat Race this year was a HUGE disappointment for me.

I thought I'd gotten over the crushing pain of missing out on the thermals and the poker tent and the beer swilling . . . and . . . of course, my dream of making GOAL.

Now . . . thanks to your wonderfully detailed article . . . I am feeling that pain all over again.

Well done,