While I was in Pokhara, I took part in my first competition – the 13th Nepali Paragliding Open. I didn’t do quite as well as I’d have liked, but it was a great experience.
Everyone’s heard about the perils of competition flying and it put me off for a long time. When I went to wind dummy for the Women’s Open in August, I chose not to compete. I was uncertain about what a competition involved and I was reluctant to put myself in a situation where I would be pushing myself to much. But I liked what I saw there and I’ve learnt a lot in the past few months and know there’s a lot more for me to learn, so why not?
At the moment I can do a 30 or 40km flight without too much problem, but I rarely go further. I fly in a relaxed way, climb as high as I can, take my time deciding what to do next. But if you want distance (or to fly with friends with more experience on hotter wings), this doesn’t always work. You need to be able to make the most of the conditions when they’re right, or if, like me, you only have the stamina for a 3-4 hour flight, you need to move more quickly if you want to go further.
I got to see the difference competing could make to my flying on the first day – competition flying is all about moving quickly.
The less than perfect conditions posed a challenge for the task setting committee. But the ridge based task for sports class (the lower category of wings) was pitched just right. I took off a bit too early, climbed to the top, then had to wait it out in a crowded sky until the start. Hating the crowds, I pushed out, losing height, but picked up another quieter thermal which brought me back above the start just a minute before the race began.
When I left the house thermal, lower than some of the others, I was more trying to get away from the crowds rather than get a racing lead. However, I soon realised that flying to avoid the crowds meant I was holding my own in the front gaggle. Initially, I was frustrated that the same wing was always in my way when I wanted to turn in the lift. Then I realised he was simply racing, only stopping to climb when necessary. Aha – tactics! I hadn’t thought of that! So I push on along the ridge, keeping as much height as possible and soon tag the first turn point.
Sometimes while flying, I still get nervous when putting on my speed bar, even though I know from experience how solid my Epsilon 6 is. But in the race, with so much else to think about, I suddenly realised I was using the bar, adjusting for lift or turbulence, without even thinking about it. So much of my attention was on the other pilots around me, other hazards, the best route to the next turn point, etc, etc, that the business of just flying the wing was instinctive. A year ago, I had done one “XC” flight (if you can call it that) – a 7km downwind dash in Algodonales – so I still find this feeling of being a real pilot quite a novelty! But it’s thanks to putting myself in different situations like this competition that I’m getting to experience that feeling.
Coming back from the first turnpoint, I take the first good climb as high as I can to fly back along the top of the ridge back on one straight glide back into the house thermal. Using all my patience (a skill I’ve learnt while flying with some of the great pilots that come in and out of Maison du Moulin in Annecy), I make myself stay there until I see the lift is working most of the way to the next turn point. Then I leave, making the turnpoint and back to the house thermal without needing to stop.
But getting back to the house thermal low, ignoring good lift on the way back, I’m worried I’ve made a big mistake as I now need to find something quickly! But with a bit of luck, a strong climb kicks off exactly where it should be and up I go! The rest of the race is a repeat of the ridge run from the beginning. Confident with this now, I set off on bar, only stopping to top up my height when I need to, tagging the final turn point with two Nepali pilots. As we race to the finish in relatively smooth air with masses of height, I stand on the bar and push towards the finish, thinking I’ll get in ahead of both of them. But I didn’t feel too bad when the Factor 2 to my left suddenly pushed out and left my much slower wing for dust, easily beating me to the finish, particularly when I find out I’m the first girl to complete the task and fourth overall – not bad for my first task of my first ever comp!
But I also got to see how easy it is for pilots in competitions to push it just a little too far, with two pilots ending up in the trees – at least one of which, a good pilot with lots of local flying experience, was because of flying into rotor on the leeside of a ridge.
The next day, the task was cancelled because of low cloudbase. Day three gave us a longer task. While the big boys in open class headed off on a 60km route around the Korchon circuit, our sports class task was just over 30km, involving a short ridge run followed by a circuit of the Green Wall, one of Pokhara’s classic XC routes. Determined not to make the same mistake as the previous task, I waited to take off until about 15 minutes before the start. However, with a little bit of faffing on my part along with waiting my turn on launch, I ended up in the air just five minutes before the start, scrambling with 30 other pilots while waiting for a good cycle to come through.
By the time I got high enough to go, I was already 15 minutes behind the other girls. Trying to play catch-up, and keen to get away from the crowds as ever, I pushed on a bit low and ended up scrabbling again for a climb, which when it came, took me back to the ridge, but further west than I wanted. This meant I had to leave the climb and make a short push into wind to tag the next turn point. By the time I was leaving the ridge, I was nearly 45 minutes behind the rest of the girls, and Jessica, who went on to win the task and the competition, was already on glide back to Sarangkot before I’d even hit Green Wall. The superior glide of her Factor 2, coupled with the increase in the valley wind by the time I was coming back meant that while she made goal with height to spare, I was packing my wing behind the ridge.
The next day, my friend Emily lent me her Mentor 2 to help overcome the difference of the performance in wings. But the decision backfired. A much more technical day, with small weak climbs, I would have been better off on the wing I know. After two hours fighting to get above the ridge, I realised that even if I did get away, I was now so tired that I would struggle to make the course. Admitting my competition was over, I headed for the landing field to nurse a splitting headache and slight disappointment at turning the first day’s victory into a decisive defeat!
But overall, I wasn’t really disappointed. I’d flown well most of the time and learnt a lot. Being able to fly the same routes as pilots on a similar level and later compare our routes, our good and bad decisions online using Xcontest was invaluable for seeing how I could improve my flying, and less than a week later, I went on to complete my first ever 50km XC flight. And now I know that when it comes to competing, as long as I can learn to be consistent, I stand a good chance of getting some decent results.
But even for those who aren’t interested in winning, I think competitions are still a worthwhile exercise. You get full briefings on the sites. You get lifts to take-off and retrieves. You get routes set out for you. You learn from much more experienced pilots and discuss ways round the route, things to look out for, information on what works and doesn’t.
That said, it isn’t for everyone. You’re flying busy skies, sometimes with pilots who are there to prove something and fly aggressively. And however hard you try to tell yourself and others: “I don’t want to win. I’m just here to fly,” as my friends would willingly confirm, it’s human nature to feel the stress of being in a competitive situation.
But for me, I think I can enjoy the flying while using competitions to improve my flying, hopefully even getting a few good results on the way.