Yesterday, conditions at Quest were east and gusty, so we decided to make the pilgrimage to New Smyrna for some good ole fashion dune goonin. Launch was far from desirable, situated in an overgrown lot between Sandpiper Condominiums and a beach house rental property. There’s a small space before the dune that functioned as our setup area. With space enough for three or four gliders, it easily accommodated the Falcon 170 and Saturn 167 we brought along, although the vegetation made things a bit tight. Once you walk down to the beach, things get a bit sketchy. Launch itself is on top of large, sharp rocks protecting the dune from erosion. The north side is bordered by a concrete wall, a couple pylons, and a volleyball net, and the south side is blocked in by a wooden staircase. High tide was rolling out when we arrived, but the beach was still narrow. Luckily, the area was relatively free of people. Winds were strong east with a slight south component, becoming more south as dusk approached.
Only 5 of the pilots present had substantial dune soaring experience, although a few others had played around in different beach locations. It was shaping up to be a perfect day for soaring and learning. Goon #1, Jonny Thompson, strapped into the Saturn and monkeyed around on flat beach to determine if the glider was flying well since it’d been in storage for a while. Satisfied, he walked the glider up the rocks, launched, and stayed up for a couple minutes. That was all we needed to see to get the ball rolling and get everyone else in the sky. Jeff Parrott and Eric Meibos took a few flights in turn and absolutely kicked ass, topping out around 125 feet. Jeremy Armstrong followed with a couple fun, mellow flights in the Falcon. The south crosswind made upwind passes excruciatingly slow, and the downwinds insanely fast. It was an absolute blast to watch.
Experienced pilots John Simon and Thor Froh took flight next. They’d never soared the beach before, but both got in some solid launches and a few seconds in the sky. I was up next, as one of the least experienced pilots in the group. Although I’ve done some flying at Jockey’s Ridge in soaring conditions, this technical launch was a whole new game. Jonny helped coach me through some kiting on the flat part of the beach in the Saturn (the tide had receded at this point), but I chose to the fly the Falcon instead. I didn’t have enough roll authority in the Saturn to be comfortable since the glider was pretty big on me. In the Falcon, I’d have more responsive turns, but less ability to fly forward in the strong winds. After a couple successful launches and landings, that choice came back to bite me. After my third launch, I’d finally started to gain some altitude and thought I’d entered the lift band, but then I realized I hadn’t been flying fast enough and was being pushed behind the dune. I yanked the base tube in and miraculously executed a rough top landing on the rocks, landing one foot and one knee down. My wire crew was on me in seconds, no damage done.
I launched a couple more times, but was unable to soar. After I flew, Michelle Haag, Heather Renihan, Jamie Kumlien, Rob L., and Thor kited on the beach in a KHK-style dune lesson with Jeff, Jeremy, and Eric trading off on the wingtips. Quest Guru Spinner didn’t fly, but offered hilarious commentary and invaluable advice gleaned from his past experiences flying at New Smyrna. There were smiles all around. It was an excellent crew, and we all had an epic time. Beer o’clock commenced over some tasty seafood at The Breakers beach bar a bit up the coast.
Although I can’t say I didn’t have a perfect day, I still wish we’d had a Pulse - I might have been able to get my first beach soaring flight and maybe I wouldn’t have been pushed behind the dune. Beach soaring really is one of a kind. We were launching in unnervingly strong winds, surrounded by obstacles and opportunities for mistakes. I learned that to get into the lift band, I’d have to push the base tube way out after an aggressive launch off the rocks. That’s advice I’ve never received in 4 years of flying. During my sketchy flight, I did push the bar out, but my launch wasn’t as aggressive as it needed to be. I was stoked I was gaining altitude, but realized too late that I was being pushed back behind the dune. It was definitely a learning experience. Hopefully the next time beach soaring conditions come around, I’ll be more prepared for the challenges. I can’t wait to try again!
As always, I’m extremely grateful for my flying mentors down here. Jonny and Spinner had some really great advice and helped encourage me just to try and to take it slow. Everyone supplied plenty of stoke and positive vibes and just an all around fantastic day on the beach.