One of the reasons I like paragliding is because it is what I want it to be, unlike many other aspects of my life. If I want to be scared, I can scare myself quite easily with my paraglider. If I want to be pleasured or excited I can also achieve this very easily with my wing and a day in the mountains or at the beach. In fact, I can even choose to experience all of those emotions crammed into one flight. It’s like a backpack sized emotion machine that is powered by my imagination and ideas.
But at the moment I’m only wishing my wing could cool me off. I’m driving in highway traffic in the south of France in a crappy beaten up van whose features include paneled metal windowless siding, manual transmission, worthless brakes, a broken mini disc player, and no air conditioning. The only two windows in the van are down, and I’m driving 95 miles per hour. One would think that this would have a cooling effect, but unfortunately the 105 degree breeze is only scalding my neck and face. There is no relief. Driving faster only makes it worse. Driving slower prolongs the suffering. I focus on the future, and meditate on the heaps of fun I’m bound to have during the next week as myself and two friends execute an idea we’ve had since last fall- to paramotor from the north to the south of France during the ‘Raid de Nantes’, a multi-day 500km paramotor race from Nantes to Toulouse.
Mathieu Rouanet, World Champion Paramotor pilot and my friend and personal paramotor instructor, sparked the idea to follow the race. I then modified his idea to cancel the idea of racing and subsequently conned the gullible but kind Australian, Gavin Zahner, into being our flying photographer. I promised Gavin that paramotoring was really fun, that it’d be easy to pick up since he was already an accomplished free flight pilot, and that generally we’d have a blast. As usual, I was mostly right. The fact that this was meant to be a race for the best paramotor pilots in France and Gavin and I both had less than twenty-five paramotor flights was no deterrent, after all, we’d heard rumors about the best paramotor pilots in France being total weenies. And the rumors were, mostly, right.
For this project, we also needed a driver, which we had until the day before the race when our first driver canceled. Then we needed a driver again. I don’t know how Mathieu came to be acquainted with Antoine, the teenage pilot who was apparently even more gullible than Gavin since he agreed to come on a paramotoring trip solely to watch us fly and drive for a week. I wondered if Mathieu and Antoine, although they had just met, were bonded by a connection cauterized by two packs of Marlboro Reds per day. I thought that they perhaps experienced an intense and unspoken camaraderie unknown to non smokers like me. Not that I was jealous. They were brothers in smoke, prolific and unashamed twin chimneys. Antoine the driver was also a juggler, an absolute expert juggler, who routinely and casually whirled circus batons over and behind his back while he smoked.
Since the excuse for this trip was officially participating in the Raid de Nantes we, perhaps unfortunately, needed to actually enroll in the race in order to be accepted by the other paramoteurists, the strange folk that are French paramotor pilots. We knew that if we just showed up without actually being on the list we’d be found out and immediately ostracized as paramotor imposters, which Gavin and I truly were. Mathieu, on the other hand, is accepted unconditionally everywhere he goes in the paramotor world because he is the world champion and he naturally exudes motor skill. Gavin and I would certainly have to be more careful, even though since Mathieu had 1000 hours and Gavin and I each had 25 hours, we had a total average of 350 hours! Thinking about it this way made Gavin and I feel much better.
At the pre-race briefing on the first day Gavin and I hid in Mathieu’s shadow, which had grown considerably since we arrived on the scene. Mathieu ruled there with a casual authority. Men, most foolishly, introduced him to their wives and daughters and children, all of whom were eager to shake his hand.
It was to be a five day race with a fifteen minute briefing: a new phenomenon, I thought, absorbing the first piece of evidence suggesting that French paramotoring should never be confused or compared with French free-flight; the people and the essence of the two sports have about as much in common as circus clowns and… well, everything else. The briefing was held inside a hangar at the airfield, with no maps and no GPS downloads, just a stiff warning from Ludo, the event organizer and a notorious but retired circus clown, to ‘follow the regulations’ if you wanted to participate. Above the din of paramoteurist mumblings and Ludo’s desperate efforts to be in charge was the sound of light aircraft taking off and landing on the strip behind us. In the crowd of pilots were one paramoteurist with a fabulously offensive grey mullet and silk running shorts, and another walking around in nothing but a black Speedo and a dirty t-shirt with a thin cigar dangling from his lower lip. I was suddenly in a hurry to fly away.
Gavin and I being just Paramo-tourists, we were the only team with no radios, no hurry, and no desire to beat anyone at all, so we sat in the sun and watched the mass start. As sixty of France’s finest paramotor pilots launched from the windy airfield, we suppressed our amazement at the ground-handling carnage and even managed to not laugh out loud when several trike pilots tried to launch in the wind. Determined and serious looking, but for some reason without helmets, they inflated their wings and were each immediately dragged onto their sides and heads with their motors revved full throttle, whirring helplessly like angry handicapped beetles.
After we let the wind relax a little and finished watching the show, Gavin and Mathieu and I launched and flew downwind in the opposite direction of the other competitors and the finish line. As we climbed a little and began to fly to the northeast, I settled into my harness and made mental notes of the small adjustments I needed make for the rest of the week’s flying. Initially I had been nervous about flying the Viper, a high performance competition Paramotor wing, but after playing with it a little and getting to know it in the windy turbulence I was amazed at how solid it was. Unlike a pure free-flight wing, the Reflex Profile of the Viper keeps it in inflated at incredibly low angles of attack, making it unnaturally stable.
After a couple of hours in the air we met the Loire River, and turned to follow it upstream. As the sun lowered and the river turned black, we checked the time and realized that we were still 50 km from our goal, a small community of hippies living in Neanderthal-like caves near the village of Grezilles, and realized that we’d have to land and finish our flight in the morning.
We awoke at the Château Grezille vineyard between a field of sunflowers and a newly harvested wheat field. Although we were camped out at the entrance to the chateau, the mansion itself was still quite in the distance, protected by several thousand rows of old vines.
We launched from the Chateau’s field and gained altitude to search for the cave dwelling hippies that Mathieu had heard rumors of. Although obviously somewhat primitive, they did apparently have a phone, although each of the three times that Mathieu had called someone different answered. After launching, we see numerous depressions in the low hills where houses have been dug out of the chalky cliffs, but only one outpost fortified by a collection of broken down busses and a woman dressed in bright colors waving an orange scarf: eureka. We landed near her and she invited us into the caves for coffee and freshly baked bread as bearded Frenchmen emerged from the rocks. After an amazing meal of Lebanese couscous and fish, all baked in a stone oven, we were given a tour of the caves, some of which had been inhabited as early as 1200 years ago. We learned that although they were dirty cave dwelling hippies, not only did they have a phone, but also an internet connection housed in a 900 year old cave and running water!
To Be Continued…
The Raid de Nantes, part 2.
In the last installment of this story, Gavin, Mathieu, and Matt launched at the start of the ‘Raid de Nantes’ paramotor race and, not racing, flew in the opposite direction and landed at a hippie cave dwelling. After traveling back to the western edge of France,
On the Atlantic coast at St Georges de Didonne, the winds aloft were blending in with the sea breeze to make for nearly perfect downwind flying conditions to reach our next goal, Bourg, just north of Bordeaux. Mathieu led, setting a dangerous example for Gavin and I. He skimmed the surface of the ocean flying downwind, dragging his heel in the surf with a 70km/h groundspeed. Gavin and I, till now unpunished for any paramotor mistakes, followed suit spending slightly less time with our feet actually in the water but just as much time flying a few inches above it. When flying that fast so close to the ground it is difficult to think of anything other than how catastrophic a mistake or a motor problem would be. The thought is obsessive, and would consume us totally were it not for the feeling of excitement and fun that can come with risking so much. We weren’t just flying downwind; we were flying downwind in strong wind on heavily loaded comp wings with trimmers in the full out position, and in Gavin’s and my case, very little paramotor experience. Further south, just off the coast, a tanker was being loaded by a pipeline spanning the muddy water. Wanting to shoot some photos over it, but not wanting to fly away from the coast without enough altitude to make it back with no engine, I waved Mathieu and Gavin up a few hundred feet. We gaggled up and parked into the wind over the tanker for a few shots, and then Mathieu spiraled down to the pipeline feeding the tanker and landed on it, balancing precariously several hundred meters off-shore and two meters over the whiecaps. The men on the tanker pointed and shook their heads as Gavin and I stared in disbelief. Mathieu balanced on the pipe with his wing overhead for a few moments, and then flew off again, thankfully in the direction of the shore.
After passing to the south of Bordeaux and spending a day of watching the wind at the Dune du Pyla blow at a perfect strength in the wrong direction, we set a course for wine country. The Bordeaux region needs no introduction, but without actually seeing it from the air it is impossible to appreciate the amount of grapes that are grown there. Airborne just south of St Emilion the vineyards stretch, quite literally, as far as the eye can see in every direction. Erupting regularly from the manicured stripes of vines were colossal chateaus, some abandoned and ancient-looking and others in varying forms of restoration. After circling a classic windmill and then being angrily flipped off by a man admiring his exotic cars in the courtyard of his mansion, we continued downwind and Mathieu landed in a field to ask a local farmer where we could taste wine. The farmer pointed across the street to the Chateau Haut Bastor. Minutes later, we were receiving a complimentary lesson on Bordeaux viticulture from the very man who produced the three bottles of wine that we were happily disappearing. Nearly drunk and overwhelmed by an amazing tour of the cellars and unbridled hospitality, we were then shuttled off to the neighbor’s house for a candlelight dinner and a dunk in her pool, and then put to bed in real beds, for a change.
The Bordeaux wine region ends rather abruptly where the Garonne River turns south towards Agen and the next day we found ourselves cruising above sunflower and wheat fields with far more options for landing than we had the day previous while flying over grape stakes. The Garonne ambled in a generally southeast but incredibly crooked direction and we frequently cut the corners to save time, unless there was an out of the way bridge that we could fly under. The river was sometimes bordered by dense brush with no beaches, and when this was the case on the bridged sections in question I usually prayed extra hard for my motor to not quit as we dropped down to the surface and shot underneath the rails or road or pipeline crossing the river. It was irresistible really, who would want to fly over a bridge when you can fly under it?
Drowning is a special feeling. I’ve been held down by waves in the ocean and I’ve even been given a good thrashing by a river or two while upside down in a kayak, but I’ve never experienced anything quite like trying to swim with fifty pounds of motor strapped to my back.
It happened slowly, or at least it seemed to happen in slow motion. Maybe because I had rehearsed this crash too many times over the past week while flying over water and under bridges: The motor stutters, my feet touch, the propeller touches and then the motor dies, and BLAM, face first in the water, sinking fast.
In my mental rehearsals and nightmares, I sank to the bottom like a rock, the lines and canopy following overhead like a jellyfish in whose tentacles I was hopelessly ensnared. I plopped down onto the bottom of the lake or river in a cloud of disturbed silt and busily set to undoing my buckles which, depending on the severity of the nightmare or daydream, were pretty stuck. But there are only four buckles, all quick release, and I have the sequence memorized: chest-chest-leg-leg-shoulders out-swim away.
In reality, there first came the BLAM of splintering propeller and my face connecting with the lake at St Blancard where my motor had stuttered a half second before on the last day of the event. The lake was green, and so appeared the sun from underwater as I turned my head toward the surface and hoped for the air that was just out of reach. The gas tank under my seat was mostly empty and therefore mostly full of air so, contrary to my sinking like a rock theory, I was actually floating face down and mostly upside down just under the surface. Unfazed, I quickly went to work on the buckles and surfaced on the outside of my lines, with both shoes in one hand and the motor in the other. The motor had achieved neutral buoyancy just under the surface of the water, and I realized that if I swam and pulled it as hard as I could then it almost moved towards shore, which was just 90 or so feet way. Impossible. I discovered that my helmet was actually very helpful in delaying my expiration, so long as I kept my head back, my brain floating in it like cargo in a raft. Backstroking, I pretended I was not out of breath until Gavin and Mathieu made it out to me and joined in the fun.