Competitions: Band Camp for Pilots

I have enjoyed participating in Competitions for 3 years now. You might notice I say “participated”, not competed, not attempted. By participating, I mean I attended, I socialised, I helped, I flew, I landed, I retrieved, I called “bullshit” on some of the stories at night, I had fun. I’ve realised recently that a lot of pilots only think about the stress on launch and the pressure in the sky when they think about participating in a paragliding competition. I thought I should write about all the other good stuff that comes with the competition scene.

Firstly, though, I want to tell you about my first competition. I had participated in a few novice-centric competitions, but I should clarify that I had never done well in those. My first National competition was in 2011, when I had been flying for 3 years. My partner (who was also a pilot) and I had always shied away from them, justifying that it was too much pressure — all that comparison of your performance vs everyone else, the daily rankings etc. But we thought we’d try it out. The competition was in Canungra in Queensland, and the weather wasn’t very good that year. After a couple of average tasks, the forecast was to rain for 2–3 days so we actually abandoned the competition and spent the rest of the week (i.e. the rest of our leave) chilling out somewhere sunny. My experience wasn’t great and my recollection was that I didn’t fly very well and it wasn’t that much fun. To be honest, we didn’t socialise much either.

Fast forward to 2013 — the partner is now gone and I’m looking for people to fly with. A few friends had a group going to that same competition in Canungra and I thought “well, at least I’ll get a week of flying with friends”. That was a real throw-away thought but, you know, that’s the main benefit that keeps me coming back! I’ll expand on all the other benefits but this is key. It’s probably kind of important to go to your first competition with a group of friends — just so that you can bond with others who are probably equally as anxious about “competing”. The other thing I have learned is that not everyone at a competition is actually competing. If your goal is to have awesome flights each day, explore new territory from the sky, and improve your skills by the end of the week, then you aren’t really competing. But you are definitely benefiting from participating! Anyway, the group I went to that competition with in 2013 was a mix of a couple of very good, experienced competition pilots but mostly intermediate pilots new to the competition scene. Damn, we had a great week. The weather behaved (mostly), I met new pilots, I bonded with the group I went with, I had some awesome flights, I learned new skills and I got to know and love the Canungra playground. I think I had worked out how to use a Flymaster for XC flying but working out how to put tasks in was a little stressful. My group of friends would get together each night to help each other upload tracklogs and confirm how we were supposed to get tasks into it. I didn’t register with the intention of becoming a top pilot, so when I stuffed up my task it wasn’t a huge deal. Disappointing, but definitely not the end of the world.

I enjoyed that week so much that I have attended every Australian national competition since, and a few competitions in the USA. Three years later I’m just as excited about the upcoming competitions than I ever have been. In fact, I think I love them more each year. Here is why:

It’s Social.

This is my number one — its close to number two but its definitely number one. The first competition of each year always feels like a reunion — so many faces I haven’t seen for 6 months! And mostly it’s like it was just yesterday we were flying together. There are new faces every year and it’s so inspiring to see new pilots so passionate about the sport. It’s also great to see returning pilots who have clearly done something in the off-season and have improved their flying. The no-fly days and evenings are ideal to chat and find out what people are doing to improve their flying or just get to know people better. Plenty of time for fiddling with harness settings, measuring lines, chewing the fat about technique, sharing inspirational flying stories. I also like to use any extra time on launch (especially when there are delays waiting for conditions to improve) to check out others’ equipment and pick people’s brains about conditions.

Chewing the fat on launch, comparing flight decks, having a laugh. Corryong, 2015.
Sharing the highlights, and the lowlights. Hiking out from a sink bowl with a heap of pilots who bombed. Chelan, 2014.

It’s like an XC Clinic, but cheaper.

So at a National Competition you will get up to 7 days flying, often with retrieve. You will be spending time with the top pilots in that country, and many from around the world, and you will have opportunities to talk to them! In fact, you will have many pilots flying the same air as you, trying to fly the same course that you can quiz them on later. This is gold. The conversations I have had after a task are the most helpful ones I have had about paragliding techniques. “Oh, you went that way — why did you do that?” and “Didn’t you find the air super-turbulent there? How did you deal with that?” and “Right, I now know that I have to be at least 2100m to cross there”. It is about putting yourself out there, but these questions are a great way to make new paragliding friends.

It’s hard not to put yourself under pressure (I do appreciate this) but take a look at other people’s tracks when you upload yours. Especially people who you have pegged at around your level of performance. Notice what routes they took. Track them down and ask them about their flights. Did you fly with someone at one point who made it to goal, even though you didn’t? Try to pin-point the moment in their tracklog where their flight diverged from yours. If you can’t quite work it out, go talk to them.

Some competitions do a daily review of the best or most interesting flights from the previous task. Doarama is a great tool for this. Go to these sessions!! It’s not about hoping they will pick your track, it’s about the chance to listen in (and maybe contribute) to a discussion by experienced pilots about their decision-making. Doarama is a game-changer in this area. If you haven’t used it, take a look. My usual XC buddies and I will upload flights after a free-flying day, just so we can analyse each other’s decisions. This is about learning, and not about berating yourself.

A lot of competitions try to run events each evening or morning around information-sharing. I often see more junior pilots give these a miss. I’m not sure why — but I would say, regardless of the topic, go! You won’t gain more skills by osmosis, but you simply cannot go to one of these talks without learning something new. If the topic is something you know nothing about or didn’t think you’d be interested in (maybe its Acro or Distance flying), just go to listen to someone passionate about a topic enough to put the time and effort into a presentation. It’s a great way to get excited about the next flight, even if the last one wasn’t stellar.

Learn how to exploit the most from a day.

How many times have you got to launch and realised your instrument was flat, you forgot your lunch, you forgot to refill your ballast bag, you forgot to leave the keys in the retrieve vehicle… All these things can screw up a day that you had probably moved heaven and earth to get to. I don’t need to tell you that preparing for a day’s XC can be a hassle. It says a lot about how much we value the flying! If you haven’t worked it out by now, the key to exploiting the most out of a day is to be organised. Competitions are a great way to learn how to do this.

There is a routine and some pressure to be organised in a competition on a daily basis. When you first start, it can seem daunting and a little nerve-racking. Pilots looking serious, power-walking around camp with their camel-back in one hand, looking doubtful at the sky. The reason they look serious is because they really want to get the most out of the day. And they’ve worked out that in order to get the most out of the day, you need to be organised. Here’s an example checklist for the day:

  • Electric equipment charged
  • Electric equipment packed
  • Ballast filled
  • Camelback filled
  • Last 2 items packed but completely separate from first
  • Big breakfast consumed
  • Lunch and snacks made and packed
  • Ride to launch sorted
  • Sunscreen, sunglasses, hat, loo-paper, tissues, phone packed

Does this list look familiar? Do you have a similar list for free-flying? My list is basically identical. What competitions have taught me is how to be organised enough to get the most out of the day. When you are starting out in competitions, you are likely to feel under pressure to be organised, but stick with it, talk to others about their tricks for making sure they remember everything and this will benefit your free flying also.

Managing the pressure, launching confidently. Bright Open, 2015.

The checks you get into the habit of in a competition don’t just make sure something inconvenient doesn’t happen. You also get in the habit of vital equipment checks. That’s not to say you don’t stuff up sometimes but it certainly develops an on-launch discipline that stays with you when you free fly also…. “Leg straps — check, chest strap — check, reserve handle — check, tracker on — check…”

Flights you never thought possible.

So you survive your first competition, with possibly lack-lustre flights but new paragliding buddies, and hopefully a fun week. You spend time fine-tuning the skills you were made aware of — tweaking your harness, your flight-deck, your instruments. You free-fly and try some techniques you learned — looking ahead and adjusting your routes to avoid shade, dividing the sky into thirds, taking off when you can see others staying up etc. The next competition is where this all starts to pay off. The pilots who know how to get the most out of the conditions the day will deliver, will set a task. They try to make it interesting and want people to get a buzz out of the day, whether they make it to the first turn-point or to goal. Some of my favourite flights have happened during competition tasks.

Taken on task at Canungra over the Kerry Valley. Lots of opportunities for people to take gorgeous photos of you!

One particularly memorable flight was at Corryong in 2015. The task took us out to some super-pretty mountains and back to land at Corryong airport. I had made a mistake earlier in the flight — choosing the wrong side of the valley to top up. I had been left behind and didn’t have many markers to show me the correct side, and I had chosen wrong. I recognised my error and slowly scratched my way around and across to where I believed I should have been. My buddy had decked it there, arriving too low but I kept with it, believing I could rectify my mistake. I managed to, but lost a heap of time. Conditions improved as the day went on, becoming more buoyant and lifty. It was mentally difficult passing people coming back from the furthest turnpoint, whilst I still had to get out there, but at least they showed me where the lift was! I got out there and wouldn’t you know it, the furthest turnpoint was in shade. Again, I lost time working out where the lift was with no markers but made my way back along the same route. There were no more markers except someone 2–3 thermals away, so I slowed again working out where the lift was. I followed this lone pilot for the next 15km, finally catching up where I dared to follow a thermal deeper than he did. I gained height on him and set off, having learned previously that when you start to feel the day turn off, time is of the essence. I squeaked into the last turn-point expecting to deck it, but determined to get as close to goal as possible. I left a thermal too low for final glide but hoping to find something along the way. I’d get lift and my glide ratio would say yes, then sink and my glide ratio would say no. I looked back to see my companion landing 4km short of goal. I squeaked into the goal cylinder as the sun was setting, sure I would have to make calls for someone to come get me. The best part was that a couple of my buddies were there to welcome me — yes I was last, by a long way — but I made it!! Having those buddies to welcome me was the highlight of the flight. Competitions bring company to awesome flights :)

Steve and Frank (jumping for joy) welcoming me as last into goal at Corryong Airport. Corryong Open, 2015.

The other great aspect of an awesome flight during a competition is that when you land you can share re-living that joy with so many others! One moment that often gets re-shared in Australia was Task 1, Canungra Cup, 2014. We launched off Tambo which faces west and there is often a timing issue there where if you wait too long the eastern sea breeze comes in and causes the wind to switch from coming up the face to over the back. On this particular task, the timing was perfect. Everyone got off and then the sea breeze came in bringing tall fluffy clouds with them. During the start gate count-down, everyone was weaving their way around these tall, benign, white wispy clouds — it was spectacular! Everyone was buzzing about it. The best part was that even if you didn’t make the first turn-point you were a part of this experience. In such a solo sport sharing these moments, that make all the preparation worthwhile, is such a gift.

Weaving around the clouds, waiting for the start gate at Mount Tambourine. Canungra Cup, 2014

If you find it hard not to be drawn into the competitive side (I can relate to this) hang out with people who are not there to be number one. This is important. Praise each other for specific achievements (getting away, making a turn-point, climbing out from a low save, getting to goal) and not for each other’s relative rankings. This will also facilitate useful conversations (“So how did you get to the second turn-point when I saw you so low at the first?”) rather than ranking conversations which have nowhere to go other than comparing total points.

This is not to say you shouldn’t be competitive, but I’m keen to share the benefits of participating in a competition with those who avoid them because they are “simply not competitive”. Competitions can be more like a fun week camping with buddies and flying everyday, than super-serious, stressful, comparison exercises. Maybe we should call them Campetitions :)