Surfing the Sky
Paragliding at Polipoli
July 06, 2006
I'm no stranger to extreme sports. I've ridden overhead waves, my brother's quad, and once broke my arm launching myself off a hill on my bike (it probably sounds more intense than it was but hey, it was painful). Basically, I'm a sucker for the adrenaline rush. Usually, my attempts at extremism take place on the ground or in the ocean, but when my friend Katie Morgenstern suggested I go up to Polipoli for a tandem paraglide flight with her company Paraflyght, I rallied my courage and accepted.
The challenges began early that morning, when I had to get up at 6 a.m. Dragging my sister with me, figuring she'd be good for moral support, we made the trek up Waipoli road. The whole way, my nerves and early morning appetite battled in my stomach. But Polipoli has an incredible view of the entire island, and the mornings are breathtakingly chilly and clear.
Katie, the operation's sunny and easygoing groundwoman, met us up at the landing site and prepped me for the flight. The waiver I had to sign didn't do much for my nerves, but the instructional video did. "When Dexter says run, run!" it told me. "And keep running until your feet are off the ground, like Fred Flintstone."
Dexter Clearwater is Paraflyght's owner and operator, as well as the tandem instructor who will help launch me off the mountain. Super friendly, earnest and passionate about paragliding, Clearwater has been paragliding for 18 years. He exudes a confidence about his sport that puts me at ease. He also has a pet duck named Chuckie the Duckie that he trained to fly alongside him.
Paragliding began in the 1980s as an offshoot of hang gliding, its more technically demanding cousin. People have been paragliding at Polipoli for about 15 years, and Clearwater has owned Paraflyght for the last five years. He and Katie are at Polipoli every single morning, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
There are about 30 active paragliding pilots on Maui, and some of them are at Polipoli this morning, getting ready to take flight into the rising sun. Clearwater's students line the road, as bodies and equipment are loaded into his truck for a ride up the mountain to Ferns, the highest spot. We can see them through the trees as they launch, the tiny paragliders winding down over the trees. Clearwater sends his students down first before taking off with his first tandem of the day, an 18-year-old girl. We watch them float down the mountain as we sit at the landing site.
While we "parawait" for the first two tandems, Katie tells me that no one's ever died paragliding at this site, though a girl was paralyzed many years ago, before Clearwater owned the company. "The most common injury, besides broken ankles, is tailbone fractures," she says as she shows us her harness, a comfy 14-inch thick cradle seat you sit in during flights. "A couple of pilots got stuck in the trees a couple weeks ago, but they're okay."
The average flight for a tandem with Paraflyght lasts about 15 minutes, but Katie says that some crazies have logged nine and 10 hour flights. I can't help but wonder what they did when they had to pee.
Then the paragliders start making their landings. Most are pretty smooth, but one guy sits down pretty hard on his butt.
Finally it's my turn. Clearwater tells me on our ride up the mountain that Polipoli is one of the most consistent paragliding sites in the world. Because the clouds obscure the view by 11 a.m. most days, paragliding is a morning sport here. In his 18 years of paragliding, Clearwater says he's never had an accident. I find this very reassuring.
At the launch site, called Echos, I'm strapped into a tandem harness in front of Clearwater. The air is completely still, so we wait for a breeze. As my anticipation builds, I wonder if he's stalling on purpose, just to make my heart pound. Probably not. Then the wind picks up and he calls out, "One, two, three… run!"
We run, or at least I try to, and I feel the resistance of the big wing pulling behind us. I do my Fred Flintstone bit, digging my heels into the ground, and then suddenly I'm hanging over the quickly receding ground.
Then Clearwater pulls me back in the cocoon-like safety of the harness, and I'm cradled comfortably in the soft snail-shaped seat. It's a bit like the swings at the county fair, but much higher and much, much calmer.
Since I don't have to do anything, my heart slows down as I begin emjoying the view of the whole island. The instructional video had said, "fly like a bird," and while I know of few birds that hang from giant pillow-like kites, it's still about as close to actually flying as us humans are probably going to get.
We catch some air pockets, cruise back and forth, then approach the landing site. Clearwater skillfully guides us back. We hit the ground running for a surprisingly smooth landing.
Paragliding is awesome. That morning at Polipoli, I experienced new sensations, the least of which was a constant need to sneeze in the bright morning sunlight. It's an expensive sport, but it also provides a unique adrenaline rush, especially when coupled with the total view of Maui it provides.
"It's what I want to do, every day, all day, for the rest of my life," Clearwater tells me. I can see why. MTW
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