Paragliding Trip: The Kingdom of Tonga

Like The Fine Fillets Of a Deep Sea Fish

If the winch sank to the bottom of the ocean right now it would have all been worth it for this one flight, said Gavin with a playful and mischievous grin. It was quite a statement considering what he had gone through over the previous year to get the winch sent across the world. It had sat in the customs house in Panama for over a month, the original tender had been replaced for one that would better cope with the winch and countless modifications had been made to make everything work. It was a testament of Gavin’s patience and determination and now finally, after almost a year of waiting, it had paid off. The first flights from this winch had been made and, I believe, the first ever paragliding flights over The Kingdom of Tonga.

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Gavin McClurgh is the skipper of Discovery, a 57ft catamaran that is on a five year circumnavigation around the world as part of a kite surf and paragliding expedition in search of the remotest parts of the planet to kite and fly. I had the privilege, along with my twin brother Mike, to be invited to join the boat to spend some time with our friends and in order to help Gavin with the first test flights on the new winch.

We had barely been in Tonga for a few hours before we went flying. We were slightly jet-lagged and quite tired but excitement overcame reason. Discovery was lying in the hot, sticky and dirty little port of Nukualofa and everyone was keen to head out to a small group of desert islands as quickly as possible. We dropped the anchor into the crystal clear waters off the coast of a most alluring and stunning little island. The beach of white sand formed a spur pointing perfectly into a light sea breeze with just the right distance of open deep water before reaching the jagged reef that surrounded the tiny island. What if we don’t find another spot as perfect as this to use the winch a few of us murmured, ignoring the fact that there are hundreds of similar islands throughout this part of the South Pacific. Before we knew it we were lifting the heavy winch into the tender and pulling out brand new gliders and harnesses courtesy of GIN. We were like a group of excited, naughty children running around getting ready to fly. Bruce, a good friend of ours and one of the owners of Discovery, was in all probability the first person to ever fly over Tongan waters. The view that our eyes feasted on from the air was just incredible! A perfect desert island surrounded by turquoise water with our catamaran sitting below all encased within a circular reef. Our excitement continued to get the better of us and Jody, a professional photographer, wanted to get some pictures. I could see her mind reeling faster than the winch as she thought of ways to get the shot she wanted. So we hoisted her up to the top of the mast with the idea that we would winch Mike low and close to the boat so that Jody could get a shot from above with the glider flying close to the catamaran and the tow boat in front. Maybe a little bit ambitious for day 1 but like I said were like a group of animated children. We didn’t actually get the shot. We came too close to the boat, snagged the tow line and Mike ended up in the water. It was not going to be the last time that we got wet…and not the last time that it would be from trying to get the shot! It was an incredible first day and as we relaxed on the deck that evening drinking cold beer with good friends, I knew that two weeks was going to be far too short.

In the way that a battle ship is loaded with guns, Discovery is loaded with toys! Sometimes we would finish breakfast and go flying, other times we’d pick up a surf board and go and play on the waves that were constantly breaking on the reefs surrounding us. When the wind would pick up we’d go kite-surfing and when we really wanted to relax we’d go diving in the wonderful underwater caves. But for me the most magical pass time when we weren’t flying was following the hump back whales with their calves as they came right up to our boat and would even fully breach just off our bow.

The two chefs on board were a lovely couple, Hannah and Lars, who before joining Discovery were both working for Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck, so needless to say that mealtimes were some of the highlights of each day. Lars was not a pilot but his desire to see what all the fuss was about every time that the rest of us would chatter excitedly after another flight was evident and I for one was desperate to get him in the air. Our excitement had been contagious and it was only fair that we shared our addiction with him. And so it was that Lars experienced quite possibly the best and most spectacular first flight ever! Our only scandalous wrong-doing in this act was that a first flight such as this would be near impossible to beat and he would most likely be very disappointed the next time he went flying after this trip.

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Things didn’t always run smoothly or according to plan. We finished in the water on countless occasions. Numerous times we would get wet from trying to capture a particular moment on camera. Jody took some great over/under shots with a glider being towed just above the surface of the water with the coral just below in the foreground. This was a challenging photo to take, firstly for Jody as a photographer who needed to focus one lens in two worlds, which I can only imagine is a very difficult thing to do. Secondly it was not easy for the winch man who needed to keep the pilot just off the water all the way out to the point where Jody was hovering over the coral. The paraglider needed to be so close to the water otherwise Jody’s camera would not get everything into the frame with her wide angle lens. Keeping the pilots feet just above the sea for such a distance proved to be a very difficult task for the winch man whose brake hand was not too steady as the little rubber boat bounced up and down over the swell. On one occasion I was being winched and just as I was in position for the photo Gavin had to swerve to avoid a shallow patch of coral and in the seconds that followed I was in the water! Ah the things we do for fame!

We finished up in the water for other reasons too. We were still getting used to the winch and for most of the crew it was the first time ever using a winch, which was partly why I was there. Sometimes in light winds we would struggle to get the pilot high enough and so the long trek back to the beach would sometimes mean not reaching it. In order to try and overcome this problem on light wind days, we decided to try step towing. Unfortunately we never actually managed to and got wet a few more time as a result! The tender that the winch was operated from only had a 40 horsepower outboard which was ample to winch in wind and just powerful enough to winch with no wind, but when attempting to step tow we found that, even with the slightest breeze, the glider could not stay behind the boat, constantly overtaking it. Landing in the water was never an issue with our rescue boat below us at all times and with the water being so calm.

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Our final flight was, as they say in tongan, ‘Hange ha ika kuo vae’, or ‘like the fine fillets of a deep sea fish’. We found a ridge that was square onto a smooth 10 knot sea breeze, just strong enough to soar with a perfect little beach below to take off and land. It meant that we could get 3 paragliders into the air all that same time. Instead of flying alone, we were now able to fly with our friends and instead of landing because we had to, we were landing because we felt like it. We flew for hours and it was quite simply perfect.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to Bruce, Gavin and Jody for this incredible opportunity. Mike and I will be joining Discovery again next year in Madagascar…so stay tuned!

You can follow the adventures of Discovery on www.offshoreodysseys.com

Also a very big thanks to GIN for sponsoring this trip. www.gin-gliders.com

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