A dream becomes reality
Or, how I spent my summer
soaring over a California beach
By ROSHANA ARIEL
Like many people, I have always
dreamed of flying. I've had lucid dreams in which I've
controlled my flight, soaring wherever I wanted to go. And I
wanted to bring that experience, one way or another, into my
A few years ago, I took up
powered paragliding, a sport not exactly geared toward petite,
middle-aged females. The motor was half my weight and extremely
cumbersome. The smell of gas and requisite tinkering wasn't
exactly my cup of tea, either.
So I eventually sold the motor
and took up straight paragliding – just me and a harness and a
soft wing, about 30 by 8 feet, elliptical in shape, towed into
the air up to 3,000 feet by a winch hooked to the back of a car
on a dusty rural road.
Since I didn't take much to
thermals – they're kind of bumpy and scary, I think – I still
hadn't found what I was looking for, despite the peaceful
floating and beautiful views from way up high. Once you're up,
unless you catch a bunch of those scary thermals, you must come
down all too soon.
So my dream was to take up beach
soaring, where the gentle breezes from the ocean keep you aloft
all day long, if you like.
Ahhh, but I live in Kansas.
My sister, who lives in the Bay
Area in California, invited my other sister and I to go to a
beautiful mountain resort where they've stayed several times
for vacations. Here was a golden opportunity.
I arranged to stay a few days longer and found a beach
paragliding instructor on the Internet. I watched the YouTube
videos again where I'd seen guys soaring on faraway beaches and
hoped I could soar on those breezes, too.
As it happened, I got the most amazing instructor, Hugh Murphy
– an expert and fabulous teacher, endlessly patient and very
clear, just one little skill at a time.
First we went for a 40-minute tandem ride, during which we
swooped back and forth across the beach, coming in really close
to the cliffs and dunes, so you could practically touch them
and pick some iceplants. Pelicans and seagulls flew beside us
and dolphins played in the waves below. During that first
flight, I asked a lot of questions about handling the wing over
this kind of terrain.
Then all afternoon, I was kiting and learning how to work with
the wind on the dunes. Flying on the Sand City/Monterey beach
is very different from flying in Kansas or Colorado. Those
gentle breezes? Much stronger than I anticipated, but since
they're constant, they're manageable.
Every once in a while as I was kiting, with the wing in the air
and facing the ocean, he'd guide me from behind up to a high
point and then gently push me off and say, "OK, it's all you,
just grab your brakes at some point and do what feels right,"
and I'd be flying down to the beach below.
Day 2 of beach soaring was incredible. I did what I dreamed for
so long! I flew along the cliffs and dunes back and forth by
myself many times.
Hugh was on the radio most of the time, telling me, "Left ... a
little right ... OK, begin that 180 back ... when you get to me
(standing on a high bluff), weight-shift a hard left ... stay
lined up right over where the beach meets the dunes ... ." For
long stretches, he'd just be quiet and let me fly and figure it
out for myself.
Aside from one minor splat into the side of a dune and all its
line-tangling vegetation, and adding to my bruise collection a
bit, the afternoon was a dream come true. But since I didn't
have the time to learn the finer intricacies of the sport, I
opted for another 40-minute tandem ride, this time with my
The tandem wing is about three times larger than my wing, so
it's like driving a big truck. Hugh let me take over for a good
portion of the flight, and it was really fun feeling that kind
of power. I actually liked it better because my movements had
to be much stronger and deliberate, whereas on my wing, every
little motion made a difference.
For a lot of the afternoon, one of Hugh's former students,
Scott Baruti, was on the beach flying. An expert now, he swoops
along the beach dragging a toe in the sand, touching the sides
of the cliffs and dunes, back and forth, up and down, sweeping
across the sand like a kid on a giant swing set.
Sometimes he'd hover a couple of feet above Hugh, and they'd
carry on a conversation just as though he was standing on the
sand beside him; and then he'd say, “OK, bye,” and just swoop
away and be gone. It was like seeing the YouTube videos I've
been watching all these years, right there in front of me.
Only this time, I was living it.
A version of this column first
appeared in the Salina Journal.