When I started to fly in gliding competitions, friends and relatives began to ask me what a gliding competition actually is. Initially, I tried to explain about weather, setting tasks, handicaps and all the other technical issues. Before I had barely warmed to the subject, I would see eyes glazing over and quite quickly the subject would be changed. After the event, the parts of my reports they understood were of fly tormented hours spent in heat and dust waiting to fly or late nights after de-rigging gliders into their trailers in some remote, mosquito infested paddock. But they could also see the deep joy I had in special moments - even if they could not understand the reasons for them.
After this, amongst my friends and relatives when I announced I was off to another competition, said announcement would be greeted with the quiet acceptance of a harmless eccentric. I knew that my sanity would be further dissected and questioned once I was safely out of earshot, if not before. Being the sort of person for whom the need to communicate is almost a physical addiction, I have struggled to find an answer satisfactory to myself and the non-gliding fraternity to the question "What is a gliding competition?".
A gliding competition superficially is about handicaps, weather, tasking and of course each pilot's ability to fly the tasks. But from my own experiences along with talking to other pilots and crews during and after competitions, it is clear that this is just the dry husk and not the internal reality we experience and remember. So, what really motivates people to spend two weeks enduring heat, dust and flies whilst manhandling surprisingly heavy gliders about an airfield or into and out of trailers in virtually inaccessible paddocks?
Gliding is not (or at least should not be) an 'adrenaline' sport and the same goes for gliding competitions. Whilst there are times of very high cockpit workload, gliding is generally fairly relaxed, albeit relaxed at a high concentration level. One cannot 'goof off' when circling in a thermal close to some fifteen or twenty other gliders! There are times of anxiety however; epic scratches away from a paddock are remembered not because of the anxiety of an impending landing in some unknown paddock, but rather for the achievement of the escape back into the sky or the successful paddock landing (and the legendary hospitality of the farming community that follows). It is the same with the final race for the finish on a task: the glider humming at close to maximum speed and bouncing skittishly as it hits turbulence, followed by jockeying into position for landing with four or five other gliders. What remains is the sense of achievement and exhilaration at the successful return rather than the intense concentration needed.
Despite this, gliding competitions by their very nature imply winners and loosers, success and failure. Again, superficially, that is the case - results are posted for each day and there is an overall winner and hence many also-rans. The reality behind this competitive fašade is quite different. Out on the cross country course, the radio crackles as pilots give one another help: "Alpha Whiskey - the lift's better further to the south" "Watch out for the dead area around Forbes, people!". Back on the ground, experienced pilots share their accumulated experience with newcomers and help is always available to conduct needed maintenance or for the major taks of retrieving a glider from a distant paddock and re-rigging it for the next flight.
Many pilots (if not most) fly at competitions not to win them, but for the experiences they carry away. Simply being with other glider pilots intensively for a week or more provides a wealth of learning experiences - including how to spin a good yarn over a beer (glider pilots are no different to fishing folk in this). Gliding competitions also provide the perfect opportunity to stretch oneself and grow. The daily task is set by people who know what should be possible that day - generally a stretch for the less experienced pilots and a stretch for everyone if the weather is not as good as expected. In my first single seater competition, I flew six consecutive 300km or better cross country flights on six consecutive days - and before the competition I had not flown a single one! Whilst in an overall competition, I was actually flying against myself - trying to be more selective in my thermals and faster between them - to improve my average cross country speed. Having the example of others beside me in the sky incomparably enriched my learning experience.
Gliding competitions, as with all gliding, provide diamond moments - memories that endure with intense clarity and inner fire to illumine those days when life brings sullen cloud and bitter wind: the airfield at dawn, picketed gliders sniffing the air in anticipation, sunshine sparkling from dewy wings and an aura of optimism and anticipation for the day ahead; the roar of laughter when the competition director at the daily briefing urged pilots and crews to "Get on to the runway and get your gear off quick!"; watching a group of pelicans as they effortlessly demonstrate their evolutionary advantage to a grid full of gliders, climbing away in an early morning thermal whilst we humans waited on the ground. Each pilot carries away their own moments and it is these that live longest and arise most in conversations, even years after the scores are mere dusty statistics.
So at its deepest core, a gliding competition is really no different from anything else we humans do - it is a personal challenge, shared experiences and a well of spiritual experience. Perhaps, however, as we slip quietly through the sky counting eagles, pelicans and the ever changing clouds as our companions, we are more privileged than most.