Friday, 26 April 2013

Swimming with a Shark

I submitted the previous article to Susan Newby, the edtitor of Sailplane and Gliding Magazine and then promptly ended up ditching a couple of weeks later, before that story had been published, so I was obliged to write the article which follows, of how I got it wrong. Both appear in the June - July 2013 edition of the magazine. Follow the link to see how to subscribe to the magazine.

I felt the cold clammy hand of fear on the last Friday of April 2013. It wasn’t an irrational fear, like "oooh there is something under the bed" or a nervous fear like standing up to give a presentation; it was from the grim realisation that I had flown myself into a hole with no way out. I know my last article started by alluding that we should do one thing everyday that scares us, as some motivational way to grow and become a better person but I think, on this occasion, I might have taken that notion a bit too literally.

The Flying Shark
That Friday wasn’t a normal day. Firstly, the weather forecast had predicted a good soaring day albeit with a strong north-westerly wind and secondly, the club would have been closed as is often the case on good soaring days down our neck of the woods but his Friday a small band of pilots had arranged to come and fly. We had even convinced Pete Harmer, our CFI to come and fly the tug because he had something else on and couldn’t go soaring himself. A 304km task was declared with the turn points North Hill – Dorchester – Dulverton - Melbury Bub – Tiverton - North Hill. During the briefing banter, I had also speculated that it might be possible to thermal our way up to the North coast to soar along the cliffs for some added awesomeness. It was with that possibility in my mind that I initially set off, chasing Pete Startup in 230, on the declared task.
The grid and the plonker
After turning Dorchester and grinding back upwind past the club towards Dulverton there was a great looking cloud street running up to the coast just west of Porlock and I thought, with the wind strength and direction that the cliffs would definitely be working. My glide computer was showing a wind direction of 325-330/19kts which although was 35 degrees off our perceived optimum, I assumed would be fine because on my previous flight to the cliffs the wind was 40 degrees off from the east and the ridges were still working extremely well. I decided to follow the clouds to see how near to the coast I could get. As I got closer there were wisps of cloud forming above the hills further enhancing my belief that I would be able soar the updrafts. So I gave up on the task and decided to go for an adventure.

I cautiously arrived overhead the coast at about 1500', 5 km west of Porlock and turned west towards Foreland Point. There was lots of turbulence and strong sink, however I continued on, thinking it will be OK, the kink in the hill ahead will work and I can top up there if I needed to, but my grip had got a little tighter and my nerves were starting to tingle. I had just put all my eggs in one very flimsy basket. The sink stayed on! The reality was not meshing with my mental model and doubts where finally starting to flood in. The kink in the hill reduced the sink but didn’t eradicate it and I realised that I would not get around Foreland Point at anything like a sensible height and was now also not convinced that I would find lift even if I could get around the point, so I turned to run for the fields at Porlock. I knew I was in trouble but still thought, hoped, prayed that I would get at least some lift off the hills on the way. Why wasn’t it working? Why didn’t I turn around sooner, before the escape door had been slammed shut? Why was I even here? I’ll have to come back to those questions. Concentrate! Fly the glider!

I was now below the top so I flew as close as I dared into the sides of the tree covered slopes to maximise the chance of finding lift but there was nothing on offer but 4kts of sink. The trees where being swayed by the wind and I realised that despite the upper winds indicating a north westerly flow, the surface wind was blowing along the ridge rather than up and over it.  I now also realised that I wasn't going to make it to Porlock so just aimed to stretch the glide as long as I could.

The tide was out so about 30 meters of shore was exposed between the water and the base of the cliffs. The beach was just rocks with a few boulders thrown in for good measure and I had visions of a very messy crash if I tried to land on land. The only other option was to ditch into the sea, and this I thought, was the far safer choice, so the flying shark was going to go for a swim.

It’s funny the things that go through your mind. I distinctly remember thinking that it was going to be a bugger getting the trailer onto the beach not to mention the glider out of the water and I wondered if the little fishing boat about 3miles out to sea had seen me and would come to investigate.

There was about a 3ft wind swell on the surface of the sea and I put the wheel down inline with what I had read on ditching a glider. I rejected the thought of making a low level turn to land into wind, which would also have taken me further out to sea, in favour of continuing wings level and ditching with the tail wind. I used 1st stage of landing flap to slow down as much as possible without using the air brakes and aimed to touch down about 30m offshore. The tail wheel touched first and I assume it was on the crest of a wave because the nose of the glider pitched in and I was immediately slammed under water. The glider came to rest upside down. I can still see the murky yellow brown rays of sunlight filtering though the water as I recovered my senses after the initial impact. The canopy had gone, and there was a moment of fumbling to determine the difference between the harness straps and the parachute straps before I found the release, pulled it and dropped out of the cockpit before popping up next to the glider. I had a massive feeling of, “Wow! I’m alive” and even the water didn’t seem to be that cold.

There was quite a strong current and I couldn't touch the bottom with my feet so after groping in the side pocket to check if my phone and camera ware still there, they weren’t, I left the glider and started swimming the 15m or so to the shore. The tide must be coming in. From the shore I could see that approximately the first 6 inches of the nose of the glider was broken, I assume from hitting a submerged rock, but was otherwise intact. It was floating with the bottom of the wings just above the surface and with the horizontal stabiliser just below the surface so that the fuselage, aft of the wings, was clear of the water. As for me, apart from a small cut on my hand and my pride, I had escaped unscathed.

Now what? I caught my breath, and set off east along the shore, to Porlock Weir. There was no one on the beach and eventually I stood dripping at the reception of the Miller’s at the Anchor Hotel.  I cannot be grateful enough to angel Maria who let me use the Internet to find some numbers, make a few calls and also plied me with tea in front of the freshly stoked fire while I waited for the cavalry and to Andy, the chef of The Ship Inn next door, who loaned me some dry clothes. True Samaritans!

A while later I accompanied members of the Coastguard to go and ascertain the state of the glider but with the incoming spring tide it was unsafe to venture west along the beach in case we got cut off. Using binoculars we scanned the shore for any sign of the glider but were unable to spot any so assumed it had sunk and the strong tide would make it impossible to search for it until after midnight. The Coastguard guys also speculated as to how much of it would be left, if it was near the shore, being beaten against the rocks for 8 hours and that it had more than likely sunk below the low water mark anyway, so the consensus view was that it was not worth attempting to salvage.
The remains of my ASW20 after being in the water for 45hrs
 Well so much for the how I didn’t do it; let’s get back to those questions. 

Why wasn’t it working? The simple answer is that the wind direction was at too acute an angle to the ridgeline. I had overlooked the fact that the wind direction veers with height and I had based my assumptions on the 3000’ wind, I suspect also that the Porlock valley acts as a bit of a venturi which would have aided in drawing the wind along the coast and off the ridge.

Why didn’t I turn back to sooner? This one is harder to answer. I suppose I was overly confident in my initial assessment of the conditions and the fact that I’ve become pretty comfortable flying low to the ground meant that I didn’t have the normal sense of danger until the realisation finally dawned that I had got it completely wrong. It is this aspect of flight that I’m most disappointed with myself, that I had failed to retain a Plan-B and allowed myself to get into a position that no amount of skill could possibly recover.

Why was I even there? Well this one is both simple and complicated. It’s for the same reason people climb mountains, jump out of planes, surf big waves, ski off-piste and even play golf. The same reason that we go soaring in the first place, for the challenge, for the adventure, the experience, the thrill, the view and most of all for the fun! Individually, we determine how we weigh the risks involved, we balance the options and we make choices to try and get what we crave out of our sport. Sometimes we get it wrong and sometimes if we are extremely lucky we get to learn from our mistakes.

Oh and one final question. Would I go again if the conditions were right? Well, what would you do?

Below are some pictures taken by Mike and Barbie from their Super Cub about 9 days after the incident.
Porlock Weir looking west to Foreland Point
Wings separated from what remains of the fuselage.
Where the wreckage finally washed ashore.


  1. Sad to see the shark washed up like that. But glad your fine and well.
    "What would I do?"
    Id get back out there in the right conditions and catty on flying. Chalk it off as one hell of a lesson and hope more people can benifit from such an experience and possibly avoid it by recognising the questions you posed.

    Hope to see you up in the air again soon matt. With more of your wonderfull videos.

    Happy safe flying.


  2. Matt,

    Thanks for the write-up--it definitely will benefit others! Just wanted to let you know that your videos have been really inspirational to me. I started flight training many years ago but due to life intervening, I never was able to finish. Now that I'm getting ready to turn half a century old, your adventures have convinced me to try to return to my life-long dream and soaring seems the right way to do it. Thanks!

    Can't wait for more awesome videos! Maybe with Flying Shark II?


  3. Matt
    nice to see that you are alive,
    here a link to some articles:

    if you repair your glider, try to chose an eagle to paint on the nose of the glider... ;-))

  4. Sorry to hear of your loss, so glad your Ok.... I have a 3 mtr scale rc replica with paint sscheme inspired by you.

  5. Hey Matt,

    I'm glad this experience left you realtivley unscathed! Thank you for writing it up, especially your own selfanalysis.

    Your videos are an insperation to me. They help me also to convey others, why i'm so infected by this sport.

    I'm also considering to paint a shark mouth onto my ls7 ;)

    Hope to see you back in the air as soon as possible.

    - Folken

  6. Hi Matt

    nice to know your are ok

    so interesting story, i will bring a good learning to myself

    good flights!

  7. Glad you are ok and hope that your flying shark was well insured for such mishaps - perhaps one with a pop up engine next time to save on towing fees might be an idea - glad you were able to get out ok - my 3 year old son loves your videos and insists on seeing them when I am on my PC - keep making these videos they are great !

  8. Hi Matt, I'm the editor of SoaringNZ, the NZ gliding mag. I've seen your article in S&G and have no desire to reproduce the whole thing, I would however like to mention the event in my mag (in my snippets of news section). Could I have a couple of decent photos to use please? The one of the glider on the beach and maybe one of the glider before it went swimming.

    I'm glad you're okay and sorry you lost your glider. It is however a really good cautionary tale.

    You can email me at: soaringnz at mccawmedia dot co dot nz
    Jill McCaw

  9. hello Matt ! Hopefully !!! It wasn't an accident ... Happy to read you matt :) Just your ASW-20 out of service ... Even if It looks like a Shark ... gliders don't swim very well ! Just too bad for your equipment ... Cheers ;)

  10. Glad to see you are well and now I know why you have a new glider! I was actually in Portlock on the Monday after (the last Friday of the month).
    Sad to see the shark like that, but glad that you are fine. Great that you are in a new aircraft and posting more vids!
    Ian (SA)

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  12. this was the ship ?

  13. It's an old cliche but so very apt here:
    Gliding doesn't creat character, it shows it.
    I admire your candid report of the ditching but, my goodness me, I wish that I had the courage and the skill to fly the way you do. All this combined with musical and filming talent too.

  14. Wow! Thank you! I always needed to write on my blog something like that. Can I include a fragment of your post to my website?

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