LABELLE – The East Coast Paragliding Championships, held April 24-29, attracted paragliders from all over the United States as well as Costa Rico and Ecuador. Glades RV Resort, which is on the south of the Caloosahatchee River, about 10 miles east of LaBelle, served as headquarters for the competition.
David “Cuervo” Prentice said the East Coast Paragliders organized about 20 years ago. The competition held April 24-29 was their 17th event.
Paragliding is a highly competitive sport said Prentice.
The competition is based on a point system. Each day the paragliders had a different task, racing cross country to a goal. The longest task was 85 kilometers (52.8 miles). Most days, the tasks were 50 kilometers (31 miles). The shortest, on the last day, was 30 kilometers (18.6 miles). Prentice said the final day’s race is shorter because they also have the awards ceremony that day. He said such competitions are usually won in the first three days of flight.
The winner of the 85 kilometer race made the trip in about 90 minutes.
Because Florida is flat, paragliders are launched by a moving truck. A cable runs from an electric winch on the vehicle to the paraglider. When the truck starts moving, the cable pulls the paraglider into the air, like a child running to launch a kite. The paragliders rise 1,000 to 2,500 feet on the tow line. When the paraglider reaches the desired height, he or she disconnects the cable and rides the winds. They carry GPS devices which connect with a computer system to track their trips. Vehicles are ready to return the contestants to the launch area.
If a paraglider lands within 3 miles of the launch, they can ask for a new launch, but no one gets a second launch until all the contestants have their first launches. “When they lose the lift, if they are outside the 3 mile range, their day is over,” he explained.
“Florida is a great place for paragliding,” said Prentice. “Conditions are smooth compared to out west. He said the low elevation creates amazing conditions for paragliding. “Florida at this time of year has some of the best flying on the planet,” he added.
On any given day, each pilot makes his or her own decision as to whether it is safe to fly. Winds of about 8 mph to 15 mph are considered the "sweet spot." With lighter winds, it is still possible, but not as easy to paraglide. With higher wind speeds, it’s not safe.
The Florida paragliding season runs from October through May.
Prentice said the owner of the Glades RV Resort “has been incredibly supportive.” He allows the paragliders to use a pasture for launching, and helped set up two runways – one east/west and one north/south) so they can launch no mater which way the wind is blowing.
Some of the pilots stay at the cabins at the resort. Prentice said the competition brings thousands of dollars to the area’s economy as they stay in hotels, rent cars, eat at restaurants and shop at local stores. Paragliding is a new way to promote tourism when the snowbirds leave, he said.
Competitive paragliding is a growing sport, said Prentice. “We need to show people how great flying is in the flats.”
Paragliding is great for traveling, he said. A paragliding wing fits in a backpack and can go just about anywhere.
Prentice explained he earned the nickname “Cuervo” for the sound he makes when he launches into the air. In 2002, Cuervo broke the world record for the longest flight without a motor, traveling 240 miles in 8.5 hours.