a new york times article:
New Thrill for the Bored-With-Just-Parachuting Set
By COREY KILGANNON
Published: August 23, 2004
ARDINER, N.Y., Aug. 20 - From 5,000 feet up, a parachutist glides gently to earth, destined for a soft, feathery landing in the grassy airfield here at the Blue Sky Ranch, at the base of the Shawangunk Mountains.
But suddenly, at about 500 feet, the jumper abruptly begins plummeting in a downward spiral and seems in a free-fall death plunge. At precisely this unnerving moment, though, cheers erupt from a crowd assembled around a small artificial pond below, and the jumper deftly pulls out of the plunge by banking a turn toward the water.
In a steep, swooping approach, he hurtles toward the pond at about 70 miles an hour. The parachute bleats loudly and the jumper controls it like an airplane wing, leveling himself off and flying low and steady and horizontal just above the pond surface.
It all culminates in a moment of graceful parachute control, as the jumper dips one foot into the water - or two feet, like a barefoot water-skier - and skims the length of the 240-foot pond before slowing to a gentle touchdown on the far bank.
It is called pond swooping, and the Pond Swooping Nationals began Friday at the ranch, a parachute club just south of New Paltz, a 90-minute drive from Manhattan. Ranch regulars claim to have invented this extreme form of high-speed, high-performance parachuting, now popular with a growing subset of thrill-seeking adrenaline junkies bored with simply plummeting to earth as plain old sky divers.
The tournament, in its sixth year, attracts the world's best pond swoopers, competing for about $7,000 in prizes.
On Friday morning, they began their runs, swooping down to the water every minute or so - first Sonic, then The Punisher, then Fruitcake - flying over the water in a narrow buoy lane, first curved, then straight.
Just as many competitors in the weekend event skimmed along on their bellies or buttocks, or lost speed and control and splashed unceremoniously into the muddy water, to hoots and jeers from spectators. This is called chowing, and it is as integral to pond-swooping fun as the perfect surface glide.
Splashers get flagged down by the chow judge, Bruce Chapman, which means a big deduction of points from the judges sitting lakeside in lawn chairs. They assess a swooper's approach, skim length and swoop control. In other events, swoopers try to land on a raft, and show their freestyle skills in an event called canopy expressions.
The crowd watched intently as Clint Clawson, 29, from Perris, Calif., drifted down from the clouds and swooped down on the pond. Mr. Clawson, a top pro on the national Pro Swooping Tour, has won the event at the ranch the past two years. With his black Chuck Taylor hightop sneakers, he traced a graceful arc in the water before landing on the far bank, while mugging for the crowd.
The son of sky divers, Mr. Clawson said he began jumping out of planes by age 9 and eventually started swooping for the thrills and the emphasis on skillful maneuvering.
Swoopers use a small parachute called a canopy, which allows them to drop out of the sky much faster than a larger chute. At 84 square feet, Mr. Clawson's canopy looks like a picnic blanket, made from densely woven nylon for minimum air seepage. During a dive, its riblike pockets fill with rushing air, turning the chute into a stiff wing that jumpers can steer like a high-performance glider. The swooper dives to gather speed and then converts it to lift, to sustain a long horizontal flight above the pond.
Another contestant, Eldon Burrier, 38, a landscaper from Seattle, said he began conventional parachuting in the 1980's as an Army paratrooper. After taking up swooping three years ago, he is now on the pro tour.
"I'm a speed freak and this is a serious taste of speed," he said. "Swooping is like doing a high dive, but with a parachute."
But it is also dangerous. There are the occasional newspaper articles about tragedies like swoopers dying while using recreational drugs, or the dive center in Chicago that recently had six deadly plunges in a year's time.
In the 2001 nationals here at the ranch, Lisa Gallagher, 41, of Columbus, Ohio, hit a wind gust during her approach. Her parachute collapsed, and she slammed into the ground and died.
A rescue captain for the Gardiner Fire Department, Dot Bailin, watched that and the deaths of two conventional sky divers at the ranch. "I'm just watching human beings bounce themselves around," Ms. Bailin said, as she leaned against the first-aid equipment in the back of her Dodge pickup and watched each landing closely.
She treats a steady stream of sprains, cuts and bruises. People with broken legs and arms go by ambulance to a local hospital. Those with broken backs or necks, or worse, go by helicopter to Westchester Medical Center, she said.
Swoopers and tournament officials say that safety is their first concern and that all competitors have completed thousands of sky dives. They welcome critics to compare the dangers of swooping to driving a car or swimming in the ocean.
"Yes, you have to dive to pick up speed, and if you mess it up, you're going to die," explained one ranch regular, Rick Graham, a 43-year-old computer consultant from Queens who said he sky-dives, surfs hurricane swells and has bungee-jumped off the Manhattan Bridge.
"It's dangerous," Mr. Graham said, "but for some of us, it's the only time we're in control of our own destiny. If this sport was totally safe, most of these guys wouldn't be here." Jay