Chris and Dan are best friends from Tampa, Florida. They have an adversarial, comical energy that is reassuring. They remind me of a pair of quarrelling spouses. I recently met them in a secluded, rural area of Maui that I promised them I would not name. That’s because what they did out there is technically illegal.
Several times a week, they and their friends visit this place to engage in Slope Soaring. It’s one of the only places on the island they can use. That’s because Slope Soaring requires specific conditions: consistent wind, a good throwing spot and a good funnel for wind gusts.
But the equipment is minimal. You take a shaped piece of EPP foam like that used in boogie boards, attach a few mechanical wind foils connected by remote control, then throw the foam wings into the air. The craft look likes an enlarged boomerang. In flight, it recreates the physics of a bird coasting a puff of wind.
“I would think that Maui is one of the best places in the world to do this,” Dan told me, looking around. “I mean, look at this. You got good visibility and look at that.”
I look at that.
“What are those cliffs?” he asked. “Two hundred, 250 feet? The deeper the slope, the more momentum the wind has to give the plane good lift.”
From our vantage point, we can look up at the flyers. They look like flirting sparrows, hypnotically darting and weaving, gaining speed, doing barrel rolls and aerial formations. It is silent and bright and beautiful.
The cliff soaring community is small, tightly knit and extremely secretive about the spots they visit. Time after time they explicitly instructed me not to identify their location or identities.
“Don’t use my name,” one told me. “You can say anything you want, just don’t say my name,” said another.
We were only out there a few hours when Chris lost his craft. The wind died suddenly and he lost control. It went down off to the east, maybe onto the cobblestone beachhead and hopefully not into the sea.
It was getting dark and Chris ran off to fetch his craft before nightfall. I go to help him.
Scrambling down the hill I notice his plane sitting on a precarious edge of the cliff. It stands out, stranded upon the black rocks, a white piece of foam with yellow and red racing stripes.
He wants to get his plane. “Dude, this looks doable but, I dunno,” he said.
I warned him against trying. I pointed out all the loose rocks along the cliff face and said that if he stepped on of them, they would all slide and he would fall. The plane was only about $200 bucks, I said—not worth dying for.
So we sat on the windy cliff, unsure of what to do next. I vainly tried to throw a rock at the plane, hoping to knock it loose. But the rock missed its fell down, shrinking to a dot like on a Roadrunner cartoon.
Babalouie (obviously not his real name) said he wanted to climb down and get it. Big and hairy with a big bushy beard, Babalouie looked like a pirate. Well, a pirate who was wearing overalls and kept drinking tequila from a silver flask.
“Babalouie,” I said. “I don’t want to watch you die.”
He ignored me, then negotiated his sizeable frame down the mountain. “I just wanna have a look-see,” he said, grunting. Rocks began to fall down the side of the cliff and into the ocean. But he made it.
Despite the secrecy the Slope Soarers sought, their spot sure attracted a lot of tourists driving by. They always stopped and asked what we were doing.
“God damn it if I didn’t think y’all were hangliding!” said one potbellied mechanic from Chicago. “Honey, didn’t I say these fellers was hang glidin’!”
His wife smiled meekly.
“Then I thought y’all was feedin’ them birds,” he said, sounding like one of the Blues Brothers. “Then I saw the colors and I said ‘ain’t no way those are birds!’”
At one point a wealthy gentleman and his adolescent son from Boston stopped. They ended up flying one of the planes, which promptly crashed into the gulf.
“That’s the downside of flying, having to run and get it when it crashes and burns,” said one of the Slope Soarers.
The rich guy smiled sheepishly at the embarrassment of having crashed the plane. But he went down the gulch to get it, leaving his son to hold the remote control and look bored.
A Chinese couple pulled up and took great pains to photograph one of the craft in flight. Later a group of Germans pulled up.
“Eh! Incredible!” one shouted. They were all fascinated. “Eh! No engine? All natural? Eh! How very fantastic!”
“Sometimes we are mean to the tourists, kinda,” said one of the hobbyists.