Slipping the Surly Bonds of Earth

chris-parry-0096

Originally published by the West Australian newspaper and the writer was a guest of Skydive the Beach.

Disappointment. Now there’s a strange emotion to have in the middle of a skydive from 14,000 feet. The parachute opened, ending my freefall. I felt disappointment. It was a mixed emotion to be sure. I would have been more disappointed if it hadn’t opened.

The freefall had been an explosion of enjoyment for a full minute. I’d smiled for the Go-Pro, whooped for joy and as my cheeks were being blasted I looked skyward, drenched my face in the sun and quoted some lines from one of the most beautiful poems ever written, High Flight, by John Magee.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth…

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace…

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue…

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God…

In 1969, astronaut Michael Collins had a copy of this poem on the Apollo 11 mission and looking down on Earth had remarked that if Magee could write such a poem from the cockpit of a Spitfire, imagine what he would have written from a rocket ship in space.

John Macgee joined the Royal Air Force in June 1941, wrote High Flight in August and was killed in December. He was 19.

As I swung in my harness, linked in an embrace of clips and straps to my tandem partner Dan, I looked around. We were high enough that there was curvature to the horizon and I could see Penguin, Garden and Rottnest Islands just about as they appear on a map, from a top down view rather than from the view from shore.

The beautiful blue sky, the ‘delirious, burning, blue’ as Magee described it, contrasted lightly against the darker blue of Cockburn Sound, Shoalwater Bay, Safety Bay and the vastness of the Indian Ocean beyond.

Even the industry of Cockburn Sound looked spectacular. Silver networks of pipes, tanks and smokestacks with the black hulls of ships waiting offshore to come and collect whatever it is they’re refining, smelting and storing.

When I was a kid in the 1970’s, Cockburn Sound was a mess. I was lucky to spend school holidays by the sea. A little house in Shoalwater Bay was home to my family every school holidays and from the family runabout, the Red Witch, we would pull in King George whiting and revel in the silver flash in the water that would announce the arrival of the herring. I was also lucky enough to have a dinghy with a 1942 Seagull outboard engine which was responsible for disturbing the sleep of the local sea lion population for many years. We spent most of our time in Shoalwater Bay and Safety Bay because of the reputation Rockingham had for polluted waters.

The pollution of Cockburn Sound coupled with the rise of the bogun on land led to Rockingham developing a reputation it’s only recently shrugged off. Over the past few years, from a travel perspective, there has been a surge of interest in this area that has largely been bypassed by southern travellers for Mandurah and the communities further south.

At the beginning of 2015, Gemma Nisbet wrote in West Travel about Manuel Towers, a B&B in Shoalwater Bay. Gemma mentioned that it’s, ‘people from the city looking for a break that’s not far away’ who are coming to stay.   What a change has come over Rockingham! There have also been recent travel stories about Penguin Island, the local kayaking opportunities, swimming with dolphins, the new jetpack riding adventure and a beachfront promenade of dining opportunities that is hard to beat on the west coast.

Entering from above into this new world is Skydive Rockingham, an adventure tourism company that is catering to adrenalin junkies as old as 91 and as young as 12. On my jump, 13 year old Brandon-Lee had been presented that morning, as a surprise birthday present, the news that he was going skydiving. I would have loved to have got a wonderful quote from Brandon-Lee about how he felt about the experience but like you have to be when you’re a 13 year old boy, it’s all about actions not words. He didn’t say much but he can say he jumped out of an aeroplane.

Skydive Rockingham started dropping out of the sky over Rockingham in 2013 and have been frequent fallers above York (Skydive York) since 1996.

Arriving at the office on the foreshore at 0630 the level of staff enthusiasm was closely matched by the level of professionalism. While all the while smiling and asking how I was feeling, the paperwork was being checked and signed, scales confirmed I wasn’t lying about my declared weight and fitment of the harness and a firm introductory handshake with Dan were all accomplished without fuss.

“Do you have a nickname Dan? Diver Dan perhaps?”

“Nup. Just Dan.”

“Got it.”

After the short drive to Jandakot airport there’s no mucking about, we walk out to the aircraft which I’m told is an old crop duster from New Zealand. Less use of the word ‘old’ in the description of the plane would have been appreciated. Expecting to see an aircraft like Dusty in the movie ‘Planes’ I’m surprised to see something that looks more like a big green bean than an aeroplane. Never speak ill of a plane though, you don’t know what bigger plane it might be related to. Suffice to say, it was very narrow and I was already looking forward to getting out of it.

Dan, sitting behind me, starts clipping buckles and pulling straps and pushing me around like a hairdresser; tipping my head over to the side, pulling it up, pushing it down. As I feel him pulling straps I can’t help thinking of loads on my car or trailer that I always seem to loosen accidently as I try and tighten them.

I was about to ask him to shave the back of my neck when all of a sudden the two blokes in front of me just disappeared, they’d jumped out. Gone. No scream. No final questions to determine final agreement to embark at 9.8 metres per second per second towards the ground below.

Suddenly, unlike a hairdresser, Dan is pushing me towards the door. He reminds me to put my arms across my chest before exiting the aircraft. The funny thing is, I’m already outside the aircraft. He’s still inside with me stuck on the front of him.

Suddenly the plane isn’t there anymore.

Freefalling, or skydiving, only really became achievable once aircraft were able to operate at a high enough ceiling to allow time for falling before the deployment of the parachute. While jumping out of aircraft with parachutes and cloth buckets (not recommended) has been going on since not long after the Wright brothers first took to the skies, it wasn’t until the end of World War II that skydiving became a pursuit for adventure. Surplus aircraft and parachutes become available and ex-military parachutists wanted to do it for fun rather than being shot at as they descended.

As I’m falling, I’m doing what Dan has taught me, my arms are held out to keep my position stable. There’s not much else I have to do but enjoy the ride. I’m confident that Dan is checking his wrist mounted altimeter. I could tell him with a fair degree of certainty that we’re falling but I’m not aware at the time that our speed is closing quickly on 200 kilometres per hour. My car can’t do that.

After the parachute has deployed Dan grips my hand and tells me what a great job I’ve done. I’ll take praise most anywhere, most anytime but over the skies of Rockingham I found this a bit too difficult to take. Coming from the bloke who has literally shouldered the responsibility for our lives, it’s a great gesture to congratulate me but all I’ve done is grin my face until it hurt and quote the guts out of a 75 year old poem.

I’m given the opportunity to take the controls and I pull down hard on the right to begin our slow spiral towards the beach below. I focus on three dots below that I know are my family. I knew where they would be standing and I knew the colours of their clothing. With every second I drop closer to them. Dan snaps me to attention and reminds me to lift my legs up so that his feet touch down on the sand first. I stuff up. I don’t quite get my legs up high enough and as we hit the sand we end up looking like a sneaky couple seeking romance in the dunes.

As Dan unclips me from his harness our tethered relationship is at an end. As I leave his arms I am back in the arms of my family. I introduce them to Dan like he is God himself.

“Family, this is DAN.”

Next to the Skydive Rockingham office is the perfect venue to debrief the family, the well named, ‘Coffee by the Bay”. With fresh, warm muffins and a great coffee I regale the family and field their questions. The staff in the café have seen it all before. They’ve heard the descriptions and seen coffee cups go flying as gesticulating arms get out of control in the story telling moment.

Well I’m having my moment.

“So, kids, what did you think when you saw me coming in to land?”

chris-parry-0098

 

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