Conichiwa-wa-wa Saga!

At the end of last month, Mathew and I (along with Dave and Deano) ventured to Japan to participate in the Saga 2015 International Fiesta and Pre-world Championships. As two of Australia’s 3 picks for next years World Championships we were competing alongside three other Aussie pilots, Pete Wright, Paul Gibbs and Les Springett. We left Hugo in the care of his highly capable grandparents (who within 10 days managed to fix all of the things that were wrong with our house, clean up the garden and fill our freezer with what seems like a years worth of delicious homemade food!).

I think I was deluding myself when I thought I could use this blog to post updates during competition events. The reality is that when I’m competing I have two basic needs that take precedence over everything else: food and sleep. And it seems that doing anything else, such as writing enthralling blog updates, takes up too much of my valuable eating and sleeping time to be given a look in. We literally eat, fly, eat, sleep and repeat for 6 days! Of course if a flight is cancelled then there is a little bit of time to spare but this week we used the time wisely by visiting the fiesta stalls, doing laundry and having an epic shopping expedition to the 100yen shop! 

So here, in no particular amount of detail, or order of events, is a summary of our week:

Saga is a 1-hour drive from Fukuoka, if the highway isn’t closed and you don't get lost! On day one we travelled from Fukuoka to Saga, met up with our mate Sanshiro and collected our balloon gear from the balloon shed.  Matthew competed at Saga last year so there was a nice familiarity when we arrived into town. There was an obligatory stop at Starbucks for my favourite green tea frappe and then on to pilot registration, which runs so smoothly you’re left wondering whether you or they have forgotten something! On the way back to our hotel we stopped at the 100yen shop to buy decorations for our team vans. This year we chose a very tasteful flower theme (see pic below).

Unfortunately due to work commitments we only had the shortest possible time in Japan. We allowed time for one practice flight on the Thursday morning, with the competition running Friday-Tuesday. The practice flight had us flying from the north all the way to the ocean in the south. When I landed, only a few rice paddies separated me from an endless expanse of ocean, eek! The flight was a nice introduction to the infamous Saga winds, as right on cue, just after 8am everything shifted and I didn't quite make it to my last task of the morning. Still, it was nice to get in the air, have a good look around and get the team working together ready for the competition.

We flew all 5 morning competition flights. All week we had some nice wind speeds to use. One flight we did 5 tasks, with 1 task every 12 minutes or so, which was fun! Monday afternoon was our only afternoon flight with the rest of the afternoons too windy or potentially wet.  This was my first time flying in Saga and it was great to familiarise myself with the area before we get to the world championships next year. It is an area notorious for shifting winds. This year was a bit unusual wind wise and we had some pretty consistent and speedy winds with a northerly influence which meant we didn’t have too many of the typical Saga flights. Even so, we still had a little taste of it each flight just to keep us on our toes (and our scores inconsistent! Ha!)

This was my first competition of this calibre and with around 80 balloons competing I really had to learn to get aggressive at times with my flying.  A few times I would be standing in my basket, surrounded by other balloons, giving myself a little pep talk as I could see the target ahead of me and had to descend down into the group. Happily these talks became briefer as the week wore on and by the end of the comp I was muscling in there with the best of them. In terms of my actual flying, I felt like I was flying pretty well and had some great results. It was frustrating not to have a little more consistency with my scores but I now have lots of things to look out for and work on for next year. Every competition I fly I am still learning so much from situations that I have not yet encountered in competition and first time mistakes. One of my goals for the week was to win a task. That didn't happen, but on task 10 I came second with 999 points! I threw 90cm and I’m pretty sure that’s my first ever sub 1-metre result, so, I’ll take it.

The final results were as follows:

  • 1. Rokas KOSTIUSKEVICIUS (LTU) 15,756
  • 2. Johnny PETREHN (USA) 15,068
  • 3. Yudai FUJITA (JPN) 14,769
  • 4. Roman HUGI (SUI) 14,728
  • 5. Matthew SCAIFE (AUS) 14,647
  • 10. Mamoru ENDO (JPN) 13,724
  • 14. Nicola SCAIFE (AUS) 13,442

The organisation and hospitality of the Japanese people is truly brilliant. There was such a welcoming feeling to the event and nothing was a problem. It was lovely to catch up with friends we had made last year and meet new ones.  A huge thank you to my team for the week which consisted of my #1 Aussie crew, Dave Bain as well as our new friends Shinya and Yoshi. Shinya is a young member of the University of Miyazaki balloon club while Yoshi is a 67-year-young Saga local. We were so happy to spend the week with them both. Shinya became our navigator extraordinaire and was brilliant at finding “Shinya Shortcuts” while Yoshi was an all round helpful helper who at the end of the flight would silently disappear from our retrieve team who were measuring markers and would suddenly appear at my basket, having run a healthy distance to get to me! They both volunteered their whole week to spend it helping us, which I think is just wonderful.

It really was a whirlwind week. I missed little Hugo dearly but loved the freedom, time and extra brainpower that I had to myself for the competition. It was so great to be able to focus on what I was doing 100% without having to think about the health and welfare (and toileting habits!) of a whole other person. Even when one of us isn’t flying it is a major exercise in organisation so when we’re both competing it is really hard work.

I'm very proud of Matt who placed 5th, AGAIN! He is working hard to get up onto that podium and I think that 2016 will be his year. I went into the comp thinking that a top 20 finish would be pretty great and then exceeded my expectations. After spending the week in the top 10 of the field, at the end of 6 flights and 19 tasks I ended up in 14th place. Which is actually pretty great, considering 6 of those guys above me are/have been world champions and European champions. One of my goals in ballooning is to be mixing it with the best pilots in the world (not just female pilots!) and I think this is a pretty good start :).

Thanks to Adam Barrow,  Tomoko Kurahashi/Tsubasa Yatoji and Evgeniya Burlakova for some of these pics: