A first-time skydiver discovers new frontier

By Karen Kefauver

Photo: Adventure Center Skydiving

Nothing compares to skydiving for the sheer adrenalin rush. Immersed in the moment, Karen forgets the recommendation to keep one’s mouth shut – to avoid the discomfort of wind flapping the cheeks like sheets in the wind.

When my friend Christian Fine of Capitola invited 165 of his closest friends to go skydiving last September, I was one of nine men and women who said, “Yes!” The excursion, in honor of Christian’s 40th birthday, would fulfill his long-held dream of plummeting through the air with a parachute. Since my mountain biking season had wrapped up, I had more free time on the weekends. Plus, a crisp fall day would provide ideal conditions for a jump: clear skies and little wind.

Call me courageous or foolish, but I agreed to jump out of an airplane flying at 18,000 feet elevation then hurtle through the heavens at 120 miles per hour until the parachute deployed.

I just hoped I would live to tell about it.

I called Adventure Skydiving Center in Hollister to learn more about the company and spoke to the owner, Tim Sayre, a former air traffic controller. He described the detailed safety training that would be offered for my tandem jump (in which I am strapped to an instructor). I also checked the website’s “Frequently Asked Questions” and found the tongue-in-cheek answer to “Is skydiving dangerous?” oddly reassuring: “Of course it’s dangerous. You get out of a plane three miles above the earth. And gravity does work … it rules supreme. The only thing between a skydiver and ‘deceleration trauma’ is a chunk of nylon about the size of your living room.”

At least these folks were honest. I was ready to go!

On a sunny Saturday, our Santa Cruz delegation carpooled to Hollister Airport, a 50-minute drive. As we passed sprawling pastures and modest ranch houses, I avoided thinking about what was to come. I snapped to attention upon arrival when I had to read and sign four single-spaced pages of release forms and pay my $230 in cash (discounted group rate).

Our safety briefing was conducted by Raff, a jumpmaster who had completed more than 12,000 jumps over 20 years. He explained that we would be jumping tandem-style, which is common for first-time skydivers. The instructor strapped to us is responsible for deploying the parachute — and the backup parachute, if necessary. After the safety briefing, I shimmied into a blue one-piece jumpsuit (no silver sparkly suits available) put on my aviation goggles and felt ready to fly to the moon.

I was shocked upon climbing into the small plane. Instead of individual seats, there were two metal benches, one on each side of the plane. I had not expected a first-class cabin, but I never imagined that the jumpers and instructors would be squished like sardines in a tin.

As the plane climbed higher, my stomach churned and my heartbeat quickened. At 18,000 feet, the highest altitude permitted for a tandem jump in California, the door opened. The wind roared. A chorus of flight attendants screamed in my head: “The airplane door should NEVER open except in the event of an emergency!” I could barely hear my instructor two inches away. I was numb with fear as I watched my friends, paired with their instructors, exit the plane. Now it was my turn.

“Go!” shouted Sebastian. He nudged me toward the gaping maw of the plane. Perched on the edge, looking at the sprawling patchwork of colored land below, every fiber of my being froze. Suddenly, I lost my desire to topple into the sky. I panicked! Ignoring my hesitation, Sebastian lunged forward and we somersaulted into the air together. I screamed as loud as I could in protest. The free fall, sacred moments of absolute freedom for many skydivers, seemed to last an eternity. In reality, it clocked in at about 90 seconds.

When the parachute finally jolted open, abruptly slowing our speed, I felt tremendous relief — for a moment. We began spiraling in tight circles and my stomach churned. As the parachute gently whooshed back and forth, I fought waves of nausea. “Are you doing that on purpose?” I shouted over the wind. Sebastian nodded. “Please don’t!” I begged. I thanked him for refraining from further stunts. No one had mentioned that motion sickness is a fairly common side effect in this aerial sport.

I have never been so grateful to be back on terra firma. We hit the ground fast, but landed on our feet. I felt dizzy and relieved. I was congratulated by friends – all of whom had survived the jump (though one had needed his back-up parachute). Our gang of newly minted skydivers piled into the company van to drive seven miles back to Hollister Airport. We compared notes.

“I was a little freaked out right before the jump,” birthday boy Christian admitted. “But I took a deep breath, found my center, relaxed and kept my eyes open. I felt very liberated – just me and the sky.”

“I liked having the built-in expert on my back,” said Margaret. “It was very reassuring.”

“I think I am going to be sick,” said Alan.

Alan and I subsequently lost our lunches. What I temporarily lost in calories was well worth what I gained. My first time skydiving showed me that I am willing to push the envelope in my risk-taking. Most importantly, by trying this daredevil sport, I ventured into a new frontier of aerial adventures – perhaps paragliding next? I am not sure if I will jump again, but I sure am glad that I can relive the thrill by watching the video footage of my glorious skydiving debut.

Karen Kefauver is an adventure travel journalist based in Santa Cruz. To view her skydiving video, visit http://karenkefauver.blogspot.com. Her next adventures will be whale watching in Brazil and mountain biking in Peru. Contact her at www.karenkefauver.com