11th Paragliding Accuracy World Championships

The 11th FAI World Paragliding Accuracy Championship took place in the city of Prilep, North Macedonia. It will certainly be remembered as one of the most challenging for competitors and organisers alike. The UK team consisted of Team Leader Mark Bignell and pilots Andy Shaw, Ben Woodcock, Cherry McMahon, Myrianthe Ewington and William Lawrence.

At the start of the competition the weather did not allow for a full Opening Ceremony in the town square but during an initial drink reception the event was declared open by Andy Cowley, FAI Jury President.

Despite the recent effects of COVID there was a record number of participating nations with 129 pilots from 32 nations. The maximum number of pilots constituting a national team was 7 in total with 5 of one gender. Regardless of the size of the team only the top 3 scores from every round counted towards the team score.

Three participants from the first-ever PGA World Championships also competed once again – Matjaž Ferarič from Slovenia and Andy Shaw, from the UK. Interestingly two members of the 2000 PGA World Championships organizing team worked in this latest championship too – Andy Cowley, who was the Chief Judge in 2000 is now an FAI Jury president and Riikka Vilkuna, Finland, who continues to be an FAI steward.

Despite glorious weather for the final of the European Cup the week before, the preceding unofficial training days (that the team from the UK maximised to the full) and no rain since April, the weather proved to be very challenging for the first few days of the World Championships. The competitors were not able to fly until Day 4 (Monday 11th October) when a small window allowed 48 of the 129 competitors to start the competition from a lower take off point in Krusevo. The round started well but by pilot 20 the weather had started to become fickle with a small sprinkling of rain now and again and changes in wind direction. Andy Shaw (pilot 30) from the UK team was able to launch but a sharp thunderstorm brought an abrupt halt to the day and meant the round had to be suspended pending a return to the site. It was announced that the following day there would be a new round as, with the arrival of the Hungarian winching team, the competition moved to winching at Prilep airfield. However, there were some competitors that had never towed. As part of the safety committee, Andy Shaw from the UK team and Vlastimil Kricnar from the Czech team provided a hastily assembled but professional presentation on the theory (covering preparation, towing, releasing and emergency procedures) and a practical video guide for those that hadn’t towed.

So finally on day 5 it truly felt like the competition had the chance to get going. The first full round of the competition was completed with the team putting in good solid first round scores. Andy Shaw (3cm), Myrianthe Ewington (200cm), Cherry McMahon (200cm), William Lawrence (11cm), Ben Woodcock (9cm).

The afternoon saw the start of the second-round with winching continuing to sunset with only Andy from the UK team completing that round with a score of 28cm.

Day 6 saw completion of that round with scores from the rest of the team. Myrianthe Ewington (131cm), Cherry McMahon (200cm), William Lawrence (6cm), Ben Woodcock (200cm).

The third round of winching was started with results in from Andy Shaw (6cm), Myrianthe Ewington (200cm) and Cherry McMahon (200cm). However, incoming rain brought the round to a halt meaning the round was incomplete and the competition was still unvalidated.

Day 7 came with a flurry of snow but it did look very festive when all the competitors went up to Hotel Montana in Krusevo for the competition dinner in the evening.

Day 8 provided little let up in the rain which posed a serious challenge and an increasing amount of pressure on the organisers to get the competition validated on the final day. There were a number of team leader meetings as competitors were desperate to validate the competition but the standing water from the wet week made snap decisions to fly in any dry spell impossible.

Whilst there was no rain Saturday morning, the landing site had a number of large puddles which the judging team, and a number of others, valiantly fought to drain. After another meeting with the safety committee (who had been called every flying day of the competition so far) the last few pilots took to the skies to complete the round that would validate the competition including William Lawrence (5cm) and Ben Woodcock (3cm) from the UK team. Shortly after lunchtime this round was successfully completed, and an additional round was started. However, the conditions were proving tricky so it was decided to stop the round.

Out of 5 rounds that begun, only 3 were completed. Due to a reduced number of rounds, competitors were unable to discard “worst results”, so any mistake played an impact on the final results.

The performance of the Korean team dominated the final results. They have got both 1st and 3rd in the individual Overall and Female categories and also gold as a team.

Overall, the UK team came 14th. Will Lawrence was the top UK pilot, followed by Andy Shaw, Ben Woodcock, Myrianthe Ewington and Cherry McMahon.

Team Leader, Mark Bignell, was ‘very proud to see the results of all the pilots deliver a great team result. Everyone stepped up when they were needed. This is the start of a long road to get the UK back to the top of the World rankings. We demonstrated a high degree of safe and accurate flying. The team were all without exception a credit to the country and our sponsors.’

William Lawrence commented that ‘Going into this competition I had 3 main personal goals – top British pilot, to get only pads scores and to be in the top 30, which I thankfully managed to achieve. My main take away from this event was how important a more varied training plan is needed in the future. More competitions abroad will help practice a wider array of conditions, making me more prepared for next time. The challenging conditions meant it was disappointing not to be able to see how people’s scores would have changed over more rounds. My personal highlight was being able to see everyone again from the whole paragliding accuracy community.’

Andy Shaw said that it was ‘one of the hardest World Championships ever, due to weather, snow, wind, rain… start, stop, start stop, so many times over 10 days! The UK pilots did very well, and I feel very proud they were very well prepared. Lots of the competitors struggled as they were not prepared for the very variable conditions. I was super proud to see progression especially in our new UK pilots in the team. There were so many brilliant lessons taken on board – the future is looking very exciting for the UK National BHPA Team.’

Ben Woodcock admitted that ‘as my first World Championship experience, it was a shame that the weather cut short our chances to get lots of flying in but the flying we managed to do was good enough to get the required 3 rounds in. This meant that our team got to officially compete for the World title. We all did amazingly well and came out beating over half of the other countries coming 14th.’

Myrianthe Ewington commented that ‘If you had told me in July, I would be spending half of October at the Paragliding World Accuracy Championships I would have genuinely thrown my head back and laughed at the impossibility. However, with the most intense two months of training from Andy Shaw, Matthew Bignell and Billy Widgetto at Green Dragons Airsports, the chance to take my first flight from 4600ft at the European Cup the week before the World Championships and the patience of friends and family to support me so that I could train in every possible minute of good weather available it was an amazing opportunity. It has been a vertical learning curve and an incredibly exciting start to paragliding accuracy. I can’t wait to develop further and do it all again one day!’

Cherry McMahon ‘enjoyed the training days leading up to the competition. The opportunity to improve my flying skills and mountain experience was brilliant. The competition was a difficult aspect of the whole experience and unfortunately the weather was a huge hurdle. For my first World Championships I expected a little bit more attention to detail from the organisers but that being said they did the best they could with what they were given. It’s easy to judge the organisers but until you’re in their position it’s hard to determine how you would cope with all the setbacks. Overall, I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity and I can’t wait to do it again.”

The fantastic effort by the team could not have been possible without the support from the BHPA and sponsors Green Dragons Airsports, Sportlite Parasails, UP Paragliders, Thermal Chasers, Expat Academy, P. G. Fry & Company and Natterbox.