Skydiving is not for the faint of heart. Neither is it for the incontinent of bladder or shrill of voice.
As a spontaneous birthday dare, my girlfriend and I found ourselves pulling up to the Victoria Sky Diving Centre one otherwise pleasant Sunday afternoon in early August, to test my fear of falling from a moving aircraft (call me skittish) and also to experience firsthand the allegedly transformative powers of this sport’s exhilaration and fear.
I signed myself up for a tandem jump. Unsure what the word meant, and too lazy to do a bit of research beforehand, I envisioned this as me jumping with a troop of Elvis look-alikes and forming elaborate shapes in the sky – a web of falling gabardine. Tandem actually meant I would be harnessed to a stranger’s crotch and that in the event that our primary and reserve parachutes failed to open, my soft body underneath would protect his fall. I was determined to seek out the thinnest instructor in the room.
Inside the office were hung various safety equipment and harnesses, instilling me with a confidence that dissolved when hearing the good-natured banter between my tandem instructor Brian and a spandex-clad videographer about which piece of my harness connected to which. The videographer’s job was to leap out of the plane milliseconds before me and capture my expressions of, in no particular order, a) Terror and Panic as I realize that I’m falling from a height higher than a tree, a response ingrained by our vine-swinging ancestors millennia ago, b) Anger as I realize this is actually worse than the teacup ride at Disneyland, as had been promised back at the office, c) Excitement, as the neurons inhabiting the fear centres of my brain exhaust themselves to submission and d) Disgust as I ingest a colony of high-flying bugs through my nose, as my body plummets at 9.8 metres per second square.
Feeling a little uncomfortable in the office about being so close to a man in purple spandex, I nervously quip that I forgot my Huggies at home, referring to a rumour I heard about first-timers from a friend at work. “Diapers are optional,” was the straight-faced reply from the receptionist.
The “Oh, this is my first time too” from the tandem instructor and the “I think I’m forgetting something” as we made our way to the Cessna on the tarmac, without our parachutes, added to my increasing discomfort. I feigned a smile and laugh. Also disconcerting was that my jump partner had a full, head-enshrouding helmet, while the one handed to me was mere padded leather, giving me the appearance of an American football star from the 50’s. It also made my face look pudgy (note for future clinical studies: perseverance of vanity remains on imminence of death). The padding was less for keeping my head from splattering like a catapulted watermelon onto the farmer’s field below and more for my partner’s protection if my head whip-lashed behind me.
I was surprised and a little worried by the lack of formal training and skills required of me. Although at the mercy of someone else, shouldn’t I have practiced my falling form longer than the mere 30 seconds when they had me horizontal, arms outstretched on a picnic table? In the movies, didn’t they throw neophytes onto a large fan for practice? The only trick to free-falling, beyond remembering to pull the cord they said, was to hold the front of one’s shoulder straps, arms crossed, and to push back one’s knees whilst kicking one’s bum. I wasn’t sure if this was a hazing ritual for new initiates or if there was indeed a practical element to kicking one’s bum as Gravity had its way with me. The ideal shape for a falling body resembles a banana, Brian said. I was challenged to see the connection, but was starting not to care for all this chit chat; I wanted the experience to be over, so that I could resume my earnest worrying about the other important aspects of my life, like sandwich choices at Subway or shirt selections for the week ahead.
Snugly fit into the back of a Cessna built for five were the pilot (wearing a parachute of his own – comforting!), the spandex videographer, some lunatic stranger doing a solo job for the fun of it, my tandem partner and I. The door closed, the single propeller whizzed to life, and my last opportunity to back out of such madness was behind me. With the lack of space, Brian and I were not yet clipped on to each other, though we were close enough to what some might call spooning.
I nervously kept checking Brian’s wristband altimeter every minute or so. At three thousand feet, the vista outside seemed as high as it did from a Harbour Air seaplane. We would be ascending up higher still, however, above the creosote-perfumed clouds that had swept westward from the fires choking the Interior. Ten thousand feet was our jump altitude; we would be free falling down to five thousand feet for 30 seconds. Brian saw my forehead scrunch as I tried to do the math in my head. “Hundred thirty miles per hour” he said in raised voice, as if reading my mind, referring to our falling velocity when our cord is pulled. Not even close to the speed of a bullet, I was suddenly disappointed. I wanted bragging rights at work on Monday that I was as fast as Superman.
He pointed out the scenery, which at that height was nice but indiscernible, and to be honest I had other things on my mind. Making an effort to seem interested, I peeked out the small, hazy window: I saw the narrow contours of Sidney Spit and the San Juan islands farther out; I could see the lakes and the crisp arteries of both highways. Brian motioned to the patchwork of farmland below us, near Butchart Gardens. “We’ll be landing by those white tents,” he said. I couldn’t see what he was pointing to, but took his word they were there. Would tourists admiring the beautiful azaleas or rhododendrons below hear my screams as I dropped?
A minute or so before I jumped, a strange calm entered my body and I wondered if this was the same, focused serenity that gladiators felt before entering a frenzied coliseum. Then the side hatch opened and sweat dripped by the quart from my leather helmet. Approaching the door, my partner and I inching like mating caterpillars, I was unprepared for the fierceness of the wind and was immobilized by the sensation of dangling my legs outside above three kilometers of ether, as if testing the water of some bottomless ocean with my toes. The videographer had started filming me at this point, while I hung there feebly anchored to Brian who was still inside the aircraft.
Watching the video afterwards with my girlfriend, we could actually see the expression of my face noticeably change at this moment. My face blanched with fear and bore a striking resemblance to a young child who had just soiled itself. The video also shows my eyes closed for the first few seconds that we dropped – which isn’t exactly how I remembered the scene play out. What did flash through my mind, for a brief second between “Oh my God, I’m falling,” “I hope we don’t hit a seagull!” and “Hey, the ferry’s on time!” was “He forgot to explain how to land this thing!”
Fifteen minutes later, after a safe and relatively anticlimactic landing, I was as euphoric and non-sensical as a junky: limbs shaking, dressed in unflattering attire, high-fiving any random stranger who happened to be near, and with a silly grin plastered on my face. And why shouldn’t I be happy? I was alive, though not quite sure if I had been transformed. But at least my pants were still dry.