Isabel fails to stop teams' soaring spirit

Md. competitors off to N.Y. to fly homemade craft

October 04, 2003|By Julia Furlong | Julia Furlong,SUN STAFF

Sitting on a bench in front of his Finart Studios art gallery in Fells Point, Charles Lawrance looks uneasy.

In a few days, with the aid of a couple of friends and maybe a little energy drink, he will climb inside Finnister, a handmade, human-powered flying machine, fling himself off a 25-foot ramp into the air above New York's Hudson River, and see just how far he can fly.

Lawrance, 33, admits he's a little anxious. But it's not from fear about his personal safety. In fact, he seems more worried about his creation.

"No, the only reason that I'm apprehensive is because we got set back," he says. "Our ... stuff got warped and somewhat ruined, so we had to rebuild, and the timeline of getting it to exactly where we want may not happen."

He shrugs. "That's what hurricanes do."

Finnister, a winged, scaled beast constructed of carved, high-density foam, metal, wood, bamboo and a surfboard, was stored in a shed a stone's throw away from the Patapsco River when Tropical Storm Isabel hit Maryland and put much of Fells Point under water.

"[The water] probably got close to three feet back there," Lawrance says. "I had put [Finnister] up on blocks, probably two feet high, but it got off the blocks." His team found their project, "floating, swimming around in the stinky bay water."

But Lawrance and the four other members of Team Finnister are undaunted. The fierce yet graceful-looking Finnister, they say, will be dry, fresh-smelling and - most importantly - present today as the ever-alluring saga of man and flight takes a twisted turn in New York's Hudson River Park.

Team Finnister will join 36 teams from all over the East Coast - including the Annapolis-based Submarine 2 - to participate in New York's Red Bull Flugtag (pronounced FLOOG-TOG,) which means "flying day" in German. Each team (a pilot and up to five teammates) will launch its vessel off of a 25-foot runway off of Pier 45 and be judged on distance, creativity and showmanship.

The first Flugtag was thought up by Red Bull energy drink founder Dietrich Mateschitz and took place in Vienna in 1991. Since then, more than 20 Flugtags have been held in cities around the globe. While billed by Red Bull as a way to encourage flight, it is very much a tongue-in-cheek affair.

The farthest flight to date is 195 feet (a 75-foot improvement over the Wright brothers' first Kitty Hawk experiment 100 years ago,) but the creativity of past flying machines is much more impressive - they include everything from a flying martini glass to a flying Elvis.

The rules are few and simple, perfect for artistic license. The flying machine must be human-powered, less than 30-feet wide, less than 450 pounds and piloted by someone over the age of 18. Grand prize winners receive a pilot's training course or cash equivalent of $7,500.

In order to acquire showmanship points, many participants don flamboyant costumes, perform skits and provide their own music soundtrack for their flights.

Maryland's other Flugtag entry, the Annapolis-based Submarine 2, led by captain Mike Raab, is described as a "canoe with wings." The craft itself was luckily safeguarded from Isabel by what Raab mysteriously alludes to as "a super-secret hangar." However, other hurricane-related damage drained the team's time and resources, and they plan on finishing their plane on the way up to New York.

According to Raab, the team - including ice rink manager Lance Curran, deli owner Dave Adams, mathematician Andy Terry and concrete salesman Greg Wood - doesn't have to worry about the ride home. Despite the lack of a test flight, he hopes "to be able to fly directly back to Annapolis, right over the Hudson."

Team Finnister, made up of team captain Lawrance, engineer Derek Arnold, local Red Bull distributor Jeff Thomas, surfboard distributor Grant Goode and "engineer-minded, fun-loving" Stuart Wiess, certainly had a big enough challenge without the impact of Isabel. For one thing, their flying craft is unique in that it was designed to swim.

Lawrance says: "Well, we're making it so it's supposed to dive under and embrace the water."

That sounds poetic enough, but does he think it will swim back up?

"Yes, I do. ... There's a lot of floating components, so going under is going to be the harder part."

Team Finnister had been working on their entry for two months before Isabel's unwelcome visit. In the past several days, putting sleep on the back burner, they have scrambled to make their craft the best "lean, mean, flying ship" it can be, both structurally and aesthetically.

"We don't want it to fall apart - a lot of them do when they hit - we want it to hold together and be strong and maybe fly again some day," he says. Like Submarine 2, Finnister will not enjoy a test flight. Lawrance estimates the "flying" Finnister will be doing as a "20- to 30-foot arc into the water." The team's theme is reflected in its name, a combination of "sinister" and Lawrance's inspiration - or you might say obsession: fish.

The self-financed endeavor (which Lawrance didn't enumerate) is of much more importance symbolically than monetarily to Team Finnister. Though Flugtag was a more time-consuming commitment than expected, Lawrance has no regrets.

"Time is irrelevant," he insists. "And I don't mind putting in elbow grease and all of that stuff. And it's not about the money or anything like that. It's ... like a project that you want to fulfill and have a lot of fun with. And, you know, it's all about doing it, just doing it."

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