Falling with style

At the annual Worthing Birdman contest, daredevils vie with charity fundraisers for avionic glory. For our Holiday issue, Jess Farrugia spoke  to those willing to to take a long walk off a short pier for a good cause. Illustration by Kaja Scechowsko.

Across Kent and Sussex, the six o’clock news doesn’t get much more exciting than flood wardens complaining about too many trolleys being thrown into the River Medway.

Against the backdrop of a hazy sky, two women were lunging towards the end of Worthing pier. Both were dressed in tutus, polkadot blouses, and frilly suspenders, topped off with curly wigs - one red, one pink - and a miniature top hat. They looked as though they’d just escaped from the circus.

With their hands clasped together, they propelled themselves forward and jumped; arms flailing, tutus heading skyward, they plunged into the English Channel. As the camera panned towards the beach, thousands of spectators could be seen whooping and cheering with delight, all gathered to take part in Worthing’s annual Birdman Contest.

“After my first jump as Captain Jack Sparrow went so well in 2012, I decided to enter every year"

For the past eight years, the community of Worthing has set aside a whole weekend in August to host the competition. For spectators, it offered an opportunity for a family day out, spent watching countless contenders launch themselves off the pier in an attempt to win up to £10,000. For participants, it meant being competing in one of three classes; the Leonardo Da Vinci or Condor Class, for those competing with hang-gliders and similar craft; or the Kingfisher Class, for fun flyers hoping to raise money for local charities.

The event had become a highlight of the British summer, alongside the Red Arrows Air Show and London’s Notting Hill Carnival. But in February 2016, organisers announced that the event had been cancelled.

As I watched the news unfold, I felt a wave of disappointment that another case of good old fashioned fun had fallen victim to funding cuts. Wanting more than just a two-minute montage, I set out to get in contact with someone who had taken part in the event.

Damien was a veteran contender, having competed in the event for four consecutive years. He explained, “I had watched previous Worthing Birdman Contests and decided in 2012 that I would like to take part. I thought it would be a brilliant experience and a fun way to raise money for charity.”

Damien joined the Kingfisher Class, whose primary goal was to wow the crowds, and with £500 awarded to the most entertaining contestant, choice of costume proved a big decision. “After my first jump as Captain Jack Sparrow went so well in 2012, I decided to enter every year,” he said. “I have since jumped as Superman (2013), Ghostbusters (2014), and Olaf from Frozen (2015).”

In 2015, participants ranged from Buzz Lightyear to Billy Bacon, Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner. However, it’s not just the costume that counts. Damien explains, “I always had a well rehearsed routine to keep the crowd entertained prior to my actual jump.” In fact, a panel of judges awarded marks for costume, props, the pre-launch music, and the crowd’s overall reaction.

Above all, Worthing’s Birdman Contest provided an opportunity to bring the entire community together, the spectators being just as much a part of the event as the contestants. Echoing this sentiment, Damien said “the year I was Olaf from Frozen (alongside Elsa and Anna) was a particular favourite due to the sheer reaction of the crowd.” He recalls, “We could barely move due to the large amount of people wanting photos and a chat. It also raised lots of money for our chosen charity, Rockinghorse Childrens Charity, based locally in Brighton.”

With this in mind, the event’s cancellation is set to have a huge impact on the community over the summer. “It was one of the biggest events in Worthing and possibly the only event that achieved global attention for a relatively small town.” Damien continues, “A lot of the 'fun flyers' will miss the opportunity to raise money for their charities and I think we will all miss the Birdman community, as many participants returned every year to compete.”

It’s clear the many will be sad to see the end of the Birdman Contest, and it will likely leave a large gap in August’s calendar for families and fundraisers across the South East. However, Worthing Borough Council promises new and exciting events will grace the town in the coming months and are confident that the sense of community spirit will remain.  

For now, those, like me, who missed the chance to ever see the event in action, can still watch the highlights. And we could always take that community spirit and channel it into badgering another seaside town to take on the event – I hear Margate is trying to raise its profile. But perhaps the best option is to congratulate eight years of fantastic fun and offer a humble farewell. Bye, bye, Birdman.