Up, up and away

A man named after the ancient magician Merlin and another who is creating a dragon are bringing hot air ballooning to Cayman.

Balloonist Merlin Sagon has teamed up with Ritz Carlton owner and developer Mike Ryan to introduce ballooning to the island and the pair ascended 1,000 feet over the North Sound last week in the first free flight balloon ride in Cayman.

The Ritz Carlton plans to launch ballooning for its guests later this year.

Mr. Ryan, who is developing Dragon Bay in the area known as Safehaven, said the names for the balloons had not yet been chosen, but they might tie in with a dragon theme.

Mr. Sagon brought a two-person basket balloon from his home in Colorado, where he runs his ballooning business in the mountain town of Vail. After a week of waiting for ideal weather conditions, he and Mr. Ryan rose 1,000 feet over the sea and landed the balloon in a boat which then took them back to land.

‘I’ve done a lot of trips in my 20 years of ballooning,’ said Mr. Sagon, ‘but this was really something special.’

Mr. Sagon and Mr. Ryan were in a two-man basket, but the hotel will have a larger basket balloon when the service launches, possibly in November, around Thanksgiving.

‘We are looking at things to make Cayman stand out and for projects that stand out as being the best in the world, and to do unique things. We thought it was a great opportunity,’ Mr. Ryan said.

Mr. Ryan met Mr. Sagon when he went ballooning while recuperating from a knee injury in Vail several years ago. ‘We had the initial conversation [about bringing ballooning to Cayman] six years ago. It’s taken a long time to figure it out,’ Mr. Ryan said.

‘I brought a little balloon with me. It’s only eight storeys tall,’ Mr. Sagon, who, in keeping with his magical name, runs Camelot Balloons. He arrived in Cayman on 5 June to do some preliminary work to prepare for the flight.

‘The first part to figure out is can you do it safely and can you do it in a way that is interesting,’ said Mr. Ryan, adding that flying the balloon over the water seemed the obvious choice as the Caribbean Sea is the biggest draw for tourists.

Once the service starts, guests will be flown over the water and will also be able to view the whole island from on high.

Most of the flights will be done at dawn, because that is when the wind is calmest and most consistent, although some sunset balloon flights are also possible, depending on weather conditions.

The Civil Aviation Authority of the Cayman Island issued a special waiver for the flight to take place.

Mr. Ryan’s pilot Tyson Chavez said the balloon flight was a unique and historical one for Cayman as a non-tethered balloon flight had never been done in Cayman before.

‘It’s so unique here, there are no laws that govern ballooning in Cayman,’ he said.

Riding in a balloon low over a body of water filled with marine life also gave Mr. Sagon a novel new idea for Cayman. ‘It could give a whole new meaning to fly fishing,’ he said.

‘I can control my vertical ascent within a few inches. One of the neat things about flying over the Sound was to be able to come down 10 feet off the water. We could see a school of fish going by,’ he said.

Speaking about his choice of Mr. Sagon and Camelot Balloons for introducing ballooning to Cayman, Mr. Ryan said: ‘It was important to us to work with somebody who is the best at what they do,’ adding that his daughters had been taking ballooning by Mr. Sagon in Colorado.

‘I was comfortable putting my kids in a wicker basket with him flying around the mountain,’ he said.

Mr. Sagon taught the late adventurer and balloonist Steve Fossett, who died when his single-engine airplane crashed last year, how to fly balloons.

The balloon flights could also add a new dimension to wedding tourism in Cayman, as Mr. Sagon said several weddings had conducted on board his balloons. ‘We’ve had lots of proposals as well,’ he said.

Mr. Ryan said: ‘It’s another way to enjoy Cayman, and another way to enjoy the water here … We are creating a really special experience.’

No price is yet set for the balloon rides, but Mr. Ryan said similar experiences in South Africa cost between US$450 and $500.

Each balloon ends with a glass of champagne, as is tradition with ballooning, Mr. Sagon said.

Mr. Ryan said that weather conditions in Cayman meant that flights could be held at least 50 per cent of the year. Balloons need more than six knots of wind to take off and 10 knots to land. The most ideal wind conditions usually occur at early morning, meaning those who want to see Cayman from a balloon will have to get up early for a dawn flight.