The Octopus


Below the thunders of the upper deep,

Far, far beneath the abysmal sea,

His ancient, dreamless uninvaded sleep

The Kraken sleepeth....


I'd like to be under the sea

In an octopus' garden in the shade....


Larry Moss is a balloon artist from Rochester, New York whose large-scale latex balloon sculptures are quite famous in the balloon art and decorating world. Larry and I began corresponding several years ago, when he wrote an article for one of his trade publications about my "bunch of grapes" cluster balloon, the Concord. We agreed that it would be very cool to do a project together, one that would involve his building a sculpture that I could fly, and preferably one that would involve his being paid some money to do so, since unlike me, Larry actually supports himself with his balloon activities.


We looked around for possible venues and sponsors for this project, but for over a year nothing materialized. I did have a chance to meet Larry in person, when he came to San Diego on business. He had a beard and moustache and long hair, and sported a purple bowler; I attributed this to his being an artist.

Our chance finally came this summer. Larry had lined up some sponsors in the small town of Sodus Point, located on Lake Ontario near Larry's home town of Rochester. The flight would take place in the afternoon, as part of a local festival -- always something of a gamble, since with an afternoon flight you're waiting for the wind to calm down in order to fly. Also, the choice of landing spots -- Sodus Bay, the intermittently marshy land surrounding it, or Lake Ontario -- would make a boat landing necessary, at least as a contingency. However, someone was willing to sponsor us, and the proximity to Larry's home was helpful, so I agreed.

We discussed the design for the balloon. After considering several more ambitious designs that were artistically interesting to Larry but seemed likely to kill me, we settled on Larry's idea of a giant octopus, with me atop it, and a cluster of balloons above me as bubbles.


Resting our heads on the sea bed

In an octopus' garden near a cave....


I arrived in Sodus Point with my crew on the day before the flight. Larry and a couple dozen of his fellow balloon artists had already been holed up for several days in a local storage building, where the giant octopus was taking shape.

Although Larry had shared some sketches of it via e-mail, in person the Octopus was impressively massive.Larry also expressed a concern that it was turning out somewhat heavier than he thought it would be. I was unclear on how that might be, if he knew the weight of the balloons going into it, and no more balloons than expected were being used. Afterwards I learned that some of Larry's balloon artist friends had brought their own balloons in addition to what Larry had ordered, so the exact weight was not really known.

However, Larry still thought they could get enough helium balloons inside the creature's head to support it's weight. Since I was going to be flying with my standard number of balloons, that's what I was counting on. If I had to support a substantial amount of octopus weight with my balloons, I would not be able to carry the ballast I needed to control my flight.

Chase Crew: Ernie, Jenny, Nancy and Alan


The afternoon of the flight, Larry and his team moved the octopus (the Fantastic Flying Octopus, per Larry -- I just thought of him as Smiley) to the local park where we would be launching. Smiley had to be squashed down a bit to go under power lines, but seemed to survive the experience in good spirits.

At the park there was a little community festival going on. Music was playing, and a lot of people were milling around. It was still too windy to fly, but trees provided enough of a windbreak so we could get set up. We had to start the inflation now, if I was going to be ready in time to launch at least an hour before dark, so we were betting that the wind would slow down substantially -- otherwise, we were going to waste a lot of expensive helium. Larry agreed, so we started filling the balloons for my cluster, while Larry worked on attaching the tentacles to Smiley and filling the head of the sculpture with the big helium balloons that were to get him buoyant.



Larry and Smiley

... faintest sunlights flee

about his shadowy sides; above him swell

Huge sponges of millenial growth and height;

Bubble cluster



I got into my harness and we rigged the balloon cluster. We waited as long as we could for the wind to calm, but a breeze from the west persisted. Finally, an hour before sunset, I had crew walk me over to Smiley. I took off some of my ballast, so that I would have enough lift to stay up against the breeze. With the assistance of two crew with tether lines I got up on top of Smiley and attached myself to the central line from which the sculpture was suspended.



And far away into the sickly light

From many a wondrous groat and secret cell

Unnumber'd and enourmous polypi

Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green


The plan had been for Smiley to have enough helium in him to support his own weight. However, talking to Ernie on the radio, I learned that the octopus was not yet bouyant. Larry and his team were desparately cramming more big helium balloons up Smiley's wazoo, or whatever one calls that part of an octopus.


Atop the octopus, above the protection of the trees, the breeze was pushing me down on my tethers, leaning me and Smiley to the left. I watched the crowd watch me. A local DJ was playing music, offering imaginative commentary on our preparations between songs. I could hear the helium tanks going down below -- now one side of the octopus was lifting, Ernie told me on the radio.

It was now about fifty minutes to sunset. I told Ernie to have people stand clear, and tossed down several more bags of ballast to get us lighter. I was now down to six bags, less than I'd ever launched with before. Ballast is what allows you to maneuver the balloon, so you want as much of it as possible for saftety, but it didn't look like Smiley was going to fly without more lift from me.

I'd ask my friends to come and see

An octopus' garden with me....

Finally, Ernie said that I the octopus was definitely lifting off the ground. Setting aside for a moment the question of whether this was a really good idea, I tossed away the two lines holding me down to the ground, and I began to lift off. The crowd cheered. As the wind caught me, I began moving down the field to the east. I couldn't see very well below me, because of the octopus, so I was on the radio urgently to Ernie to make sure the tentacles were going to clear the power lines at the far end of the field.


Rising faster now, I drifted out over Sodus Bay.


And up I floated, the first human being to experience the thrill of octoballooning.


The flight had been well-publicized, and a lot of people in boats on the bay were watching me float by. I hoped that my crew, Ernie and Jenny, were headed for the boat that was supposed to follow me.




A powered parachute guy was buzzing around taking photographs.

Briefly it seemed like I might be able to drift north enough to get out over the lake proper. That would have been ideal; second best would have been to go southeast down the length of the bay. However, as I rose, the winds shifted to carry me straight east, right across the bay. That was pretty much the worst direction -- I would not have very long to fly if I wanted to land on the boat, and if I didn't land on the boat, the land on the far shore was swampy and unpleasant.



I burst some balloons to level out at about 1000 feet. The bay below me was clear of boats. I grasped the line that was holding the octopus to me. I got on the radio, which was also being monitored by the local Coast Guard station. "Preparing for octopus drop. Octopus drop is -- now!"


There he hath lain for ages, and will lie

Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,

Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;

Then once by man and angels to be seen,

In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

Well, Tennyson is a bit dramatic there -- actually, Smiley kind of drifted down to a gentle landing on the boat ramp next to a house, smiling amiably through it all. Serious art would have involved something more dramatic, but given the choice between having a big balloon octopus wearing a sailor's hat fall on you and being decapitated by one of Christo's umbrellas... well, there's something to be said for balloon art, isn't there?


Octopus goes down; John goes up


No one there to tell us what to do....


Meanwhile, as soon as I had dropped the octopus, I went shooting up into the air at about 400 feet per minute -- the octopus having been nowhere near to supporting its own weight. I pulled down and burst a lot of balloons, and finally managed to level out at about 1500 feet. I was still moving briskly across the bay, with no sign of any wind that would take me north over the lake. At this point, I had to choose between landing on the boat that was following before I ran out of bay, or flying on over the swampy lands on the eastern shore. Because I had ended up having to support a lot of the octopus' weight, I was already low on ballast for manuevering. I opted for the boat landing.


I set up a descent. Art Putnam, a local man who had volunteered his boat to chase me, had managed to match speed and direction with me. On my first approach I was dropping in too fast, and had to drop some ballast and go back up. At this point I was coming up on the far shore of the bay, and running out of room. I burst some balloons and started dropping in again. At a hundred feet, I tossed down my drop line to the boat below. Standing on the bow of the boat, Ernie reeled me in. I was a few feet off to one side of the boat and dropping in fast, but I stuck a foot out and Ernie grabbed me, saving me from a dunking. We were about a hundred yards from the shore of the bay.


We would sing and dance around

Because we'd know we can't be found....


Smiley was towed back to shore in Sodus Point. There's a tradition of townspeople ripping apart the local monsters... in this case, Larry had invited the attack to help with clean-up, and had offered the incentive of gift certificates hidden in some of the balloons. The process was done in about five minutes, although riding from the dock back to the park, I saw kids carrying pieces of Smiley with them.



Balloon Sculpture Design: Larry Moss
Crew Chief: Ernie Hartt
Water Chase: Art Putnam, Jenny Wolf
Ground Chase and Crew: Alan Samuels, Nancy Samuels, Alice Irwin, Ethan Irwin, Bob Mc Ilroy
Sculpture Construction
Lead: Larry Moss, Royal Sorell
Crew: Sarah Adams, John Barthelmes, Steve Brown, Lee Brusa, Maggie Brusa, Don Caldwell, Julie Conner, Norma Jean DiRoma, Richard Hughson, Connie Iden-Monds, Mary Ann Jakubowitz, Dick Kleitz, Nita Landes, Sandi Masori, Michael Necheles, Tod Neufeld, Debbie Piotrowski, Roger Ragan, Patty Sorell, Ian Stewart, Mark Verge, Bob Williams                

Photography: Ernie Hartt, Jenny Wolf, Alice Irwin, Michael Necheles, Todd Neufeld, Larry Moss, John Ninomiya
Poetry: "The Kraken", Alfred Lord Tennyson; "Octopus' Garden", The Beatles.


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