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A graceful balloon race to the Atlantic
2 compete to be the first to cross I-95 today
Participants in the 35th Annual Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race begin their ascent into the air Thursday. The balloon race, which began in 1974, brought out balloonists from Florida all the way to Arizona and Ohio. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

French author Jules Verne’s fictional character Phileas Fogg lifted from London during the 19th century in a hot air balloon intending to travel around the world in 80 days.

With that same itch for adventure, firefighter Steve Stokoe of Tampa, Fla., and former builder Daryl Tatum of Cumming took to the blue skies of Helen at 7 a.m. Thursday for the 35th Annual Helen to the Atlantic Hot Air Balloon Race.

Instead of circumnavigating the globe, Stokoe and Tatum are racing one another to Interstate 95, "anywhere between Maine and Miami," event director Catherine Cleiman said.

As Stokoe and Tatum inflated their balloons with 40-gallon propane gas tanks and headed into the sunrise toward the coast, nearly 20 other balloons enlivened the Helen sky. Red, yellow, purple, green and turquoise panels burst onto the horizon for one-hour leisure flights.

A three-day festival following the race start Thursday in Helen continues through the weekend, and includes river tubing, champagne balloon flights, golfing and waterfall hikes.

Cleiman has organized the race for the last several years and said the closest point to Helen on Interstate 95 is 225 miles away near Santee, S.C.

"The winner is the first person to cross I-95 by sunset Friday night," Cleiman said. "And if no one crosses I-95, the winner is whoever’s closest to I-95 by sunset Friday night."

Two ground crews in vehicles will follow Stokoe’s multi-colored balloon sporting the image of a baby grand piano dubbed "Sail Away" and Tatum’s blue and purple balloon fondly named "Old Blue." The crews will keep in touch via radio or cell phone with the pilots flying solo.

The pilots will make the trek to the ocean with only a GPS locator, sunscreen, water, snacks and a jacket to wear in high altitudes. Cleiman said they could reach top speeds of 50 mph, flying at a ceiling of about 10,000 feet.

The challenge, Cleiman said, is for pilots to determine the altitude at which winds are blowing the fastest in a favorable direction. She said the win also rests on the ground crews, who must quickly locate and assist the pilot when he or she lands about every four hours to refuel. All flying comes to a halt at sunset, only to begin again at dawn.

Winners will take home bragging rights and a shiny plaque with their name on it, Cleiman said.

Tatum, who owns Balloons Over Georgia, a ballooning company in Cumming, said he has raced to the coast for the past four years.

He said he came in second last year, but aims for first place with just one competitor this year.

Stokoe though, is the defending champion. He won last year as well as two other times in the past five years.

"The best route is to cut across South Carolina," Tatum said. "But the direction changes from hour to hour, day to day. It’s always different. The winner has never been in the same place twice."

As of Thursday afternoon, Cleiman said both pilots made it to the ground near Hickory Nut Gap, N.C.

Stokoe had reported that he landed in a field with no nearby roads.

He was working out a plan with his ground crew on how to find him, and then how to get to him. He may have had to drag the nearly 300-pound balloon and roughly 400-pound basket to the nearest road to allow the crew to retrieve the equipment, Cleiman said.

And Tatum landed in an area near the North and South Carolina state line where his cell phone could not locate a signal. Cleiman said Tatum walked a few miles until he found cell phone service and called his crew to pick him up for the day.

Tarp Head, owner of Helen balloon manufacturing company Head Balloons, won the race in 1979. He said the real pleasure lies not in winning the race, but in the sport of ballooning.

"It’s such a beautiful feeling," he said. "You can see everything and it’s so quiet. It’s a totally different sensation than flying in a helicopter or a plane."

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