Not only did neither competitor in this year’s Helen to the Atlantic balloon race make it to the finish line, organizers also had to declare the race a tie.
In the 35th running of the country’s oldest long-distance balloon race, there simply wasn’t enough wind.
The winner of the race is supposed to be the balloonist who crossed the finish line — Interstate 95, anywhere from Maine to Miami — by the deadline of Friday night. Neither firefighter Steve Stokoe of Tampa, Fla., nor former builder Daryl Tatum of Cumming accomplished that feat.
Tarp Head, owner of Helen balloon manufacturing company Head Balloons and the event’s "balloonmeister," explained that the two balloonists landed very close to each other, but still short of the finish. Both are declared co-champions.
"We are going to declare it a tie. They landed about 50 miles apart," Head said. "When we plotted it on a map from their landing sites to the closest point on I-95, there is less than 100 meters difference."
Head said Stokoe, who has won the race before, landed north of Greenville, S.C., and Tatum landed east of Chimney Rock, N.C. He said thanks to the gentle winds, Stokoe was able to glide his balloon down in a forest, without getting hurt or damaging the balloon at all.
The race has ended in a tie
before, Head said, but that was before the advent of GPS and other modern equipment.
"This is by far the closest we’ve had," he said.
Head explained that the race has been completed before in about eight hours, but this year there weren’t any really strong winds to help push the balloons to the finish in the two days allotted.
While Stokoe and Tatum were battling to the finish, others stayed behind in Helen to enjoy the three-day balloon festival. Head called the weather fantastic and balloon rides were given both morning and afternoon all three days. He said the festival and other area events had drawn a large crowd, including a tremendous number of "tubers" floating down the Chattahoochee in plastic inner tubes to take a cooling break from the hot weekend.