“So, we fell,” said Zapata, who appeared at a news conference hours later looking disappointed but in good spirits. He was undaunted by the setback.
“We’ll do it again,” he said, in “a matter of days.”
On a serene and sunny day in Sangatte, France, Zapata began his mission. The attempt took place from the same spot and exactly 110 years after French aviator Louis Blériot became the first man to fly a plane across the English Channel.
“This morning, everything was just perfect,” Zapata said.
On his jet-powered machine, before a crowd of onlookers, he hovered over the ground for a moment before picking up speed and zooming toward the sea. He planned to make the crossing in 20 minutes, maintaining an average speed of nearly 90 miles an hour. On the clear day, Zapata’s small figure was all that could be seen on the horizon, until moments later when a helicopter caught up to him.
The wind was smooth at the beginning, he said. He was alone above the sea, like flying in a dream.
The plan was to land on a refueling boat about halfway through the trip before completing his journey to England. It was a maneuver he’d practiced many times before. But in the middle of the channel, the conditions were more treacherous than the placid waters he’d left behind at Blériot Beach.
The boat was rocking, and while Zapata could see it shifting from side to side, he couldn’t see how the waves were tossing the boat up and down. When trying to land, the boat hit his flyboard, causing him to plummet into the English Channel.
“It was a disaster,” Zapata said.
That’s when things got dicey. Zapata’s life vest kept him and the flyboard afloat. But his helmet began to fill with water, and he couldn’t get it off. The only way to keep breathing, he said, was to gulp down the water flooding into his face. Finally, he was able to release the helmet and find safety.
Zapata first wowed the world with his invention during Paris’s Bastille Day parade earlier this month — even capturing the imagination of French President Emmanuel Macron.
While Zapata’s flyboard makes slicing through the air look effortless, he says it’s far from easy.
“It’s like becoming a bird," he told CNN. “But it’s also very hard. I have to fight against the wind with my legs so there’s pain too. It’s not as peaceful as it looks.”