I decided to summarize my knowledge about cross country flying. My ambition has never been hunting XC points or top competition positions. However, by coincidence I had some good results so let me summarize my thought processes for those interested.
Never stop learning
I believe that a continuous study and ongoing theory verification saves a lot of time in the long term. I read books/magazine/web articles, listen to podcasts, visit presentations, discuss with other pilots and watch internet videos regularly. Every source is helpful, in a different way. In the end, XC is about decision making, it has the biggest impact, not the machine’s glide ratio. Some training camps may be invaluable, however my first camp was postponed several times until I made first serious XC flights alone, and then it was not necessary.
The level of detail is usually not very deep in xc flying courses for beginners, simply because they struggle with basics.I have got most advanced tips on competitions, while discussing with other pilots.
Feedback and analysis of my tracklog and tracklogs of other pilots for the same day/place gives me an assessment of my strategy and it is easy to find a more efficient one if it existed. Knowing exact conditions is important so this cannot be done later with the same value.
Psychology. The most important factor for good decisions is psychology. Mads Syndegaard wrote a great book “Flying rags for glory”, describing a need to decide based on our unconsciousness, as it has bigger brain capacity available. Automation of basic pilot skills is therefore a must, otherwise you block a significant amount of your brain capacity. Just imagine you drive a car with manual transmission and each time you need to change a gear you have to remember what to do… You will be distracted and safety+speed will be lower.
Ability to fly without the pressure and to relax is also very important. Deep breathing technique or short (self-taught) meditation prior to flight/on easy glides helps me. Or admiring nature’s beauty. This is very individual, however no pressure means objective danger assessment.
I always assume the risk level and I am mentally prepared to land at any point in time. I landed several times in Annecy last year with no regrets despite conditions improved in the end (cumulonibus clouds). I believe this is one of the major factors of avoiding accidents in my ~1000 flight hours. Of course, reasonable risk acceptance will push you to learn faster.
Once your head is clear, the observation of terrain, conditions and clouds works much better. I do not focus exactly on anything but regularly watch the sky at possible flight directions, especially in a two glide’s area.. Where is a shadow, where was a shadow and where will be a shadow. Same approach for cumulus clouds, plus how big they are. After 20 minutes of this observation (and with regular feedback/analysis of my flights), I can predict better where the next clouds/thermals will be.
Checking nearby clouds regularly and searching for first signs of deterioration is an important part of the air play. If you are good at it, you can predict new routes before they are obvious and you are already half on the way. If you are bad at it, you arrive at a perfect road just when it starts to deteriorate.
Strategy – short term.
Picking a good line is not always possible, we are too slow to the thermal’s lifecycle and their distance. I always, always, always have a backup plan! Choosing fields with none/low vegetation is usually the best option for flying in flats, sunny+windward sides of hills in mountains. I always try to choose my way through 3+ potential thermal spots (called ABC plan in some books).
This needs to be done high, otherwise you can end (as a better option) to buy time in zeroes because there is only A plan, or (worse option) bomb out. In cloudless conditions, this is more important than observation simply because you hit many thermals just “by accident”. Generally, I try to avoid betting on a single card, as I could arrive at a perfect spot between thermal cycles, or the ground is wet which is often not visible.
It is good to know the length of the thermal cycle. It means how long is the thermal formed, and how long is the pause between thermals at the same spot. Big clouds means cycle is longer (for both pauses and themal duration), not fully developed clouds means cycle is lower. In low cycle time, it is better to focus just to the ground, even in cumulus clouds day because we are too slow.
Lowsaves (IMO lowsave is < 300 m AGL in flats). I made countless lowsaves and this is my strategy. Lowsave means you fucked up or had really bad luck, and all 2-4 thermal spots failed for some reason. You are low and no good options are visible to you. Good LZ with low vegetation is usually also a good thermal spot, and increases safety of your flying. When I meet zeroes there, I just try to stay at them, and (again) observe the neighborhood at maximum level.
Swallow birds are a great indication where the core is at the cycle beginning, I always (!) follow them. Birds of prey are also great, but they are not so common. Feeling the glider and good imagination of thermals creation can help a lot. Be patient and when you lose a few meters, do not panic. When you hit a strong (2+ ms) bubble, turn sharp with as much time in it as possible. If you can raise, usually after few meters another bubbles join and you can go very quickly to a cloudbase. This however depends on the day conditions and sometimes bubbles are very reluctant to join.
My 4 lowsaves during a single flight https://www.xcontest.org/2016/world/en/flights/detail:petr.kozisek/20.07.2016/11:44
Strategy – long term.
Knowing the wind strength and direction prognoses can help you very much for longer flights, especially for flying triangles. The first leg should be always with the wind, because you start early and conditions are weak. Second part can be against the wind, as there should be best conditions. Last leg should be again with the wind as conditions are weak again. It is good to plan triangle turnpoints in a way that you close the triangle and can prolong it 10% when you return faster than expected.
Some pilots plan an exact route, with each valley jump having from-to waypoints in the navigation. It has some benefits, unfortunately you block much brain capacity and good decisions based on actual observation, simply because you want to stick to the plan. In my humble opinion, simplicity is the key. Just the main waypoints work fine for me. In a more complicated and unknown terrain, I use some jumfrom-jumpto waypoints but be sure you know how to skip a turnpoint in your navigation device as you can miss one for several reasons.
Best plans are often shattered at start because of overdevelopment, blue holes, cloud coverage or different wind. Have some alternative and more humble plans in your head!
In the mountains, crossing valleys is usually the tough part. Study previous flights, check the starting altitude and places which other pilots used for getting up on the other side, check also the time of transfers! Trust the facts. The heatmap at XC Planner (or Flyxc.app) can also help. I use it in the planning but I rarely put it as turnpoints.
In flats, there are often blue holes. It does not mean there are no thermals. However especially on the edge of a blue hole, there might be big sink areas. Trust to the god of thermal, plan ABC strategy and stick to it. Observe for birds!
Too much cloud coverage in an area will work for some time, but usually not at all after an hour (in extremely labil days it might work in a shadow too).
As you noticed, good XC flight is not about thermalling or gliding technique. Some proficiency is a must, but decisions and strategy are crucial factors. I see XC similar to a poker game with the goal to stay in the game for the whole day. It means learning to play with weak cards with losing an acceptable amount of cash (=height). Recognizing good cards will speed you up, which is important if you try 100+ km flights and competitions. Anyone can fly 100 km in a great day on any glider, they just need to stay in the air 5 hours and slowly move in some direction.