Water Sports

Free Falling

Story by John Garvin, O2 Technical Diving
Photos by Philip Shearer, Big Blue Unlimited

“Does anyone know of any technical diving facilities in the Turks & Caicos Islands?” The e-mail managed to stay in my In box for less than a minute before I replied with a resounding “Yes!” Little did I know that this reply would involve me in one of the most interesting projects of my diving career. The message was from Tanya Streeter. Her mission: to set a new world record in free diving. My mission (should I choose to accept it): to assemble a team of safety divers that would support Tanya’s record-breaking dive to 160 meters (525 feet).

Tanya Streeter is 29 years old. She was born in the Cayman Islands and educated in the UK. She is also no stranger to world records. In 1998, just months after discovering her extraordinary talent for breath hold diving, Tanya had women’s and men’s free diving records tumbling.

This year, Tanya has set her sights on the ultimate challenge: to dive deeper than any other human being on a single breath of air. On August 17, 2002, Tanya hoped to beat the women’s No Limits Free Dive record, held by Canadian Mandy-Rae Cruickshank at 136 meters (446 feet). Following this, Tanya was then hoping to smash the men’s world record, held by Frenchman Loic Leferme at 154 meters (505 feet).

Like many scuba divers, I always viewed free diving with a sense of deep-rooted suspicion: I mean, if you want to dive deep why don’t you use tanks? I certainly never dreamed of becoming involved with the sport in any supervisory capacity. Tanya’s e-mail expressed her hope that the attempt could take place in the Turks & Caicos Islands, which are famous for their pristine waters and dramatic walls, which in places drop precipitously from 10 to over 2,500 meters. Tanya’s husband (and business manager) Paul Streeter had already secured sponsorship for the event from Club Med Turkoise, an all-inclusive resort based on beautiful Grace Bay Beach in Providenciales. As the owner of O2 Technical Diving, the TCI’s only technical diving facility (based at Big Blue Unlimited), I was approached to help set up, support and sponsor the event in conjunction with Red Bull, Club Med and Big Blue Unlimited.

SETTING THE STAGE

Our first job was to choose a dive site that would best suit the record attempt. It had to be within reasonable distance from shore in case of an emergency evacuation to the local recompression chamber and medical facilities. The chosen site also needed to be next to very deep water.

The wall opposite Grace Bay on the northern shore of Providenciales starts in 12 meters (40 feet) and drops to a sandy ridge at 30 meters (100 feet) before sloping down to the “second wall” in 50 meters (165 feet). It was upon the edge of this second wall that we decided to fix a new permanent mooring.

Hanging over the edge of the drop-off, we secured the mooring line and watched the wall drop steeply away below us to 7,000 feet. The line had to be extended to 200 meters to ensure that the boat hung well out into the blue and did not drift into the edge of the wall. That also meant that we had to rely upon the wind blowing easterly for successful training dives and the record attempt to take place. Thankfully, calm conditions, excellent visibility and gentle, predictable tradewinds made this the perfect location for the record attempt.

GEARING UP

The stage was set: now we needed the equipment. Over 20 large cylinders of oxygen and helium had to be imported from Miami, incurring a whopping gas bill of over $1,500. Two hundred meters of rope supplied by Pelican Rope (complete with reflective strip for low light conditions) for the sled were also imported along with 80 meters of deco line and various Diverite lift bags for recovering the sled from depth. All these ropes needed stretching and accurate measuring and marking so that they could be set to the required depths. An old 12 liter scuba cylinder filled with lead and concrete provided 121 pounds of ballast for the sled line and a makeshift crane was rigged to the back of the Club Med dive boat to ensure the line was secured correctly. Spare air and Nitrox were positioned along the deco line some 45 feet away from Tanya’s dive line as well as cylinders dedicated to filling the lift bags that would raise the heavy sled and ballast back to the surface after each dive.

The sled itself looked like a medieval torture machine. Measuring 11 feet in length and weighing close to 35 pounds, I marveled at how anyone could be brave enough to attach themselves to it and pull the release pin. As safety divers, we had to ensure that we were at least 10 feet away from the sled as it thundered past us at depth to avoid hitting the protruding camera arm.

Prior to the dive, the sled is weighted with a further 45 pounds to help speed Tanya’s descent and hangs from the stern of the boat. It remains at the surface as Tanya slides her fins into the lower wedge. The top portion detaches from the weighted lower portion with a quick release system incorporating a large lift bag (custom-made by Subsalve). A three liter air cylinder provides enough lift for Tanya’s return journey. Tanya also wears a climbing safety harness attached to a metal ring that runs up and down the rope just above the lift bag. This allows the safety divers to assist Tanya to the surface using additional lift bags in case of emergency.

tanyupUpon Tanya’s signal the pin is released and the sled begins its journey down the rope to depth. Tanya can control the speed of her descent by using a brake and also by cracking small amounts of air into the lift bag. A large knot at the bottom of the rope stops the sled’s descent at the target operating depth. It is then Tanya’s job to release the lift bag section of the sled from the lower part and open the tank valve to put air into the lift bag. Like a Polaris missile, Tanya is then catapulted back to the surface at a horrifying ascent rate that would cause a dive computer to sulk for several days. Tanya pulls a quick release pin at the back of her safety harness and then releases the lift bag at 30 meters, gently swimming the rest of the way to the surface. This helps to avoid shallow water blackout that may be caused during the rapid ascent through the last two atmospheres of pressure, where oxygen can quite literally be sucked out of her blood as her lungs re-expand. After a day or two of testing, practice and preparation, we were quite happy with the initial setup.

PUTTING PLAN INTO PRACTICE

David Apperley and I had put together an international team of safety divers. The team was made up of several local divers with additional divers being flown in from the United States and even as far away as Australia. The final team of ten consisted of five Brits, three Americans, one Swiss and one Australian. To satisfy the AIDA (Association International our le Development D’Apnea) guidelines, all safety divers are required to have a buddy and we decided to stage divers at 40 meters (130 feet), 80 meters (266 feet), 110 meters (366 feet) and 130 meters (432 feet). The 130 meter divers (David Apperley and I) were on inspiration closed circuit rebreathers and had suitable gas and tables to reach the record depth of 160 meters if required.

he Club Med dive boat (previously used for conducting “try a dive” classes) suddenly looked a more serious beast altogether with row upon row of double cylinders, stage bottles and rebreathers lining its decks. As our team loaded the boat we received horrified looks from the Club Med resort divers about to venture into the ocean for the first time. The boat was loaded, the team briefed. It was time to go diving.

Twelve days of diving were scheduled in the build-up to the record attempt. Each day allowed Tanya to venture progressively deeper, with contingency days put in reserve should we fall behind schedule. We were to dive on alternate days to avoid multiple deep exposures. The first dive took place on July 27. A half hour before each training dive the boat falls silent as Tanya and the safety divers focus mentally in preparation for the dive. The official timekeeper on board then begins the countdown. Ten minutes before Tanya is ready for her dive, all the safety divers are in the water and at seven minutes, the deepest divers start their descent.

There are several emergency scenarios when a dive might be aborted. For example, if the sled rope was damaged, hanging at a steep angle or if it made contact with the wall itself. As I passed 80 meters (266 feet) on that first day, it was clear we would have to abort. There below us, climbing steadily out of the gloom, was a deep section of the wall. The boat had drifted in the wind, causing the line to drag against the wall at about 110 meters (366 feet). Not a pleasant thing for Tanya to plow into on her first dive!

Each diver carries two metal bars for signaling and we started communicating the abort dive signal up towards the shallow support team, who relayed it up to the surface where Tanya’s husband Paul periodically put an ear in the water to listen for such a signal. Decompressing after an unsuccessful dive is a frustrating experience and I realized that we would have to extend the mooring line considerably to ensure that the boat hung over the abyss, well clear of the wall.

GETTING IN DEEPER

After a few days of diving, we had ironed out these and other logistical issues and the team was finally treated to our first proper deep ocean dives. It’s said that Eskimos have over 20 words to describe snow. As our team descended into the open ocean, I realized that you would need as many words to describe the iridescent shades of blue we encountered on our decent.

Passing 100 meters (325 feet), we hit a thermocline and the water turned midnight blue before gradually fading to the inky blackness below. No sign of life down here. No sharks or other pelagics. Not a single fish. It was very quiet and eerie. Were it not for the line in front of us, we could easily have become disoriented. With no bubbles, it was easy to forget which way was up. Hovering at 120 meters (400 feet) with 7,000 feet of nothingness below you certainly helps you focus on the task at hand. Tanya was expected down in less than a minute. My lift bag was out and ready in case I needed to attach it to her or to the rope itself. I do another quick systems check: depth, time and PO2 all in line. Run time slowly creeping up.

A distant clinking of metal sounds above us as the 80 meter (266 feet) divers signal to Tanya so that she knows how deep she is. These audible signals are essential for Tanya to time her equalizations effectively. Looking up, I can clearly see Tanya fast approaching the 90 meter (300 feet) mark. I start singing “Crocodile Rock” into my rebreather mouthpiece–Tanya’s request as it helps remind her there are other human beings down there with her. The noise I make on the helium-rich mix sounds nothing like Elton John but Tanya cracks a smile as she passes, eyes tight shut, mind focused and her body so compressed that her wetsuit hangs around her like a shedded second skin. A sudden reality check as your brain tries to process what you are seeing: You are at 120 meters and a silver wet suited platinum blonde is thundering past you on a single breath of air. It’s a surreal vision that your mind never truly gets used to accepting.

Clang! Clang! Clang! David signals to Tanya that she is a few feet from the bottom but she stops short at 132 meters (440 feet), her right ear refusing to equalize. With a look of disappointment, she transfers her focus to the top section of the sled, unclips the quick release and rockets back to the surface in a torrent of bubbles. Dave and I are left alone in the blue facing over two hours of decompression. All the build- up and excitement of the dive is over in just two minutes and we start to crawl our way back up through the deep stops. At 80 meters (266 feet), I remove an air cylinder from the bottom of the deco line and swim it over to the sled line. There, David attaches a climbing ascender and lift bags and sends the sled back up to the surface. We jump back onto the main deco line at 70 meters (233 feet) and are pleased to see the safety divers swoop down to intercept us at 40 meters (130 feet) to ensure all is OK.

Two hours later we surface and look enviously at the boat crew who have been sunbathing during our decompression. Our deco stops are pretty boring hangs (nothing to see) and we appreciated Tanya’s frequent dives down to our shallower stops with drinks, games of paper, rock, scissors and moral support.

Following the dive was the daunting prospect of refilling all the gases and amending the dive plan to cover the next deeper progression. Having a Haskell booster pump and helium analyzer at the dive center helped tremendously and all the team chipped in so that the filling was never left to just one individual. A documentary film crew filming the event was genuinely surprised to discover that so much work and planning goes into conducting a technical dive. Most spectators have little clue to how much effort goes into each day’s diving.

After two weeks of successful training dives, we had to add “jellyfish stings” to our list of possible abort dive scenarios. Tanya, Paul and some of the deeper divers found themselves surrounded by annoying hydroids and spent most of the dive swatting them away. Several swollen faces were seen at breakfast the following day and dive hoods became a standard piece of equipment. Tanya had developed a congested ear and swollen throat and had seemed to hit a barrier at 132 meters where her ear stubbornly refused to equalize.

RIDING THE STORM OUT

August 9 proved to be an interesting day when a freak tropical storm hit the boat. In minutes, the clear blue sky dramatically changed to 40 MPH winds, large swells and lightning striking the water around the boat. Not a problem for the divers who were oblivious to all this surface commotion: that is, until the wind changed direction. In our briefing, we had stated that the divers’ deco line should be released by a crew member to float free should the boat start to get dragged through the water. I guess someone forgot this because suddenly all the divers found themselves rocketing through the water with computer ascent alarms screaming as the deco line turned into a fast moving tow rope. We stabilized our deep stops at 30 meters and decided to keep the team together on the line until the storm blew over to avoid getting dragged onto the shallow reef.

Gliding through the water we could see the rain lashing the surface and the lightening flashes around the boat. I remember trying to rack my brains on whether or not electricity could pass down nylon rope to decompressing divers. What a lousy way to go: frazzled by lightning at 30 meters! Below us, the edge of the second wall loomed up. We were now drifting into shallower water and treated to a beautiful scenic dive as we clung to the rope and tried to maintain depth. The boat eventually slowed and we released the line and drifted into the wall at 20 meters (66 feet) to conduct our long shallow stops surrounded by a multitude of tropical fish and pristine coral formations.

BREAKING THE RECORD

tnyprepOn the evening of August 16, the whole team was trying hard to remain focused on the task ahead of us. Tanya had successfully overcome her equalization problems and had already unofficially broken the men and women’s record with a dive to 156 meters (512 feet). Now we just had to do the same in front of the AIDA judges with the television crews and world press breathing down our necks.

On the morning of the record attempt, we tried to keep the atmosphere light and treat it as though it were “just another day.” (Easier said than done when every move you make is being filmed and recorded.) The weather looked perfect, the team was fit and rested, and Tanya arrived with that determined look upon her face that communicated supreme confidence in the job she had to do. The half hour call went out and all the divers moved down from the top deck where they were visualizing the dive and started conducting final checks on their equipment.

Twenty minutes before the dive, I went to pressurize the O2 regulator on my rebreather and was greeted by a loud hissing noise as the intermediate pressure went through the roof. Murphy (as in “Murphy’s Law”) was clearly on board that day and letting his presence be known. I kept a spare regulator with me so I quietly moved the rebreather to the front of the boat and concentrated on replacing the O2 reg, adjusting the intermediate pressure and testing, retesting and triple-testing the system as the clock slowly ticked by. By the time I had finished, it was ten minutes before the dive and I concentrated on gearing up, getting into the water, performing several safety checks and refocusing on the dive ahead. Murphy on the surface I don’t mind dealing with.

tyadwnDavid Apperley and I started our descent to 130 meters (432 feet) at T-minus seven minutes. As I reached 40 meters (130 feet), I suddenly became aware that I was on my own. Dave was still at 25 meters (85 feet) signaling that his right ear would not clear. Now it was a question of timing. Could Dave clear his ear in time to join me at depth? After two minutes, Dave was able to join me at 60 meters (200 feet) and gave me a confident OK sign. Murphy was defeated again and we had the dive of our lives to look forward to.

The setting could not have been better. As we passed 100 meters (325 feet), we could clearly see the wall off to our right gradually slope down to undercut the line at 160 meters. Like a rugged lunar landscape, the vast wall provided an incredible backdrop for the record attempt. Glancing above us it looked as if Tanya was descending the side of the Grand Canyon as she slowly trundled down to greet us at 130 meters.
“Go on girl, you can do it!,” David and I screamed into our mouthpieces. The helium distortion made us sound like the Smurfs cheering on their favorite football team. But it seemed to help Tanya relax. She hit 145 meters and stopped suddenly as she slammed on the brakes.
“Only ten meters to go!,” we shouted. “Go on girl! You can do it!”
Tanya released the brake and continued down. She progressed slowly, clearly monitoring the increasing pressure on her eardrums. Clunk. The sled hit bottom. She had done it. She was at 160 meters, the deepest anyone had ever been on a single breath of air. Dave and I could not control our excitement.

“It’s a new world record!,” we screamed in unison.

Calm and smiling, she reached above her head to crack open the lift bag. She seemed to be taking her time. Was there a problem? Had Murphy returned for a final visit? My heart stopped beating.

Nothing happened. Tanya did not start moving upwards. She hadn’t pulled the release clip. Narcosis is inevitable for Tanya at this depth, affecting coherent thoughts.

David and I dropped like stones to reach her, concerned that the lift bag cylinder had not been correctly filled or that there was inadequate gas inside it to initiate the lift. As we swooped towards her, as if coming out of a trance she slowly reached her hand down and released the clip connecting her to the massive weight that took her to depth.
With the bag now fully inflated and the release suddenly unclipped, I was treated to one of the finest sites of my life. In an explosion of bubbles and with a huge grin on her face, Tanya rocketed toward the surface, passing us at an incredible speed, her body perfectly framed against the spectacular cliff wall that loomed above our heads. We watched as she disappeared from sight into the blue ceiling above us and listened for the satisfying three clicks that meant she had safely reached the 40 meter mark. Turning to each other with a great sense of accomplishment, Dave and I took one last look around us at a sight no human had ever seen before. The wall had never looked so beautiful. And our job was done. We turned and slowly started up towards the surface.

A Channel Five documentary called “Extraordinary People” covered this unique event and is scheduled for viewing in January 2003 in the UK and later in the year in the USA as part of a Discovery Channel special. For further information, visit www.o2technicaldiving.com or www.redefineyourlimits.com.



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