Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Deep Freediving Safety – Part One

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This is the first in a two part series addressing the safety protocols that are implemented during world record attempts in the various disciplines of freediving. This first part addresses the safety procedures relating to the disciplines of Variable and No-Limits freediving. Part two will address what are considered the more pure forms of freediving – Constant Ballast and Free Immersion.

The repercussions of the high profile death of Audrey Mestre on Oct 12th, 2002 have left the freediving community in a state of shock – and now questions of what could have been done differently to have averted this tragedy are now being asked. It appears that this was one of several of no-limits accidents that began in early August with Belgian freediver Frederic Buyle suffering an accident during a no-limits training dive. The second more severe accident occurred later that month when German freediver Benjamin Franz suffered a very serious accident during an intense day of training with the end result of being left partially paralyzed.

Leaving speculation aside as to who is to blame, what can be learned from these incidents so as to minimize any future potential deaths arising from this extreme discipline of the sport?

There are some in the community who are calling for an end to the category of no-limits record attempts that may not be seeing the full aspects of proper safety, nor fully analyzing what needs to be implemented properly to prevent a repeat of these accidents.

There are several areas that need to be examined:

  • The number of safety divers in the water – how many should there be? There is still debate on this subject.
  • Type of "Bail-Out" systems – which one and why one is preferable over another.
  • Surface personnel trained and ready to act should the need arise – They need to be there ready to act if needed

By no means are the No-Limits and Variable Ballast categories without there dangers, let alone the other disciplines of freediving, but these dangers can be managed in ways that reduce them to their lowest possible denominator so that should the need arise, a well thought out accident management plan can be implemented – and put into action.

The catalysts: A series of accidents

Fredric Buyles accident

Fred Buyle Headshot Fred’s accident occurred in early August during a training dive in Monaco. He was practicing new equalization techniques and in this instance had chosen to spend a little more time at the bottom of the descent line. Due to the club atmosphere that exists in France, many members of freediving clubs participate on a regular basis in all aspects of freediving – from training to being a part of the rescue personnel. Fred made his descent without incident. When the time had come to ascend, the air cylinder used to inflate the lift bag developed a mechanical problem – which was later discovered to be a malfunctioned tank valve. Realizing this, Fred understood that this was turning into a situation that was becoming a potential life-threatening situation. With a combination of the right people at the top and a simple, but effective bailout system, Fred is alive today to tell his tale.

"Safety is a big issue," Fred explained. "We are always prepared".

I asked Fred what factors played a key role in his surviving his accident. "I practice all the time – physically and mentally," he said. Combined with a "…good team and good equipment."

The bail out system he utilized is the same one that is used by French World Record freediver, Loic LeFerme.

Its simplicity belies its effectiveness.

"It is useless to have a bottom safety diver" he explained. With the costs of doing no-limits, the French freedivers have developed a bail-out system that is cost effective and requires only two safety divers at a minimum to be in the water.

The system works as such – the diver is attached to the descent line and sled with a mountain climbers caribiner with a length of rope or webbing strung through it. The other end of this line is attached to the diver – either directly or via a climbing harness the diver is wearing outside of the wetsuit. There is one safety diver at the surface and one at exactly half the total distance of the length of the descent line. The second (deepest) safety diver has a lift bag system that has enough lifting capacity to lift the weight of the diver, the sled and the bottom stop plate. In fact, there are two divers at depth, each of them with a separate tank to inflate the lift bag in case of failure. They also have other shallower divers and of course, safety freedivers. NoLimitsBailOut This lift bag system is attached to a special climbers grip via a length of high strength webbing or rope. Once the diver attached to the sled has passed this safety diver, the safety diver wraps his/her hand around the descent line and waits to feel the sudden stop of the sled at the bottom of the line. Before the dive – a set amount of time is agreed upon by the athlete and the safety diver as to how long to wait before implementing the bail out system. If by that set time the athlete is not ascending up the line, the deepest safety diver, who is at the halfway point, attaches the lift bag via the mountain climbing grip and inflates the lift bag. The bottom half of the descent line is then brought to the same level as the deepest safety diver. Once there, the safety diver assesses whether the diver has suffered any problems that require assistance. If the diver is still conscious, he offers air to the diver. "The safety briefings are very clear on that point, we never give gas to a freediver." Fred stated. "If such a thing happens, it’s the best way to have serious problems. If the diver has succumbed to black out, the safety diver attaches a second lift bag to the bottom of the line, where the freediver and sled are at and fills it. This lift bag has sufficient capacity and strength to bring the complete sled unit with the diver to the surface where rescue personnel then put into action the emergency rescue plan for the surface. The complete procedure is said to take no more than 2 minutes from the moment it is first implemented.

"This system is the safest way to do no-limits" Fred stated matter of fact. "It saved my life."

The aftermath of Fred’s accident resulted in his suffering from pulmonary edema. He was able to get back in the water for his training within three weeks and was doing dives within four weeks after the accident.

Benjamin Franz

Benjamin Franz German freediver Benjamin Franz wasn’t as fortunate when it came to his accident later that same month. Accounts are ambiguous at this point, but it has been speculated he was performing seven dives to 100 meters the day of his accident.

Benjamin at this time is still recovering from his injuries where he was left partially paralyzed. No further word yet has been released as to the full nature of what occurred that led to this accident.

Taking into account these accidents and combined with the tragedy of Audrey Mestre’s death during her record attempt, it was important to solicit input from several people who participate in the competitive realm of freediving to see how the implement their safety protocols for their record attempts.

Tanya Streeter’s perspective

Tanya Streeter Female World record holder Tanya Streeter knows as much about the need for sponsorship as anyone in the sport. With diverse sponsors for her recent World record no-limits dive ranging from the energy beverage maker Red Bull, to Club Med and the Turks & Caicos Tourism Board, there is a certain amount of pressure that exists to provide sponsors a return on investment (ROI) for lending their financial support.

With sponsorship and publicity being key elements to the success of promoting the sport of freediving Tanya stated "as athletes, we need to deal with publicity in a correct way". It can be said that being in the forefront of the sport can cause one to go one of two paths – either they become so engrossed in themselves and in their feats as to feel they are invincible, or they can take a similar view as Tanya’s where she explained "I want to take what I get from my success and use it for what I believe in."

Psychologically, this is a balanced view of ones life – and is a healthy way of keeping things in perspective – "I couldn’t live with myself resting my laurels" she explained. "I don’t view my world records as a big deal".

With the tragic events that have unfolded over the last few months in the sport of freediving, Tanya became emotional for a few moments. She confided that it was very hard to hear of Audrey’s death – someone whom she considered a friend.

This led me to the topic of deep freediving safety.

When asked about the safety measures that she puts into place for her record attempts, she expressed how strongly she felt it was necessary to implement her method of safety protocols the way she does.

She utilizes the same key personnel for each of her attempts and says, "I have a good base of people." Tanya continued by saying that "we view this (her training dives and record attempts) as a team effort".

For example, during the daily briefings that occur before each days training dives, each diver has a say in what they feel they are willing to put themselves at risk to – "some safety divers don’t go deeper than they have gone before" she said. "We weigh all aspects, risks and the experience of the team members," she continued. Once they are in agreement for the days diving, Tanya explained that "…when we are positive all aspects have been gone over – we can then call it a team effort…" and then they can proceed with the days diving.

When asked about the details of her safety measures in place, Tanya raised up in confidence, stating that she "chooses to spend more money on safety to make everyone safe". This is one of the benefits of having multiple sponsors. Tanya expressed that she is grateful to have her sponsorship and enjoys sharing the record experience with her team, and views what she does as a team effort – not an individual one.

Tanya utilizes a bail-out system very similar to what Loic and Fred use, but she chooses to add the extra safety measure of divers being positioned at specific intervals as an added measure of safety – and as a way to include each of these divers in the event – since many of them volunteer their time into the endeavor. It is very much a family type of affair for Tanya and the rest of her support crew. She feels that since they are putting themselves at risk and she is putting her life in their hands, it is the least she can do for them.

"Having a great time is the essence of this endeavor," she said. Even then, she places responsibility on the team leader for the safety of all the safety divers. "Safety is never going to cost more than its worth" she explained.

Touching again on Audrey’s accident, I asked as to what she felt regarding what had occurred and what perspective she has about what she does. "I am not invincible to accidents" she said. "We only know what we know by our mistakes".

Even though she feels that she, along with her husband, Paul, and the rest of her support crew have covered every detail necessary, Tanya still admits in humility that "I won’t say that what I am doing is the right way of doing it" she emphasized. "I am always willing to learn more – and do something more."

Yasemin Dalkilic — World Record Freediver

Yasemin Dalkilic Headshot Turkish freediver, Yasemin Dalkilic is as well a top-level competitor, having held several world records in the various disciplines of freediving. She has held records in the Limited and Unlimited Variable Ballast categories, by descending to 100 meters/ 328 feet and 120 meters/ 394 feet respectively. Yasemin is young, yet her wisdom shows to be of someone much older in her thinking. Being involved with F.R.E.E, which stands for Freediving Regulations & Education Entity, another organization dedicated to regulating freediving records and activities, It has given her the opportunity to work very hard in promoting safety to those whom she comes in contact with while promoting the sport of freediving.

"Safety has always been a big part of our organization (F.R.E.E.), and I don’t think anybody is paying enough attention to it." She said. "It has become for us almost a mission to let others know the way we take care of safety and make this sport practiced a lot more safely by everybody around the world." The best way to understand the complex nature of how F.R.E.E implements their safety procedures for a record dive, the full documentation can be downloaded from their website at http://www.divingfree.com/html/rules.htm

Rudi Castinyera — World Record Trainer

Rudi Castenyera Yasemin’s coach, Rudi Castinyera, has been involved in the sport of freediving for many years. Having founded F.R.E.E, he is well aware of the issue of safety. "As someone who is responsible for the realization of many successful world records, I have many good views about safety," he said. This is readily the case, as the protocols for safety in F.R.E.E. encompass 14 pages to spell out exactly what is needed to be in place before a record attempt will be done and verified by F.R.E.E.

"(Both Yasemin and I) spend a fair amount of time championing the need for safety and organization on many Internet forums." He stated. "We need to show the work done by all of us (to promote safety)."

Juan Llantada — Trainer and World Record Organizer

Juan Llantada, is the Vice President, Valencian Underwater Sports Federation/CMAS.

Juan helped to organize Austrian freediver Herbert Nitsch’s performance in Tenerife in July of 2002.

In order for the record attempt to even become a reality, "There is a review of all the details you must keep in mind in order to assure a freedive(ers) life or a scuba diver(s) life. In fact, it has been developed from the security scuba diving plan that it is a must in the Valenciana Diving Center approve officially by the Valencian Government." he said. "(This) makes for a quick and easy decision of who to proceed to in case of an emergency – no matter whether this would occur on land, the water or in a pool. The rescue plan must have all the details and possible risks covered. Therefore the pre record meetings and planning (are) vital."

Juan had been involved in the past with helping to put together previous attempts by Audrey Mestre and he outlined what had normally occurred for past record attempts with Audrey:

"We had paramedics, two doctors (one hyperbaric, one expert in accidents & emergency), 3 tanks of oxygen just in case of an accident, tools and devices for monitoring the injured, two fast boats just for evacuation purposes, two ambulances, two hyperbaric chambers, one helicopter, 8 divers (three of them trimix divers), two freedivers in surface, two more scuba divers on alert on the surface, the whole record was monitored by a ROV and we had a communication system for the divers, four cellular phones plus two navy radios." He stated. "We also had an Emergency Evacuation Plan that is a must in Spain for organizing any sports events involving human lives. All the details of the event, the GPS mark, the scuba divers certification, the Trimix divers certification, the Trimix diver certification that allows Pascal to make a mix of gases, % of the mixes, logbooks, divers ID’s, doctors certification, hyperbaric certification, the compressor certification. All those documents we had to give to the Authorities in order for them have the ok to the event. We had to active the plan 30 minutes before the dive and 30 minutes after the last Trimix diver left the Marina we closed the emergency plan."

In as much as what has been reported and investigated so far with both Benjamin’s and Audrey’s accidents, many questions have yet to be answered. It can be speculated though that some of the following occurred:

  • Pushing the envelope is the nature of the sport of competitive freediving. It should be remembered though that when too great an increase in depth is made in too short a time, the potential for disaster increases drastically – almost to the point of not being manageable.
  • A healthy respect and proper perspective regarding the reasons for attempting a record in this sport is also crucial – many have perished due to trying to impress those around them instead of having a healthy respect for who they are as individuals – we should be valued for who we are – not what we can or should accomplish.
  • Letting financial gain be the sole motivating factor for attempting a record dive, especially when conditions are less than ideal, or a lack of safety protocols isn’t possible to put into place, is a recipe for disaster.

The sport has been set back by these very public tragedies, and unless a formalized standard is adopted and adhered to for safety protocols that need to be put into place, tragedies such as what occurred on Oct 12, 2002 will have history repeating itself.

Cliff Etzel
Cliff Etzel
Cliff is the former Freediving editor of DeeperBlue.com. He is now a freelance journalist and film-maker.

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