After Florida- World Record Training in Home Waters
After an important learning experience in Florida, Eric Fattah decided that he would attempt to break the constant ballast world record in his home waters at Ansell Point. Ansell Point is a small sheltered cove of coastline in Howe Sound, just north of Vancouver, BC, Canada. It is blessed with deep water over 90 metres deep only a few hundred metres from shore. It is where Team Canada and the local freedivers train year round. For most of the year, the water temperature ranges 8 to 12 degrees celsius at the surface and 4-6 degrees at depth. In summer, the surface heats up to 17-21 degrees celsius for the hottest months. Eric knew that "ideal" Ansell Point conditions were precious with only a few weekends left in the summer. His training would turn out to be a long and eventful experiment in cold water deep diving.
Eric had been trying to establish a training regimen and a "record-day" routine that would give him the best chance to make consistent deep dives with a clean recovery. In the month leading up to the record attempt, this approach had yielded 2 dives to 82 metres, one dive to 88 metres, and several confidence-building dives in the 68-74 metre range. This routine was especially important if he was to go for the 85-90 metre attempt on Day 2. Everything had to be perfect. Eric only had the weekend to make his attempt, he had already taken all the time off from work he could afford.
His 88 metre dive on July 29th had taught him a great deal about the perils and challenges of cold-water constant ballast freediving. It was exciting to witness a dive to a depth no one had reached before, even though for Eric and all of us, the experience was a sobering one: "I sank past the 75m lightstick," Eric writes, "and down, and down, faster, and the narcosis became severe. I looked up and saw the 30W light at the bottom of the line. My ears were still autoequalizing from the constant frenzel pressure, and my mouth was still full of air to equalize. I grabbed the line and reached passed the light, to 88m. Then I pulled myself up and let go, and started kicking. Now the problems began. The blood shift was so strong that my legs already felt weak on the first monofin stroke! I hadn’t used my legs for over a minute (the long sinking phase), and already they felt weak."
Eric had touched bottom at 1:38, having already spent thirty seconds at the narcosis-inducing depth and in the cold 5 degree celsius water.
"I continued stroking gently, arms still by my side. I thought to myself, ‘just make it to the 60m light with no contractions…’ I counted my monofin strokes. During the first 82m dive I had counted to 37, before losing count (about 55 strokes total to get up). Today I lost count at 7. According to the profile from my watch, I passed the 70m mark at 2:00. I made it to the 65m light at 2:05, no contractions, but my diaphragm was fluttering, and I was resisting the contractions. As I passed the 65m light (which was pointing down), the world became dark, and the line was almost invisible. I was overwhelmed with narcosis. Soon, I got a contraction. Now, with almost no blood in my legs or arms, my whole body started feeling very weak. At 53m, I became paralyzed from weakness. I couldn’t move anything. It was so dark. Quiet. My mind was far away in narcosis world. There was no visual or audio stimulation. I forgot about everything. Then, an instinct, off in the distance, told me that if I didn’t keep kicking I would die. So I stretched my arms and I started kicking as fast as I could. I made good progress, still in fairy land, when again my body weakened, and I rested, and now I thought there was no way I would make it back up–my air was fine, the weakness was the problem. There was no weight belt to ditch. Peter, waiting at 25m, was still an eternity away.
"Again, lost in my delusional thoughts, an instinct told me to try again. Try to kick, maybe now the legs will move. And they did. And after what seemed like an eternity, I saw Peter. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I felt a sense of relief. I kept kickng, but stopped, and stopped again from the whole-body weakness. Now, according to Mike and Pete, I closed my eyes, and stopped one last time, then rapidly kicked the last few meters. I broke the surface and recovered cleanly, giving an okay in just a few seconds. I stared Peter in his right eye, until everything was sharp and clear. I continued breathing, I raised both hands in the air in happiness. Not because I was happy about making the deepest unofficial dive ever, but because I was happy to be alive. The stinger read -88.1m (289ft) (3:14) We all looked at the gauge in disbelief. However, after I told the guys what really happened down there, the mood shifted to one of being thankful."
Beating the Severe Narcosis and Muscle Failure at Depth
Following the 88 metre dive Eric began his preparations for the dress rehearsal with one more week to go before the official attempt. Eric had been thinking about how to counter the effects of the narcosis and the muscle failure. He thought that if he expected to have severe narcosis and repeated muscle failure on the way up-expect the worst-he would be better prepared to keep his focus and concentration on the way up. Diving on the Saturday, after a full week out of the cold water, should minimize the blood shift. Eric also brought his vest and 5mm Picasso zip-off arms that he had cut for the record. Staying warm during the warm-up would also help minimize the narcosis. We put tags on the line at 82m, 85m, and 88m. Despite the divers’ presence, we were all a little nervous about this experiment.
"As always I filled my mouth up at 30-35m. Then I started sinking. By this point I had already decided to stop at 82m. I passed the pair of lights at 48m without incident. Then, sinking past 48m, the line faded in the darkness and I expected to see the ambient light of the next light, pointing up at 68m. I never look where I’m going, and the ambient light didn’t seem to come. I assumed that somehow the light pointing up at 68m had failed. I knew I only had 10m to go until the next working light, and I was sinking straight, so I was confident I wouldn’t drift too far. The line vanished in the darkness and I sank blindly for about 7 seconds. My shoulder bumped into the dead light at 68m, which startled me slightly, but then the light pointing down at 68m illuminated everything. Now the narcosis began, as I knew it would. I continued to sink, and again thought it was best to grab the 82m tag. I heard Jean-Paul Tremblay shouting at me through his throat, to try to keep me awake in the narcosis. I looked up and saw all three tags, at 82m, 85m, and 88m. I grabbed the line, grabbed the 82m tag and started the ascent, a perfect turnaround.
As I started the ascent, my mind was pretty blank. The descent is complicated and requires thinking, but the ascent is so simple I don’t need to think of anything, it is all so automatic. This was the danger. As the narcosis became severe, I felt my mind drifting into fairy land. I also expected my legs to fail around 55m. However, this time I felt my mind drifting, and said to myself ‘No!–Not this time!’ I thought to myself, ‘think about something, ANYTHING, just keep thinking!’ So I visualized the 48m marker, my next goal. Concentrate, I thought to myself. Then my legs began burning, so I started concentrating on them. I found that I could continue kicking, despite the burn, if I really concentrated. With my arms raised, I realized I was going to make it to the surface in a very short time, because I didn’t need to stop and rest.
On the surface, the safety freedivers had anticipated a dive between 3:04 and 3:17. Peter had gone early so as to be sure to meet me at the usual depth, but Tom and Kirk left later, a little too late. I saw Peter at 25m. Around 20m I gave him funny okay signs to let him know all was fine. Then I passed Kirk and Tom around 12m, still on their way down. I broke the surface, recovered easily, and gave Kirk the tag, and showed him the gauge–the stinger read exactly 82.0m. The dive lasted only 2:51, 13 seconds less than the last 82m, and 23 seconds less than the 88m. I felt I had another 10m in me, but, the greatest improvement was that I was able to fight the narcosis, and I didn’t need to stop and rest. Interestingly, I did my negative dive significantly shallower than usual, in an attempt to minimize the blood shift which seemed to cause the leg failure. It seemed to help."
With a successful unofficial attempt under his belt, the system of safety SCUBA and freedivers working smoothly, Eric took the rest of the long weekend off and went recreational freediving in a lake with friends to relax.
Eric Fattah’s World Record Attempt-Day 1
The sun was shining and the sea at Ansell Point was calm. The water temperature on the surface was 20 degrees celsius and bottom temp was 5-6 degrees.
Kirk Krack and Marnie Laing, the official AIDA International judges for the record, took particular care to make sure that everything was documented on video and conformed to AIDA’s standards. Eric presented his equipment to the judges: his Chinese monofin, Fluid Goggles, neck weights, and his wetsuit configuration (a triathlon suit and break-away 5mm arms and vest for his warm up). They observed him in the last hour before the dive to make sure he didn’t breathe off enriched oxygen before the dive. Despite the added pressure of going through the official steps, Eric seemed calm throughout. He was chatting as usual with the local freedivers on hand to help out. Despite the laughter and small talk, I could tell that Eric was focused on the dive ahead. In his mind, a successful dive to 82 metres was a prerequisite for any attempt at a deeper depth the following day. He had said that he really wanted to make the 90 metre attempt, because he would have few opportunities to try again.
Kirk Krack started his final briefing to the safety divers. Eric, escorted by freedivers on his inflatable mattress, arrived on the scene and warmed up in the background. He made one negative pressure dive and got back on the mattress to finish his breathe-up and to warm up in the sun. I dove to 25 metres to check the line and the visibility. Beautiful conditions for our local waters! From 20 metres, I could see freedivers hanging around the surface buoy bathed in green light as I made my way back up.
Eric finished his final static on the mattress and sat up. He smiled and his smile spread across his face as he sat there in the sun with his eyes closed. His body swayed in the gentle swell of Howe Sound. At this point, my tension lifted. I had seen that smile before and it was sign that Eric was relaxed and diving for himself, not for the record, or for the people watching, but for the experience of going deep. "To go and see."
Eric gave the signal to the divers to descend, the video cameras were switched on, Tom (surface freediver), Hamish (bottom video) and Brent (from the boat) all recording, and the SCUBA and trimix divers disappeared in a wash of bubbles.
At around 2 minutes before the zero point of Eric’s countdown, he slipped off the mattress and into the water. Holding the float with one hand he took his final breaths face down in the water. Kirk’s clear voice counted him down. At 30 seconds Eric started his packing. After about 60 or 70 packs, his snorkel started to protest loudly, an inhuman sound. Eric dropped his snorkel and slipped into the water live a diving whale. Kirk followed him down to make sure he made a clean descent, while Marnie checked for line violations at the surface.
Now it was our turn to prepare. Mike Krukowski was keeping time and counted us down to 1:30, the approximate time that Eric would hit bottom. At 1:55 I finished packing and dove down to meet Eric at 25 metres. Mandy Cruickshank, the second safety freediver followed ten seconds later and stopped at 15 metres. Tom and Kirk left moments later.
I made my way quickly to the rendezvous depth. I stopped and turned upright. Feet first, I hung there barely sinking and looked down into the black depths where the depth line disappeared. After about 10 seconds I spotted the strange shape of Eric monofinning his way back up like a black and yellow sea snake. I waited until he was right in front of me before I started to follow him up at an arm’s length away. I could feel Kirk tap me lightly on the shoulder to let me know he was there. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Tom and Mandy as well. Eric’s face was relaxed as he stroked continuously towards to surface. We broke the surface and immediately, as always, before I even took my own breath, I told him to breathe. He looked good. Eric gave the judges an okay signal and after catching his breath, pumped his arm in the air with the tag. We all cheered. Kirk and Marnie verified that he had retrieved the tag and that the gauges showed 82.5m and 83.0 in 2 minutes 59 seconds.
Eric thanked the divers from H20 Madness, BC Dive Adventures for the boat charter, his friends here and abroad and the local Vancouver freedivers for helping achieve the first Canadian World Record in Freediving. Based on the bottom video review, the depth tag and gauges, Kirk Krack and Marnie Laing AIDA judges confirmed that they would put forward their recommendation for ratification of the record to the AIDA board. Final ratification would be of course dependent on proper paper and video documentation and a final vote (if necessary).
Day 2: 85-90 metres!
After a small celebration early Saturday evening, and an unbelievable chance to watch the bottom footage from Eric’s dive to 82 metres, we returned to Ansell Point for an attempt at 90 metres.
Now the question of the narcosis and muscle failure was crucial. His body still had not shaken the effects of the mammalian diving reflex from Saturday’s dive. In his warm-up, Eric would try to minimize any further stimulation of blood shunt. The SCUBA divers below 60 metres were given instructions to cheer and yell at Eric on the way down and up. The shallower safety divers would continue to cheer at him through their regs.
We were fairly confident Eric would make it back to the surface. Would he be conscious enough in the narcosis to hold on to the tag? If the dive lasted 3:15 or longer, would he have trouble with the recovery at the surface? These questions were on our minds, but as everyone knows, especially Eric, the performance of the freediver is only one part of the equation for a successful record attempt. Brett LeMaster had told him, "Make sure everthing is perfect or call it all off."
The weather at Ansell was hazy and warm. Kirk arrived at Ansell with the tags and news that the boat would be delayed about a half hour to forty-five minutes. Eric was noticeably relaxed and shrugged his shoulders with a smile. Kirk said that the dive charter boat we were using had experienced odd currents earlier in the day. Hopefully they wouldn’t affect the dive. Looking out over the flat ocean I could see counter currents on the surface. I crossed my fingers.
For all of the deep dives Eric has made in the last month the dives have been at or just before 4pm. This time, we were running late, but no one seemed worried, and Eric seemed calm. We spent a good hour and a half chatting casually and joking with the rest of the support team and local freedivers.
At the dive site, as we made final preparations for the dive and Eric was approaching on his warm-up mattress from shore, we noticed that a cloud of scummy water, silt and mudlike crap, had enveloped the boat, the depth line and all the divers. It was like someone had spilled something awful right on top of us and the slick of it was spreading outwards. We could see the margin of it: brown water on one side and clear green water on the other. The cloud grew larger and larger until we couldn’t see the edge anymore.
This was not good. I made a quick dive to 25 meters, my spotting depth for Eric. It was much darker than usual, almost frightening. The visibility down wasn’t that bad-I could see the lightsticks at 30 meters quite clearly but the line below quickly vanished. The lack of daylight penetrating downwards made things worse overall. It was like a dark cloud had settled over the dive location. On the way up I had to surface slowly, with my hands outstreached so as not to crash into the large tanks of the Trimix safety divers and the small dinghy of photographers. The soup on the surface was completely opaque. I could barely see my own fin as I floated on the surface.
Eric gave his 7 min countdown notice and the safety divers started their descent to their positions at depth. Hamish and Aleina, the bottom divers, would stop at 307 feet to wait for Eric. They had enough gas mix for a 5 minute bottom time after zero time was reached on Eric’s countdown.
Eric made his way to the line and I positioned myself to catch his snorkel. He packed the last of his air into his lungs and slipped beneath the surface. With the slick of his fin stroke still on the water, I shouted, "Go Eric!" (or something like that) We started the clock and I prepared for my own dive to meet him at 85 feet.
Ten seconds later Eric surfaced. He had lost the line in the muck. There was no use in him going any deeper. Without the line, and the lights, there would be no way he could find the tag and bring it back to the surface.
Kirk said, "You’ve got a 1:30 window if you want to go again." So Eric breathed up and dove again. He didn’t pack as long and down he went. Again, I started my prep.
After a minute, Eric surfaced once more. At 30 meters he had made the decision to turn around. He felt that because there were so many things wrong with the dive already, that it would be stupid to risk a deep black-out. Also, because of the extra ventilation at the surface, he was a little light-headed, which is not an ideal state to be in for a super-deep dive. He felt an intuitive feeling that the dive would not go well and he aborted.
We all contratulated him on a good decision and reminded him of his world record dive the day before.
As Eric went back to shore, I stayed at the line to help with watching the safety SCUBA divers decompress and with the pulling up of the line. On one dive down to check on them, I was blown right up against them by a swift current. I had to scull with my hands to keep from bashing into Hamish and Aleina at 20 metres.
Later, when all the safety divers were up, Hamish told us that it was fortunate indeed that Eric didn’t make his dive. The visibility, while zero at the surface and improving down to 120 feet, worsened steadily at the bottom at 70-90 metres. The light attached to the line that usually provided a good 10 metres of lighting along the line were reduced to a metre or two by the bad visibility. There was also a swift current at depth that would surely have blown Eric from the line or caused him to waste significant energy to keep his course steady. The current had also caused the whole depth line to come up against the bottom and an underwater wall which would have been an extreme hazard to Eric. Hamish and Aleina tried to keep the line away from the wall, while holding on to it to keep from drifting away in the current and losing their own orientation. They feared that Eric would crash headfirst into the wall on his descent (since he couldn’t see it). In doing so, their fins kicked up silt from the bottom, further obscuring the line. In one day the conditions had gone from ideal to horrible.
Eric has often listened to his intuition when freediving. But even he was spooked by the incredible implications of his decision to abort the dive. When I told him what Hamish and Aleina had said, Eric’s eyes widened and he shook his head. "I could have been killed."
In the end I was thankful that it was all over, that Eric had the world record and that he and all the safety divers were safe and sound. It goes to show that freedivers need to trust their intuition when it starts to buzz with dangers signals….
Now on to Spain….