Pete's Turkish Dive Diary (Days 4-6)

DAY FOUR — Lay Day (Thursday)

After yesterdays successful record attempt where Yaz reached her goal of 100m the next record attempt was fixed for Sunday.

Yas still dived though. Rudi Castineyra wanted to get some practice on the lift bag inflation, so they did three drops to thirty metres. Watching the dive from various video angles it becomes clear just how great a team effort this whole record affair is. Safety divers have to be in positon. Equipment must be assembled and checked. Yas has to somehow screen all this out and focus on what she’s doing down there.

The intricacies of grabbing a depth tag, clearing herself from the sled and pulling a thin length of rope with no goggles on takes full concentration. It must be done fast and smooth — two normally incompatible factors, especially at 120m and more than a minute from your last breath.

Something I’ve always been curious, ignorant and skeptical about is the so-called blood shift phenomenon. Curious because it sounds ghastly. Ignorant because I avoid anything to do with blood other than from fish I’ve speared. Skeptical because Pippin was the first diver I heard refer to it.

I’d heard Yas and Rudi discussing her experience of this strange process and I wanted to know more. We sat down after the training dive and Justin Wheeler and American Sports TV producer and I asked a few questions.

Rudi said: "It’s not like your lungs fill from the bottom up with liquid." My new understanding is that as peripheral vaso constriction increases with the surrounding water pressure, blood is forced to the thorax, feeding the heart and thence the brain. Yes the blood/plasma enters the lungs and fills them, but it stays within the millions of tiny alveoli air sacks, engorging the way a mosquito fills its abdomen or filling them like tiny bladders.

Residual gas volume in the lungs is drastically minimised, protecting them from damage.

Here’s what Gray’s Anatomy says about the ravioli and their role.

* "The human lungs are paired organs, located on either side of the heart and occupying a large portion of the chest cavity from the collarbone to the diaphragm. Air enters the body through a series of passages, beginning with the nose or mouth. It travels to the chest cavity through the trachea, which divides into two bronchi, each of which enters a lung. The bronchi divide and subdivide into a network of countless tubules. The smallest tubules, or bronchioles, enter cup-shaped air sacs known as alveoli, which number about 700 million in both lungs. Each alveolus is surrounded by a net of capillaries. As blood flows through these vessels, carbon dioxide passes into the alveoli, and oxygen diffuses into the bloodstream. The capillaries are part of a vast network of pulmonary blood vessels that connect the lungs directly to the heart via the large pulmonary arteries and veins. The alveoli are clustered in groups, or lobules, and the lobules are clustered into lobes." – Grays Anatomy

Whatever. It seems to me to be a case of human adaptation to extreme pressure and hypoxia.

Yas reports that something similar happens in her sinuses: "I can feel the plasma filling my sinuses."

This leads us into a discussion of how she feels on the sled — knowing that her body is about to undergo some extremely rigorous processes. I asked her questions like "Are you ever scared?" The following quotes are from my notes and as near as possible to what Yasemin said:

"I’m always smiling on the sled. I enjoy it. I want to be there, but I want to feel right when I’m down there. You have to want to go down or things will go wrong. To relax I take a deep breath and think how good it feels when I’m down there. We have a seven minute countdown when I’m on the sled. At five I see the divers go down. I think how beautiful it is that all these people are there for me shouting encouragement. It’s so beautiful."

The safety divers shout their bubbly encouragement to Yas on the way back up. I asked her how she knew exactly when she was ready to go as her signal to Rudi and the crew is so subtle I missed it a couple of times.

"I’m like a clock always. Every breath I take is right on the second. The pin gets pulled on our call."

And on the blood shift:

"When my lungs reach residual capacity at depth, I feel plasma in my lungs and sinuses. To equalise I use my diaphragm to push plasma and air into my sinuses and ears to equalise. I can feel the peripheral vaso constriction as the blood concentrates between my lungs and brain. It’s interesting but a little scary. From 60m down I’m totally focussed on equalisingso I don’t notice all the other changes until I hit the bottom. Then I notice the the bloodshift and the numbness. By the time I reach the bottom everything is numb but by 60 or 50m the feeling returns to my hands. I only feel the fluid when it reaches my throat — you just feel the need to swallow"

Yasemin trains her lungs and chest to be as flexible as possible to cope without harm. Her 2 minute or more dives seem to take a long time when you are watching anxiously from the boat. Yasemin says the dives themselves feel quite short compared with when she watches herself on the video.

"I check my body all the way. I shut my eyes on the way down. The signals are very important [safety divers banging pipes together at set depths]. At 60m I slow the sled and start to use different techniques to equalise. It’s a totally calculated exercise. We download the [computer] logs after each dive. We check speed and distance, speed of ascent and descent. This record attempt has involved a lot of changes."

Yasemin says she never exceeds her capacity — improvement is always incremental:

"I always have a reserve on the surface. Freediving is different to other sports in this. You are dealing with human limits so you need to go slow."

I take note of this and mentally decide to remind a few people I know of the fact. Our conversation winds around various other topics but we are all hungry so we head off for the daily kebab. I then experience a two hour shallow sleep blackout in my room.

…next Day Five brings problems…

DAY FIVE — (Friday)

…but not very big problems.

Today’s dive won’t take place until after 1.00pm so Justin Wheeler, Yasemin and I sat down to record a quiet interview on how Yasemin feels about this whole diving thing.

"Passion is the most imporant thing for freediving," answers the master of the understatement to Justin’s first question. For Yasemin this applies to her team as much as her. Looking at the way this group functions passion levels are high.

Yasemin doesn’t find training difficult, saying that it’s never boring or tiring for her. On the matter of static breathold Yasemin is blunt, saying that it’s not an athletic performance, just a training tool. Amen to that.

She talks about the media.

"Sometimes I’m a bit sad about the way things happen with the press. Freediving is not a popular sport here. There’s no knowledge. I have to deal with many things and this can affect my training. The feedback from the media bothers me sometimes. They often don’t understand what I’m doing and much is just gossip with no basis in reality."

Welcome to the world of commercial media honey…we’re all just grist to the mill. Instant gratification is what it’s all about so the papers and networks will always focus on the "EXTREME DANGER!!!" aspect of the sport.

Yas says she enjoys the freedom of just going spearfishing — in comparision to the rigors of training.

"You can do what you want. With freediving you have to do everything right — one is fun, the other satisfying."

Well said, I think. She also adds that you have to control your ego in both activities.

Getting back to the rather serious business of setting records Yasemin again underlines the importance of having a crew that’s as passionate as she is. Her level of comfort depends on the crew: "I have to trust them and see their passion."

This constant reference to passion should give you an idea of the atmosphere on board the dive boat and on shore. People are focussed. They fill tanks all night. They write endless dive plans and they do it all for love. It’s not just Yasemin’s safety at stake — it’s that of her 20 crew too.

"It’s the responsibility of all record holders to show what a serious, beautiful sport this is. I want to show how safe and easy this sport can be. I love this sport and I want it to be done right and show everybody."

Yasemin is very, very clear on this matter.

As we waited for a group of Turkish lawn mowers to mow on by, Justin asked Yasemin whether she thought what she and Rudi are doing is akin to a science. Her answer was typically unambiguous:

"To improve yourself is a science for sure. You need to observe all the little details and deal with them one by one. We are breaking barriers in human physiology. We are discovering new things about the human body. I wish we had more cooperation to make this a scientific result because we are dealing with human limits."

The conversation swings back to the more esoteric side of diving. It’s time for the obligatory Big Blue conversation. We all know the story — boy meets dolphin, boy meets girl, girl gets pregnant, boy goes back to dolphin. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I found Rosanna Arquette’s perfomance incredibly annoying. I suspect Luc Besson wanted her to come across that way — as a blonde handbrake biting at the wheels of a man’s aquatic dreams.

But I digress. It is a beautiful film and played a major part in my recruitment to diving. Yasemin says that the Big Blue is the only movie about freediving that reflects what we do.

"It was incredible for me to see it and even more incredible for me to reach those results," says Yasemin.

"I first saw it when I was six. They were heroes, I loved Enzo’s character — it reflects many people," she added.

Can you imagine that? I think of this six year old girl spending the next 15 years growing up with these dreams and later goals. She dives with her family and friends. She learns to do this sport. Then one day she surpasses her childhood heroes — in an activity most people who see the movie think is fantasy anyway. That’s fulfilling a dream in every sense and another reason why I respect Yasemin’s humility.

Justin asks Yasemin whether she identifies more with Jaques or Enzo — "I’m between the two."

We talk a little about how she wants to eventually beat the mens’ records. Rudi and Yasemin both think that if they keep training the way they are that this is possible.

"My only rival right now is Deborah Andollo and now I’m breaking all her records."

This is true: Deborah who is 35 set a new Limited Variable Ballast category record of 95m several days before Yasemin broke it. Apparently there is some fairly serious rivalry between the two. Whatever. Yasemin points out that Rudi has now trained three world champions and that their training techniques are constantly evolving into better results.

But hey Yasemin! your records will be broken one day too.

"I like the training, I can do it again so I don’t have a problem with people breaking my records. The stress of a record attempt is big but very little of it comes from the records themselves — it’s all the organisation."

Not surprisingly, Yasemin sees the age difference between here and rivals like Deborah and Tanya Streeter as an advantage — in diving! Like many other divers, Yasemin agrees that the older you get the better, as one’s metabolism slows down. By the way, Rudi thinks women may have a natural advantage in the sport for this reason. Yasemin’s normal resting heart rate purrs along at a steady 45 – 50 beats per minute.

We move onto talking about the future before heading down to the dock for the afternoon training dive. Yasemin plans to continue setting world records but she also wants to teach freediving. She plans to use the F.R.E.E. group (Yasemin is one of the founders) to share her knowledge through clinics and training courses. We all have to make a living and I completely endorse this approach.

Down at the dock there’s concern that the wind will soon rise as it has on other afternoons. We head out anyway and find the mooring buoy just off the tip of a small island about 2km from the resort. The weather won’t be a problem — it’s almost dead calm.

The sled dangles off the stern from a boom arm with the rope laid along the side of the boat. The whole thing is shaped a bit like a giant, sharpened pendulum. The lower end is a streamlined hollow wedge. This encases Yasemin’s fins so that she can descend upright with her legs straight. A pole runs through the whole contraption encasing the guide rope down which she’ll slide. A short perpendicular bar functions as a seat with another cross bar for her arms to rest on.

As Yasemin concentrates on her preparation with her arms folded across her chest she’s posed as though asleep in a sarcophagus. There’s a bit a crucifix element to it to. Normally Yasemin is positioned to stand half-in, half-out of the water. On rougher days she’s literally dunked up to her chest and raised almost completely from the sea. The sled also twirls on its rope — even on calm days like this. Up and down, around and around.

Meanwhile Yas is doing her final preparation after Rudi gives the seven minute warning. She’s already done two negative (empty lung) dives to warm up. This helps the mammalian dive reflex kick in much faster and is less exhausting than an hour of warm up dives.

At the five minute warning the safety team descends. There’s never any talking near the stern from the time Rudi and Yasemin hit the water, so the hiss and bubble of 15 BC’s emptying is quite loud. Yasemin takes long, slow breaths. Rudi counts the minutes. I try to stay out of the way and look appropriately serious. At the call of zero she takes her final few breaths and with a nod and hand movement, signals the line man to start the drop.

The drop is sudden but deceptively slow looking. Watching it – face in the water, ass in the air from the duckboard is probably not the optimal viewing position though.

Yasemin controls the speed of the drop with a simple wheel brake at thigh level. She knows when to slow the drop because her safety divers bang metal pipes together at preset depths. These alerts are very important: she will adjust her speed and equalising technique accordingly. It’s all quite noisy actually because you can hear the divers banging away and shouting encouragement as Yasemin ascends. It reminds me of downhill ski race spectators ringing cowbells as the skier blurs past.

Yasemin gets another set of depth alerts on the way back up — along with the underwater cheering/gargling.

Today there was a mistake. All was looking good. The vibe on the boat was excellent. The sea was unusually flat, but the rope was short. Yasemin was in the final stages of preparation on the sled when the dive had to be aborted because only 80m of rope had been paid out instead of the required 110m for this No Limits training dive.

So up came the safety crew, down climbed Yas. No harsh words were exchanged. Yas would do a 60m drop instead and test the lift bag again. The safety divers adjusted their dive profiles and headed back down.

This meant an increased deco obligation and more cold water — two thermoclines before the 100m bottom station ensured that. Yasemin reappeared from somewhere onboard and prepped smoothly and quickly for the measly 60m dive. Down she went. Up she came. Cowbells clanged and divers gargled and whooped. Those who could, surfaced. The bulk of the saftey team congregated like squid around a light on the deco whips set at various depths below the boat. Poor shivering bastards.

What was a difficult and potentially dangerous situation was handled very smoothly. Nobody screwed up a second time and nobody got bent. That’s a good day in world record level diving by any standard.

DAY SIX — the day before the big dive (Saturday)

It’s another perfect day in the Eastern Mediterranean. A great day for sporting silly logos on the back of your head, eh Rudi? The coif in question is a very supportive "Go Yas" stamped on the nether regions of Rudi’s well-rounded head.

It’s a nice touch and lightens the slightly tense mood on the day before Yas attempts to set a new Unlimited Variable Ballast world record of 120m. She seems a little agitated today and Rudi tilts his newly monogrammed head to ask if she’s OK. "Yes" is the normal, utterly clear answer. Personally I think Yas appears a little tetchy but this is only noticeable because she is usually supernaturally calm.

She’s been away from home and normal food for weeks, dealing with the rather eager Turkish media and diving very deep, very often. I’m not surprised if she’s keen to finish the attempt and move on.

There’s a bit of light relief when the sickeningly long sled rope is measured out in the carpark. It’s like a giant anaconda and stretches forever. Lots of well-meaning people wrestle the rope-snake in the hot sun so that the two independent judges can measure and verify the accuracy of it’s length

The decision is taken to go ahead with the attempt on Sunday and everybody tries to get to sleep early — except for Bob and Emmy from the safety team who fill tanks all night.

One more sleep to go…