Howard Jones’ welcome speech in at the Sony Freediver Classic in Cyprus, once it had stopped being a tirade against lateness, had one major message. Regardless of who would end up "The One", priority Number One was safety – no argument. It needed to be – the first major international competition for a while where competitors did not have to think about preserving their score for their team’s points, with a large number of entrants who had never competed before, a higher than usual percentage of problems were predicted – and those predictions proved correct.
Safety procedures followed the standard pattern of both freediving and technical scuba safety teams backed up by a couple of novel additions – the oddly named FHOF (Freediver Hook On and Forget) System and lanyards attaching each diver to the line in the Constant Weight competition.
Let’s look at each of these in more detail and see how it went….
Lanyard, leash, bit of string – whatever you call it most people arrived in Cyprus inexperienced in their use (if they had one at all) and angry at being made to dive with it. Monofinners argued that they limit the amplitude of their fin stroke. Bi-finners get caught up in them. No-one had a clear idea of what made a lanyard good, bad or legal. It seemed that the only divers who really liked them were those, such as myself, who had trained with them in Nice where anyone attempting a performance dive is routinely attached to the line.
Questions buzzed around – which is better, straight or curly? Long or short? Heavy or light carabiner? Stretchy or boring rope? Thick or thin? Belt or wrist? A petition was discussed to have the rule requiring their use revoked but never got printed. Eventually the judges gave some more information – lanyards had to be a maximum 1m long (at full stretch if it was a curly or elastic) and the carabiner had to open wide enough to easily clip on and off the rope, which seemed sensible. Still no-one believed theirs was ok and this meant the judges had to take a look at all 160, or thereabouts. The definition remained unclear with the threat that if a diver arrived in the competition zone with an unapproved lanyard they would have no extra time to find an approved one. One lanyard was shown to three different judges, one said it was ok, one said not, the other said she didn’t know. There is definitely room for a firmer definition next time they are required. As it happened, on the competition day no one seemed remotely interested and no checks were made.
Those proposing the petition against lanyards had various points to offer up. Firstly, of course, the lanyards were causing entanglement problems – with the line, with the freedivers arms and legs and with anything else in the vicinity. These problems seemed to clear up after the training days with no one reporting any real entanglement issues on a competition dive. Secondly, seeing as the definition of the lanyard from AIDA was so unclear, it seemed that some may offer a competitive advantage. A suggestion was made to keep an "approved" lanyard on each competition line so that every diver used the same one but as no-one could decide what the definitive lanyard was, this could not happen!
With the tide running later in the mornings, it was almost impossible not to dive with the lanyard at full stretch and this could be clearly seen to be slowing divers down. The resistance from the plaited rope caused quite a judder acting as a braking mechanism on the diver as soon as the lanyard came taut.
So why use a lanyard? The arguments are that it keeps you near the line and that should "anything happen" you are attached to the line and could therefore, in theory, be hauled up with it. In practise, an experienced freediver will stay close to the rope anyway. Anyone who has ever needed a bit of a helping hand to pull back up will not stray far from that white line that takes you home. With 45m horizontal viz you are hardly going to lose it! As for pulling someone up, it took several rugby player sized Monkeys to haul the ropes up as they were, with an inert body at the bottom this may well have proved impossible. Ultimately if the lines are weighted as heavily as they needed to be in Cyprus to combat the current, a lanyard in the case of an emergency would sure act almost solely as a body location device. On the other hand – no-one headbutted the barge, everyone came up within video shot and safety divers knew exactly where to look for you. There are arguments both ways and no doubt they will continue.
It’s got a stupid name and really it’s not that much of an innovation, but the Freediver Hook On and Forget system was one of the Cyprus competition’s big selling points.
More a change of use than a new invention, the FHOF is basically a standard delayed surface marker buoy with its own mini cylinder that can be hooked on to the freediver and cranked open sending them shooting to the surface. In tests to 30m, the FHOF comfortably lifted two inert bodies to the top slightly faster than they would have made it finning.
In Cyprus, all divers were fitted with a wrist band and D ring as they entered the competition zone. Should they have a problem in deep water, the safety scuba diver could hook on the bag and send them up. This had not been tested below 30m but the maths behind it said it would work. Jeanette Copeland, deepest safety diver and DeeperBlue.net Technical Diving Editor, took two down to 93m thinking one might not be enough to get Martin or Herbert back from that depth. The device had also never been tested with a lanyard on the "victim"- would the FHOF’d freediver float neatly up the line, or would entanglement result? Luckily we never found out as the FHOF was not required.
As with all freedive competitions and records, technical dive support was crucial. The Sony Freediver Classic posed an interesting challenge to Steve Copeland and the team from Deep Down Diving who had it all covered. Running on a schedule that required divers to be in place to a timing within 30 second over a 4 1/2 hour period, standard open circuit scuba, nitrox, Trimix, Kiss, Inspiration, Drager and other Rebreather kit was used to make sure every diver from 93m to 5m had someone to say hello to, and be filmed by at the bottom.
The statistics on this are intriguing and will be covered in the tech divers’ own article on the subject. Jeanette had to make a dive of over 90 minutes to witness Martin’s 3 1/2 minute plunge to 93m. The biggest challenge of all however for the scuba team was the 70-80m day which required a 2 1/2 hour dive to provide someone at the bottom throughout.
Safety wise – what exactly would or could a deep scuba diver do? Well for once, they did have a tool, in the form of the FHOF, that they could have really helped with. However as usual, the tech team’s main responsibility was to video the turn at the bottom and act as an insurance measure for the divers.
Final impressions from the scuba team were mixed, varying from "you are all mad" to "can I have a go?" They reported an inordinate amount of divers totally unaware that they had reached the bottom, almost head butting the plate – possibly a result of using lanyards. Asked for his thoughts on the matter, Steve Copeland confirmed that whilst "competition snorkelling" was not for him, his team would be eager to take up the challenge of covering the event again.
The most obvious rescue and safety feature at the Sony Freediver Classic was far and away the support offered by the safety freedivers. Far more than just a friendly face on the way back up, the safety freedivers could be visibly seen preventing injury and quite possibly saving lives across all three disciplines of the competition. Led by Matt Briseno and Loic Leferme, a team made up of both monkeys and competitors dived, swam and stood in the sun relentlessly to help out their fellow freedivers.
The Dynamic event posed a major challenge. Very few divers posted anything like their final performance meaning a long, fast swim for the safety divers. One South African competitor left his safety swimmer winded and almost needing rescuing himself after making a super speedy sprint for the end of the pool! A suggestion was made that rather than having a safety diver in the water, the safety swimmer (in bright red Baywatch shorts with one of those torpedo things or similar) should walk/jog along the side of the pool and dive in at the appropriate moment. Maybe this needs working on but it seems like a good idea.
The Dynamic showed up another important safety consideration that surely no one could have planned for. One competitor whose performance resulted in a fairly drawn out black out had slathered himself in sun cream before his performance. This made it almost impossible for the safety freediver to get a good enough grip to hold him out of the water. Not something anyone would really have worked out in advance!
Constant Weight is where safety freedivers work their hardest. Divers at all levels found they could help out here. Whilst the stronger divers who were not competing that day were called in to safety dive the competition lines, anyone with a friendly face was welcome to act as a warm up coach to divers who did not bring their own. These warm up helpers needed to remain cool, calm and warm of spirit to the stressed out, scared silly, sea sick and sinus spasmed – most of these competing for the first time!
At the competition zone, the freediver was handed over to the care of Loic, Bill and their team of safety freedivers. These guys made repeated dives to 15 metres or more to watch each competitor as they ascended. Most of the time this was just a smiling, reassuring face but more often then expected, resulted in help being given. The majority of problems occurred at the surface where Francois, Cedric and Loic showed an incredible ability to spot a samba or black out on its way before anyone else could see it. Quite frequently a competitor would emerge smiling and seemingly ok, only to a shout of "Tiens le!" ("Hold Him!") seconds before the shaking or black out hit the diver.
An amazing ability especially seeing the low occurrence of such events in Nice where careful training and dive techniques make any loss of motor control very rare.
Not all situations that arose were as easy to deal with. A couple of deep water black outs put the team to the test. One competitor who blacked out at around twelve metres needed the help of three safety freedivers to get him to the surface. Once on the surface, black outs were sorted out swiftly and efficiently. The diver was held out of the water, mask off, name called, encouraged to breath and most of the time this was enough. When this did not work almost immediately, no time was lost. Where a year ago, the next step may have been to dry the diver’s face, blow across his airways and hope for a little while longer, Loic’s team cut straight to the chase. The rough conditions made drying the face almost impossible so if the diver did not come around immediately, Loic gave a breath or two mouth-to-nose. This worked every time with the diver then handed over to the Offical Doctor who administered oxygen where it was required.
The statistics are interesting. Over 14% of performances across the three disciplines resulted in disqualification from LMC or black out, which even the super strict judges admit is disproportionate. Across the male/female border it gets even more intriguing. 8.62% of male performances ended in LMC and 10.4% of female. However the black outs tell the real story – 18 male black outs representing 7.76% of performances, and ZERO female black outs across the whole competition – luck or judgement? You can decide!
Interestingly there seemed to be an inordinate amount of LMC and BO disqualifications at the "round number" marks. Many inexperienced competitors had clearly decided to go for a personal best on the day.
Divers who had achieved 27m in training subscribed 30m, those who had hit 31m thought 35m sounded good. This was not surprising given that this was an individual competition and most competitors did not have a coach present. Maybe the subscription form should discourage this in future. Discuss….
An interesting competition from the safety point of view, which threw up all kinds of challenges for everyone involved. The unpredictability of inexperienced divers, the devil may care attitude of those not competing on teams, the date of the competition so early in the season meant many had not had much chance to train and the variety of abilities from 5m to 93m made it a safety organisers’ nightmare. Yet it was run with style and calmness, panache and perception, coolness in a crisis and a smile at the end. Ultimately nothing really proved a problem. Over a thousand individual boat journeys to the barge, 357 official Top times, not to mention crates and crates of Keo by the pool on the last night and we all came home in one piece….well Herbert and I left our eardrums behind and a few people might have damaged their dignity but we only have ourselves to blame for that!
See you there next year – safely!
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