West Bay, Grand Cayman Island, BWI -Today’s oceaneering was a full-scale dress rehearsal for the event. Athletes, in-water support, on-board support, media, medical and assorted unclassifiable components assembled on the WestBay dock for an 8 AM departure. It was very likely the biggest Performance Freediving logistical operation ever : two cars, a van, and two trucks were required to transport personnel and gear to boatside. Fortunately, Kirk’s calculations worked out, and the dreaded Two-Trip scenario between base camp and dock wasn’t necessary.
A big media development can now be confirmed and disclosed : NBC, one of the three major American broadcast TV networks, has a 4-person crew on location and will be ( at the very least) shooting footage for one of the network’s prime news shows. The NBC crew joined the rest of us on Captain Leslie Ebank’s 42-foot boat for the ride out to the dive site. The possibility of live coverage, using HD feed from HD Odyssey’s underwater cams is under study. The NBC producer seemed very impressed by all he saw. In a conversation with Kirk after today’s training session, he opined that Performance Freediving is doing for freediving what Jake Burton did in his day for snowboarding: turning it from a quirky niche interest to a serious spectator sport. Those are words many of us have been waiting many years to hear.
Television is a very, very competitive business in the United States. I’ve not seen crews from any other networks as yet, but I’d be astonished if word of NBC’s presence here hasn’t spread up and down the Avenue of the Americas in New York City, and set off a wave of interest in the other companies’ headquarters.
The winds and seas had settled a bit since yesterday, but it was still a little bit rougher than optimal. Your faithful Freediving Editor was drafted as a support freediver, and so I had as up-front a seat for the athletes’ training dives as can be had.
A small misadventure occurred in the initial stages of setup, out at the dive site.
The tiny, transparent plastic dinghy (on which the generator and a network engineer are stationed to support the transmission of live HD video from underwater) broke loose from its tether and began to drift away downwind at an alarming speed. I’m not sure how far downwind the next dry land is, but I would reckon many hundreds of miles.
Almost everyone was working a series of programmed tasks on a tight timetable and, while observing the dinghy’s escape and aware of the seriousness of the problem, had to stay on the job. Finally, Brent Pascal, Canadian Free Immersion record holder and stellar athlete, slapped on a monofin, mask and snorkel and set off on a surface sprint in an effort to catch the dinghy. It seemed impossible, but he did it, and even more remarkably managed to tow it back upwind and tie it off to the mother ship. An awesome feat of aquatics, strength and stamina – the day’s unheralded world record in Dinghy Wrangling.
Underwater, it was classic Grand Cayman : bottomless, blue and crystal clear. Later, the deep support divers, down nearly 350 feet, reported perfect visibility to the surface.
Mandy, Doc and Martin are well-drilled in the warm-up and dive sequence, and once the first athlete, Martin, hit the water the training program was executed in less than 30 minutes.
Martin made a perfect Constant Ballast dive to 106 meters. He surfaced clean and sober. This depth is an unofficial world record, and the effort was apparent on Martin’s face. The reason: the dive was slow. It was 3 minutes 50 seconds long. When I chastised Martin for taking so long, reminding him that we in the media don’t have all day to wait around for him, he promised to speed it up for Game Day.
After a short debriefing with Kirk, Martin dropped down to 15 feet, where a regulator and oxygen bottle awaited him. He breathed pure O2, at a depth similar to that of the traditional scuba safety stop, for 5 minutes. This post-dive oxygen station is standard procedure now for Performance Freediving competitors, an innovation resulting from the team’s association with pulmonologist Dr. Ralph Potkin of Cedars-SinaiMedicalCenter and the Beverly HillsCenter for Hyperbaric Medicine in California. Dr. Potkin is on location with the team in Cayman – more on his freediving research in a dispatch to come.
Mandy was up next, for a Constant Ballast dive targeted at 83 meters. Floating by her on the surface, I noted that she continued breathing up for a long time after the countdown had ended. Hesitation ? Reluctance ? I don’t know. There hasn’t been time to analyze it, but she did what any wise freediver does when the feeling isn’t right. In any case, Mandy’s dive was a mild disappointment. She turned and headed back surfaceward at only 50 meters.
Finally, Doc Lopez took his place at the competition line and rolled over onto his back for his breathe-up. Doc had planned an easy, no-stress free immersion dive as his comeback after the previous day’s hypoxic incident. And so it was: 41 meters, now sweat, in the heads-up-feet-down position he’s adopted for this discipline.
Captain Ebanks has the boat back to WestBay dock on schedule, at noon, and the first of the crew were back at base camp by 12:30. This is a great training schedule, since it leaves the afternoon free for the enormous overhead associated with a project of this scale: gear maintenance, tank fills, administration and more administration, and of course publicity. As I type these words, the NBC crew is filming and interview with Dr. Potkin outside by the swimming pool. Later on, we’ll drive over to the island’s poshest hotel to check out the facilities for tomorrow evening’s press conference.
Kirk’s called a full-crew meeting for this evening, poolside at base camp. I expect I’ll learn then whether tomorrow will be my day to shoot aerial photos from the chartered helicopter. And then, there’s the question of my beloved air mattress. The signs are ominous – a huge pile of newly-arrive equipment crates filled our quarters when we returned from the ocean. The stuff’s owners cannot be far behind.
Last minute news: the NBC crew is shooting for the Today Show ! And, as forecast, another American network has jumped on board. ABC’s Good Morning America is here, and will be interviewing the Team tomorrow morning.
This is the big time, folks. Freediving is In the Building.