The Angels' Story

A Brief History in Time

In May 2003, a small group of intrepid freedivers headed for a newly opened quarry in Gloucestershire, seduced by the promise of depth. Not to be outdone and lured by talk of a challenge, a select team of mandatory support divers jostled for a ringside seat in innerspace.

Later the same month, at the biggest freediving championships ever to be held, the aficionados competed in Cyprus for the number one spot. At the award ceremony, once the dust had settled, the deepest constant weight freediver in the world paid homage to his safety diver Jeannette Copeland, who had performed a 95m support dive on an Inspiration Rebreather. He called her ‘His Guardian Angel’. It had taken Martin Stepanek 3 minutes 34 seconds to complete his record breaking freedive to 93m. By contrast, his Angel’s dive totaled 62 minutes. This included a 4 minute travel time to the target depth, 8 minutes deep in the blue at 95m followed by 50 minutes to fulfill decompression obligations.

Jeannette’s supreme skill was revealed only later when it emerged that during the dive, both her primary and back up computers had died, leaving her to calculate her deco requirements on the wing using contingency tables. Her cool-headed approach demonstrated to perfection the exemplary skills and self-sufficiency required in a safety diver.

Back in the land of hope and glory, the unique collaboration between freedivers and technical divers continued. The monthly pilgrimage to the National Diving Centre (NDC) was beginning to attract attention. By now the freedivers had adopted Martin Stepanek’s tribute term and were calling their support divers Angels of the Deep.

In June 2003, I received an invitation to head up the scuba safety for the now established monthly freediving sessions. Sam Kirby (who had initiated the idea of using the NDC) had a vision involving freediving with a dedicated scuba support team. The request was duly accepted and the initial task of researching and writing appropriate safety protocol began. Although this was specific to the environment we were diving in, ideas were cherry picked from every support diver who was willing to share their views. Of particular value were the contributions from Marcus Lambert, Kirk Krack (Performance Freediving), Rudi Castineyra (FREE) and Paul Streeter. The British freedivers were consulted to include their perspective as were the crew who manage the NDC. Every text that could be read on freediver safety and support diving was researched; every clip of film and video footage available was watched. A trip to Nice to see how the CIPA guys operated proved interesting. In the finish, a great deal of general obsessing took place until a comprehensive understanding of freediver safety had been acquired.

From the outset, everyone involved in saltFree had been united in their view of safety being paramount, which meant that whatever system was introduced, it had to be one that maximized the safety of both the freedivers and the support team. Advice and most crucially, clearance from Health and Safety (HSE) followed soon after. August 10th 2003, the hottest day on record, during a brain storming session to discuss protocol, and after just the right amount of intoxication, saltFree was officially named. Rodin O’Hagan’s logo design followed soon after and that special saltFree spirit began to emerge.

Throughout those initial months, effective use was made of the freedivers’ scuba skills within saltFree. Various volunteer support divers came and went. Some tried it and gave up after one session, others simply didn’t make the grade and a few, a very dedicated few, formed the backbone of the team.  They became known, affectionately, as the Archangels and include Marcus Lambert, Lars Plougmann, Martin Anderson, Steve Parker and myself. In October 2003, saltFree held its biggest weekend get-together, while simultaneously hosting two UK record attempts. The Archangels provided the safety cover with their customary discretion and a successful time was had by all.

During the bleak mid-winter SaltFree announced that it was to host the UK National Freediving Championships in May 04. With greater challenges to come and interest continually growing in saltFree, it became apparent that we needed a bigger, more independent team of committed support divers. Team selection began in earnest. Steve Copeland’s Cyprus team had been a truly international affair but only a few of the divers were UK-based and able to join this new team. The recruitment drive continued and divers looking for that extra facet to their sport began to come forward. 

Come Hell or High Water

The most important considerations in regard to diving in this steep-sided quarry environment were the enormously changeable visibility, lack of light, the penetrating cold and the depths involved. The visibility varies from about a metre or two when the algae blooms, to a respectable 15 metres or so during the colder months (although at depth it is usually always reasonable). The 75m drop ensures that the water temperature remains for the most part, no more than about 6°C below the thermocline, which rides shallow for much of the year.

Training and experience dictated that divers be split into three tiers; a shallow level team to cover depths down to 25 metres, a mid-range team that could dive to 45 metres and finally, the deep contingent who would cover anything below 45m. The benchmarks were a minimum of 150 dives to join the shallow group, 250 dives to be part of the mid-range team and 600 dives plus, to be in the deep set.

Each support diver had to be self-sufficient in regard to owning kit, they had to have cold water training and experience and they needed some sort of technical qualification. As most of the dives involve extended bottom times at depth, a fundamental understanding of gas planning and decompression theory was also a prerequisite. Most of the team hold TDI qualifications in Decompression Procedures or Extended Range diving, four are CCR trained and all are Nitrox, Advanced Nitrox or Trimix trained. In addition there was a requirement to be rescue savvy and having O2 / CPR and first aid skills was advantageous. Furthermore, every support diver had to be able to hold their own. If you can’t look after yourself down there, you’re no use to a freediver in trouble.

Dancing With The Devil

Finding altruistic technical divers with the right mix of diverse personalities was in itself an interesting task. A key element in selecting a team member is being able to identify, from the many applicants, who is genuinely interested in becoming involved in what is effectively a niche diving activity and recognizing when there may be an ulterior motive. We needed highly skilled divers who were able to be team players, flexible, consistent, reliable and above all else fun. Team diving is about making a contribution and a commitment. There is no room for glory seekers, negativity, heroes or pushing limits because what you do as a support diver will impact the safety of everyone else involved.

We had only a few months to form a cohesive team and prepare for the UK National Freediving Championships. Five of us had dived together in Cyprus during the Freeology Competition. Other potential candidates came via personal recommendation from existing Angels able to vouch for their integrity and ability. Two members of the team are part time crew at the NDC and know the quarry well. The rest were quite simply heaven sent!

Unifying the team was achieved by hosting presentations and briefings, meeting up at every opportunity to train together and a serious amount of emailing. A recipe intermittently peppered with a heavy late night session. As much as possible, every support diver was involved throughout each stage of the planning and development, as an all inclusive approach collectively produces a wealth of problem solving ability and technical know how.

When Hell Freezes Over

Throughout the winter in mind numbing 4°C water the squad trained together perfecting rescue techniques, working the bottom plate, watching the line, testing kit and always fine tuning the system until eventually, each new support diver felt totally comfortable with what was expected of them.

Of the many rescue systems in place internationally, without doubt the FHOF (Freediver Hook On and Forget) has to be up there with the best. It is the quickest and most reliable method of sending a distressed freediver to the surface from depth. This system utilizes the DSMB principle of a lift bag with a dedicated compressed air source. Simple and effective!

One of the objectives we had during the training sessions was to ensure each support diver gained proficiency in rescuing a freediver using the FHOF devices. This was done with the primary goal in mind of responding to an emergency situation and activating an FHOF in less than ten seconds. Using the Suunto D3 gauges and downloading the rescue profiles we were able to see that towards the end a 30 minute dive in cold water our reactions had slowed considerably. The anaesthetizing effect of the chill had more than doubled our reaction time. Further modifications to both the FHOF’s and our system followed to help facilitate our 10 second target.

Between the Devil and the Deep Green NDC

We had been in discussion with the NDC crew to build us a dedicated freediving pontoon with scuba safety lines and a deco station running from it. Some months and numerous designs later we christened the finished product. The extra lines transformed our diving allowing us, finally, the luxury of staging gas mixes for bailout, a trapeze to decompress on and our own descent / ascent line. This has in turn massively improved the safety for the team. A further bonus is that it is easier to orientate at depth. We now have numerous points of reference with all the deep training lines as opposed to the single shot line we originally started out with.

Support divers have received criticism in the past over a number of issues. A recurring complaint is of exhaled scuba bubbles interfering with a freedivers vision and performance. A second one relates to the positioning of a safety diver and their distance from the freedivers descent line. Both of these issues have been addressed by the team. Whenever possible we place one of our closed circuit rebreather divers on the bottom plate eliminating bubble intrusion completely. The rest of the team are trained to watch for bubble patterns and move around the line should the water become percolated. We introduced an optimum 2 metre separation between the freedivers descent line and our safety divers (which is in accordance with AIDA guidelines). In addition, the support team are briefed to remain discreet and unobtrusive.

Target depths are determined to a greater extent by the visibility so that at every point during a freedive, the athlete will be in view of at least one safety diver. Determining where to place each safety diver is logistically, the most complex aspect of what we do. The team dive plan to cover the UK competition could only be finalized the night before the big event, after registration when we received the athletes subscribed depths. Although we always have a provisional plan this inevitably changes as there are so many variables. We have to take into account the individual abilities of each of the 19 support divers, their rig set-up, experience at depth, gas preferences, ascent profiles and decompression obligations. Divers are then rotated in smaller teams, timed to descend (to the second) by a Dive Marshal to their own target depth, where they will cover a predetermined number of athletes. Competitors are usually given a 5 minute ‘top time’, which means we also have to wait for 5 minutes between freediver sightings. Clock watching becomes second nature. Staying focused is paramount, patiently anticipating the subsequent contestant while all the time trying to block out the cold that seeps in irrespective of thermal layering. Sure the adrenaline pumps, but when you are stationary, holding a depth for minute after minute, the big chill bites.

Gas choices vary from diver to diver. The shallow team are able to take advantage of an EAN 32% or 36% blend. Diving on air (EAN 21%) provides the mid-range team with the greatest flexibility, allowing divers to swap around at the last moment should a problem arise. Most of us choose to perform accelerated deco on a rich 60% or 80% Nitrox blend in the shallows. Once a safety diver drops below 45m the dangers of gas toxicity become significant and trimix comes into its own. All of us dive with some redundant gas to encourage self-sufficiency and because the cold has in the past led to free-flow incidents.

As a safety diver it is imperative to remain as mobile and streamlined as the dive allows. Rapid response during a rescue scenario impacts the outcome for the freediver so being encumbered with side mounts and excess gear is discouraged. Staging gas is one option we have successfully embraced, in particular as we don’t have currents or tides to contend with. This has helped our mid-range team especially to lighten their gas load as these are the depths most of the training dives have occurred in. Strobes allow us to keep a visual on each other when visibility is poor and to keep a track of where our deep guys are.

The Angels Team

The weekend of the UK National Freediving Championships saw for the very first time the complete Angels team converge as one. The support circus had come to town! After months of planning and dedication, 19 volunteer divers merged, magnanimous in their objective. From deep within the aquatic arena The Angels shone, doing what they do best in their unassuming, accomplished fashion -  a faultless, slick and very well oiled machine.

And when it was all over, we partied … as only heavenly creatures or the devil knows how!


Becky Seeley – Shallow team
Ben Toms – Shallow team
Brad Carter – Deep team
Eric Albinsson – Mid-range team
Fin Taylor – Mid-range team
Jason Duignan – Deep team (CCR)
John Parkinson – Mid-range team (CCR)
Lars Plougmann – Mid-range team (SCR)
Laura Harris – Mid-range team
Marcus Lambert – Deep team (CCR)  
Mark Dean – Mid-range team
Mark Wass – Deep Team
Martin Anderson – Mid-range team
Neil Braginton – Mid-range team
Neil Dinwoodie – Mid-range team
Steve Cook – Shallow team
Steve Parker – Deep team
Tony Colby – Shallow team
Trevor Frampton – Deep team (CCR)

Guest Angels:

Leilani Podgore – Dive Marshal
Peter Rodgers – Dive Marshal

 

To The Future

Fulfilling a dream is as much in facing the challenge as it is in realizing an end result and if one is to break down some of the misconceptions and barriers that seem to divide the freediving and technical diving fraternities, then the challenge continues. There is however a certain satisfaction, that rare sense of belonging to something unique and special that saltFree and The Angels have achieved. An unparalleled and successful amalgamation of opposite ends of the diving spectrum.  

Ode to The Angels

The Angels were all singing out of tune
And hoarse with having little else to do
Excepting to smile at the sun and the moon
Or curb a runaway young star or two.

Lord Byron (1788 – 1824) English Poet