The Constant Ballast competition is now under way. The athletes are blessed with a bit of a sleep in for the first day, courtesy of the tide tables. The dates for this event were chosen in part because of the availability of student housing and because of the very shallow tidal movements at this time of year.
The sun has worked its way through the cloud cover and is slowly returning the heat back to this little spot of paradise.
As we arrive at the marina nice and early, we see divers scattered about the beach like pieces of driftwood, going through their various warm-up routines. I unload my gear and start on my own contortions and breathing exercises while I plug myself into my favourite techno music.
Once the stretches are done, we pile onto the shuttle boat and sail lazily across the water to the barge. It has now been transformed into a slick machine of diving production. There are sponsor banners everywhere, country flags draped over ropes and a little bit more energy buzzing all around us. Not just the gentle hum of the generators and the booster pumps, but a heightened sense of urgency about the crew.
Competitors have been split up over the two days depending on their declared depth and luck of the draw. Each day has a series of divers going from deepest to shallowest. In order to give the support divers a reasonable in-water profile, competitors are sorted based on depth and then even divers compete on one day and odd divers on another. Team Canada has three divers drawn for the first day, including me.
Since this is a team event, our strategy is to declare a depth that we have done at least three times. This will give us pretty good odds of getting full points, as a disqualification due to a loss of motor control (LMC) or a black out will guarantee a no-show on the podium.
I have declared a depth of 58 m. I have been deeper, but I am confident I can do this depth even if things aren’t tickity-boo on game day. Since this is my first big competition, I want to leave a little room for stress, weather, sinus trouble and other issues that only make themselves apparent during competitions.
I am the first member of the team to go through the process. Each diver has an official start time; mine is 12:12pm. I am not allowed to enter the water until 45 minutes prior to my official start. During the 45 minutes, I must stay within view of the judges, to discourage me from having a few sips of pure oxygen or something like that.
My warm-up routine involves a five-minute facial immersion followed by two gentle pull down dives to a depth of 20m, where I hang out for a couple minutes on each dive. The facial immersion wakes up the receptors in the face and starts the diving reflex. The hangs at depth allow the body to experience a few diaphragmatic contractions, another step in the diving reflex. The final part of my warm-up includes a negative pressure dive. This important step is by far the most grueling, as it involves doing a dive on an empty lung. It is most unpleasant, but, if done properly, can simulate how your body will feel at depths down to 250ft. Ugh. This last stage must be done very carefully and slowly, as the pressure change is greatest near the surface. I exhale to residual volume and very slowly pull myself down the line to between 7 and 10 meters. This will let the body know of things to come, so it won’t be such a shock later on.
This routine takes me about 35 minutes, so now I wait my turn to enter the competition zone.
When my turn is up, my coach, Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, drags me into the competition zone and hooks my lanyard onto the line. My tag has already been clipped onto a brass ring on the line and sent on its way to the bottom plate. As I wait for my official two-minute countdown, I can’t help but look up onto the barge. It brings a smile to my face to see so many people clinging on to each other, hanging over the side, trying to get the best view. The judges sit with their legs dangling over the edge while photographers from your favourite source of underwater news jockey for the best position with camera crews from local media. Friends and teammates fill in any remaining space with smiles of support and perhaps just a bit of angst.
Am I supposed to be nervous?
Funny, I feel pretty relaxed. This is the day I have been training for over the last 10 months and I am finally here to show my stuff.
I snap out of my happy little dream and re-focus on my breathing.
“One minute thirty”
I feel just a little bit of excitement as I think of all the people watching and…
I start my purge breaths as Mandy leans in close and says, “Have a good dive”.
This brings a wave of calm and goose bumps over me and then I hear
“30 seconds”. A few more purges.
“10 seconds”. I stop purging and take two nice calm breaths.
“5 seconds, 4, 3, 2, 1, official top”
I start my final deep inhalation, starting deep with my diaphragm and work my way up the ribs to the shoulders.
“Plus 1, plus 2, plus 3 …”
Time to pack. I gulp down several mouthfuls of air and use my throat like a piston to compress the extra air into my lungs.
One more mouthful for the cheeks and an equalization and then I roll onto my belly.
I take two seconds to gather my thoughts and focus on a good clean entry. I fold at the hips and lift my monofin to the air while I use my arms for one strong pull through the water. Once the fin is below the surface, I start my first 10 strong kicks down. I watch the line go by and work on keeping myself parallel to it. I see my first scuba diver holding an underwater video camera and another taking still shots. I keep kicking. Equalize. Watch the line.
Ten strong kicks and then I shift gears and start ten gentle kicks, rolling my whole body like a wave through the water, looking for the path of least resistance.
As I finish my second set of kicks, I fall into a bit of a trance as I watch the line, the divers and the darkness envelop me. Before long, it starts to get bright again … Very bright indeed. I am nearing the 40 m mark, where the first of a series of HMI lights begins. I focus on the equalizations and feel my heart rate begin to slow down. A patch of darkness sinks around me before the next light at 50 m. I feel the pressure contractions coming on now, but they seem soft compared to usual. I sense more brightness down below and have a quick look. I can make out the plate and my tag now. I stare back at the line and wait until the telltale candy cane striping appears before me. I grab the line and reach down with my left hand as I look for the tag. A quick pull and I have my prize. I let my fin sink below me now and start a series of strong kicks back to the surface. As I retrace my steps, I can focus a little more on the action down there with me.
Man, there sure are a lot of people down here!
I smile at one of the cameras as I remind myself about the things I have to do when I reach topside. I break the surface, grab the line and breath! Breath! Breath! Three more breathes and signal OK to the judges. Put the mask on the forehead and don’t make any sudden moves. Mandy is right there to remind me of each crucial step. I listen carefully and do as I’m told. That first twenty seconds is a long time while the judges twiddle those white, yellow and red cards ominously in their hands. Faint smiles from them and then I receive white cards from everybody. Whew.
When the judges clear me, Mandy is the first to congratulate me with a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. Ah, the rewards of a successful dive!
As I make my way back onto the barge, fellow divers pat me on the back for a job well done. Some even watched the dive on the closed circuit TV. It takes a while to wipe the silly grin off my face. It’s hard to hide the fact that I am pretty proud of myself. Not to mention the pressure is off me now, and passed along to my teammates!
Luc Gosselin is our next diver in the water and he is up for a 48 m dive.
Everything looks solid from my vantage point when he returns to the surface sporting a huge smile and holding his tag, but a judge informs me of a line violation; a ten point penalty. We protest the verdict and hand over $80cdn for the privilege. We find out later that night that our money went towards a good cause (the AIDA coffers) as the judgment stands.
Jessica Apedaile is up next with a 42 m dive. When she breaks the surface holding her tag, she comments between breaths and big smiles that she could have gone “way deeper”. That is how it should be in competition.
The next day sees the balance of the team do their dives, all clean of course and starting with Mandy-Rae, the deepest woman of the event and her 68 m dive. Brent Pascall rockets through his 60 m dive in a scant 1:25, sending powerful waves through the water with his monofin. Jade Leutenegger repeats a beautiful 45 m dive while her mother watches onboard after flying in from Tanzania.
With only two black outs and one LMC, the success rate of the two days is remarkable. The competitors I speak with are all very impressed with the technology that has gone into the event so far and about the only complaint to be heard is with regards to the well used port-a-potty.
Once back on shore, everyone heads home to get cleaned up for the highlight of the evening. The premiere of ‘The Freediver”, previewed with a sneak peak of Goh Iromoto’s latest streaming video and concluded with a brilliant film from the German team’s trip to Norway and their diving adventures with the Orcas.
The following day will be a well-deserved break and a leisurely training day at the UBC pool for the upcoming static event.