A Divers Diary
It was the day before our big dive and we had been working tirelessly for the past 3 days analyzing gasses, labelling tanks, checking equipment and fine tuning dive plans and confirming individual support diver roles. We commandeered the classroom at Blue Marlin Dive 2 months ago as our base and it was now full of JJ-CCR’s, cylinders, bailout tanks, regulators, laptops, equipment servicing tables, ropes, camelbacks and supplies for the long day ahead tomorrow and of course the newly made deco trapeze which I am particularly proud of. The team is now ready, having each spent 3 months training to do a specific task over and over again.
Originally the plan had been to conduct the dive on the stunning Tunang Wall a few kilometers off the coast of Gili Tawangan, Lombok, Indonesia. For anyone who has had the pleasure of diving on this magnificent wall they will understand my excitement of further exploring the depths, overhangs and the abundance of coral and marine life inhabiting the site including thresher sharks and oceanic sunfish. My last tie off was at 195m on Christmas Eve but after another sub 200m dive in February to further extend the line I realized that doing the dive here was not going to be possible. The wall turned into a slope of about 30 degrees and the effort of swimming back up the slope, despite my increased fitness and leg strength, whilst trying to maintain an ascent rate for the decompression profile was just too much physical exertion. I was heartbroken. With a month to go, I contacted my friend and mentor, Simon Liddiard, who was still in the UK, and we decided the dive would have to be done in the blue. So we took 300m of rope, tied some weight to the end with a Liquivison x1 securely fastened and threw it overboard approximately 800m north of Tunang. The line was taught and to my relief the computer came up reading 288m and registering 10 degrees. The computer works and we have the depth. The upside of the new plan was that I now didn’t have to swim across ledges or hold on to a shot line for deco in a current which had previously caused me a minor bend in my elbow. I could now drift on a deco trapeze and this would dramatically help to reduce the risk of DCS. After 4 dives on the drifting line I was confident that the team and I were ready. 100, 120,160 and 225m were the training depths. We practiced all of our emergency drills without incident. The straight down approach, as a free diver would do, suited perfectly. I could get down fast, minimize inert gas absorption and use the equipment to lift me up with minimum work load thus making it a physiologically safer dive. “Theoretically “of course.
Simon, Jeff Glenn and I reviewed my proposed plan before calling the rest of the team in for the final briefing. We devised a time line and revised what needed to be done by each diver. I briefed them on staggered entry times, individual responsibilities and duties that needed to be performed. I personally checked all individual dive plans and answered questions and concerns. Needless to say all safety procedures were reviewed. The chamber technicians, boat crew, and medics had all been contacted and were on standby. During my briefing I remember feeling extremely proud and honoured to have such dedicated friends. They were totally behind me and 100% committed to helping me realize my dream. I am a lucky man. I smiled to myself as I looked over at “The Boss” as he was taking notes, and probably for the first and only time in my career I found myself telling Simon what I wanted him to do! This in itself gave me great confidence. It meant I was ready, prepared and ultimately that he agreed with my dive plan. At 3pm roles were back to normal. Simon winked at me and told me to go home. I lingered in the dive shop trying not to let my excitement show. We had agreed that we would keep the date of the dive as secret as possible. If anyone asked, tomorrow was to be a training dive with the actual dive in 3 days’ time. The truth was that we were to leave at 6 am. “I am not at my best in the morning” I said, to which everyone raised their eyebrows and sarcastically replied “Really Will?” We all laughed and I realized again what an amazing bunch they are. Even if the dive didn’t go ahead I would sleep well knowing I had true friends around me having been on a dream journey just to get where I am now. There are no egos on the team and they all know me so well. I walked back past the classroom as I’d remembered some extra twin sets of air were needed only to be told again “I thought I’d told you to go home?” Oh yeah, sorry boss and off I went for my ritual siesta totally relaxed, stress free and as excited as a 5 year old on Christmas Eve.
At 5:30pm I got up and went for a run with my friend and cardio coach Graham. I powered through the sand around the island along the west coast with the sunset over Gunung Agung in Bali. I could feel the energy and felt a tingle run through my body. This is it. I had finally achieved the peace of mind that comes with a year of research, planning and training.
7pm. I made my way to Simon’s villa for a final chat and pep talk and a steak sandwich. He is as cool as ever and we casually discuss the next day. I ask him if he has any words of wisdom and he tells me that I don’t have to chase the depth and that I should ask myself at certain points “How do I feel?” There is always tomorrow and now I feel completely relaxed. Thanks to my team, friends, family and colleagues, I went home without a care in the world. I literally never felt so good in my whole life. I didn’t have a single complaint or grumble or care in the world about anything at all. I went home lay in bed visualizing my descent and promptly fell asleep.
March 26th 2014
12:40 am. I awoke to my cat meowing and put her outside.
2:30 am I woke again, checked the time. “Not yet Will” I told myself.
4:45 am I got up 15 minutes before the alarm, put the kettle on and shower. I wondered what the point was as I was going to be wet all day. I had oatmeal, protein powder and some hydration salts for breakfast and put on some drum and bass music to liven me up. My phone rang and it was one of my best friends from home. How on earth he knew it was the day I didn’t know. He wished me well and confided his faith in me. 5 minutes later my other best friend called. He told me to be careful and I assured him I would. “Don’t worry, I’m Spartacus” I joked with him, to which he replied “Yes but Spartacus fought Romans and Lions, he didn’t dive to 300m!’ I hung up laughing aloud.
5:30 I left my house with my precautionary overnight bag ready for the chamber and cycled to Blue Marlin Dive in the dark. I stopped twice as I started to feel nauseous due to nerves, but in a good way. Just before I got to work I was hit with the most beautiful sight of reds and oranges beginning their ascent over Mount Rinjani in Lombok. I took a moment and a few deep breaths. When I turned I saw Simon in the street with a coffee and realized that he had been watching me. He probably thought I’d gone soft and was considering my last sunrise but he didn’t say so. Most of the team were there and obviously had been for some time as tanks, supplies and equipment were everywhere and ready to be loaded on the boat. My CCR was the only thing remaining in the classroom. I put my O’Three undersuit on, had a coffee, joked with the team and did some final checks of the CCR. We took a team photo once the sun was up and sped off on a perfectly flat and windless sea.
Once we had arrived at the site, Frank and Jeff Anastas threw the weighted line overboard and I pre breathed my CCR checking the function of the electronics. There was no need for a brief as we had done 30+ training dives. I wasn’t nervous or scared due to the preparations. I was excited and confident. The best thing about a deep dive is the free fall.
At 7:30 am I rolled into the water with Frank who was the early turn around support diver should I prematurely abort and descended to 6m for a bubble and valve check. I also flush o2 into my breathing loop to check the sensors are all correct. Frank gave me a firm OK signal and I went back to the surface and began a freediver’s style breathe up as taught to me by British freedive champion, Mike Board. This technique calms me, slows my breathing and puts me in “Dive Mode” I took my mouthpiece out and told Simon and Jeff Glenn I’d see them in 26 minutes and joked with them not to be late.
At 7:42am I began my descent, passed Frank at 21m who had staged off the 50% and accelerated to 35 metres per minute descent speed. Frank followed to 45m with a 22/36 trimix to stage off. As I approached 50m I had trouble equalizing which is something I never have issues with, I stop, go up, try again but I was losing time. I forced my way to 60m and considered aborting. I flooded my hood with water and forced the equalization. This meant I was now playing catch up as I had a very strict 10 minute turn time. I am extremely disciplined. If I were to over stay the run time chasing depth the whole support schedule would be compromised and involve huge complications for the crew and take the dive time well into the night. By 62m I saw on my Liquivison x1 I was doing 48m per minute. By 120m I had caught up and was totally relaxed. The light began to fade and I became hypnotized by the braiding of the rope illuminated by my computers. This was exactly as I had dreamt it and visualized during yoga. “In 6 minutes I’ll be there” I thought.
My first problem was at 160m. My manual diluent button was stuck in and putting gas into the breathing loop, thus slowing me down. I vented through the nose, wrapped my right arm around the line and disconnected it grateful it wasn’t the oxygen side and considered aborting again. After a couple of attempts I managed to plug it back in and free it from its’ pushed in state. It was sticking and I made a mental note to service it when I surfaced. I inverted my body gave a couple of firm kicks and accelerated again into sheer darkness trying to regain lost time. My breathing was perfect and I felt calm and strong.
At 210m it happened again!! This time I quickly disconnected and took my time fiddling with the button until it popped back out. I cautiously plugged in my off board diluent mix of 4% oxygen, 80% helium. No sooner had I done this I was hit by a thermocline and deep water current. I was now in new territory at 230m. I asked myself “Am I OK?” to which I replied “Of course I am”. By 250m the narcosis and temperature began to take effect, I focused on my gauges and realize the Xeo is no longer registering my depth and is locked at 249.8m. It was still displaying time and temperature. I began to get excited as I was almost there but my hands were getting cold. I relaxed and pulled in very slow deep breaths, found my inflator and pushed the one button that had more importance than anything in my life at that time. I needed to get gas into the wing early at that depth so that I didn’t overshoot my depth and become overexerted trying to stop on the line. I heard a faint hiss of helium going into the wing. I decided to use helium as it was lighter and therefore would provide a quicker and more effective “brake” on my descent. I had previously estimated it would take at least 90 seconds of full inflation to stop. It would also slow my descent speed which was important to avoid the deadly symptoms of HPNS. I passed 285m and was now the deepest diver on a CCR, but well aware that I needed to get back for it to mean anything. At 288m, due to software programming which has since been corrected the x1’s both stopped registering further depth. I was still dropping and had well over a minute to spare. The time was 8mins 40 seconds. I now had a 52m equivalent narcotic depth and by run time 9:40 I made the hazy decision to grab the line and take a moment. There was no point chasing 300m when the depths would not show and I also risked over shooting my plan. I gave a kick and pulled up whilst still waiting for the wing to take over. The x1’s came back to life and off I went on the longest 16 minutes of my life. My hands had begun to shake and my core temp was dropping but I stayed calm and focused on ascent speed and breathing. At 240 the wing inflator began punching gas in at a greater speed. By the time I arrived at my planned 180m deep stop I realized that it was just not possible to switch mixes as I had lost manual dexterity and my body was beginning to shake. HPNS or cold I still don’t know. All computers were showing a much higher decompression ceiling and were all working so I worked up to 150m to do the 1 minute stop.
When I arrived I was struggling with the shakes. I did my minute knowing I’d be in safe hands very soon. I was supposed to shine a torch up the line to Simon and Jeff to show them I was ok but I couldn’t. The deep cavalry appeared out of the dark at 130m, slightly deeper than planned, and it was then that I realized I had done it. From then on they would get me up safely whatever it took. Simon checked my computers and relieved me of my 2 deep mixes and gave me my 84m bailout mix. He sent up a DSMB to tell the team I was back so they could relax then off he went with a quick nod that I know so well. It meant “well done”. We still had 9 hours to go and Simon must supervise logistics on the surface. Jeff helped me switch diluents, took a firm hold of me and rubbed my arms for warmth and circulation. Descent speed was now down to 6 m per minute compared to the 18 I had done from 290m. I fought the cold and drew strength from Jeff. It was a tough hour during which I thought that I’d not make it unless I warm up. Trying to maintain mental focus when your body is under stress is extremely hard. Jeff Glenn had everything under control and maintained my ascent speeds and constantly checked my computers and gauges in case I had missed something.
At run time 93 minutes exactly on schedule, much warmer and in the light zone I was greeted by Jan Schmid to take over from Jeff. Jeff ended up doing a 5 hour dive. Jan removed some tanks as they were becoming heavy and over the following hour escorted me to 45m, where I was met by Theresia. Comfort during deco is critical as I have learnt. I found that the traditional way of being horizontal took too much effort and caused physiological complications. I’d do it my way as it works and did work for me. Theresia brought me food in the food of tomato soup, rehydration salt in a camelback and took away the 2 heavy 3l steel back up tanks strapped to my JJ-CCR and my remaining stages. She had been looking after me for the past 3 months above and below the water and is a real success story. We had become good friends. Things became a formality as I have done several 12 hour dives whilst preparing for my previous world records for endurance. After an hour with her it was time to buddy with Jeff Anastas, another diving success story. We had a chat in our wet notes and discussed what it was like down at depth, made a few jokes and time soon passed. Frank was next in and as always a pleasure to spend time with Frank. We punched knuckles together as we had been on a long journey together. Frank had also been in charge of setting up the deco trapeze. We had a spare JJ-CCR on the 12m bar. 2 x 80% mixes on the 9m bar and air cylinders for CCR bailout and air breaks to be done every 20 minutes. Frank and I hopped over from the 350m drop line on to the deco trapeze where I could now truly relax.
The rest of the deco passed without incident. We were all in a great mood and did some posing for the camera when 7 squid arrived during the last hour of deco. After 592 minutes I surfaced as well and as happy as I have ever felt in my life. I wasn’t cold tired or hungry. I was completely asymptomatic of DCS and stayed that way. We sat on the top deck of the boat for the 30 minute ride home to be greeted by friends, colleagues and well-wishers. We were THE team, laughing and joking just as the sun was going down. It had been another great day at work on Gili Trawangan with a team of dedicated individuals who will stay in my heart and mind forever.