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Into the Abyss: Will Trubridge pushes the human frontier into the deep.
By Tarquin Cooper
For freedivers, this is their world — a vertical line that disappears into total darkness. It’s become the last frontier of human endeavour.
While hundreds climb Mt Everest every year, underwater there are no environmental limits to stop athletes from pushing the boundary and descending to increasingly incredible depths on just a single breath of air. It is literally, a bottomless ocean.
William Trubridge, 31, is one such athlete. Lying on his back on the water’s surface, he inflates his lungs to their maximum capacity then gulps the air like a fish to ‘pack’ in more oxygen. Then he rolls on his side and disappears into the deep, finning down for a few seconds before he disappears from view. It will be almost four minutes before he emerges again.
The New Zealander is on a bid to break the constant weight world record by diving to 125m (410ft)— equivalent to five lengths of an Olympic swimming pool. This is where the diver takes a single breath of air at the surface before descending and ascending using just a monofin for propulsion. The record attempt takes place at his training base, Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas. At 202m, it is the world’s deepest known sea water blue hole — a giant underwater cave.
Trubridge descends at the rate of a metre a second. From 20m he falls like a skydiver.
“It is the most beautiful and relaxing part of the dive,” comments Trubridge afterwards. “It feels like you’re being accepted into the ocean.”
At 2’10 he reaches the bottom plate at 125m, rips off a velcro tag and begins the ascent back up.
After 3’45, Trubridge emerges at the surface like a cork and gasps for air. Although the actual depth of 125m is confirmed by a Suunto D-Series diving watch, Trubridge cannot claim the record. In order for a record to be official, the diver must pass stringent protocols on the surface in front of two independent judges and Trubridge fails the test.
Comments Trubridge: “I made it to 125m and back to the surface, but my oxygen was just too low, and I had a samba [a loss of muscular control caused by oxygen deprivation] and failed the surface protocol. I forgot to remove my goggles! There were groans and laughs, but on the whole I'm not too gutted. The dive felt good, so I know that it is within my reach.”
He adds: “There is unfinished business, but for now I will take a little time off training.”
Trubridge remains sanguine about the attempt. For him, it is all part of the challenges and appeal of the sport. He adds: “It’s always been a part of me and been natural for me to see where I can get to with it.”
He adds: “For me, the greatest appeal is how different freediving is to any other sport or activity. The fact we’re completely immersed in liquid which is something we don’t experience in day-to-day lives. A single breath... the weightlessness, the absence of sounds, the dullness of the colours. Everything is subtracted. It’s a completely different experience to life in the air element.”
Yoga and training
To prepare his body, Trubridge follows a highly disciplined regime that is a mixture of breath-holding exercises, diving technique and yoga. In fact, he’s been described as ‘an advanced yogi’.
“I train as many as 15 times a week. The training is very intensive: a dive may only last four minutes, but during that time you are taking your body to its physiological limit in so many ways. To extend your breath hold you need to develop greater storage capacity for oxygen in your blood and tissues, but perhaps more importantly develop a tolerance to high carbon dioxide levels so that you can relax or stay calm despite the urge to breath that comes when CO2 levels rise.
“I use a lot of exercises to develop flexibility of the lungs, ribcage and diaphragm. Some of these I have taken from yoga practices, others I have devised myself. I am constantly doing yoga to keep the body, and most importantly the lungs flexible.”
Because a low pulse and calm mind is vital to performance, Trubridge avoids all stimulants including coffee and follows a strict no-meat diet. “It’s aimed at normalising body acidity and supplying enough energy in the form of muscular glycogen, as well as antioxidants to combat the physiological effects of breath holds. So a lot of fruit, vegetables and pasta!”
About freediving physiology:
One of the biggest challenges for freedivers is equalizing the pressure in their ears as it increases with the depth. The pressures of the gases in the blood system also has a narcotic effect. In extreme cases it can cause hallucinations. By the time Trubridge reached 125m his lungs would have shrunk from a surface volume of 8-9lt (17-19pints) to just 600-700ml (20fl oz).
His heart rate also drops to as low as 25 beats per minute, in part caused by the ‘mammalian reflex’, an automatic response humans share with aquatic mammals which lowers the pulse in water.
A final challenge is shallow water blackout (SWB),– which can occur in the last few metres of a dive when expanding oxygen-hungry lungs literally suck oxygen from the bloodstream, causing unconsciousness. For this reason, ascending freedivers are always accompanied by safety divers during the last 20m of an ascent. Lastly, on the surface, divers can experience another problem they refer to as ‘the samba’ — a loss of muscular control typified by shaking. It was this problem that prevented Trubridge from completing the surface protocol which led to his record attempt being disqualified.
Trubridge learnt to swim at the age of 18 months, and was freediving to 15m by the age of eight, competing with his older brother to to see who could bring back a stone from the deepest depth. But it was not until he was 22 that he discovered competition. Since then he has broken numerous freediving records. He was the first man to break the 100m depth barrier completely unassissted — without the use of fins, rope or weights in 2010. He also holds the record for ‘Free Immersion’, where divers descend and ascend by pulling on a rope. His record stands at an unbelievable 121m. His competition personal best for static apnea (holding breath) is 7’29. More info at www.verticalblue.net.
Image credit ©zooom.at/agustinmunoz.com
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