Red Sea Cup: First American to Reach 300 Feet

Staring at a rope leading 300 feet down into the ocean depths can be intimidating, especially if you’re planning to dive to the bottom of it on a single breath of air: no air tanks, rebreathers, weighted sleds or motorized propulsion. Bright sunshine and calm seas don’t distract from the job at hand, especially knowing that no American has ever done it. As the judges announce the start time (the “Official Top”), you ignore human instincts and rely on training. I’ve been here before, but I’m still not feeling warm and fuzzy.
The 2012 Red Sea Cup in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, looked promising for a record dive: warm, clear water guaranteed, and on good days calm seas and light current. Sharm is Europe’s version of Cancun, with year-round sunshine and no shortage of tourists and resorts. For freediving, it offers deep water close to shore: 400 feet deep only 500 feet from the beach. My last record with fins (“Constant Weight”) was in 2010, and I was ready to put on my monofin and try again.
Deep water was only part of the Red Sea Cup’s appeal: good friends were also competing, and the chance to spend time with them counterbalanced the pressure of competitive diving. George Miller, Liv Philip and Daan Verhoeven were in from London (enjoying sunshine after a grey London summer); Matt Molina, whom I met in 2009 and with whom i dove the Dahab Arch, was in from Poland; and my training partner Will Winram (a Canadian, who lives with his wife in Switzerland) flew down from Geneva. Will and I met in Sharm at the World Championships in 2007; I missed the training period with an ear problem, but his advice led me to a PB in Constant Weight and a U.S. record in Constant No-Fins. We have a lot in common (we were both from the west coast and avid surfers before competing as freediviers), and have been training and competing together since.
Even when the sea cooperates, the Red Sea can be a tricky place to train. Summer heat is oppressive (110 Fahrenheit a typical daily high); the call to prayer (amplified by loudspeakers everywhere) provides 3:45 wake up call to the entire town; and the risk of stomach bugs lurks at every meal. Regardless, there was some impressive diving: Matt busted out some big dives, Will did deep no fins dives with minimal training, and Catalan Aleix Segura Vendrell did a impressive timed breath hold (“Static”) in a warm degree pool.
But no matter where you are, a 300+ foot competition line is still a bit intimidating. At that depth, the pressure is ten times that at sea level, and the air that filled your lungs at the surface has moved to equalize your non-compressible air spaces (ears, sinuses and trachea): there’s nothing left in your lungs (and keep in mind that if you exhale fully on land, you still have about a third of your lungs filled with air–their “residual volume”). I’m often asked what it feels like at this pressure. Oddly enough, if I relax and the dive is going well, I don’t feel anything: it’s only if my ears don’t equalize, or if I’m stressed and unable to let my ribcage and diaphragm compress, that I feel the pressure. This record attempt went well: 300 feet below the surface, I had compressed calmly, grabbed the tag, and had a pleasant swim back to the surface. After a few minutes of breathing oxygen after surfacing (a decompression safeguard needed at these depths), I was ready to celebrate.
As always, I’d like to thank my family for supporting me (even though they worry about what else might be swimming around in the depths during my dives), and William Winram

Photo by Daan Verhoeven

Photo by Alice Catteneo

for coaching me to another record. I would also like to thank Elios, my wetsuit sponsor, Aeris, my dive gauge sponsor, Ocean Minded, my footwear sponsor, and Trygons, my fin sponsor: your support is very much appreciated!