There’s a story that I’ve been waiting for the right moment to tell, in part because I knew its telling would be arduous. One doesn’t just have a near-death experience and write about it the next day!
Hemingway isn’t known for his poetry, but there are some gems, and he wrote a line that stuck with me when I read it in 2002.
“that undistant country from whose bourne no traveller returns who hasn't been there.”
As an ambulance driver in World War I, Hemingway dealt frequently with death, and nearly died himself many times. So when I read this line I was able to borrow a tiny bit of his understanding. But in October 2020 the understanding became experience.
– image by Alex St Jean
It was the year of Covid, and with no competitions or travel possible, I had stranded myself on Long Island to train from March on. Two years before, Alexey Molchanov had broken the Free Immersion record I’d held from 2010–2018, and I was training to try and retrieve it, needing at least 126 meters (413 feet) to do so.
Free Immersion (FIM) is historically my most ‘reliable’ discipline. Up until then, I’d performed 150 dives deeper than 100m in this discipline, 25 of those to 120m+, and had 3 blackouts – all of them mild and all on the surface.
We were locked down at the start of the pandemic, and not allowed back to the beaches until mid-June 2020. From there I started methodically increasing depth, starting around 110m at the beginning of July, to mid-120’s by October.
It was slow, conservative progress, careful to avoid overtraining by never doing more than one or two deep dives a week. I only increased depth if in the previous dive I felt good and surfaced cleanly, and even then the increase in depth was never more than a single meter.
– coming out of my lockdown cave for the first time in 2020
On the 25th of October I dove a meter past the world record to 126m in one of the best FIM dives of my career. In my log book I wrote:
“After the turn felt a great sense of spaciousness and gliding in the stroke that I hadn’t felt before. I had a strong vision of myself in open, clear light-blue space, ascending quickly and efficiently.”
The beautiful sensation endured for the whole ascent, and I surfaced without clenching the line hard in the recovery (which I do when I’m close to the limit). Afterwards I felt energetic and lively, probably from the endorphins of setting a new personal best and going past the world record so easily.
– the profile from a picture perfect dive to 126m in 4:20
Normally in my training I like to exceed a world record by several meters before attempting it officially. This gives me a ‘buffer’ that makes the attempt itself easier psychologically.
So based on how comfortable this dive to 126 had been, I decided to attempt 127m four days later on the 29th October.
“Dying is a very simple thing. I've looked at death, and really I know. If I should have died it would have been very easy for me. Quite the easiest thing I ever did.” - Ernest Hemingway
In all my deep training I attempt to ‘neutralise’ variables, i.e. ensure that there is nothing irregular in terms of diet, rest, preparation or any physical condition.
This was the case on October 29: I had rested 2 full days, and eaten and slept well. The only slight difference with other training days was that 48 hours prior I had become a little sunburnt on my back and shoulders. It was by no means a strong sunburn: already the next day (28th) I was mostly recovered, and by the 29th there was no remaining sign.
I did my normal preparation for FIM (two full-exhale dives to about 27m), then rested on the platform for half an hour and started the dive at 11:14am.
The descent was regular in every way, and I touched the plate at 127m just after 2 minutes. From the profile, it’s clear that my ascent speed is the same as for the previous dive to 126m. Neither in the profile, nor in the movements of the rope being monitored by my safety diver Richard McKenzie was there any evidence of anything out of the ordinary.
However my own memory of the ascent has been erased by the events that followed.
– image by Daan Verhoeven
At about 3:30 of my dive time, Richard started his descent to meet me at 30m. Only a few seconds after, I somehow stopped moving upwards, while I was at a depth of 42m.
This timing was unfortunate - if I had stopped ascending a few seconds earlier then Richard would have detected it before his dive and activated the counterballast immediately; had it been a little later then he would have met me at the bottom of his safety dive.
As it was, he descended to 32m, and when he didn’t see me at that depth he immediately knew something was wrong (my dive times are consistent to within a few seconds), returned quickly to the surface, jumped on the platform, and activated the counterballast. At the same time he asked a close friend Howard who was observing to help him pull the rope through more quickly.
In the meantime I was drifting back down along the dive line.
At first there was a period of 12 seconds where I must have continued to make some kind of ineffectual movement, as in this time I still ascended 1.2m. After this, it appears that I became completely unconscious, and began a very slow freefall downwards, averaging around 1 meter every 3 seconds, which would indicate a non-hydrodynamic position and perhaps abrasion with the rope/lanyard.
By the time the bottom plate was raised to meet me I had fallen back down to 77m, and the dive time was now 5:20. It would take another 1:20 for me to be raised from that depth to the surface, where I arrived unconscious at a dive time of 6:42.
– the dive profile, with Richard's safety dive overlaid, showing how he only just missed seeing me
Richard and Howard were able to lift me to the platform, remove fluids from my mouth, deliver pure oxygen, and restore slow but autonomous breathing, all within two minutes of surfacing.
However it took about 20–30 minutes before I regained enough consciousness to form memories and speak, though I still couldn’t see clearly or control my hands or feet. When I was told what had happened, I realised I must be suffering from extreme AGE (a gas embolism caused by the prolonged time underwater and rapid ascent) and that I had to return underwater as soon as possible while continuing to breathe 100% O2.
– more graphics showing a comparison with the previous dive to 126m, and analysis of the moments before blackout.
As soon as I was able to do so, the recovery was remarkable and instantaneous: from only just being able to grip the rope in my hands on the way down, to being able to easily swim to the beach upon surfacing. After another treatment one hour later, there were no remaining DCS/AGE symptoms. (For those interested in the profile of the IWR (In-Water Recompression treatment) we are developing a case study, and have used it to successfully treat suspected AGE in 5 other cases since then).
The following day, blood pressure, breathing sounds, SaO2 and heart rate were all normal. After one week, the inevitable ruptures in my eardrums had both healed to the point that it was impossible to see where the perforations had been. All that remained was some mild sinus inflammation.
In the second week after the incident I returned to callisthenics and dry breath hold exercises, and even increased my personal best in the most difficult dry exhale static apnea exercise that I train.
The human body is incredible in its capacity for recovery.
There is no way of knowing for sure what caused me to stop moving and black out at 42m in my ascent. I’ve tried hypnotism to recall more of the dive, but with no success.
In discussions with other experts we felt like we could rule out hypoxia (low oxygen) as a cause, since:
– prior to that dive I’d never had an underwater blackout in FIM
– at 42m from the surface, and 3:30 into the dive, I would have used the equivalent amount of oxygen as for a 100m FIM dive, so ppO2 would have still been high
– I’d performed one of the best FIM dives of my career to 126m, four days prior
– if it was a hypoxic blackout, then after a further 3 minutes underwater oxygen levels would have dropped to a point where resuscitation would be extremely difficult and long term damage inevitable.
The only remaining explanation that seems plausible is a case of CO2 intoxication. This phenomenon has been reported in freediving, especially in cases of dynamic apnea after breathing 100% O2 (where we’d expect to see CO2 levels go off the charts), but we know more or less nothing about it.
CO2 toxification would certainly explain how such a critical dive profile was survivable. At the time of blackout, O2 levels would have been low but not severe, and the unconscious state would mean the level would decrease slowly from that moment. Hence, even after being unconscious for 3 minutes, when I surfaced SaO2 might not have been very much below hypoxic threshold, allowing for continued cardiac functions and quick resuscitation.
– a training dive with Richard McKenzie (left) and Alex Llinas (right) Image by Jonathan Sunnex
A few weeks after the incident, I started to return slowly to the depths, with more robust safety measures in place. The only traces of the incident seem to have been mental, and last year in October I was able to dispel these also in completing a clean training dive to the same depth, and equal to the world record of 127m that had been set earlier in the year by Matteusz Malina. I attempted to break this mark officially in November, but was unsuccessful by a small margin - a brief 2-second blackout after surfacing.
My gratitude to Richard and Howard, who saved my life on that day, will be lifelong. And to the ocean also, which forgave my hubris and spared my humble existence for another day.