The professional daredevils of the Cliff Diving World Series think nothing of plunging 27 metres while performing stunning acrobatics. MF’s European correspondent Warren Pole takes the plunge.
Really, 27 metres isn’t far. Little more than a quarter of a footie field. Just over half the length of an Olympic pool. Usain Bolt could cover it in less than three seconds. But these things are relative. Because when you dangle those 27m in thin air between a narrow plank and the cold, murky waters of the Atlantic Ocean, they suddenly appear to be a very great distance indeed. In fact, they look bloody terrifying. Not for the divers of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, though. These 27 metres are where they go to work.
“Being up there is never normal,” says diver Matt Cowen, 24, winning the award of the day for understatement. “It’s a place where you have to learn to control your fears.” And as I stare down apprehensively at the water below the board, I realise I haven’t learned to do that. But it’s too late now…
Everyone is used to seeing 5m and 10m boards, especially after the heroics of Aussie gold medallist Matthew Mitcham at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The diving board that cliff divers use, however, could not be more different. I discover this at the UK round of the World Series at the Blue Lagoon near St David’s, Pembrokeshire, where I get an extremely close look at one.
“When you surface and realise you’re OK, you’ll never feel more alive.”
This one took two weeks to prepare, had to be flown into place by helicopter and is attached to its anchor point using bolts more than four metres long. Unsettlingly narrow and with nothing resembling a guardrail, it juts out from the Welsh rock face over the water far below.
The only concession to comfort of any sort is the sandpaper grip tape wrapped around the board’s edge, giving the divers the traction needed to launch themselves into their dives.
As with the board, the setting provides a total contrast with Olympic diving. While Mitcham and co almost always perform their dives in the hushed, library-like atmosphere of an indoor pool, cliff diving thrives in open-air venues far from chemical cleaning agents and fancy modern architecture, usually in remote corners of the world.
This old slate quarry on the Welsh coast makes the perfect venue, its natural amphitheatre lending proceedings a gladiatorial edge.
I realise how far 27 metres really is when I watch my first dive, at the end of the qualifying round. From the water’s edge, I crane my neck to see a tiny stick man silhouetted high above flick himself out of a handstand to carry out a whirl of twists, spins and pirouettes before cannoning into the water. The dive is mesmerising and the boom when the diver hits the water at almost 80km/h is astonishing. More astonishing is that he surfaces, waves, smiles and leaves the water under his own steam rather than on a spinal board.
I ask Greg Louganis, the quadruple Olympic gold medallist and five-time world diving champion who at 53 is now a judge on this tour, how hard the hit is when you land a dive from this height. “Significant,” he replies, rivalling Cowen in the understatement stakes. I later learn that a spot of bombing from this board would be much like hitting concrete from 13m. Significant indeed. And what about the consequences of a mistake?
“There is a timing issue,” says Louganis. “You have to hit the water right. At one event a diver was a little short [not quite vertical] on entry and was knocked unconscious. The rescue divers got him out and he didn’t remember any of it. That’s probably a good thing.”
The rescue divers Louganis mentions are on permanent standby, treading water beneath the platform during practice and competitions. They spray water across the landing zone to break the water’s surface, which eases the impact for divers fractionally, as well as making it easier for them to spot as they plunge towards it. Two of them dip below the surface before a diver hits, ready to haul him out should injury leave him unable to do it himself.
With both feet
I’m slightly surprised to see that every diver is hammering into the water feet first. Nine-time diving world champ Orlando Duque, 38, of Colombia, who finished runner-up in the 2012 World Series, explains why. “You can go headfirst from this height, but you’ll get hurt sooner or later,” he says. “Feet first still isn’t safe, but it’s safer. Your lower body is much tougher. All the muscles, ligaments, bones, everything — it’s all stronger. You still feel the impact, though, even on a really good dive.’
“The boom when the diver hits the water at almost 80km/h is astonishing.”
I ask former British Olympic diver turned cliff diver Blake Aldridge, 30, who made his World Series debut in 2011, what the impact feels like, but he says it’s more what it doesn’t feel like. “When you hit the water from one of these dives you’re actually numb from the impact,” he tells me as we sit in the divers’ hot tub, which allows competitors to stay warm between dives.
So why do I get to share comfortingly warm water with some of the most unhinged athletes on this planet? Well, because, under Aldridge’s tuition, I am getting a first-hand introduction to cliff diving. Although I won’t be diving from the full 27 metres, I have tried to be as professional as possible, which includes looking the part. I decided budgie smugglers were out, but I’ve noticed divers are equipped with a small towel at all times so I’ve brought my own. Not that I really have any idea what it’s for.
Aldridge explains it’s much more than the adult comfort blanket it appears. First, it allows divers to arrive on the platform bone dry, which is essential when you need to grab your limbs and hold exact stress poses while also spinning like a top. And when tossed in, it then serves as basic range finder to the water below and can be helpful for sighting the water as you dive towards it.
Leap at the chance
Step one in my cliff-dive initiation is a basic feet-first leap from a 5m ledge. Although dwarfed by the main event platform in the sky above, it feels high enough to me; it’s akin to leaping off the roof of a house.
“Look down with your eyes, but keep your head level,” Aldridge instructs. “This will keep you from pitching forwards. Keep your legs together too.”
A jump, a silent blur. Shockingly quickly, I splash into the chilly water. Easier than I expected. But next is 10 metres. After unnecessarily towelling myself dry (I’m not planning any acrobatics) and just as unnecessarily throwing my small towel to the water below as a sighting aid, it’s time to repeat the same drill, except this time from the height of a two-storey house.
I take a deep breath and stare down at the gently rippling surface that suddenly seems far, far below. I try to imagine taking on the 27-metre jumps I’ve watched so many divers do today and immediately feel dizzy. I push it out of my mind and remind myself this is just 10m; just twice the previous jump, which was over in a flash.
Aldridge counts down and I leap.
It’s a giddy, disorienting feeling, falling and waiting for the impact. I can’t imagine having the wherewithal to perform complicated moves in the air. The impact is more shocking this time and I experience the numbness Aldridge talked about.
Now the big one. No, not the 27-metre platform — that would probably kill me — but a proper head-first dive off a cliff. This is a true step into the unknown, since I’ve never dived off anything higher than the edge of a swimming pool. But with an expert guiding me, what can go wrong?
Nothing, as it turns out — although the pure wrongness of falling through the air upside down hits me as I hurtle towards the water and I have to fight the urge to right myself.
Aldridge told me to just follow my hands, which works and sees me surfacing in triumph seconds later, although I then ruin the moment by being unable to find my towel floating nearby.
Back in the hot tub, Aldridge explains what makes him and the rest of this small band of professional daredevils do what they do. “Before every dive your body is screaming ‘It’s too high’ and ‘It’s too dangerous’ and you’re battling with your brain. But the feeling of achievement when you do it, that’s something else. When you come up from your dive and break the surface, as the numbness fades and you realise you’re OK, you’ll never feel more alive.”
Anatomy of a Dive
Greg Louganis, Orlando Duque and Matt Cowen explain the stages of the 27-metre plunge.
1. Take off
“Because of increased acceleration, being up more than twice the height of an Olympic board doesn’t mean you spend more than twice the time in the air,” says Louganis. “So your vertical jump at the start is key to add time to complete your dive.”
“The first 12 metres is where we do all of our flips and twists. If you make a small mistake here, you’ll know, and can make small corrections,” says Duque. “As a judge, I want to see a smooth flight, finished high above the water,” says Louganis.
3. Prepare for splashdown
“Now we’re motoring and finding the water ready for entry, feet first,” says Duque. “Good depth perception helps divers hit this perfectly,” says Louganis.
“We stop fast once we hit,” says Cowen. “I bring my legs up and arms out and that stops me dead.”