SATURDAY, THE FINAL DAY of competition, brings scorching sun- shine, still air, and clear, calm waters – perfect conditions. The discipline today is free immersion, where divers are allowed to pull themselves down the line to reach their target depth.
Free-immersion dives are a little shallower than CWT dives, but they can take a while, sometimes more than four minutes, making them excruciating to watch. The divers got a wrist slap last night from event director Stavros Kastrinakis, who told them: “Dive your limits.”
The announced dives today appear to be more conservative. Still, there are a number of world- and national-record attempts planned.
“Two minutes,” the official from the flotilla announces to the divers. The first competitor is slowly towed by his coach to line three. The diver turns over and descends into the clear water, pulling himself along the guide rope.
He touches down and begins the ascent. As usual, the official narrates his progress: “Thirty metres . . . twenty metres.”
Another blackout. The safety divers plunge down. Moments later, they bring the diver up. His face is blue; his mouth open. I turn to walk below deck, no longer interested in watching this sport. But seconds later, the diver shakes his head and smiles, then apologises to his coach.
“See, that wasn’t so bad,” says Prinsloo, standing behind me on the sailboat. It wasn’t, or maybe I’m just getting used to seeing unconscious bodies pulled from 60 feet down.
Either way, I return and watch as the next dozen divers all make their dives without incident.
Then the elite divers start going; Malina Mateusz of Poland breaks a men’s national record with a dive of 106 metres. The women’s reigning world champion, Russian Natalia Molchanova, sets a world record of 88 metres.
Antoni Koderman dives 105 metres to set a new Slovenian record. Guillaume Néry breaks the French record with 103. William Trubridge does 112, almost effortlessly.
Seven national records are broken in an hour. Everyone is in control. The sport, again, is beautiful. Then, at line two, a commotion breaks out. The safety divers have lost a Czech contestant named Michal Rišian. Literally lost him.
He’s at least 200 feet down, but the sonar is no longer picking him up. He has somehow drifted away from the rope.
“Safety! Safety!” yells the judge. The safety divers go down but come up a minute later with nothing. “Safety! Safety! Now!”
Thirty seconds pass. There is no sign of Rišian anywhere. On line one, Sara Campbell is preparing to dive. From below her, three and a half minutes after he went down on line two, Rišian emerges– some 40 feet away from the line he was first attached to.
There’s confusion. Campbell jerks away, frightened. Rišian snaps off his goggles, saying, “Don’t touch me. I’m okay.” Then he swims back to the sailboat under his own steam. He plops down beside me on the hull, laughs, and says: “Wow, that was a weird dive.”
That’s one way of putting it. Before Rišian’s dive and per the usual routine, his coach attached the lanyard around Rišian’s right ankle to the line.
As Rišian turned and plummeted, the Velcro securing the lanyard came loose and fell off. The safety divers saw it floating, unattached, and rushed down to stop Rišian, but he was already gone,
100 feet deep. Rišian, unaware, closed his eyes, meditated, and drifted downward. But he wasn’t going straight down– he was angling 45 degrees away from the line, into open ocean.
Rišian’s coach, realising that death was the likely outcome of this screw-up, floated motionless at the surface, gazing at the safety divers, who were too stunned to blink. “I’ll remember their looks for a long time,” he said later. “Terror, awe, fear, and sadness.”
Meanwhile, Rišian was diving farther down and farther away, oblivious to his peril. At 272 feet, the alarm of his dive watch sounded. He opened his eyes and reached out to grab the metal plate, but there was no plate.
“I couldn’t see any tickets, any plate, any rope, nothing,” He said. “I was completely lost. Even when I turned up and looked around, I saw only blue.”
When you’re 27 storeys down, even in the clearest water, all directions look the same. And they all feel the same – the water pressure makes it impossible to gauge whether you’re swimming up, down, or sideways.
For a moment, Rišian panicked. Then he calmed himself, knowing that panic would only kill him faster. “In one direction there was a bit more light,” he told me. “I figured that this is where the surface was.”
He figured wrong. Rišian was swimming horizontally. But as he swam, trying to remain conscious and calm, he saw a white rope. “I knew if I could find the rope, I would be okay,” he said.
The chances of Rišian finding a line 250 feet down– especially one so far from his original line of descent – were, I would estimate, about the same as hitting 0 on a roulette wheel. Twice.
But there it was, the line Sara Campbell was about to descend, some 40 feet away from where he had first gone down. Rišian grabbed it, aimed for the surface, and somehow made it up before he drowned.

ON THE FINAL NIGHT, the divers, coaches, and judges gather on the beach for closing ceremonies. Strobes and spotlights glare from an enormous stage, Euro pop blasts from a DJ booth, and a crowd of a few hundred dance and drink beneath a night sky sequined with stars.
Behind the stage a bonfire rages, heating the bare, wet bodies of those who couldn’t resist one last splash.
The winners are announced. All told, the divers broke two world and 48 national records. Competitors also suffered 19 blackouts. Trubridge won gold in both constant weight and free immersion.
“Rišian is the real winner here,” says Trubridge, sipping a beer beside his wife, Brittany. Behind us, every 20 minutes or so, a video screen shows the chilling footage of Rišian’s tetherless dive, which was recorded by underwater cameras.
At the end of the video, the crowd cheers, and Rišian, who’s now drunk on “birthday” drinks (to celebrate his new life after his near-fatal dive), rushes to the stage to take a bow.
Dave King, the diver who suffered the horrific blackout just two days ago, walks through the crowd with the British team, smiling and seemingly in perfect health. Néry, in quintessential French style, is smoking a cigarette.
“There is such a strong community here,” says Hanli Prinsloo, drinking a cocktail by the bonfire. “It’s like all of us, we have no choice. We have to be in the water; we’ve chosen to live our lives in it, and by doing that, we accept its risks.”
She takes a sip. “But we also reap its rewards.”

Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves,
by James Nestor, is published this month by Profile Books.
The 304-page paperback is priced at £12.99, and the eBook version at £10.
ISBN: 9781781250655, www.profilebooks.com