Brief overview of our harness safety system

 
 

Note: this article was written on April 19th and meant for publication around April 21st. Due to time constraints, we postponed its publication until after our 125 meter attempt, but given the outcome, it was only now that we had the chance to publish it.

There are several safety systems out there when it comes to keeping freediving competitions and record events safe. We are still using the traditional system where we position safety divers at 15-20 meter intervals along Yasemin’s descent line, but we have also started testing and using our new retrieval system. Now, as I’ve said many times, counter ballast systems are great, IF they work RELIABLY and SAFELY. After testing many of the lanyard configurations typically used in international AIDA competitions, we encountered many, many problems with them and we decided that we had to move in a different direction. We did 64 dives to depths between 30 and 80 meters where we used lanyards attached to the wrists of 4 different divers and them attempted a retrieval from maximum depth. The biggest problem we found is that in 56 of the dives, the diver’s head tilted backwards as the speed of the ascent increased, exposing the divers’ airways to the flow of water. This is unacceptably dangerous as it can drown the diver. We also encountered problems on 6 of the deeper dives where after the system had pick up enough speed and the head was tilted backwards, there was a real risk of neck damage, and in fact, the divers had a hard time bringing their heads back down to avoid injury, and in fact, a couple of us had a stiff neck for a few days. An unconscious freediver could have sustained real injury since, of course, they are not able to move their heads as needed. To add insult to injury, on 16 of those dives, the lanyard ended up slipping off the wrist altogether, leaving the freediver to sink back down to the bottom. We then tried the lanyard attachment to the waist, which seems to be the second most popular way to use this system, and actually aborted the testing after only 12 dives. On every one of those dives the diver always bent sideways, with their bodies flared out and open in half, which slowed down the ascent tremendously, posed the risk on water inhalation and serious threat to the spinal cord and lower back area. At this point we were convinced that these systems look very good on paper but they don’t really work in the real world. The use of lanyards attached to the wrist or the waist is not only counterproductive but can be dangerous and even life threatening in certain cases. Now, a safety rescue system is not supposed to be dangerous or life threatening, right? The only reason that I can think to explain the fact that these systems are still used in most AIDA events is because nobody has really taken the time to put them to the test as we did, and since they have not had the need to actually use this system on a real rescue, they can claim the system is “safe” when in fact, it is not. I am not here to bash another organization, but honestly, if a safety system is not safe, then what’s the point?

So, after much study, wee decided the best system would a harness, similar to the harnesses worn by climbers or the safety/rescue harnesses used by specialized construction crews, with a loop around the arms and a secondary loop around the legs to prevent detachment. Both loops convey on a ring at the bottom of the neck, between the shoulder plates, from where the freediver can be lifted to the surface. This is, in fact, the safest way to use such a retrieval approach and the only configuration that guarantees a safe position for the body being retrieved AT ALL TIMES. With this harness, the diver’s head always rests down with the chin pressed against the chest, keeping the airways tightly shot, and the stress caused by the ascentional forces evenly distributed across the shoulders, back, waist and legs, preventing any injury from happening despite the speed of ascent. Such harnesses already exist, so modifying one of those would have been easy, but they are all so heavy and constrictive that it would hinder the diver’s performance. So we designed a lighter harness and started testing it. We have done around 50 divers testing different configurations of this harness until we found the combination of design features and materials that represent the best compromise between safety and performance for the freediver. Here are the photos of the harness, which Yasemin is wearing for a world record attempt for the first time ever. It is made from heavy duty, thin webbing and secured together with one-way plastic buckles. As you can see on the photos, it looks a little big on Yasemin, but it is in fact, neutrally buoyant in the water, it weights around 300 grams on land, and it does not add a significant amount of drag once underwater. Take a look at Yasemin ascending from 101 meters while wearing it and she claims not to be bothered by it or impeded in her movements. Keep in mind that she is actually making pulls on the line and kicking, so in terms of diving technique, she is really putting it to the test. This harness, as worn by Yasemin, should be comfortable enough to be worn for both Variable Ballast categories as well as the Equipment Assisted Constant Ballast category (constant weight for AIDA). A version made with webbing and heavy duty flexible bungee cord would provide the extra flexibility required by both Line assisted (free immersion) and unassisted constant ballast divers. The harness can be used in 4 different configurations:

- With a lanyard that attaches to the diver’s dive line, which the diver can run from his/her neck to the line in front under the arm or legs.
- With a lanyard to a secondary line (our preferred method) that runs parallel to the dive line at a separation of a few meters, so that in case of emergency, this secondary line can be used for faster retrieval, since it would be a low friction, light weight line with a very small ballast at the bottom
- Attached to a lift bag activated by a safety diver. This is our case, since we have a team of safety divers with us. We have built special lift bags that are easy to deploy, inflate and keep the freediver free from line entanglement. This system, although it requires a team of safety divers, has the advantage of providing the fastest ascent of all methods.
- Through a direct retrieval line, activated from the surface directly. On this method, a low friction line is attached directly to the freediver’s harness and an operator can retrieve the freediver directly from the surface. This method posses some logistical complications, but provided they can be worked out, it can be the quickest way to start the rescue procedure and does not require the complex logistics of heavy counter ballast systems, safety divers, etc.

The important thing is that this harness can be used for all 4 different retrieval systems and on all freediving categories, so it offers the opportunity of a single piece of gear for all different scenarios. This Friday, we will do a test dive with Yasemin where she will dive to 90 meters and then the bottom diver will send her to the surface via lift bag. This will allow us to gauge ascent speeds, time of deployment and other important factors under real world circumstances. Later on, we will test all the other systems that use a counter ballast retrieval. We will film all these tests and post them online as we do them. I want to thank Yasemin again for offering herself to conduct all this testing during her precious training dives, something she is obviously doing with the hopes of creating a system that will benefit other freedivers since she will be retiring from competitive freediving after this record. More photos and videos to come after Friday!

Regards and safe dives,

Rudi Castineyra

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