The Last Attempt

Bookshelf: The Last Attempt / The Dive

In a first for this blog, I’m going to review two books in a single post. They concern (more or less) the same series of events, were written by two men who were close friends for at least part of their lives, and come to wildly different conclusions about what actually transpired and why.

The event in question was the death of French-born freediver Audrey Mestre on 12 October 2002, at the age of 28 (here is a New York Times article on the incident). She was attempting to break freediving a record set by her husband and coach, Francisco “Pipín” Ferreras, in the controversial No Limits discipline of the sport, which entails the diver riding a weighted sled down a line to the required depth, and then inflating a lift bag which rockets them back to the surface.

The freediving disciplines recognised by AIDA, the most well-respected body regulating the sport, mainly involve breath-holding while swimming – down a line with or without fins, or in a swimming pool – or remaining stationary underwater. The challenges are the obvious breath holding, but also (in the depth disciplines) equalising the air spaces in the body.

No Limits is more dangerous than the other disciplines because the use of the sled enables the diver to reach incredible depths at great speed. To return to the surface (even faster than the descent in many cases) he or she must rely on an error-prone sequence of actions. The diver may not be able to successfully release herself from the sled and inflate the lift bag, or a mechanical failure could lead to prolonged time at depth or a slower ascent than planned, and ultimately drowning. Furthermore, it becomes more and more difficult to obtain support divers (on scuba, trimix or other mixed gases) qualified and capable of operating at the depths these dives can reach.

This article on Herbert Nitsch’s world record plan to dive to 305 metres in the No Limits discipline shows the complexity of the equipment involved. He currently holds the men’s record of 214 metres.

The lack of physical effort on the part of the freediver involved in getting to and from the desired depth has led some critics to comment that the only way these divers will discover the physical limit beyond which a human being cannot descend will be by dying (when their bodies can no longer withstand the crushing pressure exerted by the ocean). Many of the participants in this sport have suffered strokes, partial paralysis, decompression sickness, blackouts, convulsions and even suspected brain damage as a result both of the rapid pressure changes they experience, and of depriving their bodies of oxygen for so long.

The Last Attempt – Carlos Serra

The Last Attempt
The Last Attempt

Carlos Serra was part of the team of safety divers, organisers and support providers who worked with Ferreras on several of his and his wife’s world record attempts. He and Ferreras also ran the short-lived freediving body IAFD (International Association of Freedivers), a competitor to AIDA, which was dealt its death-blow by the drowning of Mestre.

Serra paints a disturbing picture of Ferreras, as an egomaniacal sociopath who completely controlled his wife and pushed her far beyond what she was comfortable doing. He suggests that Ferreras had put in place a bizarre and elaborate plan for his wife’s record attempt to fail, and for himself to rescue her (to wide acclaim, of course). The damage caused to his ego by her then breaking his record a few days later would be softened by the fact that he would first be hailed by the world’s press as her brave rescuer. He would also have punished her for requesting a divorce a few days earlier, and for her perceived insubordination in planning to leave him.

The allegations are compelling – there are a number of pieces of evidence that indicate that, if Ferreras was not criminally negligent (for example, he did not fill the pony bottle of compressed air that was to inflate Mestre’s lift bag and bring her back to the surface), he deliberately sabotaged her attempt to break his record. The rescue did not go as planned, and by the time he brought her to the surface she had been submerged for nearly nine minutes and her lungs were full of water.

Serra wrote this book himself, and it shows. He’s a native Spanish speaker, and his English is at best broken, and at worst appalling. His spelling is novel and inconsistent. I was charmed, however, by some obvious transliterations of Spanish idioms. The resulting effort rings with honesty, and his deep friendship with and care for Audrey Mestre lends credibility to this account.

The book is available here.

The Dive – Pipin Ferreras

The Dive
The Dive

Ferreras published his version of events in 2004, two years before Serra’s book came out. It was heavily ghost-written – for example, I find it hard to believe that a Spanish-speaking Cuban who didn’t finish school knows who John James Adubon was – and at times reads like a cheesy romance. It’s very beautifully produced, and perhaps half the book comprises both colour and black and white photographs of Ferreras and Mestre underwater, posing uncomfortably on the beach in various small and tight outfits (this seems to be a very important part of being a professional freediver) and lollygagging on the surface before and after dives.

Ferreras constantly protests his love for Mestre, and while repeatedly acknowledging his vicious temper and out of control ego, denies that he ever pushed her in her freediving efforts. He claims that the impetus to go deeper came from her, and unsurprisingly does not give any hint that he controlled her, regulated her movements, or (as Serra alleges) cheated on her and occasionally beat her up. A goodly portion of the book is devoted to his life story, growing up in Cuba and the defecting to the USA. We are also frequently reminded (even on the cover and spine of the book) of his own freediving achievements and other admirable qualities.

You can purchase the book here.

It’s not hard to figure out what actually happened. The entire dive – before, during and after – was captured on video from several angles, and it’s clear that the cylinder of air intended to lift Mestre from depth was not filled. The cable on which the sled descended and the lift bag ascended a short distance (after one of the support divers had partially filled it from his breathing mix)  was twisted, which slowed her down at a critical point on the delayed ascent. There were not enough support divers to provide midwater assistance – not nearly enough – and the nearest thing to a doctor on hand was a local dentist watching from a nearby boat. Her husband opened her airway while he was bringing her to the surface, further flooding her lungs (as an aside, Serra prevented Ferreras from acting as the deep support diver – his scuba skills are sub par to say the least, and he has been bent more times than most of us have had breakfast). There was also no back-up or bail-out plan should Mestre get into trouble on the way down or up.

What is hard to figure out  is exactly who was to blame. However, whether the narcissist Ferreras himself is solely culpable here, and went so far as to deliberately endanger his wife beyond what she was already risking, or whether the entire team caused Mestre’s death is almost a moot point. If Ferreras was as out of control, slapdash and filled with machismo as Serra alleges, the members of his support team – some of whom had been with him for 15 years and had witnessed the deaths of at least two of his safety divers on other record attempts – were morally obligated to refuse to participate instead of being swayed by Ferreras’ awesome temper and magnetic personality. He was not risking his own life in this attempt – it was the life of his wife that was on the line. Without a team of safety divers and organisers – hard to assemble at the best of times given the extreme nature of the sport – Ferreras would have been unable to operate and Audrey Mestre may still have been alive today.

This article from Outside Magazine suggests that Serra’s description of Ferreras’ character aren’t entirely baseless (and it was written about five years before the death of Mestre). It also suggests that Ferreras has an on-off relationship with the truth and enjoys embellishing his own life history and prowess, something that should be borne in mind when reading his book. Do not read only one of these books – I would strongly recommend that you read both, one after the other. I’m not sure if it’ll help you figure out the truth, but at least you’ll have heard both sides of this tragic story.

If you want to see how beautiful freediving can be – and it can be very beautiful and transcendent – watch this video of current world record holder William Trubridge diving to 101 metres without fins, and then swimming back up. The discipline he’s participating in here is called Constant Weight Without Fins.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

One thought on “Bookshelf: The Last Attempt / The Dive”

  1. So, Serra’s English is “at best broken and at worst appalling?”. Excuse me, this verdict is at best arrogant and at worst outrageous. It makes anybody learning to speak and write English and having reached a reasonable level in mastering it (yes, I’m not a native speaker myself) look like an incapable idiot and that’s the only thing appalling here. I would not recommend this book as core-material for English literature-education in high-school, but outside of that, Serra did a truly respectable job in writing such an inflammatory and well-told story in a language that is not his own mothertongue. As far as the content itself is concerned, I’m with you: nobody will ever know for sure what truly happened and there are always two sides to every story. Although Serra’s Version is, in my eyes, the only one convincing.

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