Brave souls take a dive off the edge
A dedicated gang of skilled, international thrillseekers have assembled on Inis Mór. They fling themselves, twisting and turning, towards a blowhole 28m down below. Looks like another cliffhanger . . .A SCULPTED, bronzed man with flowing hair takes determined steps to the edge of a platform. Further down the jagged coastline, white sea spray assaults the dramatic dark cliffs; below him a drop of 28m to a near-perfect rectangle blowhole; a naturally forming pool. The clouds pass in a moving picture behind him as, arms outstretched, muscles taut, he moves into a handstand position, still and strong like a column in classical architecture – but one that is about to crumble over the precipice. The crowd populating the rocky amphitheatre around the cliff and caves hold their breath. Adonis dives.
Then about 500 cameraphones set off, catching him in action as he somersaults, twists and turns through the air at the velocity of a Lamborghini – this is insanity in motion.
It’s the fourth stop of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, taking place on the island of Inis Mór, and Adonis is Orlando Duque, the nine-time cliff-diving world champion.
Although far from ancient Greece, the MC’s description of Poll na bPéist as “God’s first-ever Olympic swimming pool” doesn’t seem an unlikely suggestion. The location on the isolated island, with it karst scenery, ancient archaeology and unusual geological formation matches the extremity of the sport.
It might not be quite Homer’s odyssey to Ithaca, but even the journey out to the Aran Islands has a certain feeling of the epic about it. Although those who suffer from seasickness might not agree.
Seven hundred ticket-holders made the voyage to the largest of the Aran Islands to watch the event. For most, the journey was made by way of a combination of bus and boat, followed by a cycle or walk down grassy paths and over rocky pools to get to the cliff-side location dubbed “the serpent’s lair”.
“You’d swear it was built for it,” says one onlooker, to a Greek chorus of agreement.
There’s a party atmosphere down at the water, with a DJ playing pumping music from the top of the cliff. People have brought fold-up chairs and picnics. The sun is out and boats pull up to watch the event from offshore. To one side of the cliff face, a team of event organisers have a system of ladders, ropes and pulleys to get divers quickly up and down the platform. It’s an atmosphere of extreme sport – in the safest way possible.
James Cleary has been living on the island for two years, and says this is a new type of event for Inis Mór.
“I got really excited yesterday, seeing the crowd come out on the boat,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like this. There’s a festival-type atmosphere. It’s great to see so many people camping around yesterday and it brings so many people out here who wouldn’t normally come.”
After a few days of bad weather – including a cancelled training session on Thursday – it seems everyone, divers and spectators, is relieved the weather has turned.
Michael O’Culain, another local, says it is “like it was meant to happen”.
“They were diving here yesterday, the swell was something else. It’s calm today. They’ll have more twists in their jumps today.”
As the divers arrive on the platform for their practice dives, they each have their own way of psyching themselves up. Some of them court the crowd, inviting cheers and doing dance moves, while others stretch and flex before they get into take-off position. Silence falls before they dive.
“Fear is a daily part of their diet,” says MC for the event, Páidí Ó Lionáird. A Tipperary teenager beside me says what everyone is thinking: “It’s mental, you definitely have to be a certain type of person to do it.”
The 14 athletes then compete. Each dive has a degree of difficulty, which is multiplied by the judges’ score and added to their accumulated score.
After each three-second dive, the divers emerge from underwater making a safety signal to the scuba paramedics.
Russia’s Artem Silchenko has the day’s highest score, taking home the winning title from Aran, but is now third in the overall ranking going into the next round in Boston, after Colombian Orlando Duque and Britain’s Gary Hunt.
Silchenko’s dive is a back arm-stand with 2½ somersaults and 2½ twists from a height of almost three times that of Olympic diving.
It is the second most difficult dive in the series.
“You know it’s a good dive only when you’re underwater. You’re travelling so fast, it’s impossible to take it all in,” he said.
A group of young Donegal men point out Artem as he surfaces from the water, after his winning dive.
“What a lad.”
I wonder if that’s what the spectators watching the ancient athletes would have said, more or less.
Dangerous and extreme
RED BULL strongly discourages non-divers from engaging in what is a highly technical sport, requiring expert ability, experience and skill.
“Cliff diving is a professional sport and only professional divers are allowed to compete in the World Series,” says a spokesperson for Red Bull.
“The locations are specifically selected as they meet a very specific criteria that allow the diver to compete safely.”
A crew of about 100 people accompanies the cliff diving event, including 45 stewards, two scuba divers (who are in the pool during the dives), two aquatic paramedics, a rope access paramedic, a senior AE consultant and an additional paramedic, two paramedics for spectators and two other paramedics on the lower level of the dive site, for any more minor injuries. Two helicopters were also on standby.
This level of safety would not be in place for people taking it upon themselves to emulate the diving shown at the World Series. Nor would amateur divers have the skill and expertise necessary to dive at such heights, which the athletes taking part in the Cliff Diving World Series have.
Speaking previously to The Irish Times, Dr Marion Broderick, a GP who covers the Aran Islands, said: “We need the message to go out, loud and clear, from Red Bull, that this extreme sport is for very highly trained, skilled professionals only.”
Dr Broderick has treated members of the public who have previously injured themselves while diving at Poll na bPéist – including one who incurred serious spinal injuries.