And in the beginning…
Hello again and hi everyone,
First, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Trevor Parkes, age 73. I’m from Birmingham, currently hiding out in southern Spain with my wife Rainbow Annie. My diving CV reads something like this:
Former Royal Navy Diver / Underwater Weapons Specialist; Qualified H&SE Commercial Diver; BS-AC First Class Diver; Advanced Instructor; BS-AC West Midlands Regional Coach; PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer; Professional International Instructor; Founder, Manager & Chief Instructor of BS-AC Premier International Diving School Ocean Diving Madeira; Founder Solihull Sub-Aqua Club in 1979; Chief Instructor BS-AC & PADI at UK National Diving Centre Stony Cove … and so on … yawn, sorry about that but as you can see, I’ve lived, worked and played most of my life on, in or under the water. Oh .. and I’ve sailed a full circumnavigation of our planet in a very small boat.
”I Know that You Know”. I’m the one without hair.
As I say, I’m a Brummy and proud of it, however I do fit the general view that all Brummys are a bit thick. I left school in 1954 aged 15 with nothing more than a few swimming medals. I don’t recall that we had to take many exams or gain many educational qualifications back then … in fact, they were glad to get rid of us.
So, my English, spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc are all a bit ‘iffy’ at best. I can’t type so I do all this computer stuff with my first funny fat finger. I like to try to paint pictures with words if I can. I tend to write like I talk and I talk like I think, so if you can all read in a Brummy accent you might find this a lot easier.
Next, I’d like to extend my sincere congratulations to Mark Colman – I have only recently been made aware of your World Record Dive claim and I’ve seen the blog photos of you, your equipment, your team and the tank you used. That really was a tough thing to attempt and you are well justified to feel really proud. Well done indeed, sir. I hope it has helped you regain some self-confidence and determination to go forward in your life, accept other tough challenges, take part in adventures and generally live some good times, ‘cos this life sure ain’t no rehearsal.
However, on the flip side I’m sorry to say that I am slightly concerned to learn that your dive was being acclaimed as a new World underwater endurance record. How can it be considered as a endurance dive if the diver is up and out of the water every few hours or so for a rest period, with food, drink, toilet, medical care, etc. Who was it that invented these rules?
Now in no way would I wish to take anything away from your outstanding fund raising achievements, so please bear with me and read on.
A Bit of Background
Sometime around 2003 a guy named Khoo Swee Chiow from Singapore did a similar dive to yours. Full kit, diving suit, boots, gloves, etc. Also, like you he used a full face mask and at times a Kirby Morgan band mask helmet. Now, that commercial-type diving equipment is not exactly SCUBA (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) as known to the general sports diving public, is it?
Khoo’s dive tank had a special built-in dry chamber and he was allowed under the rules to duck down and enter this large dry box, coming up into a completely dry area and stay there for thirty minutes or so, once every twelve hours. These ‘surface-type intervals’ allowed him to have nice ‘comfort breaks’ during which he could breathe, eat and drink normally and make use of the loo, as and when required.
How could that be classed as a dive if he was out of the water, off scuba gear, sitting on the loo eating a number 69 takeaway of pie chips and beans, and probably a nice pint of Guinness?
According to the records, his non-stop ‘endurance’ SCUBA dive lasted for 220 hours, a little over nine days. I first heard about his new ‘world record’ claim in mid-2005 or thereabouts and after a long difficult search I managed to track him down in Singapore and make direct e-mail contact with him. He was delighted to hear from me and most keen to talk about his dive. He already knew my name and much of my reputation, as he had tried without success to locate me before his dive. Over a few days of e-mails we enjoyed some good conversations and he also very kindly sent me six of his photographs taken during his dive; pictures taken from outside his tank, underwater and most interestingly of him sitting inside his dry chamber.
Since then there have been several other claims on this world record, in particular guys from Turkey, Norway and Poland. Almost all of them were for doing very similar dives … in and out of the water, eating real meals with drinks, medical care and proper toilets and so on. A few, though, did stay submerged for single dive time periods of well over 100 hours, sometimes close to 200. But none broke that double-ton which is significant as I will explain soon.
Now, can I just please make it 100% clear that I’m not looking for any silly problems here, I’m just trying to set the records straight for everyone, if I can. The main reason for me contacting the guy in Singapore back then was the same reason for me posting these comments about this new 2012 dive ‘record’ now. Simply, all the so-called record endurance dives mentioned previously fall short of the endurance dive I was intimately involved with back in the days when God were a lad and beer was a penny a pint.
The Real Record
Long ago back in 1985 I was invited (call it head-hunted) to take on the role of Diving Officer for an attempt on the World record for underwater endurance SCUBA dive. The job would include the organisation and control of all aspects of the dive. The event was booked at considerable financial expense (as I discovered to my horror later) to take place in February 1986 and held during the annual Boat & Caravan Show at the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) in Birmingham, UK. The giant tank was to be borrowed from the Royal Navy and set up as part of the show stand of a well-known diving equipment shop and SCUBA qualification school in Solihull at the that time, Comdean Diving.
It was agreed that I would take my annual holiday in order to be there ‘on site 24/7′ and an old friend and diving buddy of mine Mike Stevens was to be our ‘Man in the Tank’. Best that I introduce our star now, I think.
Like me, Mike had a bit of a reputation for being his own boss, but there was a lot of very good understanding and respect between us. Mike and I had always trusted each other completely underwater and I knew that he would do exactly what was required this time . .. my ‘Nasty Navy Diver’ training approach still ruled back in those days.
Mike had previous with this kind of lunacy and had already set his own best time of 112.5 hours underwater, lying alone, flat-out on the bottom of the deep end in the swimming pool at the Birmingham Holiday Inn hotel – as you do – to set a new World Record. So our intention with the NEC dive was to attempt to better this time.
I should add at this point that following a lot of questions and answers, the Lords of the Sport at the BS-AC HQ decided that they could have nothing to do with this ‘crazy stunt’ and I was officially informed (another way of saying ‘warned’) that our normal BS-AC membership insurance policy would not cover anyone in the event of problems, mistakes, accidents, acts of Neptune (my God) deaths or births. Oh well, nothing like knowing that the hierarchy is up there covering your back, eh? The insurance company would probably wriggle out of any claims anyway, via that small print escape hatch, like they almost always do. So, ignoring the lack of top cover, we pressed on regardless.
Going forward with our planning, I figured that if Mike really was going to do this dive (and he was, no matter what), if he had properly assessed and accepted all the risks, dangers and consequences (and he had), then the very least we could do was to make sure we gave him the best possible support, back-up and expert help available. And I like to think that’s exactly what we succeeded in doing – but that’s getting a bit ahead of the story.
After months of preparatory work, eventually we had everything more or less organised and set up in place at the NEC ready for the start. The two main objectives of the dive were firstly, to beg (and then beg some more) money from the general public, as they visited the annual NEC Boat, Caravan and Leisure Show and came to see the funny looking man in the tank. All the proceeds would be donated to the Birmingham Children’s Hospital at Mike’s request. Secondly, we wanted to better Mike’s own personal best time of 112.5 hours underwater from his Holiday Inn escapade.
It’s difficult to anticipate and plan for the unknown and we were about to take Mike where no man had ever gone before. I had recruited volunteer back-up divers from many of the West Midlands clubs to help us out. We held a meeting and I gave the world’s longest ever pre-dive brief. Many local divers loaned us their air cylinders and agreed to do all the fetching and carrying of cylinders to and from the air compressor, situated several miles from the ‘dive site’ at Comdean’s Dive Shop in Solihull in order to guarantee a continuous supply of full air cylinders.
Mike had also been doing his bit, training his body to live and function on a 100% liquid diet, basically a mixture of tinned milk and Complan food powder, or fruit juices with crushed vitamin pills not forgetting, of course, his all-important morning coffee. This was calculated to be safe and nutritionally sufficient with the help of the resident dietician from the Birmingham Children’s hospital. She also allowed him the occasional hard-boiled sweet to suck on if he was a good boy. I’ll admit to stealing almost all the purple blackcurrant ones myself before he had the chance to pick that flavour.
So there we were at the NEC ready to set up the show when we hit our first big problem! The tank arrived at the NEC on a low-loader truck, with 6” (15 cm for the kids) of solid ice in the bottom of it. It was winter time and the tank had been standing outdoors for several weeks. Never saw that one coming. Ooops!
Most of this pack ice was rapidly chipped up by hand and removed in buckets, then once the electricity supply was connected we were able to start circulating and heating the water – all 3,500 gallons of it as far as I recall – adding chemicals to get everything clean, clear and safe as well as warm enough to sit in. The heating took forever and we frantically boiled up several kettles in a continuous relay, pouring the hot water in as fast as we could. A diveable temperature was reached just a few minutes before the dive started.
All the various Guinness Book of World Records officials were on site at the start, the time-keepers with their official clock in its locked box, official witnesses, officers from the Royal Navy, West Midlands Police and Birmingham City Council. Every man and Neptune’s dog, in fact. Many TV, showbiz and sports celebrities also came to see Mike during his dive, they made their donations and signed the visitors’ book – all done up close to the tank in front of the cameras, naturally.
Comparing this dive with the later attempts around the world, it’s worth pointing out that Mike wore only his swimming trunks, a T-Shirt and an eight pound weight belt. Nothing else – no diving suit, no gloves, no hood and no boots. He used an old sports diving mask to cover his eyes and nose, standard SCUBA aqualung air cylinders and his own basic sports diving regulator that had to be held in his mouth throughout, even as he slept.
He was given his small liquid mix feed and drinks every two or three hours, offered up to him underwater in a recycled (but well-washed) hospital blood bag. We improvised quite a lot on the equipment side, as you can tell. The routine was easy, he had to breathe in, remove his regulator, put the feeding tube in his mouth, turn on the bag tap, suck, shut the tap, swallow, replace the regulator and breath again. Simples.
At no time was he ever allowed to even think about surfacing during the dive. He was down there for the duration – break the surface and that was the end of the dive, full stop! No comfort breaks, no officially sanctioned time-outs, no dry chambers. Mike’s dive was completed 100% continuously underwater. In fact, he had made me promise him that I would not let him up, no matter what (well, unless he was close to death but that was his only concession) such was his determination that he would succeed.
An NEC security video camera set high in the roof above the tank recorded every move. My rules were fairly few and wouldn’t have covered the first page of today’s Health and Safety requirements but they sufficed. Mike was to be the only diver allowed to pee in the water; there would be no make-up; no under-the-arm smelly stuff, no perfume, no aftershave, no cosmetics whatsoever. The water was circulated and chemically treated via a plastic pipes, an electrical pump and a sand filter system.
Although the dietician had assured us that the liquid diet should mean there would be no ‘solid waste’ to deal with, Mike did need to let go of one Number Two on about day five. I had anticipated this and we were ready with an ingenious contraption comprising a large industrial wet ‘n’ dry vacuum cleaner, about 22’of flexible plastic pipe and nice bum-shaped funnel, all lashed together with several rolls of duct tape. Did I mention improvisation already? We closed the screens in front of the tank for privacy. The girls backed Mike into a corner and lowered his trunks, he duly performed and the amazing device promptly failed in miserable and dramatic fashion. Cue Plan B, executed with grace and speed by Suzanne, one of our young female back-up divers, who swooped in with a handy plastic shopping bag. I doubt that Mike will ever forgive me for that one.
The really serious need to avoid any water pollution was a major factor in the plan. For both health and safety reasons (the genuinely essential kind) we could not risk losing the clear visibility or the safe chemical balance of the water. The job of water monitoring and the required chemical treatment was looked after by another good friend, Jeff. He was also my Second-in-Command for the whole event. Always have a back up, right? Jeff did a fantastic job and we had no major problems at all. This kind of thing really does have to be a team event.
We had quite a few phone calls from around the world during the dive, the word was spreading quickly via the grape vine. Two very interesting long-distance calls came in one evening. With me being registered as 75% deaf, I don’t normally do phones, but I’m glad that I persevered on this occasion.
The first one was from a US Navy officer working with NASA over in the States. He offered us his congratulations and then wanted to know how ‘my man’ was when he came up for coffee or when he needed to go to ‘the john’. It took him quite some time to get it into his head that Mike did not and would not come up for anything. Seems they used to train their astronauts for a maximum of around 85 hours (a little over three days) in their tank back then and they had to pull the guys out when the dreaded ‘Sensory Deprivation’ thing kicked in and they all went a bit crazy. Oh, really? Tell Mike and me about it, sir.
Mike suffered all the same kind of strange things, too, like convulsions, delirium and bad headaches, plus the pain in the hands and feet as the extra thick skin started to de-laminate and swell up. There were the crazy bad dreams when he slept, sitting upright in his plastic chair, sometimes for only thirty seconds, sometimes for thirty minutes – these were particularly troubling and dangerous. He suffered the complete or partial loss of all the five basic senses; sight, sound, smell, hearing and touch. He became quite violent at times, making all kinds of demands, getting angry and fighting us when we were feeding him then hugging us and saying ‘sorry’ moments later.
I spent many hours underwater with Mike, mostly during the long nights. We ’talked’ to each other with the use of sign language, divers slates and pencils, funny faces and so on. We laughed, he cried, we hugged, he tried to fight me during his bad dreams – often all at the same time! It was all very emotional and we got to know each other well, Mike and I. Yes, very well indeed. I had a routine for scratching all the bits that his swollen hands could no longer feel. I would bandage one of my hands up to prevent damaging his delicate skin then gently ‘scrub and scratch’ him all over. We all know how frustrating it feels when you have an itch that you can’t get at to scratch.
The second interesting phone call was maybe even more special than the NASA ‘howgozit’. I was called urgently to take it late one evening, a long distance shout from a small Italian island. “Hello, this is Trevor Parkes, what can I do for you?” After a long delay I heard this French accent. “I am Jacques Mayol. I want for you please to tell your Dolphin Man in the water that my heart is with him. I also have been where you are”. Oh boy – for once, I was just a bit lost for words. Hard to believe, eh?
For those that don’t know of him, the late Jacques Mayol was the most famous of all the world’s pioneering free divers. He was the first free diver to reach a depth of 100 metres on a single breath. His story is well worth a Google search if you have time. Some periods of his strange life were covered in the film ‘The Big Blue’. A very special man indeed – or maybe, just maybe – he was really half man, half dolphin?
Back at the NEC, I spent many hours during each day and night in the tank with Mike and we always had other standby divers fully kitted-up and sitting on the platform above the top of the tank, ready to assist in any emergency. Every order, every move and every action was recorded in the dive log book. We still have it and treasure it, along with some 35mm photo slides. Not enough, really, but we had no fancy digital photo equipment back in those times and the Box Brownie with duct tape was only good for a few shots at a time.
Eventually after many, many days had seemingly merged into one, the top guy from the NEC office came to remind me that the show was due to close the following day and it was time for us to pack up and go. The Navy wanted their tank back and that was it. We were all out of time. Amazingly, at about that point we had all agreed that Mike was in fact getting better, not worse. He seemed to be overcoming and adjusting to all the various physical and mental challenges. The truth is I think we could have helped him stay down there in his watery world for much, much longer but it was agreed that we would set the clock to bring Mike to the surface at 212.5 hours, so breaking his previous best personal time by a nice round 100 hours. A fantastic new World Record.
The grand finale was set up and during the most spectacular moment of the show many thousands of people packed the giant hall and watched in silence as we very gradually, very carefully lifted Mike up to the surface and out of the water. In order to prevent further damage I had bandaged his hands and feet, he also wore dark glasses and ear defenders. He was back into the real world of sight, sounds, smells, touch and taste – plus one very big load of emotionally mixed-up feelings, pain, pride and happiness.
The Guiness Book of Records officials agreed the dive time as 212.5 hours and signed all their bits of paper. The medics took over the responsibility for Mike’s safety and an ambulance was backed up to the tank to whisk him away for a thorough check-up. However, the TV and press bods pushed and juggled for close-up shots while a guy from ITV was asking Mike all kinds of questions. It was a while before he made good his escape to the hospital where he was given a clean bill of health, a light meal and a well-earned proper nights sleep.
As you may have guessed from my bio, I have done quite a few things and collected a few T-Shirts during my very active lifetime (and I’m not done just yet, thank you) but believe me when I say that Mike Stevens’ 1986 World record dive was without any doubt one of the most challenging, difficult, emotional and mind-blowing things I have ever been involved in. Mike has my congratulations and life-long respect. The rest of the team get my thanks and admiration. What a guy! What a crew!
For those wondering about the charity donations, the money collection looked really good at first. Although that side of things wasn’t my part of ship, a total of around £20,000 was generously given by the public but when all the various costs involved had been sorted, we put on happy faces and presented the Kids’ Hospital doctor with a little over £10.000. Hmmm, I thought so, too.
At the risk of banging on, let me just reiterate that we had kept Mike continuously completely submerged underwater, wearing his mask, T-shirt and swimming trunks, living on the ‘yellow slop’ and drinks sucked from a plastic blood bag between breaths, breathing air from small SCUBA cylinders for an astonishing total of 212.5 hours. That’s just a shade less than nine whole days. Think about that. Where did you go on your summer holidays this year? As for Mike, he was at work about half a stone lighter and with a little less grey hair on his head just 48 hours later.
As far as I’m aware this really is still the genuine World Record for a continuous submersion dive on SCUBA gear. I’m told that it was removed from the Guinness Book some years later after it was deemed to be too dangerous. I agree it was dangerous, almost any such record event or extreme sporting activity will be. Climbing Mt Everest, swimming the English Channel, lapping the Isle of Man TT Course at an average of over 130 mph on a motorbike, they are all blooming dangerous, challenging and almost too impossible to contemplate but we do them. We do them because we can, so tell me – we recently had a guy sky-diving back to earth from a balloon 24 miles up in space. Who makes and ratifies the rules for that? Who gets to decide what is acceptably dangerous or just that bit too much?
Ultimately, unless anyone reading this can come up with irrefutable evidence to the contrary, Mike’s 1986 record still stands and I reckon it probably will for many years to come. Or perhaps forever, if the future standard for endurance dives continues to include sanctioned on-surface ‘time outs’ or the use of dry chambers.
Finally, I was once told that I should always finish things on a happy note, so here’s a daft little funny bit to end this epic tale.
During the six months of preparations for the dive, Mike asked me if I could get his good lady Rita (another real Brummy) trained up just enough to go into the tank with him, just a quick dip of a few minutes, with maybe a photo? Yes, OK, I can do that, mate.
On day one, I had her all kitted up with SCUBA equipment and down the steps to stand in the shallow end of a local pool. She was trembling and holding onto the rail with a grip of steel !
Playing for time to give her the chance to relax, I said ‘Can you please just turn around Rita, I need to check your air’. She looked up at me straight in the eyes and said, “Oh, don’t yow goo botherin’ about me ‘air, Trev, I’m gonna wash it when I get home, ain’t I”. Her training commenced some time later when I stopped laughing … and she did have her little dip with Mike.
Stay safe everyone,
NEC World Record Dive 1986 Mike and Trev in The Tank
Feeding Time. Mike and Trev in The Tank