There’s no mobile signal down in Abereiddy, the fulmars having failed to raise a clamour of the necessary pitch to sort that one with Orange or with Vodaphone. But who cares? Surely not a beaming Steve Lobue of the US of A – his victory amongst the gulls eclipsing any broiling techno-hitch. This place finds ways to compensate. Mom and Pop can wait; at least until that cliff is scaled again.
The Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. 2012. In allegedly sleepy North Pembrokeshire. On the one hand absurdly interloping; on the other a pure and appropriately balletic tribute to cliff, to water, to mad, mad bloke.
For implausibly, around some temporary ‘ledge’, 14 competitors have gathered to the vortex of some par-hyped yet understated circus; a convention for stylishly icy floppers. It’s at once remarkably un-Pembrokeshire and in smiling sympathy with the native spirit for clowning about, wearing helmets, coasteering, slugging recklessly from flasks.
Turns out this place was simply made for it. Cliffs? We have cliffs. Views? We have views. Views that even the divers – seasoned travellers all – later rated as right up there with the World Series finest. Views this weekend drawn along and out to that beatific channel; flitting the former slate quarry itself, long disembowelled and blasted open to the Irish Sea. A coast here almost shorn of current human foible; a coast to walk silently and gawp – or throw yourself in.
At Abereiddy – at the ‘Blue Lagoon’ – the now-quiet quarry that lips out into the tide they dove from 27 metres; 90 feet in old money. It may be some comfort that the pool is deep, deeper than the dive. But given the very real dangers of impaction (at 85-90km an hour), into a surface that really might deflower the aspirations of any incautious male, this is a sport for elite levels of control. Elite levels.
From this extraordinary height the water must be breached feet-first; for safety’s sake. Heads? Heavens no! Think of that, as the divers spiral and plummet before gathering their extended feet beneath at the last jangling instant. The clapping then… is about relief.
I declare an interest. I too have leapt fearlessly into this spookily generous (and notoriously cold) eel-pit. Often, with my children, both of whom may have leapt with more grace and from a more significant elevation than their now quivering, now bombing dad. I know, I know exactly what these guys up on that airfix balcony are going through. The only difference is they actually depart.
The most chronic abandonment of terra firma imaginable began on Friday morn, not too early. This being the first occasion the Cliff Diving World Series had ventured in to UK waters, few watching had endured this stuff before. This athletic clamber down token ladder to admittedly kosher but still clunky-looking platform-effort, jutting out from far too high up the disinterested cliff. This un-reassuring peek down, before this wildly liberated arc and keenly reined counter-flip.
They are strong, fit men; apparently on the squat side of gymnastic when judged from down amongst the upturned faces. These guys have torsos. Whether Bulgarian, Brit or Russian; they share that. They also share, it transpires, an ability to stop – stop everything – every heartbeat in the county when they need to. At that moment.
About forty only, world-wide, are prepared to this nerveless peak. Watching them tune in at that board’s end, then execute (to borrow the ubiquitous sports-jargon of the moment) the full rare mixture of joy via nausea uncorks. But most jarringly magnificent is their ability to gather in contortions to pencil-slim completion inches before splashdown. Every dive hurts, they say – it’s just a question of how much.
The home crowd, despite their lack of dive education cheered all whilst naturally trying to TeamGB Messrs Hunt and Aldridge – the leading contenders from Blighty. Whooping and misinformed nods of appreciation for technical minutiae prospered in a likeably good-natured way, traceable to quite reasonable post-olympic smugness. Besides, the judges were on it, so… triples? Doubles? Pikes? Who cares?
We were reliably informed that diver A or B – from Russia or Colombia or indeed the winner? – arrived sleepy-eyed direct from some un-named West Wales aero-hub. Whilst others had enjoyed a day or two of practice and acclimatisation to the surprisingly acceptable air temperatures and (allegedly) the local brew. (The suspicion did gather btw, that this exclusive posse of extreme sports gentlemen may indeed be likely to continue the proud tradition for both working and playing hard. A suspicion not dispelled by the post-performance huddle and hearty high-fiving that beta-males such as myself can only imagine precede appalling randiness. I have no doubt that diving groupies were lurking.)
After warm up efforts (hah!) the contest began with a single required dive at a fixed degree of difficulty of 3.6. Meaning even if the contestants chose to do eight trillion somersaults and recite the Mabinogion on the way down, they would only have their score multiplied by 3.6. (I heard no welsh myth-making at this stage.) Later a typical rate of difficulty might be 5.something.
GB’s Blake Aldridge and Gary Hunt and Colombia’s Orlando Duque – a name so absurdly daubed in any context with the threat of exotic brilliance I wish I’d invented it (but I never) – featured strongly immediately, thus putting them in good shape for the next, head-to-head rounds.
Saturday dawned and a crowd of 1400 plus pitched up to enjoy the general sun-kissed fabulousness; godlike specimens like wildcard entry Todor Spasov of Bulgaria hurling their frames against the backdrop of a baking cliff, a sparkling sea, a welsh-mexican wave.
As things developed, with the dives themselves morphing from gracefully replete to gracefully acrobatic with flashy-twisty-flourish, the pressures of competition tightened with our chests. We could barely imagine what the wild card entrant from Leeds was thinking – him having pitched up with his tent and then so impressed the judges during practice days that he was allowed entry, poor lad. (He competed with honour but no cigar, as they say.)
One further required dive remained – by now in a head-to-head situation – followed by a possible two optional dives (depending upon progress against your oppo’.) With scoring being done in the sling-out-the-highs-and-lows tradition onlookers soon became adept at cooing or booing following broad computation of the cards – cards held high by judges including former double double Olympic Diving Champ Greg Louganis.
As the MC unconvincingly but jauntily somersaulted then belly-flopped his way through diver introductions, local history and the english language, 6 divers were eliminated after round 3, leaving the remaining 8 to contemplate a final effort. Should it be – need it be – spectacular to the point of lunacy? Or merely an authoritative statement to close the thing out and achieve ‘podium’? It may have just been me but that point of focus before the dive became yet more precious… and more demanding of all of us.
The toned protagonists held themselves in that most unsteady of moments, inviolably gathered, before flipping themselves out and up and around. And down. Three, even four somersaults and a twist, or more. Accelerating cruelly in the last of the three seconds of descent before gathering to that essential entry. And splashing; splashing softly, ideally.
Steve Lobue of the US scored highest, over the four rounds, at this remarkable event, on this remarkable day. He won under pressure from Orlando Duque and then Gary Hunt. For the record, divers from the UK, US, Bulgaria, Russia, Luxembourg, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Mexico and Colombia took part. And at £5 per ticket, with a startling aerobatic display thrown in, this was unfeasibly good value – a rarity for top end sport.
Amongst the departing crowd there were awed conversations particular to such uniquely loaded events, hung with hand-over-mouth expressions and framed by widely smiling eyes. There was respect and there was disbelief. We had seen brave men at the limits of control, of athleticism, of – in fact – durability. They had come through it… and so, miraculously, had we.