Saturday, 01 March 2003 00:00
Deep diver Mark Andrews is one of the most controversial figures on the British diving scene - but what is it that drives him to incredible depths? Simon Rogerson reports. Photographs by Craig Nelson
Andrews, 37, was brought up in the Crowthorne area of Berkshire, the eldest of three children. His father worked as a charge nurse at Broadmoor hospital, a grim place which, bizarrely, was to play a key role in the development of two of Britain’s best known extreme divers. Andrews married at 18 (he is now divorced), but couldn’t afford to buy a house on the low pay of his chosen profession, landscape gardening. On his father’s advice, Andrews got a job as a psychiatric nurse at Broadmoor, and was posted to the intensive care unit, which housed some of Britain’s most dangerous criminals. He found himself working around notorious killers such as Peter Sutcliffe and Ronnie Kray. The job was extremely physical, as he was frequently called on to help subdue violent patients.
‘The main problem with Broadmoor was that I really liked it,’ he says. ‘I worked on the intensive care unit for ten years, and after a while I began to enjoy the violence. I enjoyed being part of a team, and dealing with the pressure and tension that came with the job.’ Increasingly obsessed with physical confrontation, he studied aikido and spent 14 years running a martial arts school.
One of his colleagues at Broadmoor was none other than John Bennett, who is the current holder of the world record for deep diving with trimix. Bennett had qualified as a PADI instructor, and offered to teach Andrews and some other colleagues. ‘We did the open-water course at Chesil Beach in February, and there was snow on the ground,‘ Andrews recalls. ‘John gave me the worst kit you could imagine – the wetsuit had holes in it – but he got me through the course.’
By 1997 Andrews had progressed to instructor.
Back at Broadmoor, however, he was in trouble: a patient had died of a heart attack while being restrained by Andrews and a colleague, who found themselves facing prosecution for manslaughter. ‘The Broadmoor management were under pressure, and I thought we were going to be sacrificed to appease their critics,’ Andrews said. ‘I realised that my team was regarded as a pack of thugs who were called on when things got physical, and that we were now expendable. The fact is that we were acting within the correct guidelines, but the patient had a weak heart. I was going through a divorce at the time, and was so stressed that I started feeling sick. The case was dropped due to lack of evidence, and it came home to me that I was 34 and institutionalised.’ He sold his house and walked away to a new life as a diving instructor.
Working in the Philippines, Dubai and Oman, he was unusually exacting and, unlike many other instructors, would regularly refuse to certify students unless they showed complete proficiency. Away from the classroom he was able to indulge a private passion for deep diving that was taking him beyond the depths where
oxygen toxicity is supposed to overwhelm the human body. Intrigued, he qualified as a trimix diver, and set about reading everything he could find on subjects such
as nitrogen narcosis, high-pressure nervous syndrome and oxygen toxicity.
The conclusions he arrived at have marked him out as perhaps the most controversial figure on the British diving scene. One of the most fundamental rules of modern diving is the standard partial pressure of 1.6 PPO2, which dictates the depths and pressures at which oxygen toxicity becomes a danger. Andrews says the figure was formulated as the result of US Navy tests, in which large safety barriers were incorporated on top of the ‘real’ barriers. He came to believe that the ‘maximum safe’ partial pressure of 1.6 bar is a sort of lowest common denominator, formulated to account for unfit divers who would be more prone to oxygen toxicity.
To prove his point, he went into training to carry out a deep air dive to 160m, off Puerto Galera in the Philippines, which is also the base of his friend and former Broadmoor colleague, John Bennett. His theory, evolved over hundreds of test dives, was that if he did a bounce dive and ascended out of the ‘danger zone’ at high speed, he would not succumb to convulsions. In preparation for the dive he trained rigorously, maintained a fat-free diet and drank nothing but water for eight months.
The dive itself was nearly disastrous, yet Andrews somehow emerged unscathed. His fast descent was made down a line, which was knotted every 10m to give him an idea of depth in the darkness. At a maximum depth of 156.4m – a partial pressure of 3.55 bar – he completely lost his sight, and could not remember how to give an ‘okay’ signal to the trimix safety diver waiting for him in the blackness. All he could manage was to press the ‘inflate’ button on his wing, and begin a fast ascent.
On the way up, he tried to dump air from the bladder, but his inflate button was jammed open and he continued to ascend at high velocity. The safety divers tried to slow Andrews down by grabbing him, only to join his inevitable progress to the surface. ‘I did not want to be responsible for anyone else getting bent, so I struggled free of them and continued to ascend,’ he recalls. ‘My vision had returned at 72m, and I was determined to survive. The air was gushing out of my nose so fast it was pushing my mask off.’
The video footage of Andrews’ rapid ascent is remarkable. All you can see is a seething mass of bubbles shooting upwards, with the occasional fin or arm flailing in the confusion. When he finally broke the surface he cleared the water up to his knees, despite being weighed down with cylinders. There was a fleeting moment of tranquillity before he realised he had four minutes to enact an in-water recompression treatment. With no time to don new kit, he freed himself from his rig, took a breath and pulled himself down towards the decompression station, grabbing a friend’s regulator at 18m. He then progressed back down to 30m, where he worked out a decompression schedule. Incredibly, Andrews resurfaced three hours later without so much as a skin bend.
There is no doubt that deep-air dives beyond the recommendations of mainstream diving agencies take place every day, all over the world. Among other qualifications, Andrews is currently an instructor trainer for the Professional Scuba Agency (PSA), which has been running deep-air and extended-range courses in the US since the mid-1980s. Andrews clearly has a contribution to make to this important, if controversial field. Currently working from Deep Thoughts Dive Centre in Church Crookham, Hants, his courses encourage students to come to terms with the way their performance is affected when they dive below 30m. Increases in depth are gradual, and he does not teach beyond 51m in the UK.
After a dive such as the one that Andrews made at Puerto Galera, most reasonable people would say a grateful prayer, hang up their fins and retire to keep bees somewhere in Kent. Andrews, however, has set his sights on a still more hazardous goal – the world record for deep trimix dives. During the course of our interview, he reveals that his proposed 333m dive will take place off Sharm El Sheikh in August, in the company of fellow deep diver Leigh Cunningham. Although they are both highly proficient technical divers, the sheer scale of the project has caused concern. Both divers have suffered decompression accidents during their preparation for the record bid and, having suffered a Type Two cerebral bend, Andrews admits he is lucky to be alive (he says he received the bend because of dehydration). Yet he is utterly committed to the 333m dive, and his determination is clear to see in his steely eyes. He is refusing to release details of his planned gases and decompression tables until after the event.
Even Andrews cannot deny that at such extreme depth, life is fragile indeed. I want to find out what motivates him to such extremes, and over the course of our conversation it emerges that he has a fear of failure that borders on the pathological. When he speaks of his childhood, he describes himself almost in terms of disgust. ‘I was a quitter. I dropped out of a charity walk; I failed my cycling proficiency test for heavens’s sake! It wasn’t until I was at Broadmoor that I realised what a wimp I was in my younger days, and I realised I could never go back to being like that again.’
Such are the demons that drive Mark Andrews to greater depths. Set him a challenge, tell him something can’t be done, and you’ll find him doing it the next minute. He is a particularly determined contrarian. He admits that he finds his obsession difficult to control, and feels envious of people who can switch off at the end of the week. ‘I’m just not the sort of person who can sit around watching television all Sunday,’ he says. ‘When I’m on a deep dive, I find I am so focused on the situation that for a while it feels as though I’m the only person in existence. There is nothing but control, discipline and devotion to the place I am in.
‘I’ve been doing deep training dives off the shark observatory in Sharm, where people used to say the drop-off went straight down to 800m. On our dives, we have found that the wall pares off into a steep canyon at 200m. There’s a fantastic amount of ambient light bouncing off the white coral sand, but little in the way of life, though we have seen schools of batfish at 160m. It’s an incredibly tranquil place, and I do feel at peace when I’m there. It’s even worth the five hours of decompression stops.’
Andrews is often asked how he reconciles the risks he takes with the concerns of family and friends. His girlfriend, Emma Jeavons-Fellows, is on his safety team, but he has to put all thoughts of loved ones out of his mind when he is in the final stages of preparation for an extreme dive. ‘If you spend those crucial moments fretting about those who love you, there’s a greater chance you won’t come back. It sounds hard, but I have to put them out of my mind.’
The same goes for his daughter Jessica, 15 and son Darren, 11. ‘They are proud of me and I love them very much, but when I’m gearing up for a big dive, they simply don’t exist. I have to keep focused. Mountaineers and other extreme sportsmen will tell you the same thing. But Emma is my pillar of strength – she is there to sympathise when things go wrong and she’s the first to give me a hug and a kiss when it goes right. When I was bent in Hurghada she sat by the chamber the whole time, not wanting to leave. She was there when I went in screaming and the first face I saw when I came out on a stretcher, waiting to hold my hand.’
Given his preoccupation with extremes, it was perhaps inevitable that Andrews would earn a reputation as a loose cannon in the diving industry. The reality is more complex. He has the reputation of an earnest, diligent instructor, and his record attempts have been approached with rigorous preparation. ‘People sometimes presume that’s I’m just some nutter who jumps in the water and goes down to 160m, but they don’t know about the months of preparation, fitness training, special diet and build-up dives,’ he says. ‘Let’s be clear about this: I don’t embark on these dives lightly.’
That Andrews has a sensible side is borne out by his decision in 2001 to abandon a high-profile, 170m wreck dive at Hurd Deep in the English Channel, when conditions threatened his team’s welfare. Given the amount of sponsorship behind the dive, it couldn’t have been an easy call, but there’s little doubt he made the correct decision. Those who write him off as a mindless adrenalin junkie are seriously underestimating Andrews, but the sheer force of his will can be seen as a weakness as well as a strength.
I have written in a previous edition of DIVE that if Andrews or Cunningham dies in their bid to break Bennett’s record, their deaths will be empty and meaningless. Now that I have met Andrews and talked through his reasons for wanting to do the dive, I have no reason to revise my opinion. But that’s all it is – my opinion. I don’t have a right to tell him what to do, and as long as the Egyptian authorities are happy to let the dives take place, there is nothing to stop him, save perhaps his own sense of self-preservation. Having experienced the vortex of Andrews’ obsession, I think I understand why he has to make the dive. However, if in his heart he comes to believe that the risk is unacceptable, I hope he will find the courage to call it off.