Two weeks ago, Brit diver Blake Aldridge toppled from a mighty cliff face in Switzerland, hitting the water below with enough speed to crumple the body of an untrained man. An Olympic diver by trade, Blake’s efforts at the World High Diving (WHDF) Championships earned him the gold. With interest sparking across the world for the extreme thrills and mental focus that cliff diving can offer, WideWorld brings you a brief guide to the sport, where you can do it, and how to begin.
Cliff Diving is the acrobatic perfection of diving into water. An outdoor sport practised in lakes and seas, all that is needed is a head for heights, a knowledge of the area and water conditions, and diving skills.
The heights dived from range between 18-23 metres for female divers, and 22-27 meters for males. This height means the diver will hit the water at an entering speed of 45-60mph (75-100 kmh). When they hit, they’ll carry on down to a depth of 2.5-4.5 metres – one good reason why a comprehensive knowledge of the waters is essential. They’re in freefall for up to 3 seconds, and impact the water 9 times harder than they would from the 10-metre platform you’ll see in most swimming pools.
With these powers at work on the body, the cliff diver has to be well prepared, fit, supple and committed to the dive. They also must know the correct techniques to avoid injury when hitting the water.
The cliff diver’s requirements
According to Silva Weill of the WHDF, the cliff diver should meet several requirements.
“A strong technical education and many years of experience in diving or a similar acrobatic sport are the main prerequisites for a high diver.
“Other necessary strengths include courage, self-confidence, extraordinary physical control and the ability to make decisions within fractions of a second based on the following impulses: sight, space, time and experience. Most athletes reach their maximum technical skill and psychical maturity at an age of around 30.
“The body is exposed to enormous forces during a high dive, especially during entrance into the water. As tired muscles can lead to injuries, athletes perform only a limited number of dives during a single practice session or competition.
“The moment of the highest risk is upon entry in the water: while the parts of the body under water are in highest deceleration, the rest of the body above the water is still in full acceleration. The athlete must be at maximum strength and muscle tightness upon entry, to avoid compression or contortion of the body or its parts by the toughness of the water.
“It can be assumed that a high diver with experience will not land horizontally. Making a crash-landing into water at 26 m could be analogized to the same landing on the street at 13 m. High diving over 28 metres is in principle, not justifiable. Due to the rapid acceleration there is nearly no time benefit in dives of additional distance, but the risk of injury is greatly increased with each additional meter.”
The roots of cliff diving
Back in 1770, Kahekili (1710-1794), the last independent king of Maui and chief of four islands, was famous for ‘lele kawa’. In English it translates as ‘leaping off high cliffs and entering the water feet first without a splash’.
In order to prove their courage and loyalty, Kahekili forced his nakoa (warriors) to follow his example, jumping of the leap into the Royal Waters at Kaunolu. One generation later, under King Kamehameha I, the Hawaiians practiced ‘lele kawa’ in competition. Judgment was passed on the style of the dive and the amount of splash on entry. Kahekili’s leap at Kaunolu has always been regarded as holy, although the tradition of lele kawa became forgotten for a long time.
Where to go cliff diving
Royal Waters Kaunolu
On the Hawaiian Island of Lana’i
This incredible viewpoint was the location for the 2000 Cliff Diving World Championship that revived the sport as a competitive, global activity again.
Learn more about Lana’I
La Quebrada, or “The Break”
In 1934, the 13 year old Enrique Apac Rios jumped off this iconic spot for the first time in history. Several mortal injuries and exaggerated spot heights have made a mystical tourist attraction out of a former fishing village. In fact, the top-level dive is 26.5 meters high, the lower level 21 meters. The rock profile together with the shallow water (maximum 4 meters depth) make this jump extremely dangerous.
Learn more about Quebrada
A favourite on the competitive cliff diving circuit, the famous Ponte Brolla opens up like a giant sink, its grey sheer walls and deep blue waters creating an ideal location for the sport.
Learn more about Vallemaggia
Blue Mountains, Jamaica
The largest island in the Caribbean is also home to some fantastic cliff formations. Head for the west side of Negril, where the 70-ft limestone cliffs make a bonafide hotspot for divers, even though the waters beneath are dangerously scattered with sub-surface rocks. Ask for advice locally!
Learn more about Negril
The basic technique
Statistically, diving is no more dangerous than other sports, but any accident is likely to be serious when diving from heights, especially into wild water. Follow these basic technique tips to make a safe dive.
Never go alone. Always bring friends who are able to physically help you should a problem arise, and bring a mobile phone if you can. Make sure others know of your location and intention before you go, just in case.
Make sure the dive area is free of rocks and wind, which may push your trajectory out in a dangerous way. Test the depth of the water – at least four metres is advisable – with a chain and check again closely for sub-surface rocks, and make sure the spot has little current to drag you down or away into danger after your dive.
Begin with cliff dives or around three metres. This will accelerate you to around 17mph when you hit the water, and will build your confidence and technique safely. If you used a chain to test the depth of the water, you may want to use it now as a means of climbing back up afterwards. The best cliffs are near-vertical ones that involve no run-up before your jump and allow you to jump in one fluid motion.
Unless you’re an experienced diver, use the ‘pencil dive’ form: jump feet first with legs together and arms held straight against the body. Your body should be relaxed and fluid as it flies through the air, then be completely upright and firm as it hits the water. It’s a good idea to wear a wetsuit that protects your body from the slapping of frigid water: after hitting the water, you’ll need your wits about you to recover from the dive. Wearing shoes, however, is not a good idea and will only increase the total impact as you hit.