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Fatally Flawed -- The Quest to be Deepest

by Verna van Schaik
Paperback 2008 Liquid Edge Publishing, 200 pages
ISBN 978-0-620-40472-3
9.0 x 6.0
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In Fatally Flawed -- The Quest to be Deepest, South African diver, dive instructor and prolific tech diving blogger Verna van Schaik describes how she set a new world record for deep diving by a woman (725 feet), what led up to it, and how she views the whole drive and obsession to set ever more extreme records. Van Schaik was also surface marshal for Australian rebreather diver Dave Shaw's fatal attempt at body recovery at the Boesmansgat cave in early 2005, and so readers learn how she experienced the discovery of the body, which took place just days after her own successful record dive, and then the subsequent ill-fated recovery mission.

Van Schaik, who started diving in 1989, specializes on deep and cave diving and presents an entirely unusual picture. Whereas most dive books center on achievements, adventure, equipment, technology and the pursuit of records, van Schaik's "Fatally Flawed" looks at the motivation behind it all. She relates her doubts, her feelings of not being taken serious as a woman and her fears of not measuring up in a man's world. She is both drawn to idols and heroes, and yet feels betrayed when the heroes turn out to be as flawed and ego-driven as anyone else.

Van Schaik describes the lure of depth, the progression of deep diving records, the dangers involved, and the price people pay for a record. Is it a quest to be accepted, respected and loved? She wonders what drives people, including herself, to risk their lives this way. She relates her own history of diving and seeking acceptance in dive clubs run by what she terms "Scuba Gods," and how she joined the Wits Underwater Club with the legendary deep diver Nuno Gomez. She relates feelings of inadequacy and doubt, and how she felt she was excluded by Gomez because she was female.

We learn about the Wondergat sinkhole and its challenges, and expeditions to Boesmansgat, the third largest known water-filled cave in the world, where Gomez dived to 750 feet in 1994 and van Schaik was a shallow-water support diver. However, when Gomez goes back for a 930 feet dive, van Schaik is not invited. Devastated, she strikes out on her own with deep diving at Guinas Lake in Namibia, and then at Badgat, a flooded asbestos mine with many challenging interconnected levels. In 2001 she reaches first 463 feet at Badgat and then 610 feet at Boesmansgat, but by now the female deep diving record was at 692 feet. All the while, doubts persist as do feelings of inadequacy: "I had set out on this quest mainly to change how it felt to be me and to all intents and purposes now that it was behind me, I was still the same scared and unsure person I had always been."

With the record sort of broken (at Boesmansgat's altitude of about 4800 feet, a 610 foot dive equates to about 720 feet at sea level in terms of decompression obligations) van Schaik seeks to leave the world of records behind, but finds that "without my obsession my life was totally empty" A new record attempt is planned and van Schaik has a scary situation at Badgat at a preparation dive. Yet, despite more doubts and frustrations the dive at Boesmansgat takes place, now with Dave Shaw and Don Shirley as support divers. Van Schaik successfully reaches 725 feet and a new women's divers world record, but her thunder is quickly stolen when Dave Shaw, on a record rebreather dive (888 feet), finds the body of Deion Dreyer, a diver who had gone missing ten years prior.

This is where rebreathers come into play, a technology that van Schaik initially views with suspicion as not well suited for deep diving due to equipment failures and the greater chance of carbon dioxide accumulation under exertion. Yet, Shaw's success appears to make open circuit scuba obsolete. Unable to participate in Shaw's subsequent body recovery dive that's reserved for rebreather divers, Van Schaik is asked to be surface marshal instead. The dive becomes a tragedy when Shaw is lost and his primary support diver, Don Shirley, gets seriously bent on his way back up.

The disastrous event further shatters van Schaik's illusion of glory and heroes. She feels "the list of things Dave could have done and did not do is long" and she is appalled that Shirley did not call the dive after an incomplete dive computer repair the night prior practically guaranteed failure at depth. Disillusioned, van Schaik comes to see these heroes' attempts as ego-driven chasing after glory, as deeds to be admired but not worshipped. "I can truly say men are aliens. I do not understand them and I do not understand their rules," she states, and regrets that those seeking female role models mostly find women who are clones of men as opposed to women playing by their own rules.

The closing chapter of "Fatally Flawed" describes van Schaik's moving into rebreathers, a technology she now finds "infinitely appealing" and which she credits with being far less limited than open circuit diving. In fact, her next goal is to exceed her own record on a rebreather.

While the essentially self-published "Fatally Flawed" lacks the polish of a commercial production, it is a very compelling look into a woman's approach to deep and technical diving. It's a dive book about one woman's self-doubt and constant struggle instead of male bravado and story telling, about feeling the need to measure up and prove herself over and over again, perhaps without ever finding any definite answers. Yet, van Schaik's girlish doubts and struggles notwithstanding, she is alive and well, without ever having suffered any hits or injuries on any of her record dives. Maybe she's the real hero. -- C. H. Blickenstorfer, scubadiverinfo.com

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