He is one of the world's leading cave-divers, but what makes this exceptional Brit tick? Brendan O'Brien finds out about the man, his psyche, and his unusual take on doormats.
THE PROBLEM WAS, we weren't looking for the obvious and we couldn't find it.
Rick Stanton, one of the world's most accomplished cave-divers, isn't prone to such double-negatives, but this was his predicament prior to discovering the passage that would lead to the end of a record-breaking cave-dive at Wookey Hole in Somerset.
“The left-hand side of the cave was where everyone was focusing, where they thought it ended – but on the right there was a small entrance in the cave wall. You could even see it on film; this wasn't the end.”
British diver Rick is one of the Dive Show's most popular guest-speakers, and during his presentation last year the audience gained an insight into the problems and practicalities of such expeditions. But I was interested in Rick's motivation, in why a man would push himself into the planet's most hostile environments – places where no human has been before, and where only a handful are likely to follow.
“When people see a blank wall, they think it's the end of the cave,” says Rick. “They're already at their limit and want to find an end so they can say: We can go back now. But you need to look closer, as if you had a second pair of eyes.
“What one person sees as the end of the cave, another might see as the start of a bypass. You need to think: Right, I might have all of that behind me, but let's look at this point as the start of the cave – where can we go?
“At Wookey, everyone said the way forwards was glaringly obvious once I'd pointed it out. Loads of people had watched the film but they just hadn't seen it. I guess that's something I find motivating, discovering the obvious.”
I SENSED THERE WAS MORE TO RICK than he could explain; so I asked him about the time before he had heard of caving or diving. “I was at school, about 16 or 17, and I'd already done a bit of hill-walking,” he recalled. “I met a lad who did some caving with the Scouts, and I was quite envious.
I remembered thinking: I'd love to do something like that.
“But the defining moment didn't come until my mother called me in to watch a TV programme called Underground Eiger, about two divers linking up what was then the longest cave-dive in the world. After watching it, I just knew that cave-diving was for me.”
At university, Rick saw the opportunity to progress by joining both the caving and diving clubs. “I feel a bit guilty now. I learnt to dive in the pool, went to all the lectures, but didn't ever get qualified. I didn't go on one dive with the club. But I did identify with people in the caving club and I did a lot of caving, though the only diving I did was freediving to get through the water-filled sumps.
“But the longer sumps were too long to freedive. Rick found the solution when he went to buy a new wetsuit. The shop had a small cylinder, and all I needed was a demand valve. It happened that the valve I found was a Poseidon, but at the time I didn't know that this was what all cave-divers used.
I still use it. Recently I was at 90m in Dorothea Quarry thinking: Oh great, this is my old regulator!
“We taught ourselves to dive in the River Lune in Yorkshire, and started to use the kit in caves with sumps, complete with goggles and flippers, as we used to call them.”
Was this the turning point for Rick, a time at which he could have found diving more appealing than caving?
“No, not really. The biggest thing about cave-divers is that they are invariably cavers first; they get comfortable in caves and then learn how to dive. There's only a handful of caves in the country with diving sumps. Diving is just a means to an end, a way of getting to bits of cave you can't get to otherwise.”
Rick described his early experiences with the cave-diving community: “There were loads of other cave-divers, but we didn't get any advice off them. It wasn't like today, when you can go on a course and get qualified to the hilt. I just kept buying bits of diving gear, and before I met anyone in the cave-diving world, I'd already become quite capable of diving most caves.”
Rick's exploits have placed him on the pedestal of diving greats, but was this what he sought back then or even now? “No, it's just not me. In diving you get that sort of hero thing, but in cave-diving everyone takes each other as they come, there's no hero-worship or anything like that. No-one cares in caving, and I didn't set out to break any records.”
The difference? “Most of the ocean is largely unexplored, but it's still all mapped out. You know how deep it is and what's likely to be there if you dive it. I don't find that very appealing, but with caving you don't know whether to go up, down, left or right. You could go one way and find the best chamber in the world. There's no technology that will tell you that – you just have to be there.”
And the media coverage – is this what Rick is looking for? “No, no,” he replies emphatically, “it's nice, like the record for depth, but it's totally inconsequential. The thing about cave-diving is that it is such a low-key sport. The people who do it are often quite understated, and certainly don't want to be up on any kind of pedestal, me included.
“Some people dive caves to publicise their business, or get their name at the end of a cave, but I'm only interested in the cave, where it's going and how it ends. I suppose that's what motivates me – I don't know why, but that's it.”
Rick has talked about the satisfaction he derives from joining up cave systems, but is he speaking for himself or is this a universal attraction? “It's the logical thing,” he says, and then pauses: “I suppose for me it's classical, to link up systems – then you have the complete cave. It's like finishing a jigsaw – you can't go any further.
“For Wookey we have gone far enough; there would be too much danger. But there may be new technological advances that will allow us, or someone else, to go further. For now Wookey is complete, and I guess for me this is the attraction, completing the picture. After that, I switch off.”
Watch one of Rick Stanton's presentations and you get a glimpse of how a cave-diving team works to enable just one or two members to reach their objective, leaving the rest behind. I was interested to hear his views on caving as a team sport.
“On a football field you're just kicking a ball around, but in a cave you genuinely need to rely on each other,” he explains, “it forms strong bonds and friendships with people, and because of that quality you get there collectively.”
I ask how he puts the teams together. Is it as easy as looking at a cave-diver and thinking: that's the person I want on my team?
He wishes. “For a non-competitive sport, it's quite competitive. When it comes to newcomers people will be thinking: What's he going to do, is he a young upstart or is he going to pave the way? I've seen a few generations of cave-divers, some come and go and some stay.
And the way to ensure that you are one of the chosen few? “Well, there's always buying beer! Actually, youll start as an apprentice, hanging round, carrying equipment, watching how people do things. At some point you'll be asked if you want to dive as part of a proper mentoring system.”
A pecking order? “There has to be. If you're going to a new place, which may be remote and hard work to get to, you want to put your best man in. But there really aren't that many people out there who have that type of commitment and can do it – there's probably only about 20 people out there who can do the Wookey stuff.”
EVEN WITH SUCH A SMALL POOL of people, deciding who will lead the team can be tricky. “It tends to be the person who's doing the dive. It's like running a business – you've got to be a manager, a motivator, a logistics organiser and keep everyone happy. It can be quite a nightmare.”
As with many other cave-divers, this isn't a full-time job for Rick, who is a firefighter by profession. Had his career helped with his cave-diving?
“I’d say it's the other way around. I've been a firefighter for 18 years, but a cave-diver for longer, and that's what helped me through the selection, the training and managing the pressure.”
Rick believes managing pressure may be one of the most valuable qualities for any aspiring cave-diver. “Not everyone can think under pressure. There are plenty of really competent divers who you would think could do anything, but for some reason, when something goes wrong they can't produce the obvious solution.”
Rick refers to the start of each dive as pressured, or tense, and says individuals have their own way of dealing with these feelings. Dealing with pressure is a bit like riding a bike – he can do it, but when it comes to explaining exactly how, he struggles.
I ask him to describe in detail the process he goes through to prepare.
“You visualise the dive and you draw upon patterns of what you've done on previous dives. You can't afford to get tense, as there is still a lot occupying your mind. Nor is there time to go into half an hour of trance.
“I see myself doing the dive, not like a film or a snapshot but in critical segments, what I'm doing at set points, how I'm doing it, and what happens if something goes wrong.”
I mention that some people visualise events as if they are looking through their own eyes. Rick closes his eyes and tries, but it doesn't work for him. Going back to seeing events as if looking at himself from outside, he at once feels more comfortable.
He talks me through one of his visualisations for a flooded rebreather. He doesn't know he's doing it, but as he describes it he closes his eyes and his hands mimic what they would do in this situation.
But this isn't something you'll find him doing at the dive-site; it's what he does on his own, a system developed to suit the way his mind works, to work out problems before they happen and, when they do happen, to manage them without rushing in.
This is another quality needed in a team-member, to be able to work through problems, Rick tells me. “When you first get in the water its always a bit of a clusterf**k. You kit up vertically, but then you're horizontal and there's always something that needs adjusting, or moving, and there's all of this on top of the other things that are going on.”
Perhaps this is why Rick favours simple equipment. “Most of it is adapted; it's all about breaking it down to its simplest form without giving up on safety. I'm not a big lover of technology; I prefer simple bits of equipment.”
This desire to keep things simple is exemplified by Rick's heat-retention system. “Initially I was looking for one of those bead mats you get for seats, but then I saw a doormat in a shop and thought, that'll work.”
Do you think anyone will try it? “It might seem a laugh, but it genuinely works! Maybe I could sell it, the Stanton Thermal Vest, put it in a cover – no one will know what's inside it!”
The doormat vest is just another example of Rick's approach to cave-diving – it's all about seeing the obvious and finding it.