When Mark Tilley first started freediving in the Cayman Islands six years ago, he was one of only a handful of people involved in the sport. His assortment of weights, his giant fins and safety gear, and his claims to be able to dive beyond 200 feet on a single breath prompted quizzical looks.
Now the sport is moving into the mainstream with the islands’ first national championship. Organized by lawyer Jeremy Walton, founder of the Cayman Islands Freediving Association, the national championship is timed to coincide with the international Deja Blue tournament in mid-May.
Mr. Walton said the sport is growing in popularity. There is now a core of around 30 divers going out regularly, and the newly formed association provides a focal point to develop the sport and provide training opportunities for divers in a safe environment.
“This national championships is really the next stage in the evolution of Cayman freediving,” said Mr. Walton.
He said Cayman’s divers would compete alongside world champions here for the international tournament, but in their own local category.
“It is going to be fantastic for the Cayman competitors to compete at the same time as the international athletes,” he said. “From experience, I can say it is tremendously inspiring to be in the same competition as world champions. It is a rare opportunity in any sport.”
He said the atmosphere around the sport is supportive and even the best athletes are happy to share tips with local divers and ready with a high-five for anyone who makes their personal best.
The Cayman Open National Championships will be over several categories – constant weight, where breath-hold divers fin-kick to depth; free immersion, where divers pull themselves down a rope to depth; dynamic apnea, where divers swim underwater horizontally in a pool; and static, where competitors do timed breath-holds with their face in the water.
Mr. Tilley, with a personal best of 73 meters depth, Kurt Randolph, a local dive instructor who represented the U.S. in the world team freediving championships, and Richard Collett will be the main contenders for the men’s title, Mr. Walton said.
Mr. Walton believes the Cayman Islands could potentially host a world championship event at some point. He said establishing a national championship, certified by world governing body AIDA, the International Association for Development of Apnea, is the first step in that direction.
Mr. Tilley said the territory is among the best places in the world to dive.
“There are perfect conditions for freediving,” he said. “You can swim out from shore and find a few thousand feet of depth almost immediately. You can dive on the west side 330 days a year.”
He said Cayman’s free divers are a tight-knit group.
“You have to have a great deal of trust in the people you dive with, because you really are trusting them with your life. It makes it hit home a bit.
“There is a really good community making sure people dive safely,” he said.