Last August, while an audience of millions watched the Munich Games, a native of Syracuse, Sicily named Enzo Maiorca attracted only a handful of friends and a dozen local tourists as he broke the world record for an event few people have heard of in recent years outside the Mediterranean. He took a deep breath and went down into the sea 78 meters and back, a journey roughly the length of 1½ football fields.
The event is equal in sporting quality to many competitions offered on the Olympic menu, yet Maiorca is an obscure champion outside of his country. And even at home, because he breaks the record practically every year, the newspapers comment on Majorca's exploits with the routine enthusiasm they give the first snowfall on Mt. Etna.
By today's standards, early records for diving in apnea, as not breathing is called, were made in surprisingly shallow water. Twenty years ago, Raimondo Bucher's dive to 39 meters was acclaimed as an astonishing feat of human endurance. Except for Maiorca and another human fish from Marseilles named Jacques Mayol, the men who pushed the world mark into the 60-meter range have all retired, and even Mayol talks more records than he breaks these days—possibly he is trying to build up confidence for a much-promised shot at 100 meters.
No one questions the possibility of Mayol getting 100 meters underwater. The problem will be returning to the surface afterward. Both men can hold their breath for close to five minutes as long as they are not doing anything, plenty of time for a 200-meter round trip lying inert in a basket attached to a pulley. But the slightest mental or physical effort eats into the air savings they pack into their seven-liter lungs (the average athlete's lungs have a volume of something over four liters). Maiorca was two minutes and 25 seconds underwater breaking the record in August—at that, he was 10 seconds overdue because something went wrong—and when he bobbed up he had a magenta complexion, giving his friends a bad moment.
January 8, 1973
Italians admire the human form too much to risk permanently damaging themselves for the dubious glory of amateur sport, which is one reason Maiorca has only his own record to break every year. Another reason for the lack of competition is the time and dedication it would cost a young Mediterranean to extend his range from, say, 30 meters, the depth a better-than-average modern skin diver will attain in search of a fish, to present record figures. When Maiorca relaxes before a dive, slumped on the edge of his boat, he looks as if he has inhaled a footlocker. He spent 25 years developing those lungs. At 41, an age when most athletes have retired, Maiorca is at the peak of his abilities. Mayol is 46. Most young people today prefer to be champions while there is still time to be something else afterward.
A nation that values heroes more than Italy would try to encourage citizens like Maiorca to accept subsidies—adequate equipment or a bit of life insurance. But Maiorca is painfully reticent about receiving help. When he delivers his annual victory interview on the beat-up fishing shallop he dives from, he never forgets to credit—after God, the local coast guard and his army of volunteer assistants—a certain manufacturer of underwater equipment who conveniently forgot to bill him for a wet suit years ago. The letters spelling the firm's name are peeling from the chest, and the unpaid-for trousers are almost out at the knee, but Majorca's sense of obligation to his benefactor is as fresh as the suit was the first day he wore it. And the suit was good enough last August. Last August....
The place where Maiorca is making his record dive seems to have no relationship to the summer of '72. A visitor would hardly know he was in the postwar world were it not for the modern cars. Here there is only a narrow trench of water in the side of Sicily, a broken concrete dock harboring a mess of little boats with eyes painted on their prows, a maritime superstition dating back 2,000 years when the land was linked to the colonies known as Magna Graecia. Ognina is the name of this arid cape.
The month is significant insofar as Maiorca's friends take their holidays in August and include the record attempt in their itineraries. The eager beaver running the show, an air force general named Giorgio Bertolaso, is the last to arrive.
Local representatives of government-run television slouch in a company station wagon, out of the morning sun, passing casual, profane remarks. Two camera-festooned magazine photographers from the mainland perspire on the dock beside bags of equipment, gloomy in the knowledge that if their gear fails they can always fall back on some of last year's color and get away with it, since the sea and Maiorca always look pretty much the same on film.
Tourists from nearby Ragusa, who have absorbed all the sights in Syracuse (the old Greek theater, Dionysus's Ear), keep a respectful distance from the media, waiting for the hero to appear. The Swiss judges arrive in white shorts—nimble, curly-haired Michele Gallet, who is to keep an eye on Maiorca as he comes down into the record area, and middle-aged Rino Gamba, wearing ankle socks under his sandals, editor of an underwater magazine of foundering circulation in Lausanne. Rinb will be judging from the fishing boat to see that no one, perish the thought, gives Maiorca illegal assistance (a whiff of oxygen before the dive, for instance).
A solemn, sleepy assortment of civilian and military divers, 12 in all, pull up in a truck and then lug yoked pairs of air bottles onto the foredeck of the battered cabin cruiser belonging to the champion. Time does not drag because there is no time; nonetheless, everyone is glad to see the general because it means the dive is on. Bertolaso sports a diverting splash of bold color on his head, a canary-yellow, long-billed cap with the trademark Lear Jet.
The general speaks with restrained command, carries a clipboard and orders Maiorca's equipment loaded onto the small fishing boat that will be the center of attention once the group arrives at the point of immersion. Item: 100 meters of steel wire painted white and wound onto an old tire wheel. Item: a 50-kilo chunk of lead gouged from a Roman galley anchor and screwed to a pair of iron handles that will be threaded onto the wire for the purpose of sliding Maiorca into the abyss. Item: 100 meters of Manila rope to control the weight and its human cargo at decisive stages on the journey. One missing item turns out to be a big stone to hold the wire down. Friends in warmup pajamas scrounge a nearby field for a suitable stone—not hard to find in Sicily. CMAS, or World Confederation of Underwater Activities, the august body that supervises all subsurface events, from depth record attempts to spearfishing contests, limits the stone's weight to 100 kilos for no ascertainable reason. Three divers grunt and groan while they weigh a stone on a hand-held Archimedean device before Rino Gamba's stern gaze. (Archimedes, you may recall, was born in Syracuse, Maiorca's hometown, and likewise indulged in experimental bathing.)
The stone, judged suitable, is placed on board. Pippo, the fisherman in charge of the equipment, slides aside the lid of his old diesel and cranks the engine into a slow, thudding pulse, the impromptu signal to move out. Everyone follows in a ragged file of tippy boats to an unmarked acre of seascape. The south wind has risen, casting a light spray on tourist, judge, friend and witness. Like a condemned man to his place of execution, the human object of all this activity is being brought from elsewhere.
Friends mull over their preordained tasks along the path of Maiorca's brief journey. Their names are engraved on their depth-proof watches, a fetish peculiar to this team of underwater addicts. A brooding colonel in a wine-dark warmup suit looks perpetually angry. The colonel's watch has Maiorca's name stamped on it; his job is to swim close to the hero, keeping an eye on him. If the hero starts to drown, the colonel will seal his nose and mouth and carry him to the surface.
Landward, a linen haze hangs on the gray Cordillera. Seaward, the horizon is stopped by a solitary trawler as still and two-dimensional as a painted boat seen through a shooting gallery periscope. A mile and a half offshore, the boats start revolving in a current-resisting holding pattern. Around a northern cape, which hides Syracuse, comes Maiorca on wings of spray, riding a splendid gray coast guard cutter, the biggest his hometown can supply. The grand vessel subsides from 25 knots and swings broadside to his friends. Maiorca stands amid officers splendid in white-and-gold uniforms and freshly painted white shoes. Their own wake moves them back and forth. Maiorca balances himself easily on bare feet. He wears a blue warmup suit. He radiates self-confidence and impatience. He has been training six months for this day. His eyes are deep blue. He is a boy's-book hero—strong-jawed, bullnecked, his nose a thin, keen, blade, his smile a dazzling flash of white. He is used to being before the public, such as it is. "Well?" he calls. "Do we go today? What does the general say? We will do whatever he advises. How is the sea?"
The general glances away from the hero's penetrating look. He seems humbled by the hero and uses an uncharacteristic foul word to describe the sea.
The disciples echo the general.
"Then tomorrow," Maiorca declares.
The tourists revolving far away, Pluto to the sun, are disappointed to see Maiorca speed away. They do not understand the reason: CMAS regulations stipulate that the ritual of ventilation—filling the lungs with air before the dive—must take place in the sea. The south wind that is blowing outside the port has ruffled the surface and the waves would no doubt splash into Maiorca's face if he were to attempt the record this day. Only Maiorca can scrub the mission, although he made it seem that the general had a hand in it.
During the off-season, Maiorca represents a pharmaceutical company, persuading local doctors to prescribe the company's pills. His salary is not great but it keeps his family in reasonable comfort and there is enough to pay Pippo for the use of the boat and other expenses. Maiorca lifts weights during the winter and goes to work in the sea in the spring. By August he is making daily trips to his old record levels and swimming horizontally at a depth of 50 meters, timed by his two closest friends, fellow-Syracusans Filippo La Ciura and Nuncio Di Dato, who are harnessed to Aqua-Lungs.
No free diver is in the water long enough to have to worry about decompression sickness—the bends. What mainly preoccupies the champion are his pesky ears. Anyone who does not know the proper technique can hardly dive to 20 feet without feeling pain in the ears and/or sinuses. But long ago somebody discovered that a sharply willed puff of air from the lungs (the nose is held shut, of course, or the puff would dissipate out the nostrils) could break through ear tubes and mucus-blocked sinuses, relieving pressure in these mini-caverns. Like everybody else today, Maiorca compensates, as the puffing rite is called, early in a dive. Atypically, he is obliged to relieve his inner-ear passages frequently thereafter. He is always apprehensive about his record-breaking dives because he knows that his eustachian tube could shut again and he might not be able to clear his ears before his eardrums blew. It is not the pain he dreads, but the unconsciousness that would follow.
The sea is as flat as paper the second day. The general has a spoiled disposition due to a dinner of polluted mussels in Syracuse the evening before. Testily he informs the media, "I cannot tell you how far Maiorca intends to go today. We know that he will try to beat 77 meters, last year's record. I haven't spoken to him this morning. He calls me. I don't call him."
Maiorca makes another great entrance, skidding up on the splendid powerboat, but this time he is not so cheerful. Withdrawn, or, as one used to say of grinds in school, all business, he comes on board his own boat clutching a canvas bag containing his wet suit, quietly informs the general that he is going to try for 78 meters, one over the record, and ducks into his cabin to be alone.
Down close to the motionless sea, Pippo pegs the slide wire to stop the weight at 78 meters, then hooks up the target Maiorca will bring back, establishing his claim to the record. It consists of a white handkerchief spread-eagled on a wire coat hanger with easily breakable thread. In the center of the handkerchief today is sewn a small metal disc with the number 78 painted on it in orange enamel. Maiorca needs something big to reach for. He dives without a face mask. A mask would have to be filled constantly with precious lung air to keep the pressure from shoving in against Maiorca's skull. When he opens his eyes at the end of the run, visibility is not much better than that at the bottom of a Coke bottle.
The big stone is gently lowered into the sea, taking the handkerchief with it. When 100 meters of wire are unreeled, the sliding weight, or zavorra, is hooked onto it and secured to the side of the boat. Pippo then attaches the rope to the weight. The rope has been knotted at 10-meter intervals down to 50 meters, equivalent to the same distance marks on the wire; as the knots hit the edge of the boat before going over, Pippo will snub the rope momentarily to alert Maiorca to snap his downward hurtling body upright; this difficult maneuver releases lung air into Maiorca's mouth which he uses to puff open his ear tubes. Once he goes on after the 50-meter tuck, Maiorca reaches a velocity of a meter per second, an ever-shrinking object.
Purists deplore the use of the zavorra and the fact that Maiorca comes back hand over hand on the wire (he has been using the wire in this fashion only since last year). Already, conditioning himself for today's attempt, he swam unaided, except for a face mask and fins (but no wet suit), to 57 meters, breaking the record for unassisted dives he had let stand for 10 years. Maiorca, however, is too curious about water he doesn't know to abandon his intention of hitting 80, 90, possibly 100 meters, simply to satisfy the purists. Furthermore, he is convinced that it is physically impossible to attain these depths without help, such as it is.
Maiorca's equerry, the dour colonel, sinks to explore the wire and ultimately returns and drily announces that the stone is resting on the bottom at 80 meters and the wire is curving like a snake. Chagrined, the general asks the captain of the coast guard if he would kindly explore the area with his echo sounder and find 100 meters of water for the wire. When the captain finds the necessary water, all the boats go out to join him. Maiorca meantime emerges from his cabin dressed in his suit of darkness, oblivious to the growing excitement about him, like a bridegroom or a bullfighter with serious matters on his mind. He wears a pair of blue trunks over his black rubber trousers, giving him the look of a comic-book hero. He steps onto the small fishing boat. The general borrows an electric megaphone from the coast guard and calls for silence. Boats move closer to the site of Maiorca's immersion. The general pleads with them to back off. They do, somewhat.
Maiorca slips into the water facing forward. Pippo removes the lid of the box encasing the diesel engine and sets it on the water in front of him. A black-suited disciple steadies the lid beside Maiorca, who extends his arms on it. Pippo holds the lid and the man resting on it close to the boat. CMAS rules give the aspirant 60 minutes to charge his lungs and blood with air. During this hour, the diver can make es many attempts as he wants to. Maiorca has set his own time limit for this dive—eight minutes. His disciples stand by with stopwatches, and the ritual begins. He opens his mouth and draws in, making a light, rasping wail, the sound of a glass cutter biting across the surface of a windowpane. Then he exhales, as little as he can, and the terrible keening comes again. It scrapes on the nerves.
Every 15 seconds, an aide intones the countdown or, in this particular case, the count-up. Dramatic sounds, you'd say, but no spindles turn on television's recording machine. Television is interested in the victory speech only.
"Aheeeeeeeee!" the cry comes again. Maiorca is mourning his own death.
"Four minutes!" Four lumps swell briefly around the fishing boat and the sea goes flat again. Four disciples are on their way down to their stations.
"Six minutes!" Then eight minutes have passed. All the guardians are hung out along the wire. The count-up is finished. The inhalation cry comes no more. Maiorca grabs the zavorra by the upper handle. Pippo releases the rope. And Maiorca has gone. Rather, the spectators are abandoned.
Under the mirror roof of the sea, the black, bearlike shape slowly falls as if caught in amber through a yellow-green gelatin, free at last. The compensations are a success. The blunt chunk of lead guillotines along its track. The water is very cold, then rapture makes the cold nothing. Maiorca falls in a darkness he can't see, a darkness that vaguely brightens as the sand casts up surface light. The colonel peers ever more intently through the darkness to assess the champion's condition. The zavorra stops. Maiorca opens his pinched eyes, easily takes the handkerchief off its hanger with a swipe of his hand, and tucks it in his trunks, the ultimate in grace under pressure. He looks for the cable to go home on. He can't see it. He gestures for the rope, his anxiety over this unplanned improvisation costing him oxygen. He finds and tugs on the rope. The rope must be pulled taut to move him up. He pays it in and it begins to stiffen, slowly straightening out between Maiorca and the fishing boat in the other world.
The general announces without real proof that Maiorca has broken the record. All anyone knows is that enough time has elapsed for Maiorca to have got down that far. From the surface, spotters eye the unoccupied wire.
Blind, squeezed face pointed upwards to the light, Maiorca works his way out of the depths, gently pushing with his fins, his black-green body arched to stretch his lungs to the utmost. He resembles a sea-coated bronze statue being lifted from centuries in the deep. He grows larger and breaks into this world and stops, as if that were as far as he was meant to go. His head lolls on his shoulder. Divers crowd under him, shove him against the fishing boat. A doctor clasps a plastic oxygen mask to Maiorca's face. The gas trickles into the unmoving lungs. The face changes color. "Bene," the lips murmur. Maiorca sniffs the gas hungrily. He is unceremoniously boated and stands up slowly. The coast guard blows its siren.
Maiorca speaks to the general, who is hugging him and vowing that next year Enzo will break 80 meters, "I couldn't find the wire. I guess it must be too thin. I had to come up on the rope." The general forces himself to take this seriously; he is not yet in a serious frame of mind. Maiorca gives him the handkerchief. The general waves it. "We'll have to think up another way...," Maiorca says vaguely, turning to face the television cameras. He records his message for the evening news program. Then he asks the coast guard to radio his wife that all is well.
Before he goes back to Syracuse on the coast guard cutter, Maiorca is asked how he plans to make his next record try less chancy. "We have a year to think about that," he replies. Time is his real subsidy.