Tim Ecott talks to two extraordinary divers who have claimed places in diving history - and who have both now had their exploits captured on the big screen
Quitting at an all-time low
Umberto Pelizzari is a natural in front of the camera. With his salt-spray blond hair, chiselled features and impressive physique, he looks every inch the film star. When IMAX decided to give free-diving the giant screen treatment, he was a natural choice to showcase the physical and mental discipline required to be a world-beater.
Ocean Men, which is to be released as a TV documentary as well as in IMAX format, is the most serious attempt to capture the magic of breath-hold diving since The Big Blue captivated audiences worldwide in 1988.
The movie loosely traces the career of perhaps the two most famous modern-day free-divers - Italy's Pelizzari and Cuban-born "Pipin" Ferreras. The film is part-documentary, part travelogue, and is filled with stunning underwater imagery.
Costing almost £5 million to make, it will firmly establish both men as the world's best known free-divers, and even includes an appearance by their mentor, Jacques Mayol.
While Pipin demonstrates the drama of "sledge diving", it falls to Pelizzari to capture the sheer athleticism of free-diving while swimming with dolphins in the Bahamas, or training in the crystal clear waters off Sardinia.
The last time I saw Umberto Pelizzari, he was at a small village disco on the Isle of Capri. Surrounded by a gaggle of admirers (male as well as female), he was dancing to the beat of Britney Spears' Hit Me Baby One More Time. Several hours earlier, I had seen him plunge beneath the chilly waters off Capri, with a stiff north wind making diving a distinctly dangerous undertaking.
Pelizzari had been attempting his 19th world record. This was a 131m dive in the Variable Ballast discipline, which allows the use of a weighted sledge for the descent, before the diver pulls himself hand over hand up the static line to the surface.
In 2min 44sec it was all over, and Pelizzari broke the surface like a Trident missile, punching the air while family and support crew celebrated with all the joy that Italians can muster.
"It's time for me to make way for some younger divers," Pelizzari claimed after the dive. "I won't attempt any more solo records - it's better to quit while I'm at the top of the profession than have to bow out on a failure one day."
As ever, Pelizzari's record has brought out the Italian press in force. And as ever, his parents are on the support boat during the dive. For his mother Maria, Umberto's decision to quit record-breaking was good news.
"Today was the hardest of all his dives," Mama Pelizzari tells me. "With the rough seas and all the trouble with the boats, I really couldn't take it. I have seen all his record attempts but today was the hardest." His sister Stefania, who has been his manager throughout his career, echoes the sentiment. "Absolutely! Now we can get on with normal life again. I love my brother and he is the best, but for 11 years now we have lived and breathed every minute for his diving. Now it's time to party!"
Pelizzari looks tired immediately after the dive, although whether it is the stress of immersion or the continuous round of bear hugs and kissing of cheeks that his friends and relatives bestow on him, I'm not sure. Finally, in a quiet moment, we sit down to talk.
The free-diver has been interviewed so many times that his answers tend to come out sounding a little too pat. He generally knows what's coming and answers equally fluently in Italian, English or French. For his main sponsors (Cressi-sub and Sector Sport watches) he is a PR dream. Not only does he wear their logos and achieve what he sets out to do, but he is also an incredibly nice guy.
In a sport which all too often attracts big egos, and even bigger mouths, Pelizzari is an all-round gentleman: modest, polite, intelligent and extremely friendly. It's little wonder that he gets kissed a lot.
Later that evening we eat dinner and he says he is looking forward to doing absolutely nothing for several weeks. "No, of course I'm not giving up free-diving," he explains. "Being in the water is life itself to me, I'll do it as long as my body lets me, I just won't go for any more solo records."
In 1999 Pelizzari had become the first man to dive to 150m on one breath. I had read that during the making of Ocean Men there had been tension between Pelizzari and Pipin, to do with the Cuban claiming a new depth record in the No-limits category.
For once there is a coolness in the Italian's reply. "It's very simple. In the film there is no relationship between me and Pipin. And that's just how it is in real life." So, just like Mallorca and Mayol in real life, and between Jacques and Enzo in The Big Blue, it seems that champion free-divers are doomed to fall out.
As far as Pelizzari can tell, his future will be spent promoting free-diving, and running courses during the summer months at his No Limits diving centre in Sardinia. There is talk of more film and TV work, and he is constantly being asked to make personal appearances at shows and exhibitions around the world.
As he is something of a cult figure in free-diving, I ask if the paparazzi ever bother him in Italy: "No, free-diving is too small a world. That's not the kind of publicity I get. I'm not like a basketball-player or a footballer - and I don't make that kind of money."
Like all mothers, Italian or otherwise, Maria Pelizzari says she hopes her son might produce some grandchildren for her. And Umberto isn't short of female admirers. If he had a son, I wonder, would he want him to be a free-diving champion?
"Absolutely not," he grins. "Any other sport - but not free-diving. I wouldn't want the worry!"
CARL BRASHEAR: Standing on his own tin leg
Scuba-diving is all very well when it comes to film-making, but when Hollywood wants to dive, it often favours the brass helmet, canvas suit and lead bootees of standard deep-sea dress.
It all started with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 85 years ago, and has carried on through such classics as Beyond the Twelve Mile Reef (1953) all the way to the hi-tech suits of The Abyss (1989).
Robert Wagner, John Wayne and Ed Harris, not to mention Bob Hope, Norman Wisdom and of course Tin Tin, have all donned copper diving helmets in the name of drama. Now Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding Jr have added their names to that list with their roles in Men of Honour, the story of Carl Brashear, a US Navy Diver whose own life is stranger than fiction.
I enjoyed Men of Honour, which has just come out on DVD, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good old-fashioned adventure film with the added value of it being based on true life.
It tells the story of Brashear, a poor farmer's son from Kentucky with minimal education who joins the US Navy. Not only does he rise through the ranks, but he overcomes racial prejudice to become the first black sailor to be admitted to the Navy's diver training school.
As if that weren't enough, Brashear rises to be Master Chief Petty Officer, the highest non-commissioned grade in the US Navy, and attains the coveted badge of Master Diver.
Then, in a shipboard accident, he loses a leg and is told his career is over. But Brashear won't admit defeat and, inspired in part by a magazine article about RAF hero Douglas Bader, sets about forcing the Navy to allow him to continue diving.
In real life Carl Brashear is now over 70, a cheerful, gentle-mannered man with a husky voice and a twinkle in his eye. He taps his false leg occasionally to emphasise a point, and laughs at the idea that Hollywood has over-dramatised elements of his life in the film. "No sir," he grins. "They had to leave a whole lot out of that film! The true story of all I did in my hell-raisin' days would make at least two more films."
Brashear is keen to convince me that only one part of Men of Honour was "pure Hollywood" - a scene in which he is almost run over under water by a Russian submarine.
For some reason, the film-makers decided to add a bit of spice to an already incredible scenario in which Brashear was part of a team of divers looking for a nuclear bomb lost off the coast of Spain in 1966. It was on that mission, when the bomb was being winched from the sea onto the deck of the USS Hoist, that a steel cable snapped and virtually took off his leg.
In real life, as in the film, Brashear opted for amputation rather than allow doctors to spend years reconstructing his leg, so that he might eventually walk with a stick. "That would have meant I had to get out of the Navy, and I sure wasn't about to do that," he says firmly, and you get a hint of the inner steel that forms his character.
When Carl Brashear joined the US Navy in 1948 it had only just been officially desegregated, but at diver training school the other cadets refused to share a bunkroom with him.
To make his training harder, they would sometimes tip his welding tools, spanners and wrenches into the water rather than send them down in a bag.
Just getting into dive school involved making 200 official requests for a transfer. "Why, they didn't even believe a black man could swim well enough to be on the rescue teams on board ship," Brashear recalls.
"But I used to bunk off school in Kentucky to go swimmin' in the creeks around where we lived, so I knew I could swim strong - even if they said a black man couldn't do it."
Cuba Gooding Jnr, who won an Oscar for his role alongside Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, plays Brashear convincingly. Brashear says he and the actor formed a natural bond on the set of Men of Honour.
As with many film scripts, the story had been around for almost 20 years before the Fox studio finally made the picture. I ask Brashear if he was bitter that it had taken so long to put the story on the big screen. "I don't have much time for feeling bitter," he says quietly. "I believe God orders my steps, and there's a reason for everything. Maybe He was waitin' for Cuba Gooding to come along - 'cos there isn't another actor could have played the part as well as him."
These days Carl Brashear is permanently travelling. He retired from the Navy in 1979 and, since then, has been an inspiration to many young people who have lost limbs. "The doctors can fix up your body pretty good," says Carl, "but the real battle is in your head. Just because you lose an arm or a leg - whatever - you are the same person inside, and that's what you have to remember. Whatever you want to do, you can do it."
The climax of Men of Honour shows Gooding as Brashear struggling to stand upright while wearing a full diving suit and walking 12 steps across a courtroom unaided, to convince a Navy fitness board that he can work as a diver despite his prosthesis. "Yup, that's how it was," Brashear tells me. "The metal leg never had a problem with all that weight, although I once snapped the foot off climbing a ladder in diving gear. I just had a stronger bolt put in the next prosthesis."
Like many military men, Brashear is hard to draw out on the specifics of his achievements. For him, diving was always something of a technical objective and he was at a loss to say if it really gave him pleasure.
"I guess I loved it because it was a challenge," he says. "I can't say it was fun because I saw anything pretty down there, or was interested in fish especially. No, sir! Most of the diving was in dark water, where I'd be welding a pipe or sluicing out mud from around a wreck. But there was a great sense of achievement in knowing I could go down there and do the job, especially when it was in deep, dangerous conditions."
I ask Carl Brashear if he has ever tried scuba-diving, and he reveals that while stationed in the Pacific he had been a keen spearfisherman and diver. "I soon figured out that the tin leg was no problem under water just so long as I drilled holes in it to make it negatively buoyant, otherwise it sort of floated upwards as I swam!"
There is little doubting that the man's indomitable spirit is as strong as ever, and by the time the interview is over I begin to suspect that Men of Honour probably does only scratch the surface of Carl Brashear's remarkable life.