French diver explains difficulties ahead as trapped team faces ‘race against water’

The team: Ben, Vsevolod and Maksym in Luang Cave (Photo courtesy of Maksym Polejaka)
The team: Ben, Vsevolod and Maksym in Luang Cave (Photo courtesy of Maksym Polejaka)

While the skies around Luang Cave in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province have been largely free of rain the past few days, meteorologists are predicting scattered showers and thunderstorms across the area through the rest of the week.

It’s a reality that makes pumping the cave free of water and allowing the 13 young men trapped inside to simply walk out a less likely option by the moment, and turned extraction efforts into what provincial governor Narongsak Osottanakorn has termed “a race against water.”

Plan B, which has been discussed here and in numerous other media outlets, is to teach the teen soccer players and their coach — many of whom can’t even swim — how to dive and make their way back through treacherous passages that took expert divers days to manage.

Few men are more acquainted with the difficulty of that task than Maksym Polejaka.

The French diver, who joined the Thai Navy SEAL team in their rescue efforts last Thursday and has since returned to his home in Phuket, spoke briefly with Coconuts Bangkok about his experience inside the cave, where a path via a “baseline” rope has now been laid and spare oxygen tanks have been placed sporadically along the route.

The team having a well-deserved beer at the Chiang Rai airport after “4 days of non stop caving, total 10 hours of sleep” (Photo: Facebook/ Ben Reymenants)

According to Polejaka, the journey from the entrance to where the kids are located — a journey that involves strong currents and near zero visibility — takes about four-five hours when moving against the current. (Ed: Thai Navy SEALS have estimated the trip to be closer to six.)

“[But] the way back will be a lot faster, because you go along with the current,” Polejaka said.

Finding the initial passage had been the toughest initial challenge, he said, explaining that several small openings had been explored before divers found the one leading to Pattaya Beach and beyond.

After swimming down one such passage for 4-5 minutes, Polejaka found himself reaching a dead end he described as “impossible to pass,” before being forced to retreat back.

As for teaching the children to dive, the professional diver and instructor is optimistic, explaining that that it usually takes someone in the outside world about 2-4 days to be certified, a timeframe that may be compressed.

Reymenants and Polejaka (Photo courtesy of Maksym Polejaka)

“This is not a big problem, for a proper (diver) to get certification they must dive 10-12 meters,” explaining that the relatively more shallow depth — “about 4-5 meters deep right now” — should make things a bit easier.

Polejaka estimated that a day’s training conducted by a SEAL team he described as “one of the best teams I’ve seen in my life” could be enough for the soccer team to learn the basics necessary for the journey.

Just how soon that journey begins is still uncertain. In a sign of increased urgency, Narongsak today said that medics and SEAL divers are assessing whether the boys are fit and well enough to be taken out early — apparently softening his instance yesterday that “no risk” will be taken with the evacuation.

Meanwhile, Thai authorities are working to put a fibre optic internet line into the cave so the boys can speak with their families. Additionally, local Thai media has reported that two Navy SEAL doctors and several other SEALs have volunteered to be trapped inside the cave with kids — up to four months if needed.

Additional reporting by AFP.

Photo courtesy of Maksym Polejaka

With Chiang Rai Governor — Photo courtesy of Maksym Polejaka

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