“Aquanaut – a life beneath the surface” by Rick Stanton (with Karen Dealy)Published by Michael Joseph (2021)
HB 448 pages. Size 156 x 240 mm ISBN 978-0-2414-2126-0 £20
“What could possibly go wrong?”
These are the opening words from Rick Stanton’s book about how a “pensioner” (Rick) and a “computer geek” (John Volanthen) became embroiled in the rescue of a youth football team and their coach from Tham Luang Cave in Thailand during 2018. The same question crops up throughout the text as we are treated to a candid account of the life and times of one of the world's most accomplished cave-divers (despite the fact that a doctor described him as “temperamentally unsuited” for such an activity).
I have been privileged to have known the subject of the book for over 30 years and when we first met in 1990, he was called “Richard.” I have documented some of our antics in my own memoir and I am touched by the affection shown to me in the main body of the text despite a libellous remark buried in the endnotes which put my nose out joint - I guess that it is Rick’s revenge for all those years of mickey-taking about the size of his own olfactory apparatus. I also consider Karen Dealy (Rick’s co-author) a good friend and am embarrassed that I was sent a copy of Aquanaut
before she was able to see it. It’s impossible to be uncharitable about this publication given my connection with its writers.Aquanaut
is framed around the story of the successful extraction of 13 boys and young men trapped by underground by floodwaters. These events are spiced up by a lot of additional detail. For example, whilst the Australian contingent of Craig Challen and Richard Harris had secured diplomatic immunity should the situation in Thailand turn nasty, British officials simply planned to spirit their contingent off to the embassy in the back of a van for “extraction” later. “Very James Bond!” according to Rick with typical dry humour.
However, no-one should be defined by just one action: Rick has been fortunate to have done so much that his biography would have made fascinating reading before the Thai rescue occurred. Cave exploration has always been Rick’s vocation as becomes quickly apparent from the description of his lifestyle. His discoveries in the UK and abroad are documented in addition to the numerous cave diving related rescues and recoveries that he and his friends have undertaken. This book is long overdue and number of words (125,000) barely do him justice. (For those too lazy to read it, Aquanaut
is being released as an audiobook narrated principally by actor Don Gilét. From personal experience, I can thoroughly recommend listening to Rick’s stories to occupy long car journeys).
It is difficult to find serious fault with the story telling - despite being familiar with the plot, I found it hard to put down. There are few pictures and illustrations: by his own admission Rick is not a person to take photos and couldn’t be bothered with organising permissions to use those of others. The schematic cave maps reflect his economy of effort in providing enough information for the reader (but not plenty) and the text is scattered with citations contained in chapter-specific endnotes. The latter add to the narrative, although I found myself frequently turning to the back of the book to read them immediately rather than refer to them later.
It is tempting to draw comparisons with John Volanthen’s book (Thirteen Lessons that Saved Thirteen Lives
) which came out shortly before Aquanaut – I understand that the release dates for both books were brought forward due to competition between the respective publishers. Thirteen Lives
illustrates the thought processes required to plan and execute the rescue whereas Aquanaut reaches the same conclusion by a different route. Both books have a glossary to help the reader, but Aquanaut
lacks an index which would have been useful for anyone wanting to employ it as a reference to specific caves explored by Rick (or quickly finding out what he has to say about them) – you’ll just have to read the whole thing.
One thing that struck me most about Aquanaut
was the amount of emotion conveyed by the authors. It really is a rollercoaster of feelings ranging from the elation of discovery, sadness from the loss of a friend, to the stark realisation that one has become a victim to one’s own success. Several themes run throughout the book which unite in the cave divers’ bold attempt to save the Wild Boar football team using every bit of ingenuity and determination that they could muster.
Join Rick on his adventures...
What could possibly go wrong?