One Step Beyond: Jumping Off a Cliff Mixes Thrills, Chills : Diving: Risking death, paralysis and other serious injuries, divers take plunge just for the rush of it.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a construction worker, Jerry Barton of North Park often found himself perched precariously in high places . . . and he couldn't stand it.

Barton suffered from acrophobia, the fear of heights.

But instead of quitting his job, Barton, 24, looked to conquer his fear.

He went cliff diving.

Today, Barton says, no height is too high.

"Now I can go up real high and get right to the edge, no problem," he said. "Cliff diving really helped me with my phobia."

Sound crazy?

Perhaps, but Barton's case seemed one of the more utilitarian ones from the 30 or so who were jumping on a recent Sunday afternoon off an area known as The Arch along Sunset Cliffs Boulevard.

"I'll tell you what it is. It's a sense of freedom," said Jeff Hoover, 21, of San Diego. "Once you're gone, nobody can stop you. For that two or three seconds, you're totally free."

Said Jim Houllahan, 20, of Ocean Beach: "Just the thrill. It's a rush. Feels like you're falling forever."

And Michael Kelly, a 28-year-old high school English teacher from Chicago, offered this rationale: "You ought to try teaching in Chicago. This is nothing."

While cliff diving in San Diego County may not be as popular as in places such as Acapulco, it certainly exists here.

So, too, do the consequences.

Divers risk death, paralysis and other serious injuries. And should the they make it through their plunges physically unscathed, the thrill-seekers also face citations and fines in certain areas.

Basically, anywhere there is high terrain with sufficient water below, somebody probably has jumped. But it's not legal to do so in some places, including The Clam in La Jolla and Box Canyon in Carlsbad, which feature ledges from 20 to 100 feet high.

"At The Clam or Dead Man's (Point), there are signs posted," said Wayne Auer, supervisor for San Diego lifeguards. "It's an illegal situation, and we certainly don't condone doing it. It's something on face value that doesn't appear to be a serious offense, and that makes it more difficult when we try to enforce the laws. It creates too much of a potential liability situation for the city."

Auer added, "It's the No. 1 problem I have to deal with. I wish it would all go away."

Ed Boyd, 17, of San Carlos, said he and a friend were cited a few months ago in La Jolla. But when Boyd appeared in court, he said, he found that for some reason, the paperwork had not been filed. And his friend got off by telling the judge it was his first time and that he was unaware of the ordinance.

Boyd, a spectacular diver despite no formal training in the sport, was at The Arch recently performing a number of pikes, tucks and layouts off the cliffs, which range in height from 20 to 60 feet.

"The first time I do something new, it's scary," he said. "But after you do it once, it's easy."

Boyd said he has never been injured, but he has seen plenty who have been.

Mostly, he said, the people who get injured are those who jump while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or push themselves beyond their capabilities.

George Bull, 17, of Escondido, has a long scar on the underside of his left arm because he miscalculated a 100-foot attempt at Box Canyon. He nevertheless continues diving. He and a group of friends got together for a few jumps last Wednesday at the canyon.

"It's better than a roller coaster," said Escondido's Christy Tracy, 15. "Your heart feels like you left it behind."

Tracy added that her father, Dick Tracy, used to come to Box Canyon when he was a kid. "When I found that out, I asked him, 'Dad, why didn't you ever tell me about this place?' He said, 'Because I didn't want you to come.' "

Safety at nearly all ocean areas such as The Arch or The Clam depends greatly on the level of the tide.

Unless you're Henri La Mothe, diving into anything less than a high tide can be extremely hazardous.

As for La Mothe, well, he set a world record for diving 28 feet into 12 3/8 inches of water in 1979. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, La Mothe struck the water chest first at a speed of 28.4 m.p.h.

He was 75 at the time.

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