07/27/2013 03:10 EDT | Updated 09/26/2013 05:12 EDT

In fight to stay dry, divers rely on the indispensable 'shammy' towel

BARCELONA, Spain - Divers are creatures of the air they tumble and twist through, not of the water waiting below.

Or so it seems from the never-ending battle against moisture that divers wage with a tiny towel called a "shammy," which is used to pat, wipe, and even whip their bodies dry.

For divers, the shammy, or chamois, can be as critical an element as their skimpy bathing suits.

"It's a kind of instinct I suppose to get dry after you dive," British diver Rebecca Gallantree said. "To get dry and wait almost until your next dive to get wet again."

This week's world championships have brought 231 divers from 44 different countries, and each with their very own shammy.

Shammies are everywhere at the Montjuic Municipal pool overlooking Barcelona. When not vigorously rubbing muscular arms and legs, they are draped on shoulders and necks, or flung down from platforms and springboards moments before divers take the plunge.

"It forms part of you," Spain's Nicolas Garcia said. "It's like a musician with an instrument. Everyone has his or her shammy."

Divers use the shammy to keep from getting cold and tensing up between dives. Equally important, they need to avoid losing their grip during the actual dive itself.

In the "tuck" position, divers draw up their knees by grabbing their shins, entering a tight and dizzying spin before straightening in time to knife into the water.

"If you are wet when you are in a dive you can slip, and if you slip you lose control, and if you lose control you can really have a bad fall," Garcia said. "It's more about being safe than being comfortable. Some divers like to be completely dry, other a little damp, but it is an indispensable tool for diving."

A shammy isn't a normal towel. The original "aqua towels" were made from chamois, or mountain goat, leather. Now they are made from synthetic fibers and a have a spongy, plastic-like feel. With a good twist a shammy is almost dry, and when it is completely dry it turns hard. Shammies cost between $10-20 and there are even websites offering personalized ones.

Or, like Gallantree, you can just paint your own.

Gallantree showed off her shammy which she customized with the British flag on one side and the lion of the British Olympic team on the other.

"This is my favourite shammy. I have had it since before the London Olympics last year," she said. "I would be quite upset if I lost it."

Divers can grow attached to these little towels, like a baby does his blanket. Garcia owns an old one that he doesn't use anymore because "it's falling apart," but he can't bring himself to throw it away for what he called sentimental reasons.

Diving is about achieving perfection through routine, making complex and physically demanding contortions as automatic as placing one foot in front of the other.

And part of that routine is the obsessive use of the shammy, which divers are only separated from for those brief seconds when they plummet through the air into the blue waiting below to break their fall.

The only variation in this routine is where the divers toss their shammies just before making their dives. There are those, like Garcia, who prefer to throw them directly into the water so it doesn't get dirty and, Garcia said, "pick up fungus."

Then there is the other camp, represented by Gallantree, who throw their shammies on the edge of the pool.

Yet regardless of where the shammy falls, the most important thing is to never lose it.

"It's like you need it," said German Sascha Klein, the new world champion in the men's 10-meter synchronized platform along with partner Patrick Hausding.

Klein said that he lost his shammy during practice here just days before the competition was set to start.

"I was scared because I only have this one," he said. "I left it up on the board and realized I had lost it when I got back to the hotel. But I asked for it and they found it."

Some shammies look the same, but Klein said he was able to recognize his by touch.

"They all feel different," he said.