I’ve followed Sam Kirby’s and Saltfree’s project with great interest, and not just because it’s all girls all the time. As I’ve said before, I think a lot about the tiny footprint our sport has made on this vast planet, and what extraordinary results we’ve achieved even with the tiny platoon of divers we’ve managed to attract in various and random ways. But who knows what talents lay out there in the vast seas of humanity, untapped, and still oblivious to our little world of blue lips and deep dips ? Sam and Saltfree are, in my view, doing a revolutionary thing. They are executing the first systematic effort to explore the human shoals for new, heretofore unknown deposits of freediving potential.
The outcome of the Salt Free Mermaid project is still undecided, and it must be understood by anyone who decides to read beyond the end of this sentence that the siren song that follows is in no way a hint, clue, indicator, adumbrage, prediction, or wink-and-nod in respect of that decision.
Can you spot the Surfer among the Mermaids ?
Kirsty, whose monologue follows, is but one of the mermaids on the short list of potential victors. It is her voice that is sounded here because she offered it up, and because of all the candidate mermaids, Kirsty is the only one who had no diving background at all. She’s a surfer. Full disclosure: your Editor has a prejudice in favor of surfers, as he believes they are a close phylogenetic cousin of his own genus, the windsurfer. That aside, the observations of someone entirely new to the concept of intentionally submersing one’s body in water would seem to offer the greatest potential for an innocent, unbiased reflection of ourselves – how we look to the rest of the world.
And so, as the Gnomes of Salt Free continue their deliberations in the smoky back rooms of Mermaid Citadel, and the assembled multitudes await the puff of white smoke heralding the selection of Herself, Kirsty speaks:
If I felt mildly apprehensive attending the first stage of the mermaid challenge, I felt something nearing absolute horror looking down into the depths, through metal mesh fence, of the quarry in Chepstow at the outset of the second. Time underwater is by accident, not by design, and the demon crouching on the metal mesh fence crows everyone but you has been to depth before. I tell the little devil it really shouldn’t matter that I have never been scuba diving, have never been below two metres, have never worn a mask, have never popped my ears without sucking a sweet, have never tied a cherry stalk in a knot with my tongue. In the water I am coordinated, confident and majestically free …
Sam gives us a solid little prep, coordinates a synchronised stretch display, we breathe and then we’re off. In the middle of the great green Chepstow lake is a flat floating island, and off the edge of the flat floating island plop lemmings, paired in buddies and prepared to die (I mean dive).
Sam sees I’m already cold and nervous so makes me go first. Cool! No, really it is! It’s just being underwater. I pull down the rope to the five metre mark. I wave up to my buddy. I leave the doubt demon down there and I come up cooler and calmer. Then down goes my buddy and, oh look, wow, she does being underwater so stylishly! So I go again. Cool! No, I’m cold! The mask is strange. It feels like blinkers, and the water is ice. I’m going deeper I must blow my nose harder… but now the ice is in my blinkers, goddamn this can’t be right?
We put on fins and we continue. My buddy slips quietly out of sight. I splash and thrash, not even out of sight. My buddy surfaces to awed gasps “ah, elle est bien, non?” I surface to bemused questions “why do you ‘old your noze on zee way up?” (I learn I am not supposed to try to equalize on both journeys but having taken a hold I can’t let go and it becomes my diving default position both up and down). My buddy returns so serenely, not a bubble in sight. I return in a swarm of bubbles. The French diver who meets me stares at me so intensely (trying to spot me through the bubbles?) it makes me laugh. And its nice to surface laughing.
And so we go a little deeper still. But this mask still bothers me. Sam and my buddy kindly profer their masks and I am thinking about this as I fin for the bottom! Goggles are so much nicer, suggests my helpful demon. Ah yes, but you’ve forgotten about the air compression issue, says I, all knowledgeable now. But what about your party trick ability to blow snot into your right eye? Wouldn’t that half work? (He is a determined demon) “Roll up, roll up, the monocle goggled girl will now attempt 9 metres!” So engrossing are my thoughts that this time I forget to equalize. My ears are now screaming and squealing and cracking, so I take them back to the surface. Damn. But I did see the shiny plate. I saw the glowing goal.
I am just beginning to think I’ll never get far, when suddenly my day is revolutionised.
ALL HAIL THE MONOFIN! I love it. I love it more than I loved the long fins in the pool (and that was a lot)! I want to feel this forever. As I happily slink along horizontally smoothly, submerged not even a metre, I know this just feels right. Gone is the blinkered pit pony preparing to plod down, now I will dive with ease and elegance and joy…
And if my ears weren’t hurting I swear I could go really deep!
So an amazing day, that proved I’m not a diver … YET! And this is the point. For the love of the monofin I will find a mask that fits, for the love of the monofin I will learn to equalize, for the love of the monofin I will learn to ‘make like a duck’ with grace. I will remember to breath properly before going under. I will leave all my worries at home and try again with a light (and slow) heart. You see, I just have to use the monofin again…!