We in the freediving community all need a bit of cheering up in dreary January, and especially this year amidst the fierce debate, discussion, back stabbing and moaning about judging, ranking and the samba rule.
Step forward Aafke Verkade, a Dutch Freediver who freely admits she would rather play with a manatee or dolphin for half an hour than beat every world record in the books.
The year 2003 saw the first ever Recreational Freedive Meet held in Beverwijk, Netherlands and a couple of friends who did not even get in the water came back raving about what fun it was, how much they learned just from watching and what amazing people they had met.
When the opportunity arose to get involved this time around, I jumped at it. Deepest Bear heard that there would be an all-you-can-eat pancake buffet in the evening and insisted on coming along too!
Late last year, Aafke and her fellow organiser, the mermaid-obsessed Arnoud invited the Bear and I to run a workshop at the 2004 meet for beginner freedivers.
At first I was a little concerned. The meet seemed mainly to focus on play and having a laugh. From my perspective freediving, and all my training, has been about how to win competitions. What would I teach them?
Aafke pointed out that of course any breath-hold ability is going to make apnea activities more enjoyable and had no objection to me teaching a little static apnea – as long as we played some games afterwards !
Totally on the ball, having sorted me out with a flight, somewhere to stay, transport and everything I needed to run the workshop, Aafke arrived at the pool early in the morning with a rented van that emptied out into Hamleys Toy Store. We were going to have no trouble keeping our divers amused!
Amanda Williams kindly offered to help with the workshop and around 10 total newbie freedivers had signed up. Aafke also provided a translator in the form of the super- keen Kars. I should have known he would be good when he mailed me a few days before asking for any strange words I might use. The only word he didn’t understand was "intercostal muscles", but a little pointing soon sorted that out.
We had a warm, shallow children’s pool for an hour and our buddied-up beginners each had a good bash at static. In the interest of this being a Recreational Meet, I managed to refrain from even asking how far they had got! To be sure, none of them quite caught up with Deepest Bear, who was showing off, doing a one-hour static in the corner.
What next? We still had half an hour. Would we chase Aafke’s school of wind up tropical fish around the pool? Have a swim like a dolphin competition? An egg and spoon race?
In a shallow pool with 10 people all these sounded a little chaotic.
The answer was in yet another of Aafke’s boxes – underwater Scrabble! Each diver was given a handful of letters which, I was reassured, spelt an easy word in Dutch. One buddy stayed on top while the other tried to assemble the word on one breath.Infuriating for the surface buddy who saw the word almost instantly, and this was a good lesson in how slow our brains can get in a even a short apnea! Very soon however, the words had all been solved and the group was getting going with more of an open-plan full game of Scrabble that took over the whole pool.
A short debriefing reminded the participants never to train alone and let them know where they could get some more training, and then off we went to discover the rest of Aafke’s delights.
Aafke’s selection criteria had been broad: anything relating to enjoying freediving or playing in water was invited along. The stands around the pool had every aqua toy invented – torpedos, frisbees, sharks, fish, battleships and underwater skittle, swimming suits, handmade and designed to be tough enough for high board divers, a wide array of freedive books, some to browse, some to buy and the biggest heap of monofins I have ever seen.
In the main hall, each lane and section of the 50m pool was filled with the most bizarre, passionate and talented people in a world of simple aquatic fun. An incredible display by Kimberley and MelanieWhittington of Synchronised Swimming made it quite clear how the much-maligned synchro made Mandy-Rae Cruickshank into the world-beater she is today. The control required to spin upside down with one leg in the water whilst holding your breath is, apparently, only learned by starting at age 7 and training every day from there on. Their workshop was popular and I’m sure I spotted Kars the translator making an underwater Arabesque.
High Board divers were also invited along. A 12-year-old girl showed us her repertoire of moves while, in an inspired decision by Aafke, a random Dutch guy attempted to mirror each one of them from the lowerboard next door. His attempts were valiant but by the back flip he had to resort to just seeing how much of a splash he could make to get the applause.
Amanda and Joey then decided to take the (hard work !) monofin technique clinic, while I opted for the more playful options.
Lane 3 was lined with mirrors – what a chance to take a look at my monofin technique on my own! Finning along looking down into your own eyes was a little distracting at first but never before have I been quite so aware of what my body was doing while I finned along. Unfortunately, the mirror was a little bendy with some of a circus mirror effect… either that or I really do need to lose some weight post- Christmas!
As I swam along, I looked over to my left and saw a man swimming along with mono and pectoral fins. Jan Ploeg spends every spare moment with Funghi and Dusty the dolphins and working out how to swim more like they do. A wood carver by trade, Jan has used his considerable ability to create the Waterwing, a boomerang-style structure that the monofinner uses with his/her arms to emulate the movement of pectoral fins. I had a go and found it quite hard and heavy to control, but watching Jan and his wife fin along with it, using the Waterwing to add power and steerage, it is clearly worth persisting with.
Jan had brought along a wide range of Waterwings to try and even a strap-on, beautifully-carved, wooden dorsal fin for the full effect. Visit Jan’s website www.janploeg.nl to find out more.
From the pool it was time for the Pancake Ship, an all-you-can-eat buffet that had to be replenished every few seconds as all the hungrymerfolk dug in. After a full day of play and aquaholic shenanigans, it was hardly the wildest night on the town, though. Around 8 PM I was almost asleep in my pancakes, but the welcome could not have been warmer, despite the language gap.
Apologies to everyone if Deepest Bear and I were antisocial in retiring early!
Sadly, I missed the Underwater Dancing Display by Igor Liberti and did not get the chance to see Aafke’s renowned porpoise/manatee play impressions. However, I will definitely be going back next year for another go. Sometimes life is too serious, freediving is too competitive and everyone gets tired of seeing how long they can hold their breath for. When that time comes for you, it’s time for a touch of Aafke’s magic. For details on upcoming events you can contact Aafke through her website, www.freemerfolk.nl. Aafke, thanks for inviting us and see you next time!