Freediving Reloaded

Hello. My name is Paul Kotik.  I’m a novice freediver, a beginner.

In fact, I’m still in the wannabe stage:  I haven’t actually tried any open-water freediving yet, but I hope to before the summer is over. 

Well, that’s not literally true, but it is virtually true ( hat tip to A., my patent attorney for suggesting the phrasing ) and it seems to me to provide a unique opportunity for Deeper Blue and its readers of all levels, from wannabe’s to world champions. 

Since we want our wonderful sport to grow and flourish, we must pay attention to the intake valve, the recruiting tent, the marketing department or whatever it is we should call the process of stimulating interest in, and easing the way of newcomers to our world.

The short, bittersweet history of windsurfing provides an abject lesson in the evils of neglecting the front door.  Let’s talk about that for a minute, agree on what the moral of  that sad story is, and then I’ll  relieve your bewilderment and tell you what the hell’s going on.

Invented in the mid-1970’s, windsurfing began to draw in serious sponsorship money about ten years after that, with gear manufacturers fiercely competing for the top sailors and publicized victories on a well-organized, media-backed Pro World Tour.  A little perspective – this was not football, but the top athletes were definitely earning over a million $US annually from sponsorship, endorsements, and all the other little things a working pro does to bring home the bacon. 

The media, in their turn, focused on the exotic competition venues, like Hawai’i, Aruba, the Canary Islands and so on.  As with strange foods, postmodern arts, and Jerry Lewis, windsurfing enjoyed the distinction of being  “much more popular in Europe” than Stateside. Top stars were mobbed by fans on the streets of European capitals, whereas their bodyguards got vacations when the tour passed through the USA, where they were and are unknown to the general public.

But windsurfing was definitely on a roll.

Thing is , nobody minded the front door. Manufacturers designed and built ever more esoteric gear for ever more extreme ocean and wind conditions, gear which was, of course, ever more difficult to sail ; of use, really, only to the best of the best. Speeds approached and passed the 50 knot mark, the waves were towering like Manhattan office buildings and the crowds cried out for more. Then somebody noticed that every year’s tour saw the same usual suspects making the same rounds: there weren’t any new people.

A visit to any local windsurfing beach would have confirmed this foreboding. It was plain, as each season went by, that the average age of the sailors had gone up by about a year. Hair was turning grey or falling out. The rusty Fiats and Chevy’s in the parking lot were being replaced byshiny new Mercedes and Buicks.

Not too many new people at all. No hotshot young guns nipping at our heels.

The problem was, you see, that a prospective newbie had to make a giant step, rather than a baby step, as a first step. Sailboards, sails, fins, booms, masts – everything had been transformed into hi-tech, competition-oriented and expert-level kit by the cutthroat competition of the World Tour. This stuff goes fast as hell, jumps to the skies and does wild tricks with ease, but it is extremely difficult to handle. It is as if a new driver had to start off with a Formula I ride in rush-hour London traffic. For you Alpine types, it is as if one’s first ski lesson were to consist of  a run down the big jump.

The barriers to entry, as the business people say, had been raised way, way too high. The result was predictable. Growth in participation dropped off as ‘recruitment’ dwindled. Gear sales and profits plunged, making it difficult for manufacturers to respond to the increasingly obvious problem with new beginner-friendly designs and a more welcoming face for the sport.

Now, my favorite Floridian windsurfing beach is populated of a gusty winter day by a handful of  greybeards like me, and  – perhaps more significantly from the standpoint of this discussion – by a younger generation of kite surfers. A new sport had been born, meeting a demand that the windsurfing tribe had simply failed to. Nature abhors a vacuum, and kite surfing, with reasonably priced kit that is easy to pack, store and transport ( not to mention loads and loads of thrills and fun) had filled one left by windsurfing’s neglecting to reproduce the species.

Now, what has all this got to do with a) freediving in general, and b) my patently ridiculous opening to this article ?

Well, in a sense, I am a raw beginner to freediving, even though in a previous incarnation I’d been at it for over 40 years !

The thing of it is, I took a year off, not only from freediving, but from the sporting life in general. I have, by careful application of advanced science, meticulous and comprehensive planning and extraordinary self-discipline on my part and that of my support crew, transformed myself from that lithe, golden specimen of power, speed and grace so well-known to the world, to what I am today.

Now, I am a typical middle –aged American male couch potato with a belly in the third trimester and an ass that requires a municipal permit before making public appearances. I think ‘pear-shaped’ is the au currant term of derision ? My heart pounds when I trundle up the  stairs, and I’m huffing and puffing at the top. I have not even set eyes on the ocean since April of 2004, and  cannot recall the last time I so much as dipped a toe in a pool.

Worse still : I am in that wonderful demographic that reads Deeper Blue sometimes while web surfing, and thinks to himself,  “That really looks cool. I’ve got to try that”. But then I get all realistic and click back over to  sofas.com and greedily eyeball the overstuffed Jennifer convertible, the leather one, and reckon it would do nicely for my marathon television and ice cream sessions.

The question ( and the fate of our sport over the next 10-20 years really, in all seriousness, depends on the answer to this) is whether I’ll somehow be motivated to actually do something about my interest in freediving, and whether any tentative first steps I take will be welcomed and supported by the freediving world as it exists right now.

Will I be picked, or left hanging on the tree ?  Greeted or scorned ?  Encouraged or shooed away ?

I’m a pretty typical mainstream American Baby Boomer kind of guy. There are a lot of us out there.  Tens of millions, actually.  Will I become a freediver ?

And while I’m at it, will I see the all-important cohort of young ‘uns, the youth novices in their teens and twenties that will nourish our sport down the road ? Freediving: The Next Generation ?

Now, here’s the cool spin on the whole thing: I’m really more like a secret agent, a spy, a Covert Undercover Underwater Operative (CUUO).  I shall position myself by the Entrance to Freediving World, and wait to see whether a Greeter approaches me and takes me on my way, but the truth is I’ve been there before.

My hope is that as I go through the process of becoming a freediver for the second time, I’ll be able to discover and report on things from novice’s point of view but through expert ( oh, and duly modest !) eyes.  I just know there are important things that experts presume are obvious to beginners, but which in fact are not. I’m equally certain that the converse is true: beginners think their problems and challenges are plainly apparent to their instructors, but in fact, they are not.  My year-long squat on the sidelines of life was not something I wanted, but I do see an opportunity here, lemonade-from-a-lemonwise.

So – what I’ve figured out so far as that  a) I really need to be in better physical shape for this freediving thing, and, b) I need proper instruction else my life will be in great danger from something they call Shallow Water Blackout.  

I’ll begin an exercise program after consultations with my doctor. True, I have unfettered access to the training models and cell phones of the world’s top freedivers, but the typical DB reader who has caught the bug and wants to give it a go does not, so in the interests of science I’ll not exploit this resource. No, this study of mine is going to try to replicate the career of a regular citizen who sees The Big Blue, read a little Freediver magazine in its heyday, reads Deeper Blue from time to time and decides to take it up.

I’ll soon take basic instruction, too, just as would most other would-be divers. By this time our years of public education and relentless pounding home of the point, coupled with the occasional drowning reports in media, have produced a general awareness of the need for proper basic training.

Here, I may pull a string or two, as the courses and other instructional products on offer these days cost a not–inconsiderable sum. I’m willing to ride with the assumption that once the newbie has decided to seek instruction, the financial Rubicon has been crossed and so I needn’t simulate the paying for it part.

Reminds me :I would gladly entertain offers from any teaching organizations or instructors in this matter. Do a good job with me, and I’ll duly report on it in these very pages.

Finally, having shaped up, gone to school and accumulated a goodly number of open water hours ( thankfully, I reside in South Florida, where the diving venues, local and in the near not-too-far are innumerable and diverse) I’ll try to develop a narrative that helps all of us understand our sport’s ecology and evolution better. What we’re doing well, what we’re doing wrong, and what the future looks like on the current trend lines.  All of this will culminate in the wannabe’s ultimate dream-come-true (…or is it ? Maybe this is an example of a veteran making assumptions about newbies which are simply off the mark): participation in a sanctioned competition.

I strongly suspect there will be more than a few startling observations in my reports, so stay tuned, and please, please be forthcoming with your suggestions and comments as the process unfolds.

It’s good to be back.

Paul’s Freediving Reloaded series will be reported from time to time in Deeper Blue over the course of the next year or so. Reader e-mails on the subject ( or any other) would be very, very welcome.

If you’d like to talk about this article why not join the discussion thread in the forums.