The Global War on Error

Okay, I’m done.

I’ve now sat through 79 hours of freediving video, shot at diverse global locations from Hawai’i to the Red Sea from early 1998 through the present.

The subjects were over 300 freedivers, from first-time newbies to world champions.

Every conceivable type of aquatic environment and activity were represented. Teaching, training, DPV’s, competition, recreating, spearfishing and some modalities I wouldn’t quite know how to characterize but which I suspect would be highly improper in certain cultures.

This examination took much, much more than 79 hours. I had this idea, see, that inside this eternity of raw material is a cinematic masterpiece, just as Michaelangelo’s David was formerly encased in a little excess marble that just had to be chipped away. I’m certain I’ve seen every bit of this footage at least thrice, the better part of it four times and the best parts of it dozens of times. I’ve seen it in real time, in fast forward, in slow motion, extremely slow motion, in reverse and in freeze frame. Shuttle, shuttle, shuttle.

So now I really have seen it all.

I’ve learned two things.

The first is that while there may indeed be a cinematic masterpeice embedded in this inventory of moving images and sound, it is exceedingly unlikely that I will be the one to extract and finish it. Scientists have estimated that the universal probability bound is 10 to the 150th power, representing the largest possible number of maximally microscopic events that can occur over the lifetime of the universe. My own back-of-the-envelope computation has shown me that’s not quite enough to include the set of events that comprise me making a movie out of this.

The second is that there are a handful of basic freediving errors that are, apparently, human universals. They are made everywhere and by everybody. The great freedivers, the few among us, are all people who have overcome the seemingly instinctive propensity to make these elementary mistakes. That’s not enough to become a great freediver, but it does seem to be neccesary.

We can spend a lot of time studying, practicing, coaching and training. Or, we can sit and watch video of freedivers hours a day, day after day, month after month, year after year. Well, I’ve done that now. I’d like to tell you what I saw and thereby save you the trouble.

I think the most common flaw I’ve seen – and this one is hard even for the elite to escape entirely – is forgetting to breathe.

It’s absolutely incredible. Whether it’s a newbie bobbing up after that first 20 meter dive, an intermediate finishing that first 100 meter dynamic, or a world-class competitor coming up from a long static, they forget to breathe ! One would think that after going to some bother to properly ventilate and then working through the apnea, breathing would be the first thing on a surfacing freediver’s mind. Doesn’t seem to be the case at all. It’s as if the typical diver’s program goes "Breathe up, purge, deep breath, dive. . . easy. . . surface, end-of-program." Like you’re all done when your airways come out of the water.

Say, maybe the quick-and-easy movie to make is The Big Blackout, a Collection of Consequences of not breathing right following an apnea dive. Some people seem to be trying to look cool. Others seem distracted, but mostly they just look as though they think the job is over when lips feel air. If I could fix one thing only in this freediving universe, it would be to make an air pig out of everyone.

Ladies and gentlemen: the end point of a freedive of any type is not returning to the atmosphere. The end point of a freedive is full, uneventful recovery of resting gas balance in the body. The dive ain’t over until you’ve reached that state. Yes, there is some nuance. Different types of diving call for different types of recovery breathing, at the margins of extreme performance, but the main thing is to breathe with vigor and discipline.

The second, very nearly universal error type is forgetting how thick and dense water is, and how much energy and oxygen are needlessly expended when unnecessary drag is generated by bad form. It’s really amazing, the shapes people put themselves in.

I think the most common streamlining bogeyman is the arched back during descents. I guess human beings have a hard-wired need to see where it is they are going to. At any rate, the typical Terran freediver heads for the bottom face-first, which in most cases necessitates arching the back. The resulting form as about as hydrodynamically efficient as a rapper’s jeans. Why not just tie balloons to your ankles ?

Granted, there is often some value in knowing what lies ahead. Spearfishers and safety freedivers, for example, are all about the scene. However, one sees that experienced, proficient freedivers are always minimizing drag even when visual contact with prey or person is the job: copping a few meters of movement streamlined here, using body rotation to cover the visual field there, distorting when neccesary but not for long. The proficient diver’s default form is streamlined, the student’s is not. When diving the rope with no hard bottom, there is simply no excuse for locking the body in that face-down position. Except that it’s natural and normal and instinctive. Overcome it with your humanity, and feel the difference !

The optimum hydrodynamic form is, of course, a very large subject in and of itself. Simply put, it is that shape which minimizes the frontal cross-section while maximizing longitudinal fluid flow. A very good approximation of optimal freediving form can be seen here. However, if I could fix one thing about the way freedivers move up and down the water column, it would be by getting them to keep their chins closer to their breastbones, in the same position as when walking straight ahead on level ground.

Having achieved that, my second priority would be getting you to straighten your arms. Yes, by all means, lead with your fingertips – but not, as so many divers do, by half-heartedly extending them overhead with elbows bent, bent, bent. I think this is what came closest to having me put my shoe through the monitor screen during my hours of The Big View. The Bent Elbow Syndrome. If you’re going to pierce the fluid medium with leading fingertips, all the better, but please ! Follow them with locked-straight arms. Look at this again.

That’s it. Streamline when moving through the water, and for Heaven’s sakes breathe when you’re done ! All the rest is just stamp collecting.