Don’t get me wrong. I’m gratified – overwhelmed, really – by the worldwide growth in the popularity of skin diving. Freediving, they call it now, although my accountant assures me it is anything but free. This is a great, great thing, an unexpected and blessed turn of events. Thank you, Luc Besson. Thank you, Jacques, Enzo, Umberto, Pipin….thank you all. You built it, and they came.
But to what ? It is dawning on me that for an awful lot of our new friends and colleagues, freediving is the esoteric Zen practice of swimming up and down a rope, augmented by the sublime meditation of the static apneist floating face down in the swimming pool. For variety and chuckles, it’s swimming laps in said pool, underwater, to be sure.
This is all great stuff, but I’m going to invoke my hard-earned privileges as a bona fide Geezer and speak to you of the Olden Days, when …..
I think it would have been about 1965. My folks had shares in a property out on the East End of St. John’s, United States Virgin Islands. (Take a deep breath….)You couldn’t get there overland, so we’d either buy good provisions in Charlotte Amalie, on St. Thomas, and take a big boat on a long ride to the house, or, go by car to the end of the road in the dusty, narcoleptic village of Coral Bay, on St. John, stock up on Army surplus frozen T-bone steaks and condiments and take a small boat on a short ride to the house. (Okay, breathe)
Most of St. John was, and is, a National Park on land forked over by Rockefellers so the common man would have a nice semi-tropical island to play on, and just 1,300 miles from Brooklyn. The East End had a few private properties, and the house, such as it was, sat on one of them. It was a primitive, plywood affair, with a cistern collecting the occasional rainwater for drinking, washing and so on. Wild goats roamed the area, which had a microclimate reminiscient of Arizona. Dry, and full of sharp things that would cut you good. It was on the water, a bay called Hurricane Hole. It had electricity, no phone, and a Boston Whaler. No radio. No TV.
Life was fantastic there.There was only one thing to do: take the boat, pick a spot and skin dive, okay, freedive it. Spearing dinner was taken for granted – the penalty for failure in the hunt was an aforementioned Army surplus frozen T-Bone steak from Mr. Arnett Marsh’s shop in Coral Bay, so one was highly motivated.
It was then an essentially uninhabited area. The US Navy operated an underwater habitat a few miles away, and we had fantastic neighbors, a retired California developer and his wife, who had chucked it all to pioneer this last frontier. When I got to know the Bocks, they’d been living out there for some years, building a house themselves, by hand, locked in an unending embrace with the horrors and delights of that harsh environment.
Manet Bock was, if anyone was, my angel of enlightenment where freediving and the ocean are concerned. She was middle-aged, done to a leathery turn the way only the blonde and blue-eyed can be after years of exposure, and the most extraordinary oceanwoman I’ve ever known. Her husband, DeSoto, worked the homestead. Manet went into the water.
She was incredible. I’d already done a bit of blue-water freediving by that time, but I’d never seen anybody, male or female, young or old, tourist or local who was at home in the ocean as was Manet Bock. She dove alone, day after day, month after month, year after year. She hunted, she gathered, she roamed a Caribbean preserve that was, in effect, her own. She crossed the channel and dove Norman Island, where Blackbeard’s treasure is thought to be hidden, and where Robert Louis Stevenson fictioned his Treasure Island . She casually told me and my brother how to set foot on uninhabited Le Duc island, which involved anchoring the Whaler outside the impenetrable reef, diving through a crevice about 40 feet underwater and surfacing inside, in the lagoon. One cannot begin to imagine how she’d discovered that crevice.
She was utterly fearless. I had my first shark encounter there, spearfishing with kill on my belt. I was terrified. She hadn’t really paid much mind to the shark, as it turned out.
Nobody had a depth gauge, of course. I don’t think anybody had a waterproof wristwatch. One measured depths from the boat, with the anchor line, at least where there was a bottom.
One day Manet let us know that there was the wreck of a very old Spanish ship not more than half a mile from the house, to the west, in about 50 feet. My kid brother and I took the Whaler out the very next day, and spent that day and the next several searching the intricate bottom features. We knew absolutely nothing about freediving except how to do it all day. Nobody could stay down as long as Manet Bock, not by a long shot, but niether did anyone black out. Unheard of. Then, one magic day, we found it.
It was a piece of a bottle, a glass bottle. Thick, dark glass. The bottom part of a bottle, intact all around. It had a piece of coral growing on it. We rushed it back to the house, where the adults excitedly identified it as a hand-blown wine bottle – it had that concave bottom the French call "the mount of despair", and was not perfectly round. It had been down there for quite some time, indeed.
We were back the next morning, of course, by dead reckoning . GPS was not even a twinkle in its mommy’s eye back then, you just drove the boat the same way as you did before and hoped to end up in about the same spot. We didn’t, of course, but serendipity was our friend that day and we found more artifacts, and what seemed to be an encrusted structural feature of a ship. Hard to say, we were not experts, just a couple of high school kids. We dived it all day. It was a different era, and so I will tell you that we didn’t know we ought not take coral, and so we did that, too. One of the brain corals taken that day, like the bottle fragment, stayed with me for decades until they were lost moving house somewhere. I heard somebody had researched the ship and identified it, sunk, I think, in the 1700’s.
That, my friends, was freediving. I cannot imagine any sane urban adult of today allowing her teenage children to take a 14-foot boat across miles of untrafficked water, dive pristine reefs known only to a handful of human beings, hours from any possibility of help,medical or other, all on the strength of lore imparted by the exotic and possibly eccentric neighbor lady.
I haven’t been back to the East End since 1975, and by then I was able to pull right up to the house, albeit with nerves a bit shattered after a hair-raising drive of several hours in a rented Jeep. The young caretaker couple had a telephone. The Bocks were still there, and a number of other houses had sprung up out on the point overlooking the Sir Francis Drake Channel. I tried to find the wreck, although I knew it was a fool’s errand given the scores of hurricanes and storms that had rearranged the bay in the intervening years. I did notice a marked deterioration, even then, in the reefs and marine life. When I mentioned this to my companion, she rolled her eyes and said I was suffering from Good Old Days syndrome.
I heard the Bocks picked up and moved to Kauai at some point when things got to crowded, life on the frontier got too hard, or both. They must be in their 80’s by now. I wonder if Manet still dives in those Hawai’ian waters, which would seem rather stark to her after Coral Bay of those old days. She may be, but of one thing I am certain: she’s not spending her time swimming up and down a rope.