FIT for Freediving

It’s time once again, fellow freedivers, for me to share my tale of another learning experience.  This time I flew down to Ft. Lauderdale to participate in one of FIT’s Level II courses, run by Martin Stepanek and our very own Paul Kotik.  This was mainly to be a refresher course for me (since I’d been through PFI’s Intermediate AND Advanced courses), along with the chance to get in more depth training out in the blue- something that’s rather difficult to come by in Ohio.  I was,however, also curious to see how Martin’s new program would differ from what he’d been teaching with PFI.

DAY ONE: "New haircut!  Or, new color!"

     The first day of class found me taking the short drive down A1A from my hotel to Pro Dive, the instructional center where our classroom sessions were held.  Being my usual punctual self I was the first to arrive. Paul and Martin arrived shortly thereafter, and I was very happy that Martin remembered me from the PFI course in Miami last September.  He proved this by noticing my new haircut/color. Naturally brown, my hair is now a shade I like to call "Nuclear Blonde"; SO blonde that it’s obviously chemically altered. 

Martin heaved a large cardboard box onto his shoulder and the three of us headed to a classroom on Pro Dive’s upper level.  Having brought along my video camera, I shot a bit of candid footage while my classmates started arriving.  We were eight students, which made me happy since a smaller class means more individual attention – in contrast, my PFI Intermediate course in September had a whopping 20 students!  As usual, most of the students were native Floridian spearos, interested in increasing their depths and bottom times.  Three of us, however (myself, Bo, and his wife Maria) were Northeastern recreational freedivers, there to brush up on technique and have fun.  Bo and I were also the group "veterans", having taken courses with Martin before.  Also joining us was Genevieve, a Pro Dive instructor who was a previous FIT student.

The Basics, Then Off to Get Wet

     Class consisted of the usual basics, covering such subjects as safety and problem management.  Our venue for our aquatic drills was a pool complex over in Plantation, a short 20-minute drive away.  Out in the large, very impressive diving well, we ran through safety and rescue skills, then broke for lunch.  This was where I discovered and fell in love with the grocery chain Publix: NOWHERE in my area can you walk into a supermarket’s deli department and come out with a tray of beautifully prepared SUSHI! 

As we ate in a classroom of the complex’s main building, Martin covered the topics of equipment and breathing techniques.  I got a kick out of seeing just how attentive the students became as Martin unlocked the "secrets" of proper breathing and breathing-up for freediving.  Looking back on it in my first training, though, it DID seem like some of the deepest, most mystical secrets of the cosmos were finally being revealed.  After all, knowing how to get the most out of a breath hold pretty much IS key to our sport, isn’t it?  After class, we headed back out to the pool (into the shallower lap pool this time) to work on static apnea. 

DAY TWO: Water, Water, Everywhere

     Today started with no breakfast (as instructed), and right back in the pool for more static apnea.  I managed a final hold of 3:20 -not my best, but I wasn’t feeling the urge to go as LONG as I possibly could.  New students always want to do this, to see how long they really can go.  As someone who’s been working on statics for quite a while now, I decided not to push myself.  I wasn’t the only one, either.  Gen, who I’d buddied up with, passed on her last hold, too. She was rather thrown by the fact that she was quite aware of her heartbeat during her holds, something that she hadn’t experienced before.  I told her that at least it proved that she HAS one! 

Finally, we broke for lunch, and thanks to Publix (and my empty stomach) I ate WAY too much food, devouring a roast beef wrap sandwich, six deviled eggs, and carrot and raisin salad.  As usual, my eyes were bigger than my stomach, and this would come back to haunt me.  Back in the classroom, we covered physics and environment, then it was off to the marina for our first day out in the ocean.

Into the Blue

     We motored our way down the INtracoastal, having several near misses with kamikaze jet-skiers and a few yachts in the heavy aquatic traffic of this crowded Sunday.  We didn’t have to go very far offshore, only about 4 miles, to hit the Gulf Stream.  The water, which had been smooth as glass that morning, had roughened up a bit.  Martin and Paul assembled the rig in the water, and soon we were all jumping in off the boat, checking our weighting and then swimming to the rig. 

With our small group, the rig was built only to half its usual size, with two floats on each end of a long assemblage of PVC piping.  Right off the bat, a small section of screws and bolts grabbed the back of my competitive wetsuit, tearing a hole in the back of my left thigh.  I knew it was torn immediately, as I suddenly felt a cold spot on the back of my leg.  A bit later Martin noticed too, saying "Oh, man, you ripped your suit!".  Surprisingly, I didn’t mind. It was a small tear, which I could easily repair, and it would also have a story behind it.  Besides, Paul’s suit had SO many repaired tears in it that it looked like Frankenwetsuit.   Paul seems to have the remarkable ability to tear his wetsuit just by looking at it. [Editor’s Note: Keep this in mind. If looks could kill…] Mine, by contrast, was holding up VERY well.

The Ears Rebel

     We started our diving with a few free immersion pull-downs to help kick in the mammalian dive reflex that dwells within us all.  Then it was on to counting kick cycles.  This skill (along with kicking efficiently) had been a MAJOR problem for me during my first course with PFI, so I’d been practicing by swimming 800 yards in my long blades, once a week. As I swim my laps, I count kick cycles.  In the 25-yard pool it takes me about seven kick cycles of full, wide kicks to get to the center of the pool, so I knew I was looking at about seven kick cycles to get to 10m.  Spot on! Seven kick cycles, and I hit 10m/33ft. 

I’d also been training and practicing my entries and form once a week since September, and it paid off when both Paul AND Martin told me my entries and form were perfect.  That REALLY made me feel good: at least I was doing SOMETHING right! 

However, even with proper form (keeping my head in neutral position) my ears were being horrendously stubborn; I managed just over 12m/40ft.  In April, in Grand Cayman I’d reached 22m/72ft, so I was a bit disappointed in my performance.  This day I’d hoped to reach the weights at the bottom of the line, 20m/66ft down.  But there were still a few days left, and besides, this was NOT about depth, it was about technique.

Three Amigos

We moved into a few rescue scenarios, wherein I discovered that Martin is really a CINDER BLOCK in a wetsuit: all muscle and dense bone, the man is HEAVY.  I managed to get him over onto his back after dunking his airway into the water only ONCE.  Had he really been unconscious, he may have gotten a little water in his mouth, but not enough to drown him.  So it wasn’t all bad.  Once back on shore, we went back to Pro Dive and reviewed the day’s video footage.I had to admit (even though I wasn’t getting all that deep) I did look good!  Paul even used me as an example, pointing out my entry, my form, how I turned at the bottom, and how I ascended.  It made me feel a bit better about how the day’s diving had actually turned out.

DAY THREE: "Push Push Push Push PUSH!!"

   Today held another surprise: lung volume testing!  Before we headed out on the boat, we had a classroom session at Pro Dive, where Martin and Paul produced a spirometer, a handy little device designed to measure lung volume. We students each stepped up to perform a peak inhalation, pinch our noses, then bend over while exhaling forcefully into a tube on the little machine while Martin rapidly chanted "Push push push push push push push, there’s more in there, push push push, you can do it!" 

We each did this three times.  Apparently, there’s a skill to it, and I’m convinced I didn’t do it right!  Now, being a trained singer, I’ve always thought that I had pretty big lungs, based on the power and volume I can put behind my voice.  So I was shocked to find out that my lungs are not all that big- they’re average!  I was more surprised than disappointed, really, and Martin pointed out that Jacques Mayol had had even smaller lungs than I do .  All this time I thought I had such huge lungs, and it turns out that I just have a VERY powerful diaphragm! It just goes to show: it doesn’t really matter what SIZE your lungs are, it’s all in how you USE them.

DAY THREE: Fumbles Strikes Again!

    I suppose that heading requires a bit of a set-up, so here goes: On April 29, I was one of the safeties on Mandy-Rae Cruickshank’s World Record Constant Ballast dive to 88m.  I was in charge of timing, and manning the clutch release for the counter-balance system.  As timer I’d been entrusted with AIDA judge Grant Graves’s $80 Morpheus stopwatch.  Long story short: the dives were done, I dove down to 10m/33ft. to take a pic of safety scuba diver Luke, who was on a deco stop, and came up without the stopwatch. It was gone. It had slipped off my arm and plummeted into the abyss. Up to this point, my roomies in Cayman had all earned nicknames, but I hadn’t.  This incident earned me my nickname: Fumbles.

It was time to live up to my nickname on this trip.  The day before, Paul had given me a small, yellow dreidel-like doohickery on a ring- a computer, he said, to monitor my depths and times.  I’d attached it to my snorkel keeper, just about the only place I could figure to connect it.  This day I was the last to get into the water from the boat. I jumped in…..and, mysteriously, my snorkel was GONE.  How exactly this happened is still a mystery, as I know it was attached to my mask when I jumped in.  Frustrated, I took off my mask…and looked down just in time to see a small yellow missile on it’s way to the ocean floor.  With visions of the stopwatch running through my mind, I yelled "NO!!", and tried, in vain, to dive after it.  But with no mask on my face, and with the rapid rate at which it was sinking, it was a lost cause.

Dejected, I climbed back onto the boat and sat with my head in my hands.  I felt just terrible, as this was the second piece of expensive (to me, at least) equipment that I’d been entrusted with, and LOST.  What would I say to Paul?  It turns out it didn’t matter. Being the great guy that he is, Paul was more concerned about me than about some stupid little piece of yellow plastic.  He even tried to convince me that it really wasn’t a computer, he just TOLD people that as a motivator – nice try.

He helped ease me over the guilt I felt, but now I had to deal with a poor replacement for my lost RIFFE Standard J snorkel: a scuba snorkel that had been left onboard by a scuba diver.  Not suited for freediving snorkel placement, it pulled my Sphera out of line on my face, causing it to flood continuously.  Paul even tried to switch masks and snorkels with me, and when he had just as much trouble, we realized that perhaps my Sphera was wearing out, too.  So I climbed back aboard the boat and retrieved a virgin Samurai mask that my friend Harrison had given me for my birthday.  It worked very well, with no leaking, but now I was having to adjust to a mask that required a bit more effort to equalize than the Sphera.  This, coupled with my sticky ears, got me to final depths in the 11m/35ft. range this day.  Still not the 30m/100ft. I’d been hoping for.

DAY FOUR: Hope For the Future

     My video camera got a lot of use today, as it was the last day and I wanted to capture as many memories as possible.  The diving went smoothly, with the water calmer than the day before.  I also had a better snorkel, one of Martin’s, that he’d brought from home for me to use. 

My poor ears had decided they’d had all they were going to put up with, and my depths today topped out at 16m/51ft. During my deepest dive, though, I was struck with an odd sensation: I was COMFORTABLE.  I wasn’t even thinking about how deep I was, or how far up the surface was, or how long I’d been down.  I just felt GOOD.  At that moment, I realized that depth (or fear of it) was no longer an issue for me. Only my ears were holding me back, and I could continue to work on them by training with negative pressure dives.  I now felt a confidence in myself as a freediver that I’d not felt before, and I’d achieved it without even reaching a major depth.  That, I realized, is what was truly important.

Lunch, Review, and Goodbye…For Now

     We wrapped up the course by breaking for a final lunch (a few of us ate at Coconut’s, which is adjacent to ProDive), and then reviewed the video from this day’s dives.  Martin discussed a few more training tools for us to use to keep expanding our abilities. 

Then, it was time to say goodbye.  I always hate this part of courses, as I feel like I’m saying goodbye to good friends that I may not see for a while. However, as is par, we’re all welcome to come back and go out on the boat to dive on the rig anytime there’s a course.  And with Paul having extended hospitality to me, it will make it much easier for me to get back down there on my limited retail supervisor’s income.  So, for now, I’ll keep up with my pool training and cardio, push myself through my tolerance tables, dive the local quarries when I can, and keep looking forward to when I can get back down to Florida and dive with my friends again.

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