Friday, September 18, 2020

Freediving Reloaded: Getting My Feet Wet

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All righty. I’ve screened the director’s cut of The Big Blue ( seemed strangely familiar…) and read back issues, so to speak, of Deeper Blue. I found an old copy of the American weekly Sports Illustrated detailing the dark side, the existential risks inherent in freediving, gazed longingly at the photos in Jacques Mayol’s fantastic coffee table book, read Pipin’s, and seen an IMAX spectacular titled Ocean Men.  A friend of mine showed me the hilarious and instructive DVD memorializing his participation in a freediving course given by  a Canadian guy with the unlikely name of Kirk Krack.

My mind was made up: I want to be a freediver, too.  But can I ?  Seems like it ought to be possible. The people in the Krack clinic video were not all supermen, some seemed like regular people, happy couch potatoes like me. Still, there is this lingering suspicion (fear ? ) that they all know something I don’t.  Could it really be as easy as they made it seem in the viddies ?

I know from my internet research that I’m supposed to get proper training and have a buddy before I try anything, even in a shallow pool, because otherwise I might die. To be perfectly candid,  that seemed a little overblown. Probably they say that to sell diving lessons and books and stuff. I mean, where’s the rocket science ? If I feel like I can’t hold my breath much longer, I just rocket up topside and take a nice deep breath, for Heaven’s sake. I’m a graduate of one of America’s finest universities – in fact, two of them, if you don’t mind – and I think I know which way is up.

At night, my sleep was troubled by strange dreams. In one, I’m actually in the water, freediving ! It feels great. Comfortable, fluid, joyous. . .  free. Just as I imagined it would be.  I’m in perfectly clear water, an idealized ocean by an island whose shores drop steeply into an abyss so deep it is black. I’m with a woman, who I seem to know well, and two men whose way of speaking is very strange. Only in a dream – it sounds like English, and I feel like I ought to understand it, but mostly cannot. I have the sense that I am there to help the woman teach these men about freediving. Then, all of a sudden, I am in an office somewhere else entirely, reading an e-mail telling me that one of these guys has drowned, freediving, on the other side of the world. I awake shaking, in a cold sweat.

Just a dream.

Still, I’ll take it as a not-so-gentle reminder that with all these experts insisting that there are mortal  dangers inherent in separating one’s self from the earth’s supply of air, I’ve tacitly decided that they may be doing more than just self-promotion as instructors. They may be right.  I’m going to proceed with caution.

I’ve practiced holding my breath a little bit, done a few sessions of this in my bed. A few nights ago I got as far as one minute and fifty seconds (1:50) before cracking. My respect and admiration for freedivers really grew as a result of this – I mean, doing that 1:50 breath hold got really painful toward the end, with my heart pounding and all; it was like doing the 100 meter sprint back in school with Betsy Goodall watching and my Saturday night date at stake.  Imagine the pain these divers doing 4, 5, 6, and even 7 minutes must have trained themselves to withstand.  Incredible.

This led me to understand pretty quickly that I’d better whip myself into tip-top physical fitness, and before doing that, follow the advice on the back of my breakfast cereal box to  “…consult with your physician before beginning any exercise program”.

The doctor looked me over and pronounced me a fairly typical 54-year-old American male, with a few idiosyncracies that have no bearing known to him on my exercise and diving ambitions.   My resting heart rate is 84, my hemoglobin is 8.8, and my hematocrit 28.6%. Those last two numbers are way low, and reflect serious anemia  – my blood can’t store or transport very much oxygen at all. However, we know why this is and know it is temporary and self-correcting, more or less, so I’ve got the green light.

My doctor, an occasional golfer, recommended going to  a gym and using a treadmill to increase cardiovascular fitness and lose a little weight in the process. I’m now at 192 lbs./ 82.3 kg, and wear the American middle –class Badge of Honor around my waist: a modest layer of blubber known affectionately as a “spare tire” by some. Others chuckle and ask whether it’s a boy or a girl, and when I’m expecting the stork.

In other words, I’m a mainstream, thoroughly regular dude looking for some adventure beyond the confines of the Sawgrass Mills Outlet Mall. Just like anybody else contemplating the morph from Deeper Blue reader to in-the-water freediver.

In the gym, on the treadmill, I get a cruel workout by covering an indicated distance of 1.6 miles /2.6 km in 18 minutes, 55 seconds (18:55) walking and jogging as best I can. On a buddy’s advice, I wear a heart rate meter and make sure my heart rate won’t exceed 160 beats per minute – so there’s a good bit of walking in the mix to give the old ticker a chance to slow down. I sweat like a pig, totally out of breath at the end. That has got to pay off !

Another guy had told me that it would be important to strengthen all the muscles in the body, although what some of them have to do with diving is beyond me.

Maybe I’ll find out later, after more research, or when I take my official freediving course at some point.

At any rate, what do I know ? I’m new to all this, so I take this guy’s advice and make the rounds of all those exercise machines and weights and things. I’m not into taking notes, like a lot of the people I see in there, but I do remember that when I first got to the high bar, I was maxed out at 6 military-style ( palms-forward) pull-ups.

After  a couple of weeks of this, every other day, I noticed there was some improvement. My breath –hold max, for one thing, was doing better: I got to 2:22 one  night  although it was really, really hurting. My resting heart rate declined to a reliable 75 beats per minute,  and from my relentless reading on the Web I’m thinking this is good news since a low heart rate is apparently desirable for freediving.

A little confusing, since the treadmill instructions encourage me to get my heart rate up, and my self-taught General Theory of Freediving tells me I want to get it down. This must be another thing that’ll get straightened out when I finally take that course.

I’ve bought some gear: a low-volume mask, a rubber weight belt, a snorkel, and a mono fin. All used, all really cheap. I decided to check it out in the water. Luckily, the gym I joined is open 24/7 , and has a great 25m length pool. I headed in there last week, late at night so I would be alone and not get pressured by having people watching me fumble around at the bottom of the learning curve.

I got the mask and the snorkel squared away pretty quickly – definitely not rocket science, although I wish the mask would stay clear instead of getting all fogged up after just a few minutes of swimming with it. It was a great feeling, floating in the big blue pool like that,  breathing through the snorkel. I had the feeling I was definitely arriving at the entrance to the new world I’d been reading about, thinking about, dreaming about – freediving !

The mono fin was something else. I chose it after doing some reading on the internet and noticing that most of the pictures of the freedivers showed them wearing mono fins. I’d used regular fins before – like who hasn’t been on holiday somewhere and rented this stuff at the beach stand ? But it seemed pretty clear from the internet that nowadays the mono fin is the way to go. The one I ended up buying didn’t look much like the ones in the web pictures, and also it’s made of  a very hard, stiff material that has edges sharp enough to cut you. It’s made by Finis and was described in the website listing as a “trainer model”.  I guessed that’s about right for me – I’m just training, after all, not actually diving.

Well, it turns out it isn’t as easy as it looks in the videos.  The big moment came. I managed to force my feet into the thing, put on my mask, took a huge breath and set out to swim down the pool lane, underwater, with my mono fin. It was an incredibly exciting moment ! The adrenaline was really pumping. This was, like, a giant step, and it was really happening.

Thing is, I noticed I was coming to a dead stop after every stroke I made with the big fin. That didn’t seem right, not at all like the people I’d seen in the videos who glide along with hardly any effort. I guess I got maybe a quarter of the way across the pool and had to come up for air. I was pretty much totally  out of breath, but totally wired. I’d done it ! It wasn’t much, but it was real, actual freediving.

While I was catching my breath, I noticed I wasn’t any longer alone in the huge pool atrium. There was a woman standing by the edge of the pool, in street clothes, carrying a big gear bag with a shoulder strap. I sort of wriggled and hopped in the chest-deep water back to the head of the lane to have another go at it, but when I got there, so had this woman.

           “Hi “ she said. “ Nice monofin.”

           “Thanks”, said I. “It’s for freediving.” I added, maybe a little smugly.

           “Yessss….” she frowned. “ Been at it long ?”

           “Not really, just getting started,” I replied. I figured she must be pretty impressed a beginner could get almost a quarter of the way across the pool on one breath of air. “ Doing a little workout.”

           “Cool”, she said. “ It’s a great sport. I’ve done a little myself.” She put her gear bag down, and then I noticed she had a mono fin, too. Only hers looked just like the ones in the videos.

           “Hey”, she said. “ Could I make a suggestion ?”

           Lucky me, I thought. Already earned my spot in the local freediving circle. Trading inside tips. Way to go, boy !

           She turned her head and fixed me with a very serious eye-to-eye. I noticed then that she was a grownup, about of my generation. Her eyes drilled into mine.

            “My suggestion is that you never, ever do what you just did ever again. My suggestion is that if you keep coming in here late at night, by yourself, and doing what I just saw you do, my suggestion is that one night you’ll drown in this swimming pool”, is what she said to me then and there.

          I chuckled. “ Right, or the Great White that hangs around the main drain will get me. Coming in ?” I asked.

           She did not chuckle, or smile. She looked really, genuinely sad and concerned.  For me ? What the heck ?

           “No, not just yet.” she finally replied.  “ I’m waiting for my buddy. Apnea swimming is something that should never be done alone. Never.”

           “I’m here!” I chirped. “ Come on in !”

           The woman moved away and sat on a bench, leaning her back against the tile wall. She eyed me levelly, though not without an apparent and sincere sympathy.

           “Thanks, I think I’ll wait for my buddy. We’ve trained a lot together, we both know the routine. You know how it is.”  She leaned forward. “ Listen, as it happens, my buddy’s a cop, so you can never tell if she’s going to be able to show up on time. While I’m waiting, why don’t you hop out, towel off and have a seat here. I want to have a talk with you.”

           And have a talk we did. And by the time Officer Judy rolled in, about an hour late, I had undergone a major attitude adjustment about freediving and my approach to it.

            It turned out that this woman was a well-trained, competent freediver. It turned out there was a lot more to it than I thought – things like physics, physiology, psychology, in-water problem management, rescue techniques, and more.It turned out that this kindly stranger had immediately identified me as a raw newbie, sub-species guyus arrogantus , and knew from her training and experience that I was headed for trouble. This aquatic Samaritan had intervened on my behalf not only to protect me from my own ignorance, but out of a genuine desire to welcome a newcomer to the sport and guide his tentative steps through the first critical stages of rising in the art and science of apnea diving. I learned a lot during that conversation, but perhaps more importantly, I unlearned even more.

            One of the things I learned was the training schedule of this buddy pair, and I humbly accepted their offer to join them anytime, so they could keep an eye on me. I promised never to do any apnea swimming unless one or both of them were with me and dedicated to supervising me.

           Later that night as I lay in my bed in that zone between wakefulness and sleep, where reality and the other reality comingle,  the supreme irony of this seemingly chance encounter with a trained freediver, and one willing to mentor me, finally hit home.

           You see, it was I who had trained her.

Paul is making some classic beginners’ mistakes and is under some common misconceptions. What are they ? Is he on track to getting straightened out ?

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

Freediving Reloaded: Getting My Feet Wet 3
Paul Kotik
Paul Kotik has been a Staff Writer and Freediving Editor for DeeperBlue.com. He lives in Florida, USA with his family.

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