Freediving Turned Me Into a Wussy

I once was so cool that my teenage childrens’ friends used to stop by the house to hang out even when they knew my kids weren’t home.

A lifetime of R&D ( Recreation & Downtime) , financed by neglect of career and fueled by trivial pursuits, had yielded a lifestyle and a persona that most middle-aged men ( and their benighted women) can only dream of.

Everything was in perfect balance.

The beer, which I brewed to my own specifications, was no sooner guzzled than burnt in a 10K trail run. Granola breakfasts enveloped, infiltrated and finally escorted the previous evening’s midnight prime rib to the fate that awaits all repasts. Coffee ? Maui Organic, Ono Farms, please, $35 the pound by monthly air freight from the Valley Isle itself. Ono Farms apparently deals with pests by spraying the beans with the caffeine extracted from your de-caf blends. Cigar ? Yes, thank you, Cuban please. My guitars were Fender, and my volume, bass, treble, gain, and reverb at maximum. I lay down just before dawn and rose in the afternoon.

Life was a frat boy’s game plan on grown-up paycheck.

Diving was always part of it. Let’s not mince words. This is gonzo diving we’re talking about, no instruction, no theory, none of those cute plastic insurance cards.

Childhood scuba spearfishing in the early ’60’s was the entry point to blue water. Certification consisted of forking over a good old American greenback to a very, very authentic Antillean gentleman who taught diving as a search-and-destroy mission. We searched for big critters and killed them.

I’d seen Sea Hunt, and asked him one day whether he’d ever had The Bends.

” Wha dot ?” he queried. I explained, that is, I recited Lloyd Bridge’s lines from a recent episode, and Amador listened attentively. ” So yo tink dos wha I got dose hurts in me joints all da time whot I dive all day ?” He was the water sports director, so to speak, at the Curacao resort where my family spent a month that winter.

Breath-hold diving was the happening thing when the under-the-counter scuba market dried up. I’d been doing it since toddler days, scaring the shoes off parents and guardians at beaches and pools.

The big breakthrough, equalizing the ears, came as a gift from a middle-aged retired stockbroker I met during a family vacation on the (then undeveloped) south shore of Puerto Rico. I think I was about 14 years old, and this Charlie took my Dad and I out to the edge of the reef. In retrospect, this guy was a pretty good freediver. He lived there, near the town of Guanica, and was really happy to have enthusiastic company on his boat, inept though Dad and I surely were.

Dad was content to snorkel around above the reef, but I was tuned in to Charlie’s drops down the outside wall, into what seemed like a bottomless void. I tried to follow him, but was held back by the strange pressure and then pain in my ears and head.

Charlie noticed the blood in my mask and signalled us back into the boat. I guess I was lucky – it must have been a sinus that went before an eardrum popped.

Charlie revealed his method of pushing the mask skirt up to block the nostrils and performing what I later learned is the Valsalva technique. The cat was out of the bag. Having been let in on the trick, I was soon back in the water and getting some serious depth. How deep ? Couldn’t say – I never used a depth gauge until late last year !

Charlie also taught me the useful technique of inverting the cellophane wrapper on my pack of Camels to keep ’em dry at sea.

The years rolled by, as did my motorcycles, business ventures, girlfriends, rocking, rolling, soldiering, sailing, studying, drinking, smoking, skiing, fishing, building, bashing and ….. you understand.

Scuba diving fell by the wayside. It became too much like high school ! Books, lectures, tests, diplomas, and permits seemed to me altogether unsuited to the manly pursuit of the sporting life. Besides, by the late ’80’s it had become so mainstream your Aunt Tillie was doing it, and the studliness index had plumetted to near-zero.

The last really neat breath-hold diving session before marriage and children beached me was in the ruins of Caesarea, the Roman Empire’s version of Las Vegas on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. The sea was rough, and the visibility none too good, but there was all kinds of interesting and very old stuff to see. That was in 1977.

The ’80’s and ’90’s were pretty wild and crazy. The object of the game, as far as anyone could tell, was to work harder, play harder, and sleep less than anybody else. Life was good ! Kids were happy, business was booming, Bordeaux had an unprecedented series of Vintages of the Century and I discovered windsurfing.

Windsurfing.

The enthusiast quickly moves beyond the initiation, the introductory glide on a glassy lake or bay in a gentle breeze. The learning curve took me through smaller and smaller boards, higher and higher winds and hair-raising swells and chop. Breath-hold diving became something I did when a giant Maui roller knocked me upside the head and squashed me down on the reef for what always seems like an eternity, or else a way to pass the time waiting for the wind to come up.

The windsurfing life-style suited me pretty well, too, including as it did lots of high-energy junk food, coffee, , and copious apres- sail libations.

Then, at some point during the Age of Lewinsky, my next-door neighbor brought over a rental video called The Big Blue.

Well, imagine my surprise. Turned out this breath-hold diving thing had really caught on since I had last looked in on it, oh, 20 years earlier. Great. Competitions, strange gizmos like this sled thing – I had to know more.

Gizmos having permeated every aspect of life in the meanwhile, I went to the Web and gassed up my favorite search engine.

This led me to Divetech, a dive operator on Grand Cayman whose website painted a credible picture of a rational, normalized approach to teaching what I was led to understand was now called “freediving”. Freediving. I liked the sound of that. Windsurfing, far from being free, had become a financial black hole.

I took the IANTD Master Free Diver course at Divetech in August, 2000. I arrived with a bit of an attitude (“.. you hold your breath, you clear your ears, you go down, sideways and then up – where is the rocket science in that ?” ) but was quickly and properly adjusted by my instructors, Dan Hodgins and Tara Cunningham.

By the end of the first day I understood that whatever my abilities and experience were, to that day I had been doing essentially everything wrong and was, in fact, lucky to be alive.

Up until that day, I had done most of my freediving alone, had never heard of shallow water blackout, never used a depth gauge, never wore a timer, and thought the best way to prepare for a day in the water was to drink a few extra cups of black coffee in the morning – you know, to neutralize the leftover rum in your system.

Over the next four days Dan and Tara laid out the physiological and physical concepts underlying the reborn art and science of freediving.

The open water sessions were no less a revelation, for I saw for the first time an approach to aquatics that is diametrically opposed to the heart-pounding, blood-curdling, hair-raising adrenalism of my windsurfing associates. My instructors’ mind set was one of alert serenity. Everybody I’d ever known approached windsurfing or spearfishing as if they were going to war. Dan and Tara were going to peace.

By the time the course ended I was reformed. Addiction is such a negative concept, isn’t it ? Let us say that I had internalized the instruction and training I’d received and was very interested in doing more. I understood that I was capable of going deeper and staying down longer than I had supposed possible, and was willing – eager – to do what I had to do to realize my not-too-shabby potential as a freediver.

Life became a globe-trotting whirl of clinics, courses, diving, more diving, competitions, record attempts and even more diving.

Don’t smoke, don’t drink, dodge incoming fatty foods as if my life depended on it. Coffee ? But a distant memory. Don’t even ask about smoking ! My bedtime is back to what it was when I was in grade school. I am serene. Whatever is happening around me, my heart rate stays low and my breathing deep and regular – good thing I’m not a bachelor on the make, isn’t it ? I’d never know which of the ladies turned me on. Not that it would matter – I’ve learned that guys who belly up to the bar and order a cranberry juice clear the room pretty fast. No more big hair for this cabellero.

Now, a year later, I am a complete wussy.

All this finally struck me one day in Kona town. I was attending a Performance Freediving clinic, and boarding with PFD Instructors Kirk Krack, Brett LeMaster and Mandy Rae Cruickshank: three of the coolest, baddest freedivers on the planet. My wussification became clear in a dazzling epiphany when I realized that the four of us had spent fully 20 minutes reviewing and analyzing the Dairy Queen menu to determine if there was anything we could consume without breaking training. Nope. We retired to Brett’s place and decanted a rare root beer, the only brand which had been found in a previous research project not to contain the dreaded caffeine. I drank water, abstaining from this intoxicating, glucose-laden elixir . I was the designated sleeper.

So I have become I very boring fellow by most contemporary. standards. The thing I want most to be doing looks to the casual layman something like this: a guy in a rubber suit floats face down in the water for a long time, then disappears for a couple of minutes, then reappears and again floats face down in the water for a long time, and so on, over and over. Oh, and one of the ways I prepare for all this excitement is by getting together with a bunch of like-minded people and floating face down in a swimming pool for a while. We call this “static apnea”. In the rubber suits. Pretty sexy stuff, eh ? Makes me what the young folks call, I believe, a “babe magnet”?

In the secret world of the wussy all this is seen in a completely different aspect.

I’ll let you in on it. It is what’s down there.

The moment for me is that in which I am gliding through the world where time and space are fluid, the world of the whales’ song and the infinite blue. I am transformed by the structures deep in my genes. Another more ancient kind of being is overlaid onto my postmodern ,human self, ancient software awakened by the depths, running on my modern meat machine. It is a distinct and different life, the life of the dive.

In the most superficial sense, the life of the dive is lived in fragments of a few minutes each, frustrated by our physical limitations as breathless and fragile land creatures.

Here is the secret : it is all one long dive. In the awakened consciousness of the aquatic being, all the dives are stitched together into one continuous experience of an aquatic life.

If you are a freediver, it is true of you , too. Next time you dive, you’ll know at once that I am right.

Maybe you’re a wussy, too.