Greenies & Meanies: The SaltFree October Weekend

SaltFree are a gang of freediving buddies, based at the National Diving Centre (NDC) in Chepstow, UK. We come from all corners of the United Kingdom. Some of us are hardened veterans of the British Team, others are up-and-coming stars of Cyprus 2003, and quite a few newbies have found their fins this summer in our beautiful, if rather spooky green home this summer.

The NDC is a flooded quarry and the deepest inland dive site in Europe. We’re very privileged to have our own 80m freedive lines there. Setting up and running the club so that everyone can both dive safely and have a laugh has been quite a challenge — but that’s another article altogether.

After several months of meets that began with training for the Cyprus 2003 competition, and never stopped, October saw the culmination of a summer’s work — the saltFree Big Weekender.

At the time it seemed a great idea: run the British Freedive Association AGM at the National Dive Centre, invite everyone to stay the weekend and come diving too. Hey, presto! A fantastic weekend for all concerned, loads of fun, loads of diving, and loads of new members for next year….

The invite went out and the RSVPs flooded back. The scrawled list in my diary had to turn into a neatly typed up sheet. The names started to resemble a Brit version of a Deeper Blue forum, and then the foreigners put their names down too. Longfins, met through DB and the closest thing I’ve had to a penpal since school, got in touch to say he would be in Europe and would "pop over" from Germany for the weekend. A bunch of Greek guys put their names down, and then Alun, all the way from North Wales, said he would bring some mates… it was time to check things out with Laura, the scuba safety guru.

Laura has been running our safety scuba team since she got the bug in Cyprus. Her husband, Mark, is now one our deepest freedivers so at least neither gets fed up when the other wants to spend the weekend in the water. I shouldn’t have worried. As usual ,Laura had the safety team in hand. Deep cover was lined up with a rebreather diver at the ready and then the NDC offered the help of one of their Trimix guys. Shallow cover was sorted out with a few other partners of freedivers and all were equipped with the FHOF ("freediver hook on and forget" diver retrieval system). Sighs of relief all round…. if you can do that over email.

To add to the chaos, (or should that be "incredibly organised planning") a couple of UK record attempts were chucked in to the mix. Marcus Greatwood declared attempts at the British Records in Constant Weight No Fins and Free Immersion, to be completed over the weekend. These were new categories for AIDA UK so Marcus was setting the bar for the rest of us — but with the snipers out on all the internet forums, he was not going to get away with anything too easily!

Marcus had been training hard all year, including a couple of weeks in Siberia of cold, hard Russian monofin training. He had also been taking extended holidays with CIPA (Francois, Cedric and Loic) in Nice. None of this prepared him for his first glimpse of the green. Meeting the weekend before for some warm-up / try-out dives, Marcus declared the NDC "awesome" and I think I even became, somewhat confusingly "Da Man!" for setting it up for him. Amazing how Howard Jones-isms have infiltrated our community.

So the stage was set. A list of dive times was drawn up for "Meanies" (the deeper divers) and "Greenies" (all a lot deeper than they were six months ago). Safety divers were briefed and tanks filled, line tightened up and safety line put in. The official doctor, video and judges were in place for the record attempt, media had been informed and a new bottom plate welded. All we needed was the weather!

Saturday dawned and my phone started buzzing. A few people had flu, a few people saw it wasn’t raining and wanted to come after all. Deepest Dave turned up for breakfast, Peter Longfins flew in from California (almost) and off we went. A howling northeast wind was blowing, but hey, we’re inland! We can still dive!

The Meanies led the day with a plate set at 40m and a fair few getting down there. The viz was better than ever before and once we got in the water the cliffs around the old quarry protected us. By the time the scuba divers dropped down for our deeper dives, everyone was looking a little chilled but we all got a good dive in and headed for shore — where I was mobbed for my flask of hot blackcurrant.

Greenies took the afternoon rope with a plate at about 30m and most of the Meanies got back in too. Afternoon sessions on both days were more relaxed. This gave us all plenty of time to chill out, try new techniques, tease the scuba divers and take loads of photos. Tess kept control of events and everyone was back up top, fed and warmed up in time for the BFA AGM.

The British Freedive Association Annual General Meeting is hardly the most anticipated event of the year. Average attendance and interest is somewhat low but this year things were different. Maybe it was something to do with the free biscuits and exceedingly warm Portakabin. Tess Robins was appointed as the new Chairperson. Steve Gardner made a fine goodbye speech and was thanked officially for all the time, effort, energy and cash he has put into British Freediving. The new committee members (meet the new Training and Safety Officer — Sam Kirby) were ritually humiliated and we had a bit of a row about finswimming. Issue of the coming year, I predict, will be "how to select a team for Vancouver" — answers on a postcard please.

Sunday was the main event. We were, for the first time at the NDC, offering people the chance to dive to 50m with scuba cover. Having planned meticulously for three attempts at 50m, our rebreather "angel" Marcus Lambert dropped down, and I became glued to my stopwatch making sure top times and deco times coincided. As it turned out, the Saturday night partying was a little too much for most and no one quite made it to 50m. Congratulations are due, though, as a new saltFree deepest depth was logged with one freediver reaching 47m. I’m not sure he wants the world to know so you better guess who!

As the techies moved up the line, Marcus Greatwood breathed up for two UK record attempts, setting the bar in new disciplines for AIDA UK — Free Immersion at 41m and Constant Weight No Fins at 25m. The NDC RIB came over complete with official doctor, Oliver Sykes, media man extraordinaire Steve Gardner (and his video camera) and a few well-wishers. As the boat hovered just near enough to video without making us cough diesel, the atmosphere suddenly felt more official and record-like. Alun and I looked at each other slightly concerned, as this was the first time for both of us as judges. No worries required though — Marcus made both records easily and cleanly. The scuba divers were in the right place. The freedivers met him fine and he was as sane and composed on surfacing as he ever is. Then we made a full media frenzy with sign boards, photos and splashing — but not quite as well as the French do it!

We rounded off the weekend with another lazy afternoon session. I got fired up from 15m with the FHOF, incredibly effective and fast! Peter took tonnes of photos and we all made loads of fun, shallow dives. That just left time to race around thanking everyone before heading home for a well-deserved hot bath.

SaltFree is currently in negotiation with its inner demons as to whether to continue training all winter. We will let you know how that goes once we come to a conclusion.

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