Intova Kona Depth Challenge 2017

The competitors and support of Kona Depth Challenge 2017.

It was nearly ten years ago that I got my first taste of a depth comp…and it wasn’t endearing.  Wide-eyed and ill-prepared for my overambitious announcement of a 51m CNF, I blacked out well before the surface.  Ten minutes later my training partner, Derek, did, too.  But for some reason, I stuck with it, and by 2010 I rose to winning the annual Kona depth comp, which happened to be the U.S. National Championships that year.  But around that time I hit one of those long plateaus in depth progression, so I switched to judging several comps.  Throughout all of these competitions, I noticed a common paradox: even though we trained in the same calm, coconut palm-lined setting known as Honaunau Bay (the ‘Blue Hole’ of the Pacific), once we called our dive a ‘competition’ something about the Bay changed.  Why was everybody now scrambling and shouting at each other?  And why were most divers’ results poorer than in training there?  It was as if the Bay changed moods, that we offended her by introducing competition to practicing our pastime.  Instead of cradling us with relaxed, gratifying dives, as usual, we were instead swallowed and spit back out onto the sea urchin-lined shoreline, often unconscious.

“I know when she is ready for me and when she isn’t!” -Enzo

Those familiar with diving at Honaunau know that we have a convenient setup of moorings arranged at different depths in the Bay. Using these, the comp and multiple warm-up lines were connected by lines which created a conveyor belt that helped athletes reach the comp line easily but also kept distance between them to minimize distraction around the comp line.

The possibility of bodies of water having moods aside, I don’t believe the Bay was responsible for thwarting our performances; it’s the pressure, urgency, and other undesirable baggage that come along with competitions.  But I couldn’t help but wonder for the last several years—is it somehow possible to mitigate or eliminate these factors so that a competition could resemble another relaxed Sunday ‘church’ dive?  My opportunity to explore this arrived last year when no one else was stepping up to organize our annual depth comp — my ‘Kona Depth Challenge’ (KDC) was born.

It doesn’t get any simpler than this. The two dive floats on the left support the counter-balance, the SUP provides a standby/recovery area, and warm-up lines are to the right.

Now, after two successful editions of the KDC, both with 21 athletes (over twice as many as in previous comps here), I feel validated in accomplishing this goal.  In the competition, we just had last weekend over half of the athletes accomplished Personal Best’s in their comp dives, and a few even gathered PB’s in all three of their comp dives!  Mind you, these are not seasoned competitive freedivers.  In my competition I have not yet allowed ‘elite’ divers’ participation (divers > 60m), an effort to reduce one of the common obstacles to new participation — intimidation.  Therefore, the athletes were mostly new or very inexperienced, having only competed in my previous competition if any.  However, I allowed the legendary diving grandma Annabel Edwards and 77-years-young ‘Baron of Breath-hold’ Bill Graham to join this one out of veneration, being among the earliest pioneers of line-diving in Honaunau over 15 years ago, and since they had presumably slowed down in their training lately.  Half of the field ventured over from the other islands such as O’ahu, Maui and Kaua’i, where depth training is much less inviting than in Kona due to constant tradewinds and lack of depth close to shore, so I was grateful to line up impeccable conditions — 27C, 40m vis, ankle-high waves — over the days of the comp, which facilitated the divers’ unleashing their full ambition as indicated by the PB count.

Your humble author and organizer, somehow looking relaxed in spite of fulfilling at least three roles at the same time.

You wouldn’t expect a slew of first-time competitive freedivers to partake in the discipline of constant no-fins, but over half the field nominated this for day 1.  This is because I encouraged well-rounded participation in all the depth disciplines and made my scoring favor it.  An athlete would earn full points (equal to depth achieved) if a new discipline was chosen each day, but if anyone repeated a discipline his/her total score of all days would include a handicap: highest of repeat Constant Weight (CWT) or Free Immersion (FIM) scores x 1/2 for absent CWT or FIM score, highest of repeat CWT or FIM scores x 1/4 for absent CNF score.  An athlete could thus still win overall with exceptionally deep repeat discipline dives if he/she was opposed to partaking in one of the disciplines, but the winners would most likely be among the well-rounded divers.  As is the case even among the pros, Constant Weight No Fins (CNF) is the least favorite discipline among most of these athletes so many opted to get it out of the way first to be able to enjoy the rest of the comp.  Strong finishers last year, Brian Kispert and Katie Pentz, took the lead early with dives of CWT 52m and FIM 47m, respectively.

This is what 40m vis looks like. Defending champion Katie Pentz on her way to disappear.

After attending a few well-organized international competitions abroad, such as the Caribbean Cup, I bore the conception that any depth comp nowadays must have a slick, usually white platform.  But last year when my effort to produce one didn’t meet the deadline, in my scramble for an alternative I struck an unforeseen blessing in hastily contriving a much simpler apparatus.  Why intimidate these first-time competitors with an unfamiliar and onerous setup anyway?  A length of large-diameter PVC pipe (discovered amidst debris under my house), two standard floats, two sailing blocks (pulleys), a cleat and a rope yielded a much easier to transport and set up counter-balance, which has also met unanimous acclaim among the athletes for being very similar to what most use to train.  As expected for day 2 after more than half the athletes abrogated their CNF obligation on day 1, the average depth nominated rose considerably.  The combination of perfect conditions, a familiar setup and now familiar setting to all the athletes, and a low-stress environment maintained around the comp line yielded a near-100% white card day and lots of new PBs!

Not wanting to resort to plastic or velcro, I was quite stumped on what to use for tags the evening before the competition began. While not a perfect solution, I was gratified in recycling some less worrisome materials.

The cusp of the last day is the climax of a depth competition to me, when all the athletes’ scores can be calculated and current standings contemplated.  This is when the athletes vying for the podium, or any caring to improve their placing, must predict what their nearest rivals will throw down for the last day and wager their own declarations.  Egos and sensibilities can be tamed — or left unchecked, resulting in perhaps a clincher at the buzzer — or a sidelining BO or lung squeeze.  This is when competitive freediving gets exciting.  The athletes didn’t disappoint, as the top 8 men wound up within striking distance of one another in points.  On the women’s side, Pentz enjoyed some breathing room, but due to her schedule constraints Annabel arranged to perform all three of her dives on the last day, leaving us uncertain where the former world record-holder would wind up.  By the time the clock struck 7 in the evening, the declarations for the last day were in.  Amazingly, if all declared depths were accomplished only a single point would separate the 2nd – 4th place men, and Pentz would finish only 2 points ahead of Annabel!  We were in for an exciting finale.

Contrary to the modern fad of using monofins at all costs in competitive freediving, most of my athletes depended on what they know. 3rd place athlete Billy Middleton coming down the home stretch from a PB dive.

The rules in my competition were simplified as much as I deemed possible (not being AIDA-sanctioned), for yet another effort at mitigating beginner-confounding elements of freediving competition.  When a new athlete participates in his first competition it doesn’t exactly leave a yearning for more to be disqualified (DQ’d) for trivial mistakes such as, say, starting the dive a few seconds before official top or getting the surface protocol slightly out of order (or even having to worry about demonstrating a strange ritual ending in uttering “I am OK” for that matter).  Attention to these obscure rules can come later with more familiarity of the whole scheme.  Therefore, my rules were stated simply as follows: If the athlete can reach his intended depth using only the means allowed by chosen discipline, demonstrated by retrieval of tag

Therefore, my rules were stated simply as follows:

If the athlete can reach his intended depth using only the means allowed by chosen discipline, demonstrated by retrieval of tag or official gauge reading, and return to the surface without losing consciousness—the dive will count for full points.  Turning early results in a deduction of points (depth reached less the difference of announced and realized depth). 

Fortunately, new competitive freedivers are as innocent as sea turtles, so I wasn’t too worried about any of the athletes taking advantage of my relaxed rules.  Thanks to the athletes’ mostly impeccable diving on day 3 there was little confusion over the victors.  Only a single of the podium contenders took an unfortunate tumble out of contention by providing the competition’s only black out, a minor one at the surface after the deepest no-fins attempt and an admirable fight to keep his airway above the surface.  Though we felt sore for his near-miss, we were also grateful for the bit of excitement after mostly only straightforward dives all morning!

Kona Depth Challenge 2017 Overall Results

Congratulations to victors Brian Kispert and Katie Pentz, as well as all the other competitors for aspiring to and clinching PBs, securing white cards, and managing the voyage to an unfamiliar place and still performing to their best.  I would also like to thank title sponsor

I would also like to thank title sponsor Intova for their terrific cameras, as well as the other sponsors – Merman Custom Gear, C4, Molchanovs, Oceanic, Long Fins, and Ocean Paper.

Not a bad assemblage of prizes to choose from for a mere $100 entry fee. Every single athlete was able to bring home something they had probably wanted anyway.

As any passionate competitive freediver or organizer would agree, our sport has room for a lot more participation and awareness.  I believe, however, that many common obstacles could be deferring would-be competitors, whom are usually introduced to the joy of line-diving and exploration of depth potential through freediving classes but don’t necessarily feel the impetus to continue the progression to competing.  I urge organizers to consider offering more beginner-friendly competition opportunities in the interest of helping grow our sport by tactfully pushing aside the most daunting obstacles to new athletes:

  • Offer ‘fun’ competitions with relaxed rules and perhaps ‘amateur-only’ participation. I like to think of my two editions of the KDC thus far as providing the ‘training wheels’ my former students needed to make the leap to the competitive side, whereas after the early experiences I had I’m not sure why I continued in the sport.  After a few fun competitions, these new athletes will have learned the ropes and be much more prepared to handle the stress inherent in full-on AIDA-sanctioned competitions.
  • Try to keep competition setup and circumstances as similar to those in training as possible. Instead of worrying about providing a platform, shuttle boat, etc., which probably only serve to increase intimidation and anxiety among new athletes, consider offering a simple setup like mine, which also greatly reduced my own hassles as the organizer.
  • Reduce entry fees. Dropping over $100/day for a comp is prohibitively expensive to newcomers.  I’m sure that making my entry fee only $100 for the entire 3-day comp was a big reason for my 200% increase in participation over previous comps here.
A first-time competitor, Allen Yangco, admitted to being very nervous every time he stepped up to the comp line. Fortunately, he had lots of partners from Kaua’i supporting him, such as Ed Corales serving as primary safety for him after accomplishing his own comp dive earlier.

While premiere, international athlete-attracting competitions are more likely to draw attention and media, I believe that offering only these will also keep participation and growth at only a fraction of what it could be for the reasons I mentioned.  The tremendous effort and expense involved in organizing premiere competitions also allow them to be staged only annually at best, whereas I believe more frequent competitions would maintain more momentum and provide more practice to all involved.  By foregoing my preconceived notions of the way competitions are supposed to be run and opting instead for some departures to a simpler format and reducing obstacles, my organizational duties have scaled way down compared to what I expected; I plan to offer two or even three editions of the KDC per year going forward!  Considering the meager and unchanging competition attendance I’ve seen over the last ten years the growth of the sport in Hawai’i could only be described as stunted, reserved only for the most fanatic; I hope my new competition series will finally catalyze the growth of the sport locally and expand the field many times over.  Maybe in a matter of just a few years, Hawai’i will be sending formidable contingencies to distant competitions and world championships!  Or, if not, we will at least be having impressive attendances here—where the water is warm and clear year-round, begging to be plumbed by the depth of local talent we have always had.

The next Kona Depth Challenge will take place November 10 – 12, 2017.

All photos © Mike Hong