Oxygen by William Trubridge is a wonderful book.
When I first heard about it, I immediately thought “Isn’t Will a bit young to be writing a memoir?” After reading it, well, he’ll just have to write another one later, maybe call it ‘O2-2’.
The book, like Will, revolves around freediving.
It begins with his early childhood and family (he learned to walk on a boat) and is filled with great anecdotes well-told. For example, here’s one characterizing the competitive relationship Will had with his older brother, Sam:
“I was always trying to catch up to my brother, Sam, and became mired in dejection when the two and a half years between us created a barrier to my doing something that he was able or allowed to do. On one occasion in Tortola, my brother and parents returned, from snorkeling on the reef to the dinghy where I was waiting and Sam immediately gushed ‘I saw a shark!’ – I didn’t miss a beat with the reply: ‘I saw a whale.’ (In fact, the biggest mammal I saw, by land or by sea, was King Tupou IV of Tonga, at 200 kilograms the world’s heaviest monarch)”
(Later in the book Sam and Will share a real encounter with a large marine mammal: a lonely male Dugong which, absent the company of its own kind, subjects them both to some desperate, amorous nudging)
The narrative progresses into and through Will’s evolution as a competitive freediver. His writing on this subject is evocative, insightful, compelling, and sprinkled with gems of hard-won wisdom that will make this book a valued reference on any free-diver’s shelf.
Among the many good things this book has to offer, is a surplus of intensity. Will takes the reader along on a number of dives. The writing is so compelling that I, quite literally, found myself holding my breath.
There is a heart-wrenching account of the final dive of Will’s friend, Nick Mevoli, who suffered fatal lung damage at Vertical Blue 2013.
“After being under for 3 minutes 32 seconds, Nick broke the surface. He had returned from the marathon dive completely under his own power. Air had been escaping his mouth at the end of the ascent and the safety divers were ready to intervene, but he kept on swimming. Even though he surfaced away from the line and so couldn’t support himself, he kept on treading water until he could reach out and grab it. As he reached, he made an ‘okay sign’, and said what would be his final words; ‘I’m okay.’
The brutality of that obligatory phrase. “Nick was not okay.”
Oxygen is rich and well-crafted.
It describes the pressures, risks, strategies, and emotional sea changes of freediving at the outer edge of the human aquatic potential, sometimes over-against a background of serious illness and a fracturing marriage. It is precise and scientific, yet woven with warmth, understanding, friendship, and a wonderful sense of context.
Oxygen is a must-have for anyone with even a passing interest in freediving.
I know of no other work that matches its scope and depth (no pun intended!) as both a narrative and as a vehicle for insight into the art and science of freediving.
If you are a free-diver, you need this book. If you know one, at least part of your holiday gift-giving is decided.