Monday, July 22, 2024
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Starting the Journey

It was at the end of July 2001 when it all started. I was happily getting on with life as a professional stunt performer and musician. Having had a long background of extreme sports, from rock climbing and mountaineering to triathlon, long distance canoeing and skydiving; and 20 years of military work as a reservist in both the SAS, and later Royal Marines SBS; I was happily resigned to the fact that my days of extreme activities were over, save for the practice and maintenance of skills required for my stunt work in film and television.

Until a year ago I’d always worked at various projects and businesses without ever stopping to slow down or rest. With a hyperactive mind there was always planning and thoughts and ideas swimming around my head, from which there was no respite. I worked tirelessly on new projects and found it physically and mentally exhausting trying to keep up with the sheer pace of new ideas. For years I thought that this was normal, after all, I’d been like it since my earliest childhood memories.

A year before this time, I had been persuaded by my, then girlfriend Ellen, to take some time out. To relax now and again, and to listen to my body, a concept I resisted. What she saw, as an alternative therapist and yoga devotee, was that the pattern within me was becoming out of control. I was constantly tired, even in the morning, and my stress levels were through the roof; wasn’t this normal?

It took her around three years to convince me to take a break. I reluctantly set time aside to walk the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path in Wales with my best friend Richard. What a revelation that was. Two weeks of fresh sea air and relaxation. This started me on a path of discovery into the joys of having some balance in my life. It was to set me up for the most amazing personal journey of my life yet, freediving.

As a scuba diver I had read an article on Freediver Pippin Ferreras in a magazine, and wondered what the attraction could possibly be in seeing how deep you could go on one breath. Sounded pretty crazy to me! All of that was about to change…

Back to the end of July 2001, I got back from a late night gig and sat by the TV with a cup of tea to unwind before going to bed. The television was already on and a film was starting called The Big Blue. I was slowly drawn into the film more and more by the fantastic underwater scenes, and images of freedivers plunging to great depths while holding their breath. What a serene and beautiful way to enter the underwater world, I thought. It somehow seemed different than the image I had from reading the magazine article. This was it! This was the final piece to the jigsaw. I felt drawn like never before into this amazing thing. The film ended at four in the morning, I rushed to my computer and spent another four hours on the internet, where I discovered, to my delight, that freediving is a thriving sport, with people from all over the world actively involved. There are even people in the UK doing it, fantastic!

I quickly discovered that the UK organisation, the British Freediving Association, met on a Thursday night at Richmond swimming pool in Surrey, just South of London. I contacted the BFA Chairman Steve Gardner, who was full of encouragement and enthusiasm, and he invited me to the next pool session. I rushed out and bought absolutely everything I thought I’d need to start freediving. Not once did I consider that it may not be the sport for me. Before the pool session I started doing breath holds dry on the sofa. Progress was quick, and I quickly got to nearly four minutes, this fuelled my enthusiasm, and poor Steve had to contend with my excited calls seeking more information on training.

At last the pool session came and Steve took me through the safety aspects, which are essential for in water breath holding. We worked together as a buddy pair, and I got to just over three minutes first night in water. Steve shared training and breathing techniques with me, and I went away eager for my next fix. These sessions progressed, and within a few weeks, I was doing over four minutes breath holds. There was a difference between my dry and in water breath holds, due mainly to the fact that I was not as relaxed in the water as out. I quickly realised that to progress in this sport would mean to go further down the road that Ellen had set me on. I needed to change everything I had previously done. To listen to my body, to relax, and learn how to relax, to overcome fear and anxiety with a calm mind, and not the ‘grit your teeth and go for it’ attitude which had served me so well in other pursuits. I found freedivers everywhere into yoga and meditation. Introspective self-awareness, now that was going to take some work!

I discovered a training course in the Greek islands and booked on it immediately. I was concerned about the lack of safety provisions, the nearest hospital was a three-hour boat ride away at best, but I was so keen to learn to freedive that I booked a place, and am glad I did. The course started on September 4th, and I knew from the start that I had to learn to relax myself, and not focus on the safety issues. Out at sea in a small boat with no scuba safety equipment, no oxygen or first aid kit on board made it very hard to relax. I tried to put the consequences of an accident out of my mind and got stuck in. As the session progressed I asked to try a 20 metres dive in constant weight (fining there and back). Given the OK I fell back on the old habit of ‘grit your teeth and go’, and did everything that I was told not to do. In appalling technical style I blasted down to 20, turned around and blasted back, rather like a sprinter in a hurry. I got to the surface, and was fine, but I knew that this was not the way to do it.

High winds and rough seas disturbed us. The course, which should have been five days with an optional sixth, ended up as three days and a short morning session in rough weather. This obviously impeded progress, and there was no contingency for bad weather so we sat around and waited. On the days we did train I got to 26.9 metres the next session, and, starting to learn to relax more, tried my hand at variable weight on the last day. A heavy weight attached to a line is released from the boat with the Freediver holding on to it. Head down I plunged, just like the characters I’d seem in The Big Blue. I’d been set a limit of 35 metres and got there with ease, turned around, and finned back to the surface. I was absolutely convinced from that one dive, that no-limits was the discipline for me. I knew that I could have gone much deeper, and had only just begun; I set a goal to reach 100 metres in no limits. I needed to get a no limits sled, but from where?

In October I went to Cornwall, and spent two days freediving in terrible conditions. I practiced my constant weight work, and had a great time, in spite of the weather. Later that month I teamed up with my now training buddy Duncan Chappell, who is a very good and keen Freediver, and we went to a flooded quarry in North Wales called Dorothea to train. It’s a dark, cold place with over 100 metres of depth. I took advice from a very good British Freediver called Alun, who has trained there a lot. Overshadowed by Mt. Snowdon, many are intimidated by its remoteness and foreboding nature. Duncan and I loved it from day one. We spent a week training in constant weight and free immersion (where you pull yourself down a fixed line, and back up with your arms). I learnt more about my body, and a lot from Duncan, who had already mastered the ability to be relaxed underwater. I watched the ease with which he moved through the water, and I knew that I needed to be as relaxed underwater as Duncan if I was to progress.

From years of practicing various sports to a high standard, I know how my body and mind learns new skills. There is a pattern that works. Once you’ve learnt it, usually the hard way, it can be applied to anything. The techniques may be different, but the learning curve, and your mental and physical approach is the same. Armed with this confidence I knew that the only way to get much better was to spend as much time as possible actually doing it. It’s also important to learn from those with more experience, so I looked around and found records of bygone competitions and magazine articles. I looked at how quickly, and to what level people had progressed before seeking their advice. My search led to the great freedivers of France. One of the fathers of the modern sport of freediving as we know it is Claude Chapuis. Claude is revered by the French, and is one of the most experienced, and knowledgeable freedivers in the world. I contacted him and told him I wanted to train in no limits and he directed me to his friend, and AIDA world no limits champion Loic LeFerme. I asked Loic to teach me no limits, and after a lengthy discussion he agreed to let me come to France to train for two weeks in November.

It was a great privilege to be learning from one of the greatest freedivers in the world, and what a really nice guy. I spent two weeks in November training with Loic and his great team of freedivers. They made me feel very welcome, and taught me an amazing amount, about myself, as well as freediving. Loic is a very thoughtful and relaxed person and taught me a very different style of freediving. I saw the power of team dynamics and co-operation, and it was a breath of fresh air. Back in the UK I found little support from the more experienced freedivers. Some were particularly helpful, but sadly a few seemed frustrated by my enthusiasm. Some who had spent more time talking about apnea than actually doing it clearly didn’t like the new kid on the block making big plans. This fuelled my determination even more.

I came to Nice and trained in both no limits and constant weight. We did pool sessions as well as open water sessions, and I began to progress. By the end of my stay I reached 50 metres in no limits, with which I was very happy. Now I need to try it in cold, dark water. I needed to see what it would be like in the conditions that I’d find in the UK. I needed a team of safety divers, of freedivers, a sled, a line, a boat. The list went on and on. I worked around the clock and found some great sponsors, the website was refined and the workload seemed to never end. The biggest inhibiting factor was solved when I spoke to Warren Brown of Active Scuba; an Essex based scuba shop and training school. Warren had been a former Commando in a unit which I had also been in, and we had some common friends. Warren was immediately interested in my project and offered to help me by arranging safety scuba divers for my training. He let me use his pool sessions to train and was, and still is, a very positive and supportive influence. It was all coming together and a team began to grow. Warren Brown and Julius Bates where to be the heart of the scuba team, and Duncan Chappell and Alun George the safety freedivers. Alun’s experience and willingness to offer help and advice has helped enormously. I’m still trying to learn to be as relaxed as Duncan in the water, (maybe one day). Now where to train? We need deep water, reliable conditions and easy access. I’d enjoyed our trip to Dorothea quarry and know it to be over 100 metres deep. I got the permission of the leaseholder and a trip was planned for the week before Christmas. Four scuba divers, two freedivers, myself, boat, sled, line, and all the other things necessary to do this thing safely, needed some serious work. I found myself spending all my time organising, arranging, purchasing equipment, and generally exhausting myself. Training sessions were cancelled of curtailed as the enormity of the organisational task ahead unfolded. I bought a sled from the great Belgium Freediver Frederic Buyle. He gave me much advice and positive encouragement, and helped me avoid some pitfalls that would have caused problems. His help was instrumental in me having a safe and successful trip. I set the sled up, and used the same procedure that I’d learnt in France with Loic, and everything was set. I planned to go to over 50 metres and set an unofficial British No Limits record.

Wales was freezing cold in December. The cold doesn’t affect me mentally due to my military training, some of which was in the Arctic Circle. I don’t believe you can spend any length of time in the SBS and be in the least bit intimidated or bothered by cold, dark water and bad weather. The problem with freediving is that you cannot relax when even a little cold. Apnea times suffer, as does equalisation of ears. This is particularly true of no limits, where you are very inactive before the dive. With this consideration we had to plan a way to get the job done.

It was 6 degrees on the water surface in Dorothea, and the scuba divers were going to freeze if we didn’t plan a quick, well-timed session. We tried to keep their bottom time to a minimum so as to cut down their decompression times. Everything was new; a sled that I’d never used, lift balloon was new, as was my wetsuit that had been custom-made only a week before the trip. Everything was new! We formed a timing plan, and I had a programme of progressive dives that had been discussed with Loic and Fred, among others. Day one saw a sled test followed by two 41-metre dives. I felt great and it seemed easy. There were no major problems; just some fine-tuning of equipment was required. The next day we planned a warm up dive, followed by a 50-metre dive, before doing a deeper one on day three. Sadly on the second day a scuba diver, who had been training with a group entirely unrelated to us, had an accident and died while we were setting up the sled. The television and press were there to cover my training, and ended up covering the tragic death of the scuba diver. We tried to assist in the rescue of the poor chap, but nothing could be done. All training was instantly postponed, and we went home for Christmas, a little sombre.

I had some discussions with Loic in France and he agreed to let me train with him in January. He seemed to take on the role of coach and mentor, for which I am extremely grateful. I couldn’t even begin to list the many things that he has taught me; he is an incredible Freediver with an amazing connection with the sea, and a really nice bloke too. Having previously enquired with other great freedivers about coaching, with some, like Tanya Streeter offering her help and giving me some good advice, I decided that if Loic would coach me in this way, I’d be mad not to follow it up. There was just the small point of finishing what I’d started in Wales. I called the other guys in the team and asked if they would come to Dorothea on the 27th and 28th of December to help me get the 50+ metres dive. They kindly agreed and up we went.

A great person once said that for every disciplined effort, there is a multiple reward. Believing this, I drove to Wales with all the kit on Boxing Day night. The next day the rest of the team turned up and we got in the water to train. All went well, and I performed a couple of 40 metre dives. The next day I got to 54 metres and set a new record. This record was unofficial since the governing body in the UK didn’t have criteria for no limits national records. It was not important because I was confident of going deeper as training progressed. New Year came and went, and on the 4th January I flew to Nice to train for six weeks on the sled.

I arrived in Nice with a cold and generally exhausted from the activities of the previous month or so. For the first week or so equalisation was not as easy as it had been previously, so I stuck to 50 metre dives on the sled until things improved. The cold wouldn’t budge but the 50’s felt easier and easier. With the body starting to adapt, and with plenty of other training to assist in reaching greater depth, both physically and mentally, after two weeks I got to 59 metres with relative ease. At the time of writing this I’ve just done a 62-metre dive still full of cold, and am delighted with the way it’s all going. The progress is solid, and with the best teacher in the world, I feel confident to progress further. My love for no limits freediving is growing with each dive. I feel privileged to have found such a wonderful thing, now all I have to do is become as relaxed as Duncan in the water! I have also discovered why they call it no limits; there’s no limits to the amount of time it takes, no limits to the amount of organisation required, no limits to the cost, no limits to the hurdles to overcome…oh, and most importantly, outweighing all those things, no limits to the FUN.