Teaching Your Sweetie

It is never good to meddle in the love lives of one’s readers. They tend to take it personally.  However, in this case, I hope you will thank me in the end. 

I’’m no Dr. Ruth (keep your underwater sex fantasies to yourself), but I can give you some sound advice for a healthy relationship in and out of the water: do not attempt to teach your better half how to freedive unless you have a good plan.

Empathy is the mark of a good therapist, but more important are detachment and objectivity.  Your particular disease is twisting your judgement.  A haunting vision of What Could Be shimmers before you, beckoning with its promises of guilt-free weekends in the ocean and carte blanche from your lover to buy all the carbon and Heiwa and Cayman Island vacations you want, damn the mortgage! You dare to dream that one day your soul mate will say with passion brimming in his or her eyes, "“Honey, couldn’’t we go freediving instead of dinner with the Hamptons?”"

You have to start with a lesson. You should start planning weeks, even months ahead. Test your teaching with your friends and acquaintances first. Tell them it’’s all for love.

If you underestimated the challenge of teaching your sweetie and fail to prepare adequately for this most tricky of couplehood moments, your relationship will enter a Twilight Zone of warped interpersonal communication. Your clearest instructions and your most patient encouragement will be heard as deliberate criticism. It happens all the time on the ski slopes, in the car, on the mountain, in the forest – innocent couples struggling with the alien dynamic of teacher and student.  Marriages unravel here. Summer loves disintegrate in a puff of wind.

For any other sport there is an easy solution: hire a qualified instructor to teach that first lesson. The relationship between an instructor and student is wonderfully simple: —if the student doesn’t like the instructor, he or she can select a new one with no hard feelings (on the other hand, try to make your husband or wife redundant).

Unfortunately for most of us, good freediving instruction is expensive and hard to find. And at this point, it might be overkill. If, after the first day in the water, your true love wants to know more, then you can start thinking about a trip for two to Apnea Academy or Performance Freediving.  But first you have to tempt with a sweet taste of what the sport can offer. Sip the wine before you buy the vineyard.

Still, without a plan, you are destined to fail. Let us turn to the sport of windsurfing for edification. Windsurfing was born in the early 1960s and it wasn’t until the year 2000 that a pure beginner could learn to windsurf in a single day and have fun at the same time. A windsurfing beach used to be a good opportunity to watch marriages and relationships collapse. Typically, men would abandon their girlfriends to the struggle, while they sailed off for hours, returning finally when the wind died to ask, “"You sailin’’ yet, honey?”" I’ve seen the carnage with my own eyes.

More recently, an evolution of equipment has yielded a wide board that is easy to stand on and a sail that is easier to handle. Instruction has been whittled down to the bare necessities and all the basic skills can be learned on land before going out on the water. Beaches everywhere are no longer the war zones they once were and windsurfing is ready for the masses. But it took the boardheads almost forty years to figure out how to make it so.

As freedivers, we cannot afford to wait that long. Thus, have I been forced to take matters into my own hands.

In my deep sea laboratory, I have made use of the finest genetic nanomachines, psychological manipulation and brainwashing techniques, and frequent sacrifices to the muse of Dr. Frankenstein to create the next leap in evolution: the perfect freediver boyfriend. His name is Frank and he will show you how he introduces his girlfriend Anja to freediving.

Dry Land Essentials

Two important things will make or break Anja’’s first day freediving: her ability to equalize and her comfort holding her breath. Many apnea instructors ignore equalizing because it is too hard to teach and focus instead on static apnea. Who cares how long Anja can hold her breath if she cannot get down and chase the seal, tease the lobster and blow bubbles at the giant squid?

The first thing Frank should do is give Anja the tools with which to learn equalizing. This should start at least a week before the ocean day.  Can Anja pop her ears with Valsalva? Great. Now she can learn a more reliable and safer equalizing method: the Frenzel.  (It is possible that Anja may have narrow Eustachian tubes—-learning Frenzel is much more important in that case. If ever she feels pain in her ears or sinuses, she should stop and consult a doctor). Anja can read the excellent equalizing document by former world record holder Eric Fattah (www.ericfattah.com/equalizing.doc), which covers control of the soft palate and the tongue piston action that characterizes the Frenzel method.

There is an additional way of learning soft palate control, vital to learning the Frenzel, which Anja can practice lying in her bed every night. Try it yourself so you can teach it to your freediving understudy.

Breathe rapidly through your nose and then your mouth. Alternate back and forth. Five nose breaths, then five mouth breaths. Keep your mouth hanging open as you switch back and forth. Concentrate on the movement of the soft palate as it opens and closes. Then alternate mouth and nose on every breath.

Once you become familiar with the sensation of the opening and closing of the soft palate, try to move the soft palate open and closed without breathing. Concentrate and if you can’’t do it, or lose it, try the breathing drills again.

The last step is to stop in the open mouth breathing position, soft palate open,then close your mouth and block your nostrils lightly with your fingertips. Squeeze your cheeks to compress the air in your mouth and relax. Air should hiss out your nose and your ears should pop. Once you can do this consistently, add the piston action of the tongue to drive air up into your Eustachian tubes, and finally eliminate the cheek squeeze.

Anja can also practice static apnea on dry land. Frank should lead her through a series of breath holds of increasing duration, taking advantage of the body’’s adjustments to apnea.  Anja can start at thirty seconds and increase her time by fifteen second increments while paying close attention to how it feels. Frank will encourage her to only go as far as she is comfortable, which may or may not coincide with her first few contractions.

With a week of short practice sessions, each one no longer than thirty minutes for both equalizing and static apnea practice, Anja should be on her way to performing both with consistency. This is plenty for the first open water session. A minute of apnea and a few equalizations is all she needs for her first underwater dives.

The Open Water Teaser

This is where Frank’’s dry land sessions with Anja pay off and the fun begins. Frank’s superiorly-engineered intelligence allows him to devote 100% of his attention to Anja. He tells her in advance the plan for the day: snorkelling in the shallows to get used to the equipment and water conditions, and then equalizing practice on the descent line. 

In secret, he packs a picnic lunch, warm clothes, and nice blanket for lying on the beach after diving. He does not lose sight of the opportunity to enjoy a day at the beach no matter how the diving goes. He’s a ‘big picture’ sort of guy.

Frank makes Anja feel like a freediving star. He provides her with the best equipment at his expense, even lending her his most treasured fins, mask, snorkel and wetsuit.  When she’’s gleaming in neoprene, Frank tells her she looks cool in a way that makes her smile.

He picks the best conditions available: a warm summer day, a protected bay or cove, good visibility, no currents, flat water, ample snorkelling opportunities, healthy marine life, and a gently sloping bottom.

Frank begins the session with snorkelling and shows Anja how to use her fins and clear her mask and snorkel. He shows her everything that can be seen from the surface: his favourite crab nest, kelp forest, or underwater seascape.  He invites her to make shallow dives 1m-3m deep to look at marine life in detail as long as her ears don’’t bother her. He shows her how freedivers move slowly and gracefully, but also thrashes around and slaps the surface with his fins, breaching and cavorting like a seal or a dolphin. Frank regales Anja with his elephant seal roars. Freediving doesn’’t have to be all seriousness and heavy breathing, you know. Anja can express herself in any way she likes upon the infinite canvas of the ocean.

After a short break to rest and review equalizing technique, Frank sets up a descent line in 5m of water, always keeping the bottom in visible range.

With the descent line, Anja can take her time to equalize her ears and mask fully as she pulls herself gently downward. Doing the Frenzel underwater for the first time is more difficult than in Anja’’s living room, so she should stay shallow until she can put it all together. The anxiety of immersion can make even the simplest skills more complicated. Frank makes full equalizations the goal, not some arbitrary depth. If she can dive to five metres with Frank accompanying her, demonstrating his own slow progress downward for her benefit, —then Anja can try hanging at the bottom of the line and relaxing her body for a few seconds to enjoy the view.

If Anja is unable to equalize, Frank cuts the descent line session short so as not to discourage her. Either way, he invites her on one last snorkelling tour of his most secret spot. If she can dive to five metres, he leads her down and points out the octopus in its den or the garden of pulsing anemones. Freediving is sweet, but in the end Frank knows Anja will make her own decision about whether or not freediving is something she wants to explore further. He leaves his expectations at home and so should you.

Some Last Words . . .

What about safety? The buddy system? Finning technique, wetsuit technology, target dives, sambas and blackouts? Freediving is a wonderfully complex and engrossing sport. But to the pure beginner it is intimidating.  The person that calls you “"honey"’ will certainly have been told that breath-holding kills brain cells by all his or her closest friends.  “Didn’t you see that episode of CSI Miami where the crazy freediver kills his buddy?” You don’t want to push anyone’’s limits on the first day. Your goal is to turn a snorkeller into a freediver with a smile. And if you took things easy and you both have some fun with it,  pretty soon the love of your life (—or a least this year’s summer love) will be asking you all about what lies beyond five metres.

Meanwhile, I’ll be out back teaching my girlfriend how to windsurf.