The Dolphins, the Shark, and the Evil Sea Monkeys : Part I

Every so often you hear talk of "The Experience of a Lifetime", and wonder just what constitutes such an experience.  Well, after surviving the past week I can now tell you exactly what makes up once such life-changing event.  You see, I was lucky enough to attend one of the great courses run by the gang known as Performance Freediving International, and the memories made in those four days are going to last me a lifetime.

Well Suited to Miami

Arrival at my hotel in Miami was an event in itself. I was anxiously hoping to receive a certain package at check-in.  My brand-new freediving wetsuit (a limited edition silver/gold Sink Faze model from PFI ) had gotten snagged in Customs…for about three weeks…but a great rep at FedEx named Leslie worked very hard to it to me in time for the course.  It had it arrived in Columbus, OH a day too late to deliver it to me at home, so the last-minute solution was to express it straight to my hotel in Miami. 

I was relieved to see it had arrived.  I tore into the box, pulled out my spankin’ new suit, and marvelled at it’s appearance and at the soft, supple feel of the Yamamoto neoprene.  I’d never felt a wetsuit so soft and flexible – but it only then dawned on me that the hour was late and I’d have no opportunity to try it on before using it !  This, however, proved to be a good thing. I was to learn there’s was a trick to getting into it.

I followed the directions to make The Lube for the suit with hair conditioner and water, made sure all my gear was ready to go for the first day of class, and then took a drive up to Florida International University to make sure I wouldn’t get lost the next day.  Returned to my hotel a bundle of nerves and excitement, took a quick dip in the ocean, settled into the strangel bed and tried to sleep.

DAY ONE

I arrived early for class. None of my fellow students in sight.  Soon afterward, I was approached by guy who’d noticed my Cressi Gara 3000 LD fins and reckoned  I was there for the same reason he was.  After a quick introduction, we left our gear in the classroom and  he went off to wander while I lounged just outside of the building.

Three Plus One

Perfect timing. There, going into a side door, was The Gang. A gang of four: two dark haired men, a brunette woman, and a third man with shoulder-length blonde hair. My heart caught in my throat as I realized I was looking at some of my personal heroes: Kirk Krack, Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, and Martin Stepanek.  They were here!  This was real!  Dear God, am I having a stroke? 

Tales Out of School

A short time later we were all assembled and ready for school.

The lecturing was informative and entertaining, the most memorable performance being the disappearance of Martin’s guts. He took off his shirt and showed us a negative diaphragm exercise which he introduced by telling us "This is how you want to look when you’re going into the store to steal cantaloupe".  The demonstration was met by what’s probably the usual outcry of shock, awe, and slight revulsion- especially when Kirk stuck his hand in under Martin’s rib cage and told us he could feel Martin’s beating heart.  This truly has to be seen to be believed.

Wet, Then

Lecture over, time to head out to the high-diving well and pool.  I was flattered when the instructors all used my suit lube, and Mandy observed that I’d made it correctly: "Somebody knows how to follow directions!"  My only faux pas was my choice of scent: coconut.  Turns out the scent of coconut doesn’t blend so well with that of…a certain other scent that can arise when a certain fluid is forced out of the lower body during a dive.  Hey, how was I to know?

The 15’/5m deep diving well was our venue for running through rescue scenarios. We then moved to the lap pool  to work on static breathholds. I managed  a 3:45, not, quite making the 4:00 we were all attempting.  I came up to find a video camera in my face, held by none other than DeeperBlue.net’s own Paul Kotik, our fourth instructor for the course.  He was hoping to catch a spectacular samba on film, for use in future classes. No such luck, I was fine!  Heh heh.  We switched, and my buddy’s progress through his series of holds was interrupted when the lifeguard ordered us all out of the pool: a classic South Florida tropical thunderstorm was rolling in. 

Sushi of the Shtars

Class over for the day, the gang of four and six of us students went out for dinner.  For sushi.  I swear, these PFI people really are human dolphins.   It was really nice to sit there in the restaurant, just talking about whatever came up.  This is what I really enjoyed.  Some people like to hang out with celebrities just so they can look or feel important.  Me, I like seeing people as just that; people.  People that, no matter how many world records they may hold, put their wetsuits on the same way I do: one leg at a time.

DAY TWO

We started out in the diving well doing negative pressure dives.  Fun stuff, feeling your diaphragm trying to push your lungs out of your mouth. Kirk told us that the last one would simulate a dive to over 200’/61m.  I believe him.  With totally empty (and then some) lungs, I couldn’t equalize at the bottom.  Just another thing for me to work on.

Back at the lap pool, my buddy got to finish his static apnea exercise started the day before. He hit 4:20, surfacing to a watching crowd.  I was bound and determined to beat my own personal best of 3:45, so on my last hold I somehow pulled myself through it and did a new PB of 4:15.  When I came up there were only a few students left holding, and Kirk was crouched right in front of me, watching me as he called the time.  As I was doing my recovery breaths, he reached down, brushed my hand with his finger, and gave me a big thumbs up.  I could practically feel myself glowing with pride and happiness.  The classmate next to me came up around 10 seconds later, and they captured his spectacular samba on film…while the rest of us kind of stood watching, ooh-ing and aah-ing.  "Look, loss of motor control, actually happening!  Oooh, ahhhh…." 

Das Boot

Rain lashed at us from the starboard side of the boat during the forty-minute ride out to the deep blue water of the Gulf Stream, seven miles offshore.  The Captain piloted us out through the water and I stood on the bow in my wetsuit, holding tight to the railing and bending my knees as the boat dipped and rised on the waves like a giant surfboard.  As each spray of salt water crashed over me, I turned my head away, grinning and almost laughing out loud as I shook the water out of my hair and turned back for the next blast.  A misplaced Ohioan, I was now a creature of the sea, about to return home.  By the time we got to the site the rain had stopped, but the ocean was rolling with 4’/1.5m swells.  Most of my classmates were experienced spearos with plenty of experience in this kind of environment.  I was used to the calm, quiet waters of Ohio quarries.  This was going to be an experience.

Tuning Up

Mandy was the instructor on my line that day, and the bottom plate was set at a depth of 66’/20m.  We began with free immersions, in which we were to pull down the line, hang out at around 15’/5m until our first contraction, then pull back up.  In my excitement, I swam down, hung out, then swam back up.  When I hit the surface, Mandy reminded me: "Remember, we’re pulling down and back up for these.  That was a good hold, though!"  After getting used to bobbing up and down in the hills of water, I managed to calm down enough to get in a few decent dives to 30’/10m or so.  My left ear was a bit sticky and it was slamming on the brakes every time I tried to get a bit deeper.  "Relax, don’t be upset" I told myself, "It’ll be better tomorrow.".  I tried to focus on technique, trying to remember each new thing as it was taught to me, and trying to implement it in each dive.  However, by this point, it was pretty much like trying to ride a bicycle with a bull while teaching a duck on the handlebars to yodel while he balanced a ball on his nose.  In other words, choreography.  Only, this choreography was upside down.  And underwater.

We finished up with a few rescue scenarios, in which I rescued Mandy.  Incorrectly.  At least she was out of the water.  Hey, what can I say?  It was all very overwhelming!

Enter the Monkeys 

On the way back in I sat again on the bow, burning my pasty Ohio skin to a crisp and talking with Mandy.  She said something interesting, about how she has to ignore the evil monkeys on her shoulder during a dive.  I realized that I really needed to work on not listening to them, myself.

Back to the hotel, where I tried to drift off to sleep, running a dive, from start to finish, over and over and over again in my head, trying to pound all the new things I’d learned into place, so I would’nt  do anything wrong the next day.  Which, of course, I would.

Todd wraps up the story of his First Encounter of the Ocean Kind next week.