The HMS Dolphin Experience

We’d been tossing the idea around for months, and then it was upon me.

Freediver magazine publisher Howard Jones and Deeper Blue’s Stephan Whelan ponied up the logistics and the game was afoot. I left Miami on an overnight nonstop to London, bound for a weekend freediving romp at HMS Dolphin, the Royal Navy’s Submarine Escape Training Tower (SETT) at Portsmouth, England.

My home in South Florida is blessed with a semi-tropical climate, not at all like the Arctic wilderness I regarded, with no small apprehension, on the approach to Heathrow. That was a Thursday afternoon. After a bit of nostalgic rambling about Central London that afternoon and Friday, Stephan and I rose before dawn Saturday morning and motored through the Surrey countryside down to Portsmouth.

The English countryside is, thankfully, what it is, and is no less so on a frosty winter morning. Soothing to the eye, reassuring in its solidity and permanence. It was, however, well below freezing. As we wound through the streets of Portsmouth, one could feel the ancient maritime tradition in which the town is steeped. The presence of the Royal Navy was apparent in the increasingly numerous sightings of munitions plants, camouflaged bunkers, concertina wire and red brick buildings named by the Royal Navy, for reasons unknown to me, as if they were ships. One such building, HMS Dolphin, was our destination.

A narrow causeway passes the Trafalgar Marina and leads one to the gates of the compound in which the SETT facility is housed in a 10 -story building, the tallest in the vicinity. We parked outside the gate, entered an adjacent office, and were issued preprinted vehicle and personal passes by convivial military personnel. Back in the car, we approached the gates, presented our credentials, and were admitted to the base.

In contrast to the sleepy town center, the base facilities and the waterfront were quite active at that hour. We later learned the reason as we witnessed the Royal Navy’s flag warship, the carrier Ark Royal, steaming from home port to deploy.

Dolphin2 Her Majesty’s Ship Dolphin is not a tourist resort. It is nothing like that at all. It is a military installation, and has the look and feel of one. The walls and floors are hard, the corners sharp, and the paint, though immaculate, has that institutional gloss. Bulletin boards are covered with large format aerial photos, terse charts illustrating emergency medical procedures and signed testimonials from the foreign naval personnel who have passed through the facility over the years. Some of the notices are composed in an unfathomable military jargon which is, nevertheless, not without a certain charm. One such sign advises the reader to "Ditch All Gash Before Leaving the Building." I thank in advance any reader who knows to discover its meaning to the rest of us.

The freediving weekend begins at 8:30 sharp with a briefing by the SETT’s Lieutenant Commander G., a solemn but endearing fellow who takes the health and welfare of his guests very seriously indeed. Thus chastened and reassured, we were led by Howard to the second-level Trainee Break Room, where he conducted his own briefing on the weekend’s game plan and on the Dolphin’s creature comforts, such as they are.

Stepping out of the elevator on the 10th level, one regards what seems to be a circular above-ground swimming pool of the sort suburbanites assemble for the kiddies in the summertime. The luminous blue-green water is inviting, and as one approaches the waist -high metal rim there is a mild vertigo as one’s gaze goes down and down and down ….. the still, crystal clear water is 30 meters deep! It is a strange and wonderful sight, almost unique in the world, and it takes some time to get used to it.

Howard Jones opens the weekend tank sessions with a well thought out and expertly delivered safety and operations briefing. He takes care to emphasize the overriding objective of the Dolphin weekend, which is for each participant to enjoy the facility in his or her own way. Howard, like a skilled party host, composes each weekend’s guest list with an eye toward diversity of skills and interests, but caps the novice contingent at about half of the party and assigns buddy teams with at least one experienced member. The testosterone-driven, competitive ambience I’d half expected was conspicuously absent.

The HMS Dolphin experience is whatever the participant makes of it. It is an idealized, optimized freediving environment, almost abstract in its sheer perfection. The water is heated to a soothing 94 F / 34 C, and is clean and clear. Remotely-operated video cameras in the tank feed banks of monitors suspended around the deck, providing participants and onlookers with a view of everything going on down below. It is a blank canvas, upon which the visitor can paint as the spirit moves.

Dolphin1 It is difficult to imagine a more perfect setting for the novice freediver to get his feet wet, and, indeed, many a beginner has left the Dolphin weekend having achieved depths and times that generally take months or even years to attain in the open ocean. I watched as a young woman, a police officer by profession with no previous freediving experience, progressed from trepidation to total comfort. At first she seemed a bit reluctant to get in the tank at all, but by the end of the second day she was effortlessly finning to the bottom and back, again and again, hugely enjoying every minute of it. My buddy, Deeper Blue Publisher Stephan Whelan, made his freediving debut with great elan, and mastered the art of the feet-first pulldown to 20 meters, mugging for the camera at that depth.

The group also included a number of intermediate divers, who unanimously lauded the facility for the unparalleled opportunities it offers for maintaining and extending skills and capabilities through the English winter, and have a ripping good time at it, too.

Filmmaker Emma Farrell, making her fourth visit to Dolphin, recounted her own progress over the year’s time since she took up freediving: " I was afraid of water, and afraid of heights ! And it took me a very long time before I could equalize at all." The warmth, the sense of safety and the long in-water sessions at Dolphin soon had Emma realize her lifetime aquatic dream. She followed her early tank sessions with an open-water course with Aharon and MT Solomons in Greece, and trained there with Russian monofin coaches as well. Emma, now utterly at home in the water, was a study in grace and serenity throughout the weekend, moving up and down the water column and lingering on the bottom. Of the tank itself, she posits: " I think it is incredibly useful, especially for a beginner."

Dolphin hosts the sport’s leading lights, too, and for these and other elite level freedivers the tank is a unique venue for training and for play — as if there were a difference ! During my visit Team U.K. member Sam Kirby put herself through her paces most awesomely, a humbling but inspiring reminder that the monofin is as much about form as it is about power. No matter how experienced or accomplished one has become, it seems that the Dolphin environment encourages a unique kind of inner calm which has yielded some incredible performances. Apnea dives of 5 minutes and more to the 30–meter depth are awfully rare in the open ocean, but elite divers doing static apnea on the bottom of Dolphin have approached 6 minutes including descent and ascent. I think this must involve attaining a level of comfort at depth which I, for one, have not yet managed. I want to, though, and HMS Dolphin is without a doubt the place I will go to try.

And, yes, I will go back at the very first opportunity. It is that good. A unique, dreamy-perfect facility, great company, unparalleled safety and security – it is like a hot tub party, ashram, Zen monastery , and boot camp all rolled into one, or, perhaps more accurately, all offered at a buffet for each guest to pick and choose as he or she sees fit. There were 15 divers in the water during my visit, and it was a very comfortable number, not so many as to be crowded but enough to maintain both the sense of safety and a continuous kinetic entertainment at depth.

Travellers from afar can find satisfactory accommodations and provisions in and around Portsmouth. I’d advise packing a few energy bars for lunch, and lounging in the splendid blue robes (provided) rather than going out for the noontime repast. Wetsuits and weight belts are very, very optional. Fins are fine if you fancy finning, but the well-placed lines around the perimeter, and the minimal surface buoyancy in fresh water, make these quite unnecessary if minimalism is your thing. A Dolphin weekend is a unique experience and recommended for everyone from non-divers seeking a fun, life-enhancing escape to world champions looking for the ultimate Jacuzzi. Great for mixed couples, too, with a diver and a non-diver. Come share my world, that sort of thing.

Howard Jones runs his HMS Dolphin weekends about once per month, September through April. Full-weekend rate is currently 170 sterling, which does not include accommodations or transport. Contact Howard Jones at [email protected], and be advised that demand for spots is high relative to supply. I’m going to book my next visit now, in fact, before you grab my place.

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