Truly, calmly, deeply
Can freedivers and scuba-divers ever be friends Tim Ecott goes to Gosport and gets psyched up to test the waters in the Royal Navys Submarine Escape Training Tank Divernet

IT LOOKS LIKE A GIANT VERSION of the hotwater tank in my airing cupboard. When I say giant, I mean 10 storeys high: a steel cylinder 9 metres in diameter filled with 150,000 gallons of warm, clear water. From the top, its like looking down into a well.
     This is Gosport, and I have come to spend a weekend at the SETT, the Royal Navys Submarine Escape Training Tank, where they teach sailors how to get out of sunken submarines.
     A short flight of metal steps allows me to climb up onto the side and slip over the edge into the water. In the very centre is a thin steel cable leading all the way to the bottom. I swim over to it, clinging on as I peer down through the water-column with my mask.
     On the inside of the steel walls, lines and numbers mark off depth - 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 and, barely visible, a final line at 30. Thirty metres, a depth that would be easily attainable wearing scuba gear, suddenly seems a long, long distance under water.
     No-one will be wearing scuba this weekend because we have come to practise free-diving, something at which I have only dabbled until now.
     Emma Farrell, chair of the British Freediving Association, is my instructor. Dont think about how deep you can dive, she says calmly. Just focus on your breathing; keep it slow, deep and steady. Use your abdomen; take your time. Go down when youre ready, and Ill follow.
     I remember the routine that we practised at the poolside and in the classroom sessions, closing my eyes to focus on staying relaxed. After four minutes of slow, gradual breaths I feel ready, and attempt what I hope is a neat, smooth duck-dive.
     Hand over hand, I pull myself down the line, pausing every few feet to hold my nose and squeeze air into my ears to equalise. Wearing super-long freediving fins means that I reach the 10m line in seconds; then I can see 15.
     I resist the urge to look back towards the surface as I begin to feel the effects of oxygen starvation.
     Two more pulls on the cable and I am at the 20m mark. A couple more, and the 25m line is almost within reach.
     For a moment I am tempted to go for it, but the training lessons take over, and I remember that I have to save some energy to return to the surface, now 75ft above.
     I turn around, and start kicking. At 10m Emma is there, watching my face closely and looking into my eyes to check for any signs of distress.
     Back on the surface, I breathe deeply and break into a smile. I want to go again, but first I must rest and relax, and stop thinking about setting new personal records.
     Freediving isnt about record depths, Emma had stressed during the classroom sessions. Remember, its also about extreme silence, mental focus and teaching your body to be flexible.
     The other students are a complete cross-section, none of them with any real freediving experience. Jim is in his 60s, a retired civil servant from the Isle of Skye; Beatrice, a translator from Wales; Kevin, a construction worker from Hampshire. There are also two Australian friends from London, Justin and Marc, who want to hone their skills for spear-fishing.
     On this course everyone is allowed to train and practise at his or her own pace. The SETT is heated to the temperature of a tropical lagoon (34ÂC), and there are ropes and ladders around the walls that allow the divers to hold on and relax between dives.
     Video cameras are trained on the tank and the instructors can watch the divers from the surface and inside the tank at all times.
     Classroom sessions explain the physiology of freediving, and also stress the importance of correct breathing techniques to make sure we utilise our full lung capacity.
     Freedivers and scuba-divers dont always see eye to eye. Freedivers sometimes label us as noisy, clumsy creatures who dont understand the pure nature of breath-hold diving.
     Ive never accepted that, and it was a pleasant surprise to find that most of the people on the course (the instructors included) were keen scuba divers too. Lets face it, if you want to really study marine life, it helps to have an air supply. Several experienced divers were using the SETT for advanced training during my course. It was refreshing to find that there was no sense of us and them, and they were quick to offer friendly tips and advice when anyone raised a question.
     Our visit also allowed time to experiment with some of the different types of equipment favoured by free-divers. Low-volume, lightweight masks made it easier to equalise the air space around my eyes without using air that could be better employed in my Eustachian tubes.
     I also tried a mono-fin for the first time - and hated it. Although these provide amazing power under water, I disliked the fact that they hold your ankles together - a sensation I imagined being similar to having a cement bag tied to your ankles by the Mafia just before you are thrown into a canal.
     Try them under water, Emma enthused. But remember, the secret to mono-finning is having really powerful pelvic thrusts. I want you to focus on pelvic thrusts.
     Suddenly, there was utter silence around the perimeter of the tank, as her advice echoed off the steel walls.
     Freediving is said to trigger a physical response in humans called the diving reflex, which we share with dolphins and seals. As we immerse our faces in the water, our heartbeat slows and our blood pressure drops. On Monday morning I wake up after a restful sleep. The physical challenge was fun, but it is the feeling of immense calm that persists. I want to return to the tank.

  • Freediving courses at the Submarine Escape Training Tank are available from Deeper Blue (0870 9506589, www. Weekend courses cost £299 (excluding accommodation) and are held throughout the year. The fee includes access, lectures, qualified instructor supervision, diving equipment hire, training manual, lunch on both days and AIDA certification. Once qualified, course participants get reduced fees when using the SETT for training.

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    Tim Ecott gets himself into a suitable frame of mind to take the plunge
    Long fins propel the new freediver down faster than expected
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