I'm finning backwards for Christmas
FINNING BACKWARDS is a very useful skill to have as a photographer, but I actually picked up the trick long before I started taking underwater pictures, when I was playing octopush (underwater hockey).
With poor technique and all sorts of inefficient slicing and bicycling motions, even the worst divers can make some sort of forward progress, but not so with finning backwards. If the technique is not right, you end up doing everything except move backwards.
Finning backwards is not a process that comes naturally to most divers.
On the opening session of the Vobster TEKCamp this summer, participants were asked which basic technical skills they would like to work on for the first morning. And just about everyone wanted to learn how to fin backwards.
The trick, as instructors John Kendall and Richard Walker remarked, is not just about how to swim backwards, but more importantly how to avoid swimming forwards again when you reposition your feet and fins for the next backwards stroke.
For a first lesson, John and Richard took divers into the water in just their drysuits – no cylinders, no weights and, somewhat of a surprise to me, no fins.
John explained to the students: “You can move backwards by pushing against the water with your legs. Until you get the feel for that, fins just get in the way.”
The divers floated face-down, head tilted up, arms forward and legs straight back. From that position, the feet and legs were twisted outwards and knees pulled in, flexing slightly upward, getting the maximum surface of their legs to push backwards against the water.
Having created backwards motion, the feet were then rotated and toes pointed to present a minimal surface while slowly sliding the legs back to the starting position.
“Move your feet away from you very slowly,“ said John. “Try to get the soles of your feet together by twisting your ankles and not by moving your knees apart.”
Richard put it slightly differently: “You have to sneak your feet back without the water noticing.”
Having watched this first exercise from the side, I asked the divers what they thought about it.
“I’m what I would call ‘baby-tec’,” said Trudy. “I did a course a couple of years ago, but haven’t had a chance to really use it in anger.
“I’ve tried back-kicking by myself, but wasn’t achieving it. You can never actually see what you’re doing wrong, because it’s all behind you.
“John manipulated my feet and legs into the right positions,” she said.
“I could feel how my limbs should be moving. I have a much better idea of how I should go about doing it.
“While John was doing a similar demonstration with another student, I was having a little practice. I moved!
I don’t know how else to describe it.
It was absolutely amazing.”
Greg was an Open Water instructor who was learning about technical diving for his own interest.
“I did a technical course a year ago that touched on swimming backwards,” he told me. “I have used it, but badly. The surface exercise was good for getting us to slow down, to think about it and get rid of bad habits,” he says.
A RELATIVELY NEW DIVER was Justin. He had learned to dive earlier this year and had been doing a few dives a week since February. He completed a self-sufficiency course a couple of months before TEKCamp and had been practising with his twin-set since then.
“This was the first time I had tried swimming backwards,” he said. “With no weight on, my feet were very floaty and my head was going under.
“I had to use an SMB as a swimming float. It made balancing harder and resisted the water. I was having to concentrate on keeping myself stable as much as on the backward kick.
“The basics are there. I know what
I should be doing and I just need to practise,” concluded Justin.
Getting the training dive started was not a quick process, as the instructors removed weight from the divers, shifted cylinder-bands and generally reconfigured their kit to improve buoyancy and trim in the water.
To my disappointment, the swim to the training platforms was conducted forwards.
Having described the surface lesson, there isn’t much more to say about the underwater lesson, which was similar but with full kit and fins on. I watched the divers visibly improve.
Justin was happy with his progress. “It’s the same with all your finning techniques. If you don’t get your angle in the water right, your trim, it’s all a lot harder. If you don’t get your feet working together, you tend to drift off to one side. Going backwards, you may go backwards, but will start tilting upwards or turning.”
“The more I try it, the more comfortable it begins to feel. If I do 10 strokes, I may get four or five good ones and four or five that are a bit off, but overall I am making progress.”
Having practised so far without fins, Justin surprised me with his next comment. “It’s all about the fins, my legs don’t do a great deal at all. It’s more about a gentle flick.” he said.
Greg made similar comments about feeling better about his overall buoyancy and position in the water, adding: “Swapping to a stiffer and heavier pair of fins helped.”
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FINS was something John Kendall emphasised. “It’s not impossible, but floppy fins, split-fins or fins with a pronounced bend in them make it much more difficult,” he reckoned.
Which clarified something for me.
I had always felt that my fins did most of the work when swimming backwards.
John agreed. “Yes, once you have the right movement, fins do a lot, but for those just starting they’re an unnecessary complication on the surface exercises.”
Back to the divers. “They have taken loads of weight off of me and everybody else as well,” said Trudy.
“The difference positioning in the water makes is incredible. You move through the water so much more smoothly. I’m getting there, but I need to get better at it under water. That will be my next mission.”
I caught up with her again a day later, this time with Howard Payne her instructor. The main object of his lesson was stage cylinders, but they were also taking the opportunity to practise finning skills. Between dives, Howard had his team taking turns across the picnic table for further refinement of the backwards kick. Instructors vary in their enthusiasm for this dry training exercise. Some think it’s a useful step, while others prefer to get straight in the water.
“It’s been really hard work, but I think I have it cracked – even with a stage cylinder on,” said Trudy.
I asked her about the picnic-bench exercise. “Having already had a go in the water definitely helped me understand what Howard was saying on the bench,” she said.
“It also helped to see others on the bench as much as doing it myself.
But you can’t beat the feel of water on your fins. I would have liked to see Howard on the bench, and not just for the humour value.”
Having got moving backwards, what tips would our divers offer others
“It’s still all very new to me. My tip is to come on the next TEKCamp,” said Trudy.
“Learn to frog-kick,” suggested Justin. “If you can frog-kick well, it’s not that far off reversing the whole process – it’s all from the knees down.”
ACCORDING TO GREG, “the finning is not the real problem, it’s everything else that leads up to it. Sort out your buoyancy. Get nice and flat and comfortable. Then work on the finning.”
How would this affect his Open Water teaching “Entry-level training doesn’t place enough emphasis on buoyancy and trim,” he reckoned. “There is too much sitting on a platform, but I don’t know how I can change that.”
If you want something to keep you busy in those last few club pool sessions leading up to Christmas, practise finning backwards.
I'm finning backwards for Christmas,
Across the Irish Sea,
I'm finning backwards for Christmas,
It's the only thing for me.
I've tried finning sideways,
And finning to the front,
But people just look at me,
And say it's a publicity stunt.
Paraphrased from The Goon Show