Free at last
RELAXED AND MAKING MY TURN at the bottom of the line, I felt like a freediver.
I had ahead of me my longest ascent yet, but I was sure I was capable of it.
As I ascended, I was no longer focused on the many instructions of preceding days, but on my surroundings; now-familiar feelings told me where I was in the water column as I steadily accelerated upwards, and the arrival of my instructor in my peripheral vision confirmed that I was within a few fin-strokes of the surface.
As I broke the surface beside the buoy, I went automatically into the recovery routine with which I was now accustomed – I was now a freediver!
I had not intended to become one, but fell into it as a possible means of advancing my diving. My first experience of scuba was a try-dive in 1997. I jumped in head-first, gaining all the usual training and experience, I became an underwater archaeologist in 2003.
AS A REBREATHER-TRAINED, Advanced Trimix diver with eight years’ professional diving experience, it would be easy to believe that there was little more for me to achieve in this field. However, I enjoy diving and still want to progress; surely there is always more to learn Moreover, having come through one or two sticky moments, I am always looking for ways of making my diving safer. But how
While I was bobbing in the shallow end, trying to master fin-pivots, Tanya Streeter was making a big splash in freediving, stretching the women’s No Limits diving record to 113m.
From the outset, I knew of freediving. Reading about it in DIVER, it seemed that records were regularly set and smashed.
There seemed an excitement surrounding it, with more people getting involved, judging by the expanding results tables in competition reports and the formation of our own British Freediving Association in the same year, 1998. The Big Blue took its place between The Abyss and Cockleshell Heroes in my diving-related film library. Yet I felt no drive to experience freediving myself.
Then, in 2004 an image of freediving was burned into my memory. I was 60m down, in a quarry, with trimix in my twin-set, stage cylinders, argon suit-inflation, knives, torches, back-ups of everything.
I glanced up to witness a lithe silhouette slip beneath the surface, and glide effortlessly into the dark depths. It was one of the attractive young women at whom I had (unsubtly) gawped in the car park, as they pulled on their tight wetsuits and went through yogic contortions and breathing exercises.
This was my first sight of a freediver in action; in the light of my torch beam, she made a slow and graceful turn, paused and finned slowly to the surface. To watch it seemed improbable, yet the contrast to my dive was not lost on me, and a seed was sewn.
Fast forward to 2011, and I found myself in Dahab. I had no fixed plans, but a conversation with Tim, the owner of Seastar Apartments (my home for the week) led him to call his friend Sara Campbell to enquire about courses.
Sara, busy preparing for a competition, recommended Dean Spahic and Katya Smirnova, who run World of Freediving.
A quick phone call and we agreed to meet on the beach to talk about my interests and goals, and so figure out if one of them was the right instructor for me.
This approach set the tone for the rest of my time with them, and gave me a day or two to ponder just what my interest in freediving was.
Improved gas consumption, mental and physical relaxation, focus and mental preparation seemed to me to be reasons to go into freediving, above any desire to experience the freedom or sense of personal challenge.
We decided that I would join Dean for an AIDA 2* course and, if I wished, move on from there. AIDA is the international governing body for the sport.
Dean explained that there are pros and cons to a scuba background, but that we’d work on any challenges as they arose. We could go at my pace and work to my limits. The following day I met him early at the Sea Pioneer dive centre.
“The most challenging and rewarding AIDA course”, AIDA 2* consists of two theory sessions, a pool session and three open-water dives. Joining me were Raphael, Alexi and Ria. They brought lively discussion to the theory, each having different backgrounds and levels of freediving experience.
This highlighted Dean’s skill as an instructor, because I felt that we were very much a group, yet each person received close attention and personalised tuition.
I liked Dean’s style, a feeling of relaxed humanity yet a directness that reflected his military background. More than once he said: “If you do X, you will die. Do Y.” He did of course expound, but directness works for me.
WE FOCUSED ON BREATHING TECHNIQUES, and I got a surprise – I was able to hold my breath for more than three minutes! Not in world-record territory, but it gave me confidence and whetted my appetite for more.
We soon progressed to a long, narrow pool designed for static and dynamic apnea competitions. This is a great facility in which to develop skills and confidence, because
the shallow water offers a safe, controlled environment. Here we had to achieve the first of our practical goals for the course: a two-minute static and 40m dynamic apnea. I knew two minutes was within my capability, but I had no idea how I’d fare with the swim.
As it turned out, the two are very different. In the dynamic, you can see what you have to do, so visualise the process in your mental preparation and measure your own progress as you swim. No doubt the male competitive urge was also helping here – I was elated to achieve a 60m dynamic apnea! I was really beginning to get a sense of my physical and mental capacities, and learning to stretch them.
The famous Blue Hole would be the venue for the open-water element of our course. I had heard a great deal about this place, but was taken aback by how busy it was.
This was great; we were mingling with the big boys and girls, for many of this throng were in preparation for a forthcoming competition.
We spent time practising the skills required for a real, open-water freedive: the breathe-up, duck-dive, body position in the water, the turn, the ascent, and recovery breathing.
We were encouraged to work together, taking turns to be diver and safety cover, giving us a sense of independence and building confidence; we were working towards the final practical goal, to dive to 16m in open water.
We built up steadily, and along the way I got another surprise – I’m bent. My body bends to the right, banana-like, affecting my posture in the water.
Others had their own personal challenges, such as difficulty equalising. With Dean’s help we worked on these, and at the end of a series of progressive dives, I hit my target!
We met early the following day to sit the exam, much of it straightforward for a qualified diver, and so I became a qualified freediver.
To polish my skills I spent another day with Dean. After a few dives, he lengthened the rope that hung beneath our buoy: “Dive as deep as you are comfortable with, on the line,” he said.
I glided down the line, feeling in tune with what I was doing. This was becoming natural.
I was enjoying the experience and not just the challenge; at the end of the line 26m down, and feeling relaxed, I made my turn for the surface. I had experienced the sense of being part of the underwater realm, and not intruding on it. You can’t get that using scuba.
Along the way, I learnt a lot about my mental and physical capacities in the water. This has given me a great insight into how I may react in, say, an out-of-air situation.
I have a grasp of how much time I have and, crucially, how to respond to the body’s urge to draw breath.
I’ve gained an extra edge in being able to prepare myself mentally for a dive and to deal with potentially serious scenarios.
Having gained this myself, and having seen how some divers respond to such scenarios,
I would advise every scuba-diver to undertake some freediving training and to keep learning.
While diving should be fun, you never know when you might need that extra degree of focus and self-control. So what next in this diver’s education AIDA 3*, of course!
And very probably back in Dahab, with Dean and Katya. They don’t have 5* facilities of their own, making use instead of a friendly sea-front centre’s classrooms and rental equipment (basic suits, masks and snorkels); the pool is a drive away in a bohemian expat’s quarter
of the town.
But, if you can take Dean’s directness (and I suspect he’s able to soften his approach for those of a nervous disposition), then there is a lot to be gained from their set-up.
Low overheads give them the flexibility to work to your schedule and adapt training to your needs, and the time to be very active freedivers themselves, and involved in the competition circuit.
If you want a slick, regimented course, with the latest gear provided, look elsewhere. But I would recommend that you follow me, to Dean’s door – but learn from my mistake and take your own gear!
AIDA 2* course with World of Freediving in Dahab takes 2.5 days and costs 230 euros for one diver, 200 for two or more. AIDA 1* is not a prerequisite. www.worldoffreediving.net