This week is freaking mind blowing. At first, I think I am in the company of some sort of toolbags. I am working every day on being less judgmental. Thank you Erica for constantly catching me.
I go to this stupid, free Freediving course because everyone from the Caribbean Cup competition is there and that’s who I’ve been hanging out with. I think it’s stupid until they get me doing these “ventilations” and then holding my breath. I hold my breath for two minutes, easily.
Ok, I’m listening. I decide to take the course.
Each day consists of about 4 hours in a classroom studying, anatomy, chemistry, physics, physiology, and psychology. The other part of the day is spent in the water. On this day we did our first underwater breath hold in about 3 feet of water. I got 3:18, which was the shortest in the group.
So the teachers are being patient, but we are pissing them off something fierce. I mean they are trying to get us to dive and safety is numero uno. Well I, for one, am so focused on my dive technique (which is quite intricate) and keep forgetting to be ready when my diver partner is surfacing. That is beyond important and I am basically a selfish jerk. On top of that, my form sucks and I’m struggling badly with my 10 meter dive. Pretty much anyone can do this if they know anything about equalizing their inner ear pressure.
I am pretty much the worst and weakest in a class of seven. I tell the teachers that I am only doing the 2-1/2 day course.
Ren comes over to my apartment and says he wants me to finish the full course and don’t worry about the rest of the fees. Ren and Ashley love what they do and feel they would fail if I quit when the going got tough. Great teachers like this are rare.
I did want to quit. Being in open ocean always has always given me the heebie-jeebies, especially with 100+ feet of visibility. I get tense after 10 seconds of holding my breath and swimming. The boat looks pretty small from 33 feet underneath it.
This is the hardest part of the dive believe it or not. In the first 10 meters, your body is positively buoyant. This is ensured as a safety measure because 99% of blackouts occur in the last part of the ascent. Out of those 99%, 90% happen after the diver has taken recovery breaths at the surface.
Hydrostatic pressure makes it feel like you are out of air. At 10 meters (33 feet), your lungs are 1/2 the original volume. At 20 meters, they are 1/3. At 30 meters, they are 1/4. The water squeezes you, triggering stretch receptors that tell your brain you have exhaled. These are the instincts you must implement diplomacy with. There is more than enough oxygen-rich air in your body. Your mind has to convince your brain.
There is one instinct that actually helps. It’s called the Mammalian Dive Reflex. When we hold our breath and go under water, the heart slows. Something called blood shunting happens and draws blood away from the extremities (purple fingernails after long dives) and concentrates blood at the heart, lungs, and brain. We pee a lot to thicken the blood and increase blood pressure.
To make it to the goal of 30 meters (100 feet), I have to be cool as a cucumber. But, I suck. I am just about the opposite of a cool cucumber. I’m more like a jalapeño in the oven. I’m gripping the edge of panic, crying inside to get back to the surface.
It’s near impossible to equalize your ears when you aren’t relaxed. The feeling you get when your phone buzzes in your pocket, yeah, that’s enough to tense your diaphragm. If you fail to equalize, it feels like a pencil is being pushed through your ear and the pain increases if you continue, until your ear drum rips. Then the pressure inside your ear will equal the hydrostatic.
Back at the surface, I’m cold and have to relax for the next few minutes in order to lower my heart rate so I can dive again, this time to 50 feet. And this is how freediving goes.
DAY 3 is worse.
I add a Lava Core under my wet suit, but am still cold, so my breathing is still uncontrollable. My ears are not equalizing and I’m a stress knot with a heart rate of 120 bpm and the fear of death in his eyes. I need 60 beats per minute or less to be successful.
I start to feel like a student that can’t be helped. That night, I do yoga to wear out my body and relax. Erica (we met on Utila) and I do breathing exercises and I think about how Ren told me it’s all mental.
I realize that Erica is right: Freediving has a fundamental difference from other sports. You can’t just be calm on the surface. You have to physically be calm to the core. Your cells have to be calm. You absolutely can’t fake it. Tomorrow is going to be the big day. My heart flutters just thinking about diving. Each time I feel nervous I make myself understand fully that my psychological habit is unnecessary and will not help in any way. One way I calm down is by making sure my toes are relaxed.
In rock climbing and SCUBA, you have to rely on your gear. In freediving, you are the gear. The moment you loose a grip on your emotional reactions, your equipment fails. The only remedy is focus.
On the final day, I have only a smoothie for breakfast. There are special stretches while holding a full breath that prepare you for the hydrostatic pressure. I also visualize the dive a few times.
Visualizing can be a very powerful tool to accomplish goals. Athletes from golfers to boxers use this method to “watch” themselves accomplishing their goal. Michael Jordan used to do this with free throws. He counted dribbles, spins in his hand, bent his knees and bounced in his mind. If you can picture enough detail, your mind hardly knows the difference between an imagined scenario and the real thing. It’s like having a daydream where you’re falling and then you wake up by jumping in your seat.
Ren and Ashley tell us to visualize the 100’ dive, to capture every detail. The water temperature, spitting out water that splashes into my snorkel, everything. The trick is to keep it continuous and in real time so that you are enduring the emotional stress. I go through the preparatory breathing counts in my mind. I imagine going through the entry routine, making my body hydrodynamic, and counting kick cycles. For me it is 8 hard kick cycles (because you are positively buoyant for the first 10 meters), 8 soft kick cycles (neutrally buoyant 10m-20m), and then no kicks for 10 seconds (you begin to sink after 20 meters due to gas compression). Once I reach the plate in my mind, I grab the rope, pull hard, and begin my dolphin kicks. At the last 10 meters, I begin to float again and can stop kicking to conserve oxygen.
Cool things happen on the ascent. the gas in your mask is expanding, which you can sniff to get a little shot of fresh air. It’s difficult to keep the visualization accurate because, in real life, I am floating in the water and simultaneously doing my ventilation counts and waiting in line to do the actual dive. I keep getting distracted and never quite touch the plate in my head.
We take a small boat out into the crystal blue water under the warm morning sun. The wind has changed directions so it’s dead calm. The warm up dives go really well and a larger wet suit seems to be keeping me warm. I finish the 66′ dive clean.
At 85′, my ear stops me. Attempting 100′ for the second time, I can not equalize my ears again after 80 feet. I decide to hell with it and to keep going. It isn’t much further that my ear says, “Nope.”
I do a real quick u-turn using the rope and began kicking for the distant surface. Burning lungs have to be ignored and those thoughts replaced with the knowledge that my body has plenty of air. I tell myself, “Just keep looking at the rope in front of your face and stay calm.”
The ocean surface becomes visible at the top of my periphery, but I have to fight the urge to look up. A short while later I pull my arms down by my side and exhale so that my lungs will be ready to breathe in when I breach the water-air barrier. My head and shoulders burst into the atmosphere and I take in my first gasp of sweet air. After the 30 second recovery process and I signal I’m OK, my instructor tells me I was one foot from the 100′ plate. She says it’s close enough. Who am I to argue with a 3-time world record holder?
Since the class, every time I feel anxiety about money or time, I stop, breathe, and relax my body commmmmmmmpletely. Relax the toes. Relax the feet. Relax your ankles. Relax the muscles in your hands. Allow your jaw to hang and relax the muscles of your face. Breathe into the muscles of your back, neck, etc. Work parts of the body and try to relax the tissue. You have to be relaxed like you are drooling and don’t want to move after a Thai massage in order to freedive well. I find it amazing how frequently my body tenses from unnecessary stress.
Before our dive, Ashley tells us there are two kinds of fears: imaginary and real. She asks us to name some fears and we decide if they are made up in our heads or legitimate. Drowning, falling, and being eaten are real fears. I ask about sharks. Everyone in the boat has dove with sharks, yet no one has been bitten. It’s kind of like bees; if you don’t make them feel threatened, they don’t attack you.
There are two ropes hanging from the boat to a weighted plate. We split up into two groups and take turns attempting our dives. When it comes time for the 100 foot dive, a 7-foot dusky shark swims 15 meters below the plates. It was just curious, even a bit skittish. He stays with us for about an hour.
Judging his distance, I guess we have about 150 feet of visibility before it gets dark. At the Caribbean Cup I would watch the divers submerge, kick their fins down until they disappeared. After 2 or 3 minutes, they would reappear from the abyss and come up to the surface with a tag proving they made it to their goal. Some freedivers go deeper than 400 feet.
Erica and I go snorkeling around the bay. I don’t have a snorkel, making it difficult to see the coral each time I run out of air. I start thinking I should just go buy one. Not two minutes later Erica pulls one out of the water and says, “Look what I found!”
Ever since leaving Utila, it has bothered me that I didn’t find Chris to say bye. Erica and I take a cab, ferry, another cab, a bus, and a third cab to a hostel in San Pedro Sula. When we arrive 8 hours later, we walk in and there’s Chris sitting on the couch, waiting to go to the airport. Erica and he split a cab 2 hours later because they are on the same flight.
The universe is clever. Erica and I were talking about making our own tortillas yesterday while we cooked lunch. They are so much better fresh off a frying pan. I get to the hostel and find this pillow on the couch.
So I grab some Masa (corn flour) from the store and make some for dinner.
These instances happen so much on the road that they cease to surprise. You begin to expect it. Then all you have to is decide what you want. Be careful of your thoughts though. If you are constantly paranoid of getting mugged, you probably will or at least freak out on someone who’s trying to help you.
Listening too closely to advice sometimes interferes with my intuition. Too much advice is eventually going to conflict because guess what? It’s situational! Use your head and don’t let all the pussies of the world scare you into avoiding the things you want to do.
It might not work out, but chances are good that you are going to survive. Want proof? Look at global and local population growth. We aren’t very good at dying, no matter what TV says. Will Smith’s character said in After Earth, “Don’t misunderstand me, danger is very real, but fear is a choice.”