“I managed to bottom out at 100 feet over a dozen times.”

2014 was a rough year for my body.  I ruined my shoulder bodysurfing Pipe, underwent surgery, broke my collar bone in a freak spearfishing accident almost immediately after finishing physical therapy, then was diagnosed with a life-threatening skull infection soon after my collarbone had mended.  It was a tedious twelve months, awash in painkillers and weight gain, constantly struggling to keep that demon named depression from getting too firm a grip on my soul.  I won’t go into too much detail, I’ve written about it before, and if you’d like to learn a little more you can check it out on Beach Grit.

I was cleared by my ENT to re-enter the ocean on December 24th and was excited to find that Kurt Chambers would be holding a three day intermediate freediving course a few weeks hence.  I’d taken the course on Oahu in 2013 and it was an unbelievably positive experience.  Kurt is an amazing diver, and an excellent instructor, capable of explaining the physics and physiology behind freediving, building your confidence, and then guiding you into the longest breath holds and deepest dives you’ve ever done.  Over the three day course, I pushed my static breath hold to a personal best of 4:10 and hit a depth of 130′, two things I could not have done, or, at least, not in any manner resembling safe, without his assistance.

Further fueling my desire to retake the course was the fact that my wife has recently fallen in love with diving.  She’s very talented in the water and her ability soon outpaced my ability to safely teach her proper technique.  I’m not the best instructor.  I don’t have a ton of patience and I have a tendency to push myself in manner which probably isn’t particularly responsible.  Compounded with her rather unfortunate propensity to peg her performance goals to my own, I was creating what was quickly approaching a very unsafe environment.

I live in fear of people assuming we have a Pipin/Mestre type of relationship.  While I am proud of her accomplishments and drive to improve, I take care to never, ever, push her to try anything with which she isn’t comfortable.  Nor do I have any real desire to see her reach an elite level regarding her free dive ability.  I have my own goals, but they come with decades of ocean experience.  For her this is supposed to be a fun hobby, a great way to see fish and take photos without risking her life to reach some arbitrary notion of accomplishment.  After she suffered a recent case of baurotrama, our ENT read me the riot act for pushing her to unsafe depths and my supposed hockey dad approach to partnership.  That killed me inside, because it’s just not true, but I can see how an outside observer would think it is.

We reserved our spots in Kurt’s class and she eagerly awaited the coming weekend, and I did as well. I desperately needed a chance to check the condition of my newly rebuilt ear drum at depth with an elite level diver present to ensure my safety should my head explode at the bottom.  Also, Kurt allows former students to retake the class for free, which is just freaking awesome.

Day one begins with a few hours of dry land instruction, focusing on the physics of diving and your body’s response to depth and hypoxia.  It is fascinating, and Kurt is an excellent teacher.  Despite being well aware of things like the mammalian dive reflex–the cause of diaphragm spasms and shallow water blackout–and safe methods of breathing up, I was as engaged as if I had never taken the course before.  Even better, he was able to touch on things I had never thought to mention to my wife, as well as communicate ideas and methods I had struggled to convey but never been able to make truly clear.

The final two hours of the first day are moved into shallow water, where we worked on proper technique, ran rescue drills to prepare us in case of a partner’s blackout or loss of motor control, concluding by splitting us into two groups where we worked with our partners during attempts at static apnea (essentially floating face down and holding your breath for as long as possible.)

Each group was given three tries.  They were proceeded by a few minutes of breathe up, which is deep inhalations followed by long, slow, exhalations.  You seek to lower your heart rate and calm your mind, finding that happy place, which is, to me, a blessedly empty sensation of being purely in the moment.  The final seconds are called and you breathe deeply, then lower your face into the water, attempting to relax and go completely limp.  You hear Kurt’s calming voice walk you through relaxing your body, focusing on individual muscle groups in an attempt to release any existing tension and prolong your time.

I’d seen blackouts before, and they are not pretty.  Blue lips and limp arms, the chest convulsing as it struggles to pull air through a sealed epiglottis.  Your body arching and appearing to seize until your throat finally opens and you pull in a long, rattling, gasping, breath; staring at those around you wide eyed and confused until your mind restarts and you rejoin the living.  A man in the first group blacked out during his final attempt.  I watched it happen without much caring, safe in the knowledge that he’d be fine.  I failed to appreciate the effect it would have on my wife.

My first two tries went well, meant to warm up and calm down rather than set any personal records.  On my third try, I set my sights on five minutes, planning to reach it or pass out face down trying.

Safety protocol in static apnea involves the time being called, the spotter tapping on your back, and giving the “okay” sign, usually consisting on raising one finger to indicate consciousness without expending any unnecessary effort.

Personally, with a proper calming breathe up, the urge to breathe kicks in at around two minutes.  The time is called, okay.  Again at 2:30, then three minutes.  At two minutes and thirty seconds I began to have diaphragm spasms, light convulsions which are to be expected and aren’t so bad, once you’re accustomed to them.  At three minutes time is called every fifteen seconds.  3:15, 3:30, 3:45…  I’m getting very close to my personal best.

At 3:30 I began to have very bad contractions, wracking my body and pulling my knees towards my chest with each one.  Stay calm, ride it, you’ll be fine.  I felt the blood shift begin, when the blood vessels in your extremities contract, forcing blood into your torso where it feeds your organs.  Hands and feet tingle like finding warmth on a cold day.

At 3:45 the time was called.  Tap, tap on my back, lift a finger.  Tap again, lift again.  Tap,tap tap, more urgently.  Somewhere in the depths of my mind I knew my wife was panicking.  I lifted a hand above the water and touched forefinger to thumb, “okay.”  Tap, tap, tap.  I felt her fingers wrap themselves into my wetsuit top as she struggled to pull me from the water.

Which is how I found myself battering at her arms, straining to keep my face submersed; desperate to breathe, but too focused on my goals to do so.

My last coherent memory is watching bubbles stream past my mask, wondering why I was exhaling when I knew I needed to keep that air in my body.

I finally went limp and she won, twenty seconds after our struggle began.  I’d burned what little resources I had in the fight, eventually succumbing to a total loss of motor control.  While I had not truly blacked out, I was in the final throes of consciousness, moments from drowning in waist deep water.

Hypoxia euphoria is a very real thing, and for a few moments I was high as a kite, unable to focus my eyes or articulate my thoughts.

I tried to say, “What the fuck?  I’m fine.”

What came out was, “Uh buh, uh buh, buh buh buh.”

Four minutes and five seconds.  Six seconds from my personal best. It’s shameful to admit, but my first reaction was fury.  How dare she rob me of my chance to push myself?  If hadn’t had to fight her for the last twenty seconds, if I’d stayed calm, I could’ve lasted.

I am such a fucking asshole.

Thankfully that feeling passed, and quickly.  So quickly, in fact, I never got the chance to open my mouth and make a fool of myself.  Within a minute I realized what I’d been feeling. It was the last endorphin rush you get before death, your mind getting you high to make the end bearable.  I was dying. And I made her watch.

I took my partner of fifteen years, the person I love more than anyone else on earth and forced her to stand idly by as I tried to kill myself.  If what I’d gone through was bad, what I’d just forced her to do, to stand and watch me taunt death from an arm’s length away, was worse.

We were laughing about it by the time we were in our car, on the way home.  Later we drank a few beers, Pacifico for me and whatever terrible microbrew she currently loves for her, and talked it over.  She says she knows I’m nuts, and she’s sorry for fucking up the attempt. For my part, I feel terrible, I had no right to ask her to spot me.  I hadn’t realized it before that day, but you shouldn’t have a partner who can’t watch you die.  It’s a crazy thing to say, but when you walk that edge you need someone who cares, but not too much.

The next two days went swimmingly (stupid pun totally intended.)  She hit a personal best of 62 feet after overcoming a mental block I can only blame on my own close call. I managed to bottom out at 100 feet over a dozen times, proving, once and for all, that my new ear drum is sound and can make it to two hundred. And that’s the goal, for now.

 For information on Kurt Chambers’s class locations and availability, check out Hawaii Freedivers on Facebook.


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