Ash King - First Depth Nationals
This fortnight, Ash shares his story on his first Freediving Depth Nationals. Thank you for sharing your experiences Ash!
What follows is an account of one of the days I spent at the 2017 Freediving National Championship. I competed in the recreational grade (for first-time competitors).
A little while ago my backpack was stolen, twice in four days. What was taken included much of my diving gear. As such this is dedicated to all of those (I don’t know who you are) who donated money to assist me. The suit I am wearing in the photos was largely paid for by those donations. Thank you so much.
I hope that this serves to illustrate in some small way what a wonderful, if surreal, experience it was…..
Photos are from my No-fins and Free immersion dives but serve as apt illustration. Photos are all by Phil Clayton.
CWT (fins) 30m. CNF (No-fins) 25m. Free Immersion (explained below) 30m.
Turangi. 6.30am. on a borrowed bed…
Out of bed. Shave (so my mask doesn’t leak). Porridge, fresh fruit, and some salami for protein - not the best breakfast food. Pack up my gear into a dry bag. Talk to sleepy others. Start drinking fluids. First application of sunscreen. Stretch stiff muscles. Out to pick up vehicle. Drive to the lake.
The sun shines down as we drive, away from Turangi’s odd small town feel, along the road till I see lake Taupo. The water is smooth but the sky such a blazing blue the previous day is now thick with dark cloud. Out of the car at the Motutere boat ramp. Strip off under a towel and store my clothes, shoes, phone, and bag in a car for now all I have is the wetsuit I’m wearing, my fins and drybag. Our ferry boat isn’t till ten so we sit and stretch. Discuss the weather. Stretch more, drink more fluids. We talk about the weather and about our depth nominations for the day.
Ways of going deep
There are three Depth Disciplines recognised by the AIDA Federation of Freediving. Constant weight involves swimming down a line with fins or a Monofin; Constant weight no-fins without such propulsive aids; and Free-Immersion, where we may pull on the dive line to ascend and descend.
Our nominations have to be submitted the previous day by 6pm. We nominate the discipline we intend for the next day and our intended depth, and you lose points for being too shallow. No pressure, in a manner of speaking.
The ferry boat is a rib, a solid hull with a bright red inflatable edge. Later today, after the dives, we will blast across the water with Bohemian Rhapsody blaring; Now we sit in almost grim silence. I relax as much as I can trying to keep my breathing almost meditation deep and even.
We arrive at the dive site. Some 160m of water lies under the 4 boats anchored and tethered together kilometres offshore. The dive platform boat forms the centre of this arrangement. The dive line is strung along a metal construct made from a yacht mast, disappearing into the dark water on both sides. On one side of the plate are Velcro tags we will strive to reach. On the other a massive steel weight, some 35kgs, will assist the crew on board with recovering the plate and, potentially, an unconscious diver. 5 safety divers practice a recovery drill as we approach in the boat.
As we dock to the raft of boats I am keenly aware of the depth beneath and the potential risk. This is tempered by the knowledge that of all the places to push yourself this has to be one of the best, the safety is here for a reason.
We sit for hours on the boats and watch the dives. They are all unique but the sequence has a ritualistic bent to it.
We watch each diver swim or be towed around from the warmup lines. Faces are hidden by masks or fluid goggles, bodies swathed and hooded in neoprene. They lie at the surface with maybe one hand on the dive line as the judges count down to the top time. Breathing calmly. It’s a strange thing, you can’t hype yourself up for a dive. You must be relaxed the best state of mind a quiet certainly about what is to come.
The calls come…
2 minutes…..1 minute….Thirty seconds…ten, nine…..two, one. Official Top.
One last breath sucked into the depths of the lungs and filled to bursting. the diver rolls over and disappears beneath the dark mirror of the lakes surface.
In their wake is the official’s calm loud voice, The divers name, nationality, The club they represent, the discipline they are diving and the depth.
Then numbers being called again; counting up now. The sonar readouts on the medic’s boat slowly winding up from “ten metres”, a hush falling over the watchers. For now those numbers are all that connect us to the diver besides the line they are clipped to disappearing into the depths.
The sonar depth calls accelerate until….“at the plate” a second or two then “turn made” and the diver ascends.
Safety divers descend stacking themselves ten or 15 meters apart signalling the divers return and following them up through the danger zone near the surface where the lungs expand back to normal size and the blood oxygen is lowest.
The divers surface and suck in breaths, hanging from the dive line. They then quickly complete the surface protocol, mask off, thumb and forefinger signal to the judge and then a clear but maybe shaky “I am OK”.
We sit and watch the dives drinking fluids and trying to relax, occasionally slipping over the bow to deal with the consequences of drinking too many fluids.
I check my gear one last time. Long black fins, no stress marking on the blades just a few scratches. Lanyard, Mask, snorkel. Neck-weight, just 2kg to help counteract the buoyancy of the suit. I swim across to the warmup line and complete two shallow dives under the watchful eye of another safety diver. I can equalise my ears fine, not like yesterday, fluids have paid off. When the safety signals me I head around the boats to the main dive line. After a day that has crawled by things are suddenly too bright, too fast and vivid, but my breathing knows the drill, deep and slow.
I reach to connect my safety lanyard to the line but the safety has done it already. Another Is attaching a depth gauge watch to my wrist, and think ‘Hmmm one day I have to get one of those”’. I pull my thoughts back to my prep. Two minutes is called and I pull my snorkel from my mouth and pull myself vertical on the line. My breathing, now with my face out of the water, is strictly regulated. Four seconds in and then slowly letting my breath out for a long count of ten. I pinch my nose and my tongue presses back on the air in my mouth, a Frenzel equalisation making my ears pop, a last test.
No stress, I have thirty seconds to leave although I don’t intend to wait that long. Let the last breath out and squeeze the muscles of my abdomen, getting rid of a bit more. Suck in air into my belly, then my chest, and a last mouthful on top. Then release the line, bend myself double, and drive my arms down and out pulling me under the surface.
The line is a white vertical bar in my vision left hand relaxed at my belt, right hand tucked up under my chin, thumb and forefinger clamping my nose for equalisations and releasing so I can exhale air into the mask. At ten meters my huge lungful of air as well as the air in my inner ear and mask has halved in volume.
6…7…8…9…10 kick cycles, slow deliberate. A few too many strictly speaking. A few more than I need, but I want this to be quick. I relax not kicking now letting gravity draw me down.
I stopped kicking about 18 meters down. A ten second fall takes me to 25 maybe deeper. Deeper on one breath than most recreation scuba divers. A few more seconds trying to stay relaxed and feeling like I have just exhaled and need to suck in air.
My eyes are half closed but I see the dark stripes on the rope immediately as I reach them. Candy cane it’s called. Maybe two metres above the plate at 30m. Another beat of descent and my left hand closes on the rope my feet falling past me. Right hand down to take a Velcro tag from the plate. Tucked into my hood against my cheek. Left hand pulls on the line, it releases and I’m heading up. No freefall now, that same shift in buoyancy means I must now kick or sink. I don’t count kick cycles back up.
I hear a grunting noise, Groper call. I’m looking at the surface as it grows closer, not ahead at the line like I should but the safety diver tells me he’s there by grunting in his throat.
Surface near reach up and a last kick to take me clear of the water and grab the dive line well above the water. Ritual actions, One breath, two, three, mask up, circle of thumb and forefinger up. “I am ok”.
They want to see if I am, if I can keep myself up…twenty more seconds.
I remember and show them the tag from my hood….a few more seconds….