Malta One

Yesterday evening I arrived at an AirBnB from hell.

It started with kind of a dirty room in a shared apartment. Sticky cabinets. Blood spatters of squashed mosquitos scattered all over the walls. Then, when the only other present tenant, an Hungarian girl called Sonia, turned off her turbo-folk and I finally managed to fall asleep, I was woken up an tight hour later by two Lithuanian guys arriving ‘home’. After they shook up the shared living room they continued to play some loud house-music and smoke some ganja in their room (right next to mine).

I honestly tried to not be an ‘old guy’ and find a way to sleep through it; totally in vain. After a while I just couldn’t take it anymore. I put some clothes on to knock on their door and ask if they could keep it down. This – unfortunately – didn’t do anything to the volume of the songs they were invariably playing merely thirty seconds each. It did seem to lower the volume of their voices, but that CLEARLY wasn’t the issue… Sigh…

Somehow I fell asleep a seemingly eternal forty minutes later. Just to be woken up by some new activity in the shared living around 1:30am. And, of course, still the familiar house music from the Lithuanians room. After a nail-biting fifteen minutes I just stormed out of my room in my boxers to end this once and for all.

It took a while to get my heart rate down, but then finally some proper night’s rest. Until I heard a mosquito – that clearly wasn’t promoted to a blood stain on the wall – zoom around my head. FML…

Gadangadangadang… Krrrkrkrkrkrkrkrkkrkrrrrrk… 07:25am today. Construction work exactly above the AirBnB apartment I was staying in! Really?! Yes, really…

That’s it… I just won’t waste any more words on it. I’m changing accommodation tomorrow. So… quick change of subject! This was the dive-spot this morning:

NaamloosWhat you see is the outlook from the North West corner of Malta (see image below). The land across the water is the island called Gozo. I chose to start diving sooner rather than later, because the conditions are best first half of the week.

Today I joined AIDA master instructor David Watson (onebreathfreediving.com) for some training dives. Naamloos2All in all it was not a bad day of diving. I found out my equalization is more effective doing a constant weight dive as opposed to the usual free-immersion warm-ups. We kept the depth manageable and focused on finding out what works and doesn’t work when diving head down. Mainly because my right ear sometimes refuses to play ball equalizing.

 

Tomorrow we’ll continue training and probably spend some time doing an equalisation-workshop. David pointed something out for me to keep in the back of my mind: struggling with equalization is not uncommon in the beginning, not even under some of the most elite freedivers.

Level 1 Freediver

Hi guys!

This blog post is written whilst sitting in the departures hall of Schiphol Airport, waiting for a flight to Malta. If you have read my last blog post, you might remember that between then and now an important day in my freedive journey has or (at least) should have taken place. Unfortunately it is just now that I’m able to come around and tell you about it.

The 29th of March I went to Dive4Life again to do my re-examination for the SSI level 1 Freediver certification. The road to the level 1 certification has been a bumpy one, as readers of this Blog know. This particular week hasn’t been any different.

At the end of the week prior to the re-examination I caught a severe cold. That bummed me out since I already had caught a serious cold earlier this winter and assumed that was going to be it. Now my nose was truly stuffed, and that going into the week of the re-examination. 

For a couple of days I couldn’t do any dry-equalization practice and I was starting to worry about the ‘end well all well’ scenario I had in mind. Even a little seed of doubt is quite disadvantageous in a sport like freediving that has such a substantial mental component. But I wasn’t going to give up that easily. 

My girlfriend told me to steam with Vicks Vaporub every night until the 29th of March; advice I followed up entirely. By the time judgement day neared, I could dry-equalize again, but not with the usual ease. I could still barely breathe through the nose, but a trifle of hope filled my heart and well, what the heck, let’s just try, was what went through my mind. 

Nanja van den Broek (my instructor) sent a pre-dive day e-mail with info and tips in which she advised the snotty ones to bring Otrivin Duo nose spray, just in case. Which I, of course, also did.

One of my buddies from the course last year, that also joined me to Diveworld recently, was coming with to Diveworld the 29th of March. Just to practice, now that she is doing the level 2 and 3 courses this spring and summer, but it was still quite nice to carpool with her (again) and two of the new level 1 students.

Once we arrived at Dive4Life in Siegburg, everything went pretty much in the same order as last time. We started with stretching and relaxation exercises. The first doesn’t seem to do anything but the opposite: stiffen me up (which might actually be a sign I should try it more often). So I just used the relaxation exercises to release the tension the stretching caused. That was that and then we suited up and got into the water.

In the changing room I did spray some Otrivin in my nose in the hope of opening up those airways and relieve the sinuses a bit. I have no clue if it actually worked. I was a bit nervous and nerves don’t help with being aware of all the (micro)sensations that occur in the body.

We started off immediately with head down free immersions. Those were the warm-ups and went pretty comfortably. The first few constant weight dives also went quite trouble free. But then suddenly I got trouble getting my right ear to equalize from ten meters and beyond. To this day I don’t know whether it was the cold I caught that bothered me or something else… Maybe I tensed up because I wanted it so bad and feared to fail again. 

Now, I know what you guys are thinking… It’s not going to happen that he didn’t manage again! Practice makes perfect and if it doesn’t work with the amount of training and time this guy put in, how can anyone with equalization troubles expect to overcome them and properly freedive to a respectable depth? 

 

Well… Let’s not keep the suspense going until it starts boring us. I have good and bad news. The good news is I did manage! I am officially an SSI certified freediver! The bad news: I’ll have to come back on that last question. However, as you’ll read below, that might be sooner than later.

For an SSI level 1 certification you have to dive between 10 and 20 meters of depth and (we had to) do all the required (rescue) exercises at the 10 meter marker. Luckily I still managed to reach that depth, albeit with variable degrees of ease (or difficulty). Otherwise the execution of the exercises themselves were a walk in the park, as I practiced them effectively at Diveworld.  

Unfortunately I don’t have footage of the course itself, but I do have some short clips of fun and play after we passed the tests. At that point I was knackered and not ready to push myself any further, but it’s still fun to show you guys a short clip:

After getting my certification my cold passed and I kept training and have confidence in my equalization again. The pressure is off and I feel I my Frenzel equalization keeps improving. I hope I can quickly conclude it was indeed the cold that bothered me the day of the re-examination. And the answer to that will also come soon. Why?IMG_5266

I sit here waiting for my flight to Malta. I’m not going there to just lay on the beach. I’ll be doing some training dives with an AIDA master instructor. No exams, certificates and what not. Just training and having fun. I’ll be practicing relaxation and equalization and later this week I hope to give an answer to the question I put in your mouths earlier.

The water is still quite cold though. I packed an extra neoprene body warmer…

Hasta Malta!

Practice makes perfect

As readers of this blog know, my challenge as a beginner freediver has mainly been equalization. This is nothing out of the ordinary as many beginners, scuba- and freedivers alike, struggle with this when they start out exploring the world beneath the water’s surface.

There is good news however and I’m the living proof of it: practice will help you!

If you’re new to this blog and don’t know what troubles I had with equalization, you can read all about it (and how to go about solving equalization issues) in previous posts on this blog. In short: I came from a place where I wasn’t able to equalize at all when diving with my head down.

I started reading about and practicing the Frenzel method for equalization (read more here). I did loads of dry training and to test my progress I went to a 5 meter deep pool every single Monday evening.

As promised before, here is a vid of one of those sessions:

It might seem we are mainly having fun, senselessly blowing bubbles. However, as I said before and probably so in slightly different words: relaxing and having fun is paramount to progress. And let me assure you, we definitely did practice equalization, a lot!

BUT… Of course I wanted to be sure the improvement in my equalization skills was not a fluke. And preferably so before the forthcoming 29th of March. That’s when I’ll be going to Germany again with World Record holder and Freedive instructor Nanja van den Broek to do my re-examination for the SSI Level 1 Freediver certificate. So… how to go about that? How to make sure I can equalize comfortably to the required depth and not go to Germany to be purely decorative again?

My initial idea was to go to the same pool in Germany where we did the deep diving part of the level 1 course (Dive4Life) and where I’d also be doing the re-exam. A great plan A! There I would be able to go deeper than 5 meters, even past the minimum of 10 meters and so be sure. Unfortunately there was just a small, tiny, itty-bitty, little problem…

I called Dive4Life to check if it was possible for me and my buddies to dive there in the near future. I turned out you can’t dive there without at least a level 1 certification. Even if you have two buddies with you that do. Even though I was (and am) bummed out, I must say: props for the strict safety standards they adhere to!

A great plan A doesn’t need a plan B, right? Wrong! Except… I didn’t have one. After discussing this impediment with the buddies that would join me, we decided to send Nanja an e-mail for tips. Turns out she has some good connections at DiveWorld in Enschede, a town in the East of the Netherlands, very near the German border, where they also have a dive tower. There, Nanja said, we’d be able to train with the three of us even with me being a “pool freediver” (already).

I gave DiveWorld a call and told them about our plan and situation. We were more than welcome. And Nanja’s name definitely carries some power! The DiveWorld pool has 10 meters of depth which isn’t as deep as Dive4Life in Germany, but it would definitely be deep enough to get some certainty about the state of equalization affairs.

I texted my two buddies and we decided on a date to go training. But let me not keep you in suspense any longer. It was pretty amazing and exceeded all my expectations! I had no trouble equalizing, we had fun, practiced some rescue dives and other drills for the level 1 certificate. I will truly go to Germany with great confidence. That’s what is was all about after all… and this awesome vid of the day of course(!):

Karamba! Keep you guys posted!

James Nestor Quote

“In a world of seven billion people, where every inch of land has been mapped, much of it developed, and too much of it destroyed, the sea remains the final unseen, untouched, and undiscovered wilderness, the planet’s last great frontier. There are no mobile phones down there, no e-mails, no tweeting, no twerking, no car keys to lose, no terrorist threats, no birthdays to forget, no penalties for late credit card payments, and no dog shit to step in before a job interview. All the stress, noise, and distractions of life are left at the surface. The ocean is the last truly quiet place on Earth.”

From his book:

Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves

The Dawn of Upside Down Equalization

Almost an impressive movie-title, right?

Well, I can frankly say that there has been a dawn of sorts in my progression. And in this year-ending post I would love to tell you about it.

The first proper upside down (or head down) equalizations happened in a pool in (New) Belgrade, Serbia. I grabbed a couple of opportunities to keep up the training while visiting family in November.

Nearby where I stayed was a large facility called “SRC 11 april”. I think it’s been there for quite some time. It stems from communist Yugoslavia, run by Marshal Tito. And you do indeed get that kind of vibe, both walking up to it and inside: sitting up a hill, built in the days of red Yugoslavia it definitely once was an impressive new complex. Probably exemplary of some supposed superiority and one of the many structures that prided – or at least had to pride – every single Yugoslav citizen.

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SRC 11 April – JP Sportski Centar Novi Beograd

I don’t know exactly why it’s named “11 April”. I can’t find the explanation on its website, but searching the internet narrowed it down to a most likely option. Even though the facility was opened on the 20th of December 1979, it is probably named after the 11th of April in 1948 when the ground was broken on a huge construction project that would give birth to what is known today as New Belgrade. This is a part of Belgrade on the other side of the Sava river and also the part where this facility stands.

Now it’s in moderate to poor upkeep. It probably looks better than it did in the 90’s and right after, but it doesn’t look like it fares as well under capitalism as it did during the particular times of its origin. Be that as it may, it has a bunch of pools, including two Olympic (50 meter) pools. One inside and one outside!

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The Olympic size pool inside

At the pool I did some DNF warm-ups and then started to hang from the side to practice upside down equalizations. I started doing some Frenzel equalizations upright to later push my upper body below the surface and upside down to try it that way. If you read the previous post, you know I was already able to do it this way, but not get a lot further than that, unfortunately.

To help improve my Frenzel equalization technique I did a lot of dry training. It pretty much comes down to practicing your equalizations a couple of times a day, on dry land, wherever, whenever. There are three things that helped and still help me a lot. First is the Step-by-Step Frenzel Technique document by Eric Fattah. Second is a document on Freedive Equalization Training by Oli Christen. And last but not least, also mentioned in the aforementioned document by Christen: the Otovent. Make sure you take a look at these if you have similar problems.

Starting out with the equalization practice at SRC 11 April I had pretty much the same disappointing sensations I had before, but quite quickly something just clicked! I was able to do an equalization hanging upside down the side of the pool, pretty much at will. This gave me the moxie I needed! I kept repeating the equalization in this position. Come up for air, breathe a bit, push the upper body back down, and repeat…

After a while I started to let myself go of the edge and float to the bottom to equalize. The pool wasn’t too deep at around 2 meters, but perfect to equalize at least once at the bottom. This now also went well and gave me more and more confidence. So I tried it on empty lungs (with a cheek-fill) a couple of times, which I managed off-and-on.

The second time I went to SRC 11 April I found out the previous visit was not (on) just a lucky day with once-only successes. I managed again and again, also on empty lungs, and felt increasingly pleased and positively excited to try upside down equalizations in deeper pools.

To finish off this happy session I decided to try to DNF the length of the Olympic pool. Since I had no buddy, I asked the lifeguard to keep an eye on me. I put my neck-weight on and after a two minute breathe-up I went under and swam the length of the pool without pushing myself all too hard. So I did it again and measured the swim time: a decent 58 seconds.

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Since the lifeguard wasn’t walking alongside the pool with me, I didn’t fully trust the situation to try an even further push. Nevertheless, I was quite happy with the 50 meters and it was a great conclusion to the day.

Back in the Netherlands I was quick to practice again in the 5 meter deep pool I told you about in my previous post. The first time back started out quite disappointing. I was not immediately able to reach the bottom equalizing head down. F*ck this man…, I thought. Somehow I tensed up. Not being relaxed clearly has a detrimental effect to whatever you’re planning below the surface of any body of water. It’s so incredibly contra-productive. And it’s probably also the most confrontational aspect of freediving…

Didn’t some freediver once say: “The scuba diver dives to look around. The freediver dives to look inside.” This quote was definitely not born out of thin air. To even become more than just a novice at this sport – if you can even call it a sport – it’s paramount to be able to look inside and find out what mental barriers hamper and bother you. Which, if you really examine them, they probably do as much on the surface as they do below it.

So… with hindsight it was no surprise that as soon as I started to focus less on frenetically training the upside down equalizations and more on just having fun, blowing some bubble rings and stuff, I suddenly managed! All the way to the bottom! All I had to do next time was to remember to have fun and not allow my high expectations of myself make me tense up again. Hashtag mental note.

In the meantime I have been back to train a couple of times now, with more and more succes. The dawn has solidified. As this winter crosses the border from 2017 to 2018 I’ll keep practicing and hopefully (finally) shoot a couple of vids to show you.

Guys! Have a great party tonight! Happy new year and hasta luego!

 

PS If you’re new to this blog, you can start with my first post here.

A place to train

It has been a while since my last post. But don’t fear, I have not been sitting still!

Before the last deep diving day in Germany one of our group members bought all of us some lead grain to make our own neck-weights. There is still a market for those things, because you can’t really buy them anywhere.

So I watched this video by an old bossman called Aharon Solomons and bought the rest of the necessary materials:

It looked something like this when I started out:

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The vaseline and the balloons were for a different method of making the neck-weight, as shown in this video:

But… because I’m pretty lazy and the lead dust that came with the lead grain made me freak out a bit (sure, I’m also a bit of an hypochondriac), I decided to follow the Solomons method. Nevertheless, the end result was something to be proud of:

IMG_0512 kopie

So now all I had to do was find a place to train!

If you have read my previous blog post, you know I have to practice my head-down equalization technique. It might be a partly mechanical and partly physiological problem, but nothing that can’t be fixed. Browsing the internet you can find loads of freedivers (even instructors) that struggled with the same problems when they started out. They are usually keen to share lessons they learned during their journey to eventual success.

What I needed was a pool with decent depth, where I can easily feel if my equalizations are working. Turns out I have a swimming complex nearby with a pool for competitive diving. You know, for the kind of salto diving they do at the Olympics. Those pools need to be a bit deeper than average and this one is 5 meters deep. Should do the job, right?

2trert08Last Thursday I took the car and drove there. Walking towards the locker rooms I saw some old fellas (and obviously one grandson) snorkelling in the diving pool. Yes(!), I thought, this means I can go in there (for the website of the swimming complex mentioned the diving pool was usually not open to the public). Once changed into my swimming shorts I immediately entered the area of de diving pool and started going about my business, legs hanging on the edge of the pool and pushing my head down to practice the upside down equalization (slowly). When I managed to do so in this position I let my legs go to slowly drift down to the bottom, meanwhile trying to keep equalizing. Unfortunately I only managed to get half way.

I was trying and doing all sorts of exercises when one of the old guys came up to me to tell me they were from an association of divers that rented this pool for the hour every Thursday evening. He was very interested in what I was doing and I was free to stay and practice, but he also tried to plug me a membership. It finally started to dawn on me why the pool was not completely filled with people having fun jumping from the diving platforms.

I kept practicing until I got too cold to continue. The necessity of a wetsuit became quite clear. I definitely wanted to continue, but simply couldn’t. I did a couple of fast laps freestyle to warm up a bit and ended this evening of practice.

In the meantime I found out how it works with the diving pool and I found some associations that use it for training purposes in the evenings. They are mostly open to new members and have reasonable prices, which means I might still find a good place and time to train this winter, all before I go for the retry to get my SSI level 1 freediver certification at the beginning of next year.

Cheers!

 

PS For the people new to this blog: you can start with my first post here!

SSI level 1 – fourth course day (the deep)

If you are new to this blog, you can start with the first post here!

Here we come Dive4Life Germany!

It was a two-and-a-half to three hour drive away from Amsterdam, so I had to rise and shine well before dawn last Friday morning. At a carpooling spot south of Amsterdam three of us two drove to Arnhem in an old-school Volkswagen van. There we switched to a Peugeot (with sky roof) of a fourth member of our group of freediving-students.

A long drive is a great way to get to know people. We definitely had a special group of students, all with fascinating life stories, exactly like you’d imagine of a group of people trying out this niche sport. Talking about and listening to our background stories and the occasional sanitary stop in-between, time flew by pretty fast.

We arrived at the pool in Siegburg around 10 ‘o clock in the morning. Nanja (our instructor) was already there and guided us upstairs where the entrance to the pool was. I rented a wetsuit and walked up to the pool to scout it out.

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It looked so amazing I got excited immediately! The pool is 20 meters deep, decorated with caves and statues and there is a large (fake) shark hanging somewhere in the middle. I’ve truly never seen anything like it.

Before we slipped in our wetsuits Nanja guided us (and some other freedivers that joined this day to have fun and practice) through some stretching and visualisation exercises as a preparation for the dives we were about to make. This relaxed us through and through, but my state of relaxation evaporated pretty much immediately when I tried to get the rented freedive wetsuit on. What a terrible undertaking!

After a lot of hustle the wetsuit finally agreed to constrict my body and I proceeded a bit stiffly towards the edge of the pool to put my fins, weights and mask on. Here Nanja taught us how to check if we had the right amount of weight on our belts. Where I had 4.5kg on my belt in the pool (to be neutrally buoyant at a depth of 10 meters without a suit), I had to lose about 2kg to be (theoretically) neutral at a depth of 10 meters.

Then our group split up in two. The people that were expected to have some troubles with equalization joined Nanja and the others joined the co-instructor. If you read my previous blog posts you can probably guess which group I joined.

We started at the edge of the pool near a buoy that was attached to a 6 meter long rope. Here Nanja asked us to pull ourselves down with our arms and equalize after every pull. This immediately posed a problem for two of us, one being myself (of course, sigh…).

The whole morning Nanja spent figuring out our problem with the equalization. I even went down without a mask for her to see if I could get the pressure to my nose/nostrils, which didn’t seem to be the issue. In the meantime the equalization riddle was solved for my fellow “problem-child”. He was even able to equalize handsfree eventually!

Shortly before lunch Nanja gently informed me that if this equalization problem wouldn’t be solved soon I had to take into account that it might be necessary to come along to Dive4Life another time for a retry. I had already thought of this possibility beforehand to be completely honest, but it would be disappointing nonetheless.

During lunch we did our theoretical exam and all of us passed. So now we all were certified pool-freedivers. Great, I thought, but that’s not what I came to do this course for of course (no pun intended)! I want to master this equalization thing and not have it feel like a boundary to my fun in the water.

I decided to use some Otrivin (nose-spray) to maybe loosen some stuff up that was bothering me, but after a few tries it was clear this wasn’t going to be my day. Nanja told me to go to the 6 meter line where we started at in the morning and keep trying over there. The student that waited for his or her turn at their practice buoy then buddied in the meantime.

As my fellow students were practicing buddy techniques and rescue dives, I was slowly getting a feel for the equalization being head up. My middle ear squeaked and crackled some pretty impressive symphonies and I feel my Eustachian tubes were just very inflexible and rusty (if something like that is even possible).

Soon I went down with ease to the 6 meter anchor point of the buoy. Not too fast, but steadily. I got confident enough to try it upside down again, but no such luck… Back to my reversed free immersion again! With hindsight I think I can acknowledge that my Eustachian tubes need some practice and flexing up, because I have kept trying to dry equalize the last two days and now it goes way easier than last Friday. But now I also realize that I didn’t know how to recognize a successful surface or dry-equalization.

I could allow myself to get sad because I didn’t get the hang of dry-equalization before the deep diving day, but I just learned this last Friday how it’s done and what it feels like. So step by step in the right direction. You win or you learn. And now, hopefully, I have enough awareness to practice equalizing extensively AND upside down before I go for the retry.

Although it sounds like a day filled with problems and disappointment, it definitely doesn’t mean I haven’t had fun! I moved to a longer rope and started doing these free immersions deeper and deeper, successfully equalizing. At one point I borrowed a dive-computer to see how deep I went. Clearly the breath-hold or fear are not going to be issues, since it was a minute plus dive to a reasonable 11.3 meters and that with no stress at all.

Below you can see one of my dives that was possibly even deeper:

We finished the pool session of the day with some play like in the video above. All other group members passed their tests for the full SSI level 1 freediver certification and can now safely buddy each other. I congratulate you! Good work guys!

The adventure didn’t end there however. Back in the locker room I had an even harder time getting the wetsuit off! This is an essential skill in itself. With some help I got the dreaded thing off in the end, even though I almost drowned when it got stuck while I was pulling it over my head in the shower. Wow, definitely not looking forward to doing that again… Another one of the hardships of a freediver 🙂

We had a good dinner with the whole group at a nearby Cuban restaurant before driving back to the Netherlands. Everyone of us was totally knackered. The early rise, excitement, physical effort and amount of breath-holds took their toll.

Looking back it was a very instructive day that taught me a lot. Looking ahead there is still some work to do and I would actually like to practice some more in this awesome pool! It would be good to be certain I can do it when I come along with Nanja for the retry somewhere in the nearby future.

Obviously I’ll keep you guys informed about my progress and all the lessons I learn along the way. But thank god for the internet and Adam Stern:

If you have any questions, tips or suggestions don’t hesitate to comment below! And if you want to get to know a bit more about our freediving instructor, Nanja, you can listen to this podcast by Donny (whose podcasts are absolutely amazing if you are (getting) interested in freediving).

Peace!