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!

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!

SSI level 1 – third course day

If you are new to this blog you can start from the first post by clicking here!

The third course day was all about safety and rescue procedures in the pool disciples (static and dynamic apnea). The theory focused on the importance of the buddy system and what happens to the body when you get a loss of motor control or black-out. To get a good understanding of these phenomena we were shown a long video with stuff going wrong.

This is what a loss of motor control (LMC), also called samba, looks like (skip to 2:30 if you’re bored by the swimming):

In the above video there is clearly no adequate safety near the diver, so at the same time it is an example how these attempts shouldn’t be done. If this diver’s LMC would have been stronger he could have hit his head on the edge of the pool and in the process he’d probably lose some of his teeth. Ouch.

You can probably imagine what a black-out looks like. Sometimes a black-out just occurs without a warning, but especially in the pool disciplines they can follow the LMC:

Generally they say a black-out is when you have a short gap in your memory (even if it just looks like a samba). Of course you want to avoid these situations altogether, but you have to know how to rescue your buddy when something like this happens to him or her.

So last Wednesdays course day was all about saving your buddy when they black-out. We practiced something called blow tap talk extensively in the static and dynamic setting. It was great fun and it’s definitely no exaggeration when I say that some of us are quite talented actors. Unfortunately I have no filmed documentation of this statement, but just trust me… 🙂

If you want to get a better picture of how to get someone out of a black-out, another great video by Adam Stern will show you how:

After we practiced the rescue procedures and Nanja was satisfied – also with our execution of the forceful advice to the blacked-out freediver that he is not allowed to freedive anymore for the day -, we did a timed static apnea and some more dynamic apnea’s.

My static attempt was a repeat of my previous personal best of 3:10 minutes. Even though I think I could have held out quite a bit longer if I had known I passed the three minute mark, I’m quite satisfied about this consolidation of my static ability. It was a relaxed and nice breath-hold where the contractions at the end didn’t bother me too much.

The evening ended with some more fine-tuning of the duck-dives and – while we filled in our logbooks – Nanja (our instructor) treated us to some bitterballs and chicken-nuggets because it was exactly two years ago that she did her world record variable weight dive, which is a record until this day!

If you read my previous post you know I was a bit concerned about my ability to equalize the middle ear when we would go deep diving in Dive4Life. As I write and now conclude this post, I already had the deep diving day yesterday and know how I fared. Even though I will have to keep you in just a little bit of suspense (at least until my next post tomorrow), I’ll leave you with a picture of the pool from the edge as a teaser:

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SSI level 1 – second course day

If you’re new to this blog, start with my first blog post by clicking here!

This day the theory was about the physiology of freediving. In the pool we further improved our techniques and practiced some buddy skills.

We talked about oxygen and carbon dioxide and their functions and influence on the body. It might surprise some of you that it is not the lack of oxygen that gives you the “urge to breathe”, but it’s the rising carbon dioxide level in the body that does so. This means it is actually the “urge to exhale”. This also means that you are easily able to prolong your breath-hold from the moment you normally feel that urge, because the oxygen level in your body would still be fine. But remember: never dive alone!

The mammalian diving reflex is fascinating as well. In this interesting TED-talk by Guillaume Néry the starts explaining about the mammalian diving reflex from minute 3:43, but the whole video is cool to watch for anyone even slightly interested in freediving:

What did I tell ya!? Cool, no?

At the pool we started with some static apnea’s, but mainly focused on a proper breathe-up, buddy skills and (of course) the recovery breath. My buddy, Peter, had some troubles with the breathe-up and signals. Since I already did the introduction to the static apnea and he didn’t, I decided to let him practice a bit more. I did no warm-ups and did a breath-hold of 2:20, not really pushing myself. Warm-ups are good to do though, because the first breath hold – to me at least – is always the least comfortable.

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The static apnea pool – “pierenbadje”

After the static apnea’s we geared up to do some dynamic swims, also with focus on the buddy skills. When you buddy a diver who’s doing a dynamic, you need to swim a bit in front of him and on your side so you can make a full kick with the fins on. This way you can keep up with the diver, check on the diver, check if the lane ahead is empty and without obstacles, help the diver when in trouble or when finishing the dive or cut the diver off if so necessary for whatever reason. When the diver surfaces, you (as a buddy) need to stay close and place his (or her) hand on the edge of the pool and do so as near to his head as possible. This way, if there is any loss of motor control (or black-out), you avoid the diver banging his head on the steel or concrete of the edge of the pool.

Nanja (our instructor) was impressed with our progression and the way we picked up the techniques she taught us. This meant we already got to practice some duck-dives:

The pool we practice in is only 3 meters deep, so with a decent duck dive you are at the bottom almost immediately. Even without an armstroke. Eventually I got the hang of it and the speed with which I descended was too fast for me to get my IMG_0472equalization in order. Shitballs!

This worried me a bit, since equalizing has been an issue for me, also in scuba-diving. I usually have the most trouble the first couple of meters. After that it’s smooth sailing, at least when scuba-diving. With freediving I have no experience with depth yet and I do feel equalizing will be harder since you are hanging upside down and the descend speed will (probably) be faster. Practice, practice! But only in Dive4Life next week we’ll know if I’ll actually be able do it!

Cheers! Hope you guys liked this post and don’t be shy to comment or ask anything!

 

SSI level 1 – first course day

If you’re new to this blog you can start with my first blog post by clicking here!

Last Wednesday night everything unsatisfactory about previous week’s introduction to static apnea was made good in the first session of the SSI level 1 course. I think a big part of this was caused by a conscious decision to let all expectations go and to rely on my natural relaxation. This way – I figured – I’d probably have most fun and have the presence of mind to learn the most.

I didn’t want to focus too much on breath-hold performance anymore and even decided to just have a gruelling kickboxing training the night before. This ment a rising muscle soreness in my legs when I left work for diveshop The Wave. Not ideal I guess, as muscle pains probably ask for their share of oxygen during the recovery process.

Mischa the dog recognized me as I entered the diveshop and was rewarded with a last bite of the dried sausage stick I was still chewing on. The owner of the shop also recognized me, but wasn’t rewarded…

This time the class (consisting of a group of six enthusiastic newbies and our instructor Nanja) did start around 18:30 hours; with some theory. Nanja was now clearly teaching within the confines of the SSI training program. The first powerpoint slide clearly displayed the SSI Diver Diamond with the SSI training philosophy and we had to fill in and sign some SSI forms before beginning with the fun part.

Nanja mainly discussed the equipment side of the Diver Diamond and she taught us the differences between conventional scuba- and freediving-gear. It helped we were in an actual diveshop that had some of the stuff. She made us guess at almost all the reasons for differences between scuba- and freediving-gear. The majority of the story sounded quite familiar, since I studied the digital course material over the weekend, but time flew by nevertheless and before we knew it we had to relocate to the swimming complex a couple of towns away.

“Look for the white VW Polo in the parking lot and come and get the gear you don’t have yourselves,” Nanja had said before we left the diveshop. And indeed, upon arrival at the pool’s parking lot there she stood, ready with the trunk of the white Polo open, totally stuffed with lead, fins, masks etc. I practically handbrake-turned my old barrel into one of the parking bays, grabbed a lead belt and anxiously rushed inside to get changed.

A bunch of waterpolo players were still training in the big pool. In the shallow kids-area (us Dutch call it: “pierenbadje“) there were some profi-looking people in black wetsuits doing something I (since last week) immediately recognized as static apnea’s. It turned out they were members of a freediving club that rents the big pool for training on Wednesday evenings. Nanja in turn rents a couple of lanes for these SSI courses from the club so she can guarantee the space necessary for our pool-sessions.

As the waterpolo players finished up their training, we started doing some breathing exercises while seated on our towels. The goal was to get a relaxed breathing rhythm going, all “through the belly”, where the exhale had to be twice as long as the inhale.

So, for example: you put one hand on your chest and one on your stomach to check whether you truly solely breathe with/through your belly and then you count the time of your inhale and try to make a passive but controlled exhale that takes twice as long. You should find a rhythm that doesn’t make you really-really-really want to breathe normal again after doing it for a couple of minutes or so. For most people the ratio is 3/6, 4/8 or 5/10 inhale to exhale.

Let Adam Stern explain you something about this:

Next up was practicing the full inhale. A full (100%) inhale is done in three stages, with pursed lips (as if sucking through a large (thick smoothy) straw) and is the last inhale you do before going under. The first stage being: totally filling up the lower part of the lungs with the inhale through the belly; the second: continuing or expanding the inhale to the chest; and the last: using the last bit of the upper lungs you have by kind of feeling as if you are filling up your throat on the last part of the inhalation.

The notorious recovery-breath was last but not least of the breathing exercises. The recovery-breath is the way you have to execute your first three in- and exhales when you surface from a breath-hold dive. It is hugely important to re-oxygenate the right way after surfacing, since it prevents blackouts and loss of motor control. So extremely important even, that Nanja keeps telling us: “Merely learning a decent recovery-breath is worth the course-fee.”

And then Nanja said: “Put three kilograms on your weight-belt and wear it cool, like a teenager does his trousers.” Followed by: “Fins and mask on and jump in the pool!”

Now we came to fine-tune the amount of weight we needed on our belts to stay under without too much effort. I had to put on an extra kilo to make it doable, but I still felt a bit too positively buoyant. It might be some remnant of fat here and there, but for my ego I’ll keep carefully maintaining the big lungs theory.

As soon as everyone was weighted properly we started doing dynamic swims to the other side of the pool. Meanwhile Nanja swam along above us and gave us (physical) tips to (also) fine-tune our techniques. Sometimes I felt hands pushing my head in a different position or pulling my arms more alongside my body than I had been holding them. It’s quite a strange experience to get these kind of directions while being under water, but it works wonders for your awareness of what you’re actually doing (wrong).

Of course every now and then I made mistakes even before disappearing under water. It provoked some hard laughs from Nanja and the group when I did an awesome, highly focused, huge motherf*cking full inhale and dove under to realize I forgot to put my mask on! Sigh… Start over.

It’s safe to say that properly using bi-fins is not as simple as it might seem, nor is holding your head in the most hydrodynamic position. But the arm stroke Nanja taught us next was even more challenging. Without using our legs we had to swim to the other side of the pool using this newly-learned technique and do so with the least amount of strokes possible. The whole group laughed when I asked whether we had to do this with our heads under or above the water. “What did you sign up for here!” I guess you can blame a guy for thinking that you might practice a technique on the surface first 🙂

After practicing this arm stroke a couple of laps and getting some efficiency pointers, I managed to swim one length in the 25 meter pool using about eight to nine strokes. Which is still quite a lot, but not all too bad. Of course my talented buddy from the previous week (remember her?), who was also the only familiar face in this new level 1 group, managed to do it in a stroke or two less…

Unexpectedly Nanja decided to end the first pool session with a BANG and made us race (yes, again, underwater of course!), which was great fun! And we definitely have some competitive spirits in the group!

Back in our regular human clothes, we gathered around a table near the bar of the swimming complex. We still had to log our first (free)dive in the SSI-app and hadn’t completely finished the theoretical part of this first course day. Nanja nonchalantly sipped from her well deserved post-instruction beverage, opened her laptop and finished the presentation.

Seemingly out of nothing Nanja dropped a big pile of old wetsuit parts on the table, so we could get a feel for the different materials and densities. This was the finale of the first course day, which ended with Nanja giving advice on the right suit to buy for Dutch open waters (brrr…) – after she made us guess, obviously!