Sunday, February 12, 2012

An introduction to freediving, and how I almost apparently died several times.

So, continuing my Thailand Island adventure. I camped three nights and spent four days on the semi-deserted Koh Rok, swimming and writing. It was a good time for me to clear my head. Being in the wilderness is good for that. And got some writing done, because they have a generator that runs for a few hours at night. I love being in the middle of nowhere with my fancy computer and phone. Makes me feel like I'm a nomad of the future. Which I pretty much am I guess.

Anyway, after scuba-diving, I was snorkeling around by the beach. It's amazing there, there's coral reefs surrounding the whole island, much of them in only about 5-10 feet of water, so you can basically snorkel in them. While snorkeling, I saw something about 15 feet below the surface that I wanted to check out, so, using my newfound knowledge of how to stop your ears from hurting underwater from the pressure (the technique is called 'equalizing', and basically, as you descend, and your ears start to hurt-the main reason I could never go more than 6 feet underwater actually-all you do it squeeze your nose shut, and blow, forcing your ears to equalize with the external pressure) I took a deep gulp of air and dove down.

I got about 15 feet down, and still had plenty of air. Then I looked around and realize how deep I was underwater, and that actually, I could stay down for a little while as my oxygen felt fine. It was pretty liberating. Scuba diving is great, but it's expensive and requires a whole bunch of awkward and expensive gear. Snorkeling is great because you need very little and can do it for free. In fact, all I had was a snorkel and a mask, I didn't bring my fins. But there I was pretty far below the surface, swimming around like a fish underwater, not even needing awkward fins.. As I felt my lungs start to burn, I headed back up. I had been under almost one minute.

Then I wanted to try again, and go deeper. So, I started to hyperventilate, on the theory that it will saturate my blood with oxygen, giving me more time underwater. I gulped a final breath and down into the blue I went. This time, I looked up and realized I was 30 feet underwater! It was amazing. I have always actually been terrified of drowning, and never did any diving before Christmas of this year. I could feel the fear as I went down, but it was outweighed by the exhilaration of what I was doing, what I was accomplishing, and what I was seeing. It was like the poor mans scuba dive!

I came back up, waited a few minutes to get my air back. This time I wanted to see how far I could push my limits, how deep could I go on a single breath, just using my body, not even fins for ascent/descent. I relaxed, then started to hyperventilate to fill my lungs. Then final breath, and down, down, down. I made it 40 feet down, touched the bottom, and shot back up, lungs burning for air, and right as they were about to give up and breathe big lungful of water, whoosh, I made it to the surface and let the glorious air fill my lungs. I couldn't believe what I had done.

From that moment on, I haven't been afraid of drowning. Major phobia number 1, CONQUERED. It was so liberating. I know exactly how far I went down because I did a second dive where I measured it out using a bunch of rope I found, and measured it out, tying it to a piece of wood as a float, and using a rock as an anchor. It was between 40-44 feet deep!!! On a single breath of air, not even using fins to move faster. With fins, I think I would reach 60 feet. That may be my next adventure this spring.

Anyway, after a few days I had to leave my tropical paradise to head to Bangkok to get laser-eye surgery (more on that later). As I got back to the mainland, I met with one the dive masters that I had scuba-ed with, and told him about my little diving accomplishment. He nodded impressed and said “Oh yeah, that's called free-diving. There's a french guy who teaches that in Thailand. But actually, a bunch of people die every year doing that. Usually happens as they are returning to the surface, only a few feet from the surface when their lungs give out and they suck in a lungful of water, drowning instantly. Happens when you mis-judge the air left in your lungs.”

Me.....”Oh.....Huh...Yeah...I didn't actually think about that.” When I got home, I googled freediving, and one of the first things that come up is “freediving deaths”. Apparently, a lot of people do indeed die doing this. There's two ways that people die doing this, one is called Shallow Water Blackout, where you misjudge the amount of O2 left in your lungs, and as you're about to surface, your O2 levels drop, but you can still hold your lungs closed, so you think its fine, but in fact, your blood doesn't have the required amount of oxygen in it, and your actually faint underwater from lack of O2, drowning instantly. The other way people die is Deep Water Blackout. This is when you dive deeper than 30 feet, which I had, and resurface too quickly (which I had), which causes your blood vessels to expand on ascent due to the decreasing pressure, so basically, your blood pressure drops very quickly, and you faint, drowning. Oh and also, hyperventilating before a dive as I had only increases the chance of Shallow Water Blackout.

I spent a horrified hour reading about the various ways I could have died instantly. DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME. Freediving is so risky that even the world champion died through a shallow water blackout. However, after doing more reading, you can avoid this fate if you simply listen to your lungs. If your lungs start screaming for air, your dive is over, go up quickly. The problem happens mostly to experienced divers, as they develop an ability to ignore the burning sensation and overcome it by willpower, in order to hold their breath longer. But it's a real fine between that and blackout. However, next time I freedive, I will most certainly try and take a few more precautions, because it was pretty freaky reading about how many people die from it.

However, the freedom of being underwater like that is indescribable. As I said, it's like scuba with none of the expensive, heavy bullshit. Just you and the water. And even better, you can't get the bends (nitrogen poisoning) from it because you're not breathing underwater, it's just a single breath, so you can rise and surface quicker than a scuba diver. But yeah, next time I try that, I'll be taking a lot more precautions.

Now is the part, if you haven't already said it before, “Why the hell would you even bother doing this crazy, and dangerous stuff for no real reason?” I didn't know the answer until just now. I realize throughout my life, I am most happy when I am challenging myself to the limits of human behavior and experience. Countless times, I've hit the Road, with no money, no plan, no friends, and no connections, sometimes even in a foreign country, with no support, just throwing myself into life, simply just to see if I could do it. I've hurtled down one of the largest mountains in America, Mount Hood, on a rickety children's bike, just to see if I could do. I've been penniless and homeless 5 times so far in the US and once in France, no connections, nowhere to stay, just the clothes on my back and less than a dollar in my pocket. And 5 times, I made it back again by my own wits and work and sometimes a little help from my friends. Unconsciously I do it to test my limits, I guess. And although it may sound like it, I have never done it to brag, I've done it simply to challenge myself.

And I realize these times of my life have been the happiest moments in my life. Because it makes me feel alive. The times in my life when I haven't been challenged have often been the most sad parts of my life. I fear stagnation literally worse than I fear death. Death is after all, the one guarantee in life. But stagnation is no guarantee. Stagnation is the feeling of nothingness, of aimless drifting, of simply just existing. For some that's a fine life, but for me, that's a fate worse than death. I'm not making any judgements against anyone's life, I'm just saying how I prefer to live mine.

I know I'm weird like that, and by now means do I encourage everyone to think like I do. If everyone did, the world would actually be a bigger mess than it is. So, honestly, I am not trying to brag, nor am I trying to encourage you to do the same. But for me, it's simply not a choice. It's my nature. And if there is one thing I believe is that everyone should follow their natures. Indeed, that may be the key to happiness. But I don't know, I certainly don't have all the answers. I can only speak from my own mind and nature.

And so far, in less than a month, I had completely conquered one of my two phobia, drowning. Now, I just had to get over my claustrophobia....That little experience would come two days after this diving experience in a partially submerged cave in Thailand. Soon updates. 


  1. Great post. You sum up the mentality of the adventure junkie really well. Just one suggestion.

    "Countless times, I've hit the Road"... literally.

    Annnnnd done.

  2. surprised you didn't conquer your claustrophobia riding in the packed minivans?

  3. I love the Nomad of the Future description. I agree about loving the water, but hating the equipment, but don't plan on freediving soon.