The BBC's QED programme called it "very dangerous". GQ described it as"phenomenally dangerous". Is this all hype, or is free-diving really such a reckless sport? To discover the truth, Brendan O'Brien investigates Umberto's methods, Pipin's style, Tanya's technique and Howard's way
Can you imagine what it would be like to swim with sharks, blend in with shoals of fish, race barracuda or come head to head with inquisitive lionfish? Imagining is often the closest we get. The problem with scuba is that we're just too clumsy. We're cocooned by bulky equipment and a noisy, fish-scaring discharge of air.
Free-diving, using no more than mask and fins, might be the answer. What's more, it could be a sport for all. World record-holder Tanya Streeter says: "All you have to be is comfortable in the water and in good health, especially your ears. Given that, anybody can free-dive."
What, anybody? Even me, a dedicated scuba-diver? There was only one way to find out. I would learn how to free-dive.
First stop is the Free-divers school in Eilat, run by Aharon Solomons and his wife MT (short for Marie-Teresa). Both were qualified as instructors by world free-diving record-holders Umberto Pelizzari and Francesco "Pipin" Ferreras. Aharon is capable of a constant-weight free-dive to more than 55m and MT to more than 50m. Previous training successes include Lee Donnelly, the British constant-weight record-holder. I know I am in capable hands.
Course venue is the family-run Divers Village on the outskirts of Eilat, away from the skyscraper hotels and production-line dive resorts. As with any scuba course, there is theory to cover. Aharon begins with the 15 safety rules, which include: never free-dive alone, never free-dive after scuba, and know your limits. The lectures continue with physics, physiology and technique.
Aharon and MT teach free-diving the Umberto Pelizzari way. As we watch videos of Umberto in action, Aharon explains how his philosophy has influenced them: "What he demonstrates is that elegance and style go hand in hand with free-diving."
We end the day with some abdominal breathing exercises. Changing to this method of breathing increases the capacity and efficiency of the lungs. So why isn't everybody taught this? Aharon smiles: "It's not that we don't learn, it's that we've forgotten. Watch a baby breathe; it's all from the abdomen."
Before I leave for the hotel, Aharon gives me a final piece of advice: "Remember, it's all about the mind and body working together. While free-diving we enter a contract with our body. We develop a sensitivity to what it's saying and above all we learn to listen to it."
There's a lot of talk of "the mind". Umberto says that to get past your physical limits you must dive with your head.
The next day I'm taken out for my first constant-weight training session. I soon learn that it's not all about finning up and down a line. Aharon and MT teach a variety of methods for descent and ascent. On my last dive of the day I manage 20m, and hit the surface desperate to breathe. I feel I have already reached my physical limit.
Despite this I feel safe. My buoyancy is such that at 15m I could float to the surface without effort. Also comforting is that during every dive Aharon or MT follow me down, watching for any sign of problems.
In the afternoon Aharon introduces me to static apnea, using tables designed by Umberto's coaching and medical team. The purpose is to build up tolerance to increased levels of carbon dioxide and a decrease in oxygen levels, the same physiological changes a free-diver's body goes through during a constant-weight dive.
Along with two previous students, Sari and Shirley, we carry out more breathing exercises, with Aharon and MT taking us through visualisation and relaxation techniques. Then we go out into the shallows to start the exercises.
The first breath-hold is the shortest and hardest. However, after a few more something weird happens - it gets easier. On the last one I don't want to come up. I've held my breath for 2min 20sec and, strangely, it feels as if only a minute has gone by.
Walking back to the diver's village, Sari talks about the static apnea exercises: "I find them really relaxing. While I'm doing them I picture myself diving on a wreck. I open a hatch and inside I spend time looking at all the life in there."
On the third day we're back at the line for more constant-weight training. I feel far more relaxed and comfortable. The breathing comes together and my mind starts to get to grips with pre-dive visualisations.
Constant weight and static training sessions continue. I build up to a breath-hold of 3min 5sec. Aharon and MT lecture on equipment and how to build up a personal training schedule.
It's the end of the week, and my final session on the line. About 23m below I can see a lionfish hovering. I fin down to join it. In silence we come head to head. The lionfish remains still, gazing at me. After what seems like 10 seconds I decide to ascend. When I tell MT about the encounter she smiles and tells me that often free-diving is "about having the time you need down there".
Aharon tells me to "go and say hello to the lionfish" but I go into a glide and sail past it. My depth this time is 28.4m, and my journey home is filled with thoughts of gliding through clear, blue waters. I have opened the door to a silent, peaceful place where my mind and body are totally relaxed. I feel a strong desire to return.
I'm lucky, because a few weeks later my travels take me to Grand Cayman. This is the home of the International Association of Free-divers (IAFD), founded by world record-holder Francisco "Pipin" Ferreras. It is the world's only free-diving certification agency.
The IAFD is now run by Kirk Krack and his staff at the Divetech technical diving school. After hearing of my Eilat experience, Kirk enrols me in the Master Free-diver course. There are more than 10 courses on offer, from Snorkel Diver (target depth 5m), through extended range specialities (40m constant weight/60m no limits - with an air-assisted ascent) and instructor qualifications.
Kirk was qualified as a senior free-diving instructor by Pipin. His constant-weight depth is more than 60m and he has coached several famous names to success: Tanya Streeter for her first two records; Brett Le Master for his US constant-weight record and Bill Stromberg, winner of the 1998 Red Sea Dive Off.
Kirk takes me out to the 17m line to establish my skill level. It feels good to be free-diving again, but here the techniques are different. I learn the Pipin leg kick for ascents. It gets me to the surface a lot faster than the Umberto kick but it uses more energy and therefore valuable O2.
Coaching continues on the 25m line. Kirk teaches me how to breathe from expanding air in my mask on ascent, and the very efficient one-legged duck dive. Next day Dan Hodgins, another senior instructor, takes me through more drills, including the Pipin Walk, a land exercise designed to simulate the apnea conditions of a free-dive.
We head out to the 17m line and start with emergency ascents and problem-management exercises: ascend without fins; mask-clear and ascend without mask; rescue unconscious diver from the seabed and rescue blacking-out ascending diver.
To demonstrate free-diving stamina I have to perform a 17m dive followed by a 40m horizontal swim before ascending. There are more drills and they are very tiring, but they demonstrate how far I have come. My confidence in my ability to free-dive and perform rescues increases ten-fold that morning.
In the afternoon Kirk gives me a break. He produces Dacor underwater scooters and we go out onto the reef to play. There's an almost perverse sense of satisfaction in gliding past the slow, ungainly scuba divers as they plod along at 20m. That's usually me. Most do a double-take when they see we don't have any scuba gear.
Later that afternoon my confidence is built further. Dan shows me a rebreather rigged to remove CO2 without replacing O2. The aim is for me to black out under controlled conditions and see how fast I recover.
I watch the PP02 gauge slowly drop from its initial reading of 0.16 bar. Oxygen level falling, I become obsessed with the person videoing the exercise. The next 10sec go blank. The last thing I remember is seeing my PP02 down to 0.03 bar.
It takes about 15sec before I recover. The black-out was mild but I am surprised at how insidiously it crept up on me. Had the mouthpiece not been removed I would have carried on breathing, blissfully slipping into deep unconsciousness.
Watching the video later I see how my face went pale, almost blue. My lips went cyanosed and my eyes blanked over. As I breathed air again I see the colour return to my face. The experience was less scary than I had expected. Now I know that if I should black out on a dive I would recover within seconds.
Next day Kirk and I head out to warm up for a deep dive. We take the scooters with us and help the mammalian diving reflexes kick in by going in and out of the water porpoise-style. The water on the 35m line is deep blue and the bottom no longer visible. I take the scooter down to 32.5m. My body is starting to adapt to the depth and extended breath-hold.
It's time to clip off the scooters for some free-diving. Several weeks ago it would have been frightening but now I feel a sense of well-being. All I've learnt comes into play: the breathing exercises; the relaxation techniques and the pre-dive visualisations.
Floating face-down on the surface, I close my eyes for a few breaths, then open them slowly. The sun's rays penetrate the blueness below and I picture myself effortlessly riding one of them to the bottom. I start my journey.
Soon I can see reef to my right, and know I'm in 20m-plus. Time seems to slow down. Just when I'm thinking of going into a glide the alarm on my Mares Apneist computer goes off. The screen reads 31.5m; I'd set it to go off at 30m.
As I turn for the surface, I fix my eyes on the line. I know that at this depth looking up could freak me out, raise my heartbeat and possibly induce other unwanted physiological responses. I turn slowly and start the Pipin leg kick to take me out of deep water. At about 25m I change to the Umberto kick and slow things down. "Rhythm, grace, style," I say to myself as I picture Umberto ascending.
Then Kirk is in front of me. He's watching my eyes for any sign of black-out as I ascend the last 15m. I stop finning and let my buoyancy carry me to the surface, where I take in huge gulps of air. Once again I experience the natural high of a deep dive. At Divetech they call this "being in the zone".
As we porpoise back to shore, I know that I can go deeper. It's a strange sensation, but the desire to return is overwhelming.
On my return to the UK I stop off in the Florida Keys to join Tanya Streeter at the Great American Fish Count conservation project, where she is a guest celebrity. The idea is to count as many different species of fish in a set area as possible, for research purposes. Everyone else on the boat is on scuba, but I join Tanya and her "support team" (girls on tour!) to free-dive.
For the next two hours we dive with nurse sharks, large shoals of fish and I get to race a barracuda. Maximum depth is only 15m, which gives us plenty of bottom time.
The fish aren't scared of me. They are more inquisitive than when I am on scuba. This is what free-diving is all about; deep dives just give you the confidence and ability to dive for longer in shallower waters.
As we return to the harbour I talk to Tanya about her technique. "I've always tried to find what works for me," she says. "For example, to get myself out of deep water I'll use fast, short leg kicks. As I ascend I'll change to slower, longer kicks. Another method I've developed is to keep one hand on the nose to equalise on the descent, instead of having both hands in front of you like you see in photographs."
She talks about the other advantages of free-diving: "Life is more focused, that's the record-setting part of me. But when I spend time on the reef like this I feel the relaxing side. While I'm down there I'm in my own private bubble. I forget about everything else."
Four hours later and I'm on a flight back to the UK. I have found another practical benefit to free-diving - no penalty prior to flying.
"I'm going to try and get you 'out of the box,' and by the end of the weekend hopefully you'll all get it," says Howard Jones, captain of last year's British free-diving team at the world championships in Sardinia. This time I'm a bit closer to home, at Fort Bovisand near Plymouth, where Howard is introducing his Unboxed Blue weekend free-diving course.
For the next few hours Howard gives a brief introduction to the theories behind free-diving: safety; technique; physiology and above all the need to "get you laid-back, leave the nine-to-five behind and have fun!"
The students on the course are there for a variety of reasons: Louise wants to be able to join her boyfriend Chris under water; Wil wants to improve his technique; Jeremy and Alex just want to find out what it's all about and Kayt wants to continue her training after attending one of Howard's previous weekends.
After practising basic techniques in the training pool we venture out into Fort Bovisand's natural harbour. It's only 5m deep but that's fine; we aren't there to break records.
The conditions next day are perfect: no wind, flat seas and plenty of sunshine. We take boats out to some of Howard's favourite sites. First stop is Heybrook Bay and a series of gullies no more than 7m deep. We're there to "get our lungs", to warm up and allow the body's dive reflexes to kick in.
Next stop is Shag Rock, maximum depth about 9m. We've "got our lungs" so there's time to fly along the contours of the reef through the forests of kelp.
After half an hour the current starts to pick up so we take the boats over to nearby Rame Head. In this sheltered bay the water is mirror-calm, with an appealing blueness. We know the depth is only 5m but that's OK - it means more bottom time.
I'm back in what is now a familiar world. Once again the silence envelops me and the passage of time means nothing. My body is sending me messages to breathe out but I know I can safely ignore them. Besides, there's so much to see: small fish I'd normally miss; the beauty of an anemone waving its arms in the surge and plenty of inquisitive reef fish.
It's in these gullies that I finally discover the truth behind what free-divers talk about. In British waters I have "the time to be down there", I'm in "the zone," I've "found my own private bubble." At last I've "got it".
Redefining your limits
Free-diving really is a sport for all; there's nothing secret or mystical about it. Like any other sport, you just need to know how.
Aharon and MT's background is in pranayama yoga and autogenic training, so it's no surprise that their course concentrates on the mind and then the body. Divetech achieves the same results, but its agenda is reversed, with more emphasis on the physical side of free-diving. Howard's course doesn't go into the same depth but provides an ideal introduction to the sport.
And the danger aspect? There is an inherent risk associated with free-diving, which is why explanations of techniques have been omitted from this article. Practising it without proper instruction or safety procedures can lead to injury or even death. However, at no point on any of the three courses did I feel unsafe.
My journey into this world took me further than just learning how to free-dive. It made me realise that my potential had for too long been buried under my own limiting beliefs. The QED programme, GQ magazine, articles I had written: they had all contributed to the constraints I had programmed into my mind.
I started to wonder if I had any other similar limitations in my life. To quote Tanya's favourite phrase, I am still in the process of "redefining my limits".
AHARON AND MARIE-TERESA SOLOMONS: The Free-divers School, PO Box 8044, Eilat 88000, Israel (tel 00 972 7 6344446; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org). A three-day course costs (US) $250, five days $450. Accommodation was arranged through the Red Sea Sports Club at the Ambassador, close to the Divers Village. Direct flights to Eilat are available only in autumn and winter. Visiting in summer, I flew to Tel Aviv with El Al Israel airlines and hired a car through Budget. Eilat is a four-hour drive from Tel Aviv. Internal flights are available through Arkia Israeli Airlines on certain days. The Red Sea Sports Club can assist with travel (0181 991 4626). This and the other courses provide equipment.
IAFD INTERNATIONAL: Divetech Ltd, PO Box 31435 SMB, Grand Cayman, BVI (tel 00 1 345 949 1700; fax 00 1 345 949 1701; e-mail email@example.com). Fairly proficient snorkellers should do the two-day Advanced Free-diver course (target 20m) for (US) $250. The three-day Master Free-diver course (30m) costs $350. Both can be combined over 4-5 days for $450. Harlequin Worldwide Travel (01708 850330) can arrange a week's B&B, flights and transfers for 760. Both Aharon's and Divetech's courses normally cater for only one or two students at a time, but reduced rates can be negotiated for groups.
UNBOXED BLUE: Fort Bovisand Underwater Centre, Plymstock, Plymouth PL9 OAB (tel/fax 01752 480763). Weekend course costs £125. Maximum number of students is eight. Accommodation is available at Fort Bovisand, though I found it extremely poor value: a double room costs £45 for two or £35 for single occupancy, but the rooms were dirty, and due to be renovated. Dormitories start at £12 per person with shared communal washrooms. A very pleasant B&B is available just round the corner at the Heybrook Bay Hotel for £15 per person (01752 862345).
Appeared in DIVER - October 1999