I began the day with a remarkable feat – I got up early and went to yoga at 6:15 a.m. Yoga is cool, but because I wasn't used to it, for me doing it was tough. By the end of class I could not wait for it all to end. We agreed, as usual, to meet at 10 by the pool, and I went to my hotel for breakfast.
On that day we were going to have practical tests for freedivers' certificates. As contenders for the two-star freediver level, members of our beginner group had to do the following:
- Remove the mask at 10 meters and surface without it. To simulate a leg cramp underwater, remove one fin at 10 meters and resurface using the remaining one.
- Perform stand-by protocol for another freediver, accompanying him to the surface from 10 meters depth.
- "Rescue" a freediver from 10 meters.
The more experienced guys who were going for three stars had to do everything the same, but from 15 meters depth. Oksana briefed us and explained the rescuing techniques. In the meantime a couple of buoys had been put in the sea just beyond the reef in front of our hotel. I borrowed a dive computer from a friend who wasn't going to dive with us. And after the briefing, we suited up and swam to the buoys. One buoy was intended for us to do our tests, while at the other one more experienced guys, who didn't have to do the tests, practised depth diving. We began as usual with some exercises. I pulled myself down and up the rope by the hands a few times, then dived once using fins, and after that told Oksana that I was ready.
The first step was to remove the mask at 10 meters. To make it more clear for us, Oksana tied two tags to the rope: at 10 and 15 meters. I dived to the first one and, holding to the rope with one hand, I pulled off the mask. Removing the mask at this depth felt like hitting my face against the water. And instantly I saw almost nothing. I know that scuba divers can even put on a mask under water, displacing the water from it by exhaling through the nose. But scuba divers have plenty of air, while freedivers do not have that luxury. Therefore, clutching a mask in one hand and clinging to the rope with the other, I swam up. I passed the first test. In fact, everyone did that without any problems, but not everyone liked the experience. Then it was my turn to pass the second test. I dived to 10 meters and, holding to the rope, took one fin off. And, holding the removed fin in one hand and guiding myself along the line with the other hand, I swam up. Pretty soon I realised that paddling with two legs did not make sense – the bare foot provided no thrust. Therefore, I went on ascending working with one fin only. Piece of cake. And then the most interesting part started: performing stand-by duties and rescuing another freediver.
As I already wrote, freedivers do not dive alone. When a freediver dives into depth, he is watched by another freediver from the surface. The safety freediver dives to meet the ascending freediver and accompanies him to the surface. Because most troubles usually occur to a freediver in the upper 10 meters on ascent, that is where he should be met. If a dive isn't very deep, about 30 meters, such a dive usually takes little more than a minute, and it is easy to calculate the time when a safety person needs to dive. Besides, an ascending freediver is visible from the surface. Freedivers who dive to greater depths usually know how long it takes and let the safety diver know when and at what depth they need to be met.
When it was my turn to take the test, Oksana dived, and I was lying on the surface watching her silhouette fading out of sight. When she disappeared completely, I dived after her. I stopped at 10 meters and watched her rising from the depth. When she came up to me, I started ascending alongside her, looking into her eyes. The safety person needs to see the eyes of the freediver, to be sure that she is all right. At any hint of an abnormal behaviour he should be ready to come to the rescue. I passed that test successfully. After that I only needed to rescue a freediver from 10 meters. The exercise started the same way as the previous one: I dived after Oksana and I was waiting for her at 10 meters. When she levelled with me on her way back, her body went limp – she portrayed the loss of consciousness under water. If that happens for real, it is a critical moment. After losing consciousness under water, a person may instinctively try to inhale. Once water enters the upper respiratory tract, one more reflex kicks in, this time protective – the trachea is closed by so-called laryngospasm, and the water doesn't get into the lungs. But in that case time is crucial – there will be about two minutes before laryngospasm is released. If a freediver is not brought to the surface within that time, the water will get into the lungs, and the diver will effectively drown and will have to be given CPR. Once Oksana "fainted", I, as she taught us, grabbed her under the shoulders and dragged her up.
During such a rescue, the first thing to do on the surface is to hold the unconscious diver so that the airways are above the water. Then you need to take off his mask and call him by name. If a person does not regain consciousness, then hold him with your right hand under his head, pinch his nose, and do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. That is what those of us who were going for two stars had to do. The guys who were going for a higher level additionally had to transport an unconscious diver to the shore and do CPR.
I passed the test on the second attempt: the first time I forgot to pinch Oksana's nose while doing mouth-to-mouth. But the second time made everything right.
When we all passed our two-star tests, the guys going for three stars had to do all the same. However, they had to "rescue" a freediver from 15 meters. When it was Vasily's turn, Oksana said that it would be good for him to save someone else. She was already tired of playing a "victim". Moreover, for Vasily that would be too easy: he is about 100 kg, and Oksana is a frail and slender girl. So I volunteered to be rescued. I dived to the 15-meter mark and then dropped a bit deeper until the computer on my wrist showed 18. I started ascending, and when I caught up with Vasily at 15, I closed my eyes, released the rope, and went limp all over. Before I could relax, I felt that I was being dragged up. Then everything went according to the plan: he pulled me to the surface, removed my mask and did resuscitation. Because I passed all the tests, I didn't have to do anything else, and I asked Oksana's permission to do some depth diving practice at the other buoy.
That time Tania was my safety freediver. The first time I dived to my usual 20 meters. Then, while I was waiting for my next turn, I tried to relax and catch my breath as I was taught. Then I handed over the snorkel to Tania and dived.
When I was going up, it seemed that the rope in front of my eyes was barely moving. And I felt like darting to the surface as fast as I could. However, that would lead to nothing good. I once read an interview at the deeperblue.com website with one of the students of the freediving course in the SETT pool in England. He started to have diaphragm contractions at 25 meters and he bolted for the surface. He was lucky not to black out. And an instructor who was diving next to him was trying to calm him down all the way to the surface. Panicking under water is the last thing you want to do. Bad thoughts need to be banished. You should be calm, thinking about the light and blue sky that is waiting for you on the surface. And paddling by slow but wide fin strokes: one, two ... until you feel like in the last 10 meters positive buoyancy embraces you and brings you to the surface. Immediately after surfacing it is necessary to make a quick exhale, then take a deep breath and breathe deeply for a few seconds. Then the official protocol requires you to remove the mask, to show the "OK" hand sign, and to say, "I'm OK." During all those activities a safety diver and, if that happens in a competition, a judge is staring into the eyes of the freediver. In tournaments, there were cases when freedivers lost consciousness after having already gotten to the surface. If this happens, the result does not count.
Having caught my breath, I looked at the computer on my wrist, which embodied the depth to which I dived – 26.1 meters. And having left the guys at the buoy, I swam to the shore. I accomplished more than could hope for. I was happy.
After lunch, we went diving to the sunken plane. The plane itself is an old small "Cessna", which was thrown to the bottom specifically for tourists to dive to. It lies at 20 meters depth, which slightly varies depending on the tide. That was just about on the verge of the depth to which I could dive comfortably, and I was wondering if I could get to it. But before we could dive to the plane, first we had to find it. The plan was such that the captain of our boat with his local assistants would locate the plane and place the boat right above it. Then we would throw a line straight down, and dive along the line to the plane. When we got aboard, the captain, a Filipino, cast a glance at our uncomplicated equipment, assessed the lack of scuba tanks, and asked:
— Yep, — we confirmed — snorkelling.
However, not all turned out smoothly according to plan. The visibility in the water was less than 10 meters, and the plane couldn't be seen from the surface. The search took a while, but finally it was found, and a rope with a weight was thrown down. And then we faced another surprise – a strong current. The buoy drifted, and a rope was hanging out of plumb at a 70-degree angle. In such circumstances, the only sensible way to reach the plane was to go down the rope, though not straight down. If a freediver tried to release the rope, he would be instantly carried away and wouldn't find the plane. The first guys went down, and upon returning reported that the plane lay at 22 meters. I waited for my turn and, having taken a deep breath, dived down, pulling myself down the rope. Going down against the current was hard; I think it was my most difficult dive there. Perhaps if I was just diving, I would not have reached 22 meters in such conditions. But at that moment when I was ready to turn around and go back, I looked down and saw the plane just a few meters below me.
A few days before, Julia told us that on the Red Sea visibility in the water can be such that the depth tag, which an athlete has to reach, is clearly visible from the surface. She said that being able to see the goal helps immensely and adds strength.
She was right. I reached the plane. I clapped my hand on the roof, looked inside, and then let go of the rope and went up: keeping to the inclined rope upon ascent was not necessary and I wasn't worried that I would surface a few meters away from the buoy. Then I waited for my turn and dived again. This time I even had enough air to swim away from the cockpit and hold on to the plane's fin. On that my diving program for that day had been completed. And I couldn't say I was disappointed by the way the day passed. Oh no, quite the opposite. Later that evening, standing on the beach and looking at the fading sun slowly diving into the sea somewhere far away, I realised that my life was changing forever, right there and then.
And later in the evening we celebrated March 8, which is Women’s Day in Eastern Europe. A table was set for us on the beach. The guys got hold of flowers somewhere in this middle of nowhere, and we presented them to all our girls. And there was a festive dinner. We drank wine and rum, sang songs and danced. I went to sleep after three o'clock in the morning with a firm conviction that no one would turn up for yoga the next morning.
The end of the ninth day.
The text © 2010 Sergey Stadnik
The photos © 2010 Vasily Avseenko, Sergey Stadnik