Had my modern Latin or ancient Greek been a bit less rusty I would, perhaps, have thought twice about signing up for a two day freediving course.
I was coming to the end of nearly three months travelling round SE Asia and had headed to the Thai island of Koh Tao for a couple of weeks of relaxing beach action after an action-packed trip. True to form, I was bored after two days and started scouring the island for activities.
As an Advanced Scuba Diver, it had been a mistake choosing this particular island as I discovered it’s far better known as a destination for beginners and its advanced diving sites aren’t amazing. So having exhausted the best it had to offer I resumed my search for mischief.
‘Become a certified freediver in just two days with Apnea’, screamed the alluring sign. Hmm, I thought, and why not?
Had I paid more attention in my Latin classes, I might have been able to work out the association between the word ‘apnea’ and the recognised medical condition of ‘apnoea’; the temporary cessation of breathing, especially during sleep. As much as becoming a certified freediver sounded uber cool, losing the ability to breathe would have sounded considerably less cool.
Blissfully unaware and driven by a sense of adventure that almost always lands me in trouble, the inevitable happened and before I knew it I was signing up for a course starting the following day.
It sounded great. I completed a 10-man group of beginners that was to embark firstly in the classroom for theory. This included learning the correct breathing techniques which were a gateway to being able to dive to 30m with just one breath for a minimum of three minutes. Our first session on the open waves was to be shortly afterwards and a more advanced second day would follow. I was told to be back the next morning for an early start and sent away with some important literature to read.
‘Freediving is an inherently dangerous sport. On an apnea dive we are putting our bodies into a ‘hypoxic state’. Severe hypoxia can cause your brain to send random electrical signals through your body, causing a loss of motor control known as a ‘samba’. Divers can lose control of their respiratory functions and fine motor skills. A loss of motor control can easily escalate into a full loss of consciousness.’
There were plenty of safety procedures to follow, one of which was to not eat for four hours beforehand to help avoid the dreaded ‘samba’ situation.
For anyone who knows me, this is a particularly challenging rule. It would have meant not eating anything from the point of waking right up until a late lunchtime slot.
That was just NEVER going to happen. Especially as this entire time was to be spent practising truly dizzying deep breathing and physically demanding exercises both above and under the choppy sea waters.
That on an empty stomach wasn’t even worth contemplating. I would sneak in a small breakfast, confident that I was immune to the dangers.
Clever that, seeing as blacking out is not unknown to me in a variety of situations.
Aiming for a 10 o’clock start, I got up bright and early and headed down to the beach, installed myself at a food hut and scoffed a light and healthy brekkie.
Making sure there were no outward signs of crumbs around my mouth or stains down my t-shirt, I then meandered over to the classroom.
A flurry of panicked activity greeted my arrival.
‘Where have you been? The class has been going since 8 o’clock, we thought you weren’t coming!’
‘You told me 10 o’clock!’
‘Absolutely not, everyone else made it on time and you’ve missed very important lessons.’
I obviously didn’t dare explain that all that time I’d been right next door stuffing my face.
I was ushered off into a private room for a rush one-on-one tutorial with the person who was to be my instructor. We did various huffing and puffing exercises before it was time to join the group for our virgin freedive. I was told I’d be brought up to speed as best as possible on all remaining elements on the boat ride out to the site.
The classroom door opened and out spilled two burly male instructors and nine burly male students. The sole female, and not in any way burly, I joined them all on the boat.
Attempting what’s classified as a dangerous activity at the best of times can be worrying, doing so with inadequate training was stressful to say the least.
But off we went and down we dived.
All went surprisingly well and my illegal breakfast didn’t come back to bite me on the bum.
This boosted my confidence and, having checked the correct start time for the following day, I went away thinking I would probably chance a bit more to eat next time.
I got up at the crack of eggs, headed back to the hut and ordered a rather large hot dish which I polished off in no time before waddling over to the classroom, happy to be the first to arrive.
The tiny room was soon packed to the rafters with the 12 burly males and me. and the lesson resumed.
We were taught more intensive breathing techniques, firstly shown how to do it and secondly demonstrating to the group we could do it ourselves. To fully focus on it, we were advised to close our eyes. To check we were doing it properly, the instructors needed to concentrate on our chest movement.
And so came the excruciating moment when it was my individual turn to close my eyes, expose my bikini-topped torso and provide a two minute approval-seeking performance to 12 men in close proximity who were intently studying my undulating chest.
After signing up for a video recording of my experience, a few hours later we all hit the boat for our second dive, aiming for a head-first descent to a minimum depth of 10m.
The weather had turned; it was cold, rainy and the water was rough.
An hour or so was given for the exercise and we were paired off with one instructor between us. I went first and surprised everyone by reaching the 10m in an apparently very smooth dive.
Boom. Nailed it.
As my partner went on his descent with the instructor, I remained on the surface clinging on to the buoy for dear life, the rough waves crashing over my head. It made the vital calm frame of mind extremely difficult and the correct breathing almost impossible by frequent swallowing of sea water.
It took hardly any time. In fact, I think my partner had reached the surface and I was being invited to embark on my second dive when the first wave of nausea kicked in. I declined the dive, saying I needed to compose myself and combat the increasing feeling of sea sickness.
By the time he re-surfaced I was visibly green and was floating in upchuck blobs of my breakfast.
‘Why are you throwing up so much, have you eaten?’
There was no denying it, it was plain to be seen.
‘It is very dangerous. Please return to the boat.’
Managing to now display a red face as well as a green one, I swam limply back to the boat, projectile vomiting as I went.
My fellow divers kept at it while I lay moaning on the deck. The boat hand tutted loudly as I continued to ruin his clean boat with my illicit stomach contents.
It was the breakfast that just kept on giving.
When the hour was up, the group returned and with seemingly genuine sympathy enquired about how I was. As I tentatively made my way over to them, the boat fired up and off we set.
I was about to tell them I was feeling much better when the unmistakable signs of an imminent barf returned. Thinking it best to head for the side of the boat and stick my head over it, I turned sharply and headed that way.
Sadly, I didn’t make it as my body did what it’s prone to sometimes doing and decided for itself that it’s not having a good time. It shut down and I blacked out, collapsing and landing in a heap on the deck.
I probably wasn’t out for the too long and came round to find one of my fellow divers cradling me saying, ‘It’s ok, I’m a doctor.’
Embarrassing? Well it would be if this were an unfamiliar occurrence, but then I’m used to making a total plank of myself in public.
Unimpressed by my ignoring the ‘no food’ rules, the company at least had the sensitivity to reimburse me for the video I’d paid for which documents the whole sorry incident in full.