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Safety Skills Every Freediver Should Learn: Interview with Lance Lee Davis

By Rachel Novak

Does the Media Accurately Portray Freediving Safety?

Competitive freediving is getting significantly more coverage in mainstream media, but does it live up to its dangerous reputation? Film makers definitely love to highlight the more dramatic aspects of freediving to attract viewers, but rarely do they highlight how freedivers mitigate risks associated with diving deep. The Deepest Breath, the most recent Netflix documentary about freediving, shares a beautiful story about the relationship between competitive freedivers and the safety divers who watch over them. We interviewed Lance Lee Davis, a national record holder, captain of the 2023 US National Team at the Confédération Mondiale des Activités (CMAS) World Championships, and PFI Intermediate Freediver Instructor to get his perspective on the role of a safety diver. Whether you are looking to compete, become a safety diver, or learn more about how you can be a better freediving buddy while out on a fun dive, you’re bound to take away useful information from this interview. Read on to learn more!

Lance Lee Davis – Background and Experience 

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Lance Lee Davis at CMAS World Championships 2023. Photo by Kohei Ueno (@kuenok)

Lance Davis is a water-focused renaissance man based out of Redondo Beach, California. Not only is he a spearfisherman, stunt performer, competitive freediver, and freediving instructor, but he also holds the Guinness World Record for the most underwater somersaults on one breath! Lance grew up swimming and spent 11 years as a competitive swimmer. While he had many years of experience with spearfishing and other water activities prior to any formal training in freediving, Lance reports that his first exposure to the important safety aspects of freediving was during his first freediving course. At the time, he was closing in on the US constant weight no fins (CNF) national record and was considering becoming a freediving instructor. Lance took his first freediving course with Kirk Krack, decided that he wanted to pursue a career in the sport, and became a PFI instructor the following winter. Since then, Lance has competed in 7 depth competitions, holds the CMAS US National Record for 76 meters CNF, regularly introduces clients to freediving and spearfishing through his company, SoCal Spear-It, and organized Vertical Green 2022, the first CMAS-sanctioned freediving depth competition in the continental United States.

What attributes make a good safety diver and a good safety team? 

When we interviewed Lance about his perspective on safety divers and freediving competitions, Lance listed several key skills that make up a strong safety team. In addition to having practice performing safety drills together, Lance stated the importance of familiarity with the local dive conditions, currents, and temperatures, and how that can impact a freediver. He said that a team made up of working divers, such as freediving instructors and spearfishermen, usually cultivate three attributes essential to each member of a safety team: stamina, problem-solving ability, and calmness under pressure. By possessing these attributes, members of a safety team can form a cohesive unit that works to facilitate a competition that runs smoothly. For example, one key accomplishment that competition officials of Vertical Blue 2023 highlighted was the fact that there were minimal delays to the athlete start times during the competition, despite blackouts and other freediving emergencies. Competition organizers and staff who keep to the published schedule are appreciated because delays in an athlete’s start time can adversely affect his or her performance.

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Lance facilitates a briefing with the safety team on competition day. Photo by Rene Hallen (@buoyzero)

What are some additional skills that someone should acquire if they are interested in becoming a safety for competitions? 

We asked Lance about other skills that freedivers can cultivate if they want to consider being a safety for depth competitions, and he stressed the fact that being a competition safety is very physically demanding. In addition to diving frequently to safety athletes as they ascend from their dives, it is important to have a solid and consistent breath hold and a reliable ability to dive to required depths. For example, a safety may have to dive down to 30 meters and hang at attention longer than planned if an athlete dives slower than their announced performance. While Lance didn’t require safety team members to be freediving instructors for Vertical Green 2021, he reported that he searched for freedivers who were certified in higher level freediving courses, such as a PFI Intermediate Freediver, a Molchanovs Wave 3 Freediver, or an AIDA 3 Star certification. 

While an athlete only has to perform one big dive on a competition day, the competition safeties often work long hours outside of safetying athletes for their performances, diving as frequently as every 10 minutes! They often gain experience with rigging, setting up and breaking down the competition area, raising and lowering anchors and bottom weights, and operating safety counterweight systems and sonar. In addition to rigging skills, Lance listed that EMT-level medical training, lifeguard training, or a higher level medical training were desired skill sets, especially for competitions that are held in more remote areas. 

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The safety team accompanies an athlete to the surface during a competition dive. Photo by Rene Hallen (@buoyzero)

Perspectives on the relationship between a freediver and his or her safety 

We asked Lance about the importance of the relationship between freedivers and safeties, and he discussed some concepts that competitors can consider to help the safety team perform their job well. One of the most appreciated attributes of a competitor is to have a realistic assessment of one’s physical abilities and to not make unreasonable jumps in personal bests during training or competition. Lance states, “While relaxation and mental state are definitely important, I believe that the body and the mind have to work together, and there are certain immutable laws of physics and physiology. I think that the higher risk divers think that the limitations are purely mental and are not aware of the danger, while the safer divers that make consistent dives have pretty realistic assessments and judgment.” While each athlete gets 100% from the safety team at all times, consistent divers help the safety team conserve valuable energy and attention more than inconsistent or risky “wild card” freedivers. 

A second way that an athlete can help the safety team do their job well is to have good sportsmanship and respect for the sport. Not only is freediving physically demanding for safeties and competition staff, but it is also mentally demanding. Not only must an athlete respect the safeties who keep them safe, but the judges and organizers, who the safeties ultimately answer to for their actions. Competition organizers, judges, and safeties are multitasking for many long hours during the day, and any unnecessary distractions may contribute to the team missing an important safety issue. This could lead to a safety diver potentially endangering themselves, other athletes, or even organized freediving competitions as a whole. 

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The safety team vigilantly observes an athlete after resurfacing from a competition dive. Photo by Rene Hallen (@buoyzero)

Tips on cultivating a culture of safety in freediving

Whether you are considering participation in a freediving competition or just want to be a more competent safety for your freediving buddies on fun dives, we can take away several important lessons from this interview. Knowledge and experience go a long way in helping one troubleshoot an emergency in the water should one happen, and aiming to foster adaptability and consistency will help ensure that you can be at the right depth at the right time for your buddy. Practice meeting your buddy at the correct depth using announced dive times and a stopwatch, practice safety drills regularly, and cultivate safe habits! If you are a self-taught freediver but want to educate yourself more about the safety aspects of freediving, reach out to a PFI instructor to schedule a PFI Freediver course. If you are an intermediate level freediver and want to educate yourself specifically about being a better safety, find a PFI Safety Diver course near you. 

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Vertical Green 2022 safety team, volunteers, and athletes celebrate a safe and successful competition. Photo by Rene Hallen (@buoyzero)

Thanks again to Lance Lee Davis for letting us interview him about his perspectives on freediving safety, both in recreational and competitive freediving. If you would like to contact him about freediving competitions, spearfishing, or upcoming courses and workshops, you can contact him on Instagram or through SoCal Spear-It. 

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