Surfing and Freediving: Finding Calm in the Chaos
By Adam Tory
A classic Pacific Northwest storm formed at the end of the winter season, and gusting southeast winds blew offshore into bombing waves at one of my favorite local spots. Waiting for a lull, I paddled out. I timed it well and was lucky to avoid a beating from churning six-foot walls of whitewash. Sitting out past the break, I let the first incoming waves pass so that I could take a look and get into position. I felt the upward lurch and subsequent elevator drop as powerful swell rolled underneath me.
The waves that day were around ten feet on the face, detonating on a flat, compact sand bottom. The swell approached and stood up on the sand bar, offering steep drops to a fast and often “closed-out” wave, with the potential to find a good open section for a barrel or big carve. A few other surfers dotted the water, spread out, looking for their own peaks. Whips of wind and rain lashed the water’s surface. This was usually a busy spot and a go-to in the winter season, but the size of the swell had thinned out the crowd considerably. I could count five other surfers total.
Another set stacked on the horizon. Waves gurgled over distant outer reefs, indicating that I had a few minutes to get into position. A pit formed in my stomach as they approached. Letting the first two waves go, I swung around and paddled for the third. I took off, dropping down the wave face. I looked ahead as the swell energy hit an inside sandbar. What had started as a clean, wind-groomed wall of water, mutated into a sand-dredging “closeout”, and I was right underneath its maw. Impact. I was ripped off my board and plunged into darkness. A violent spin cycle ensued.
I opened my eyes and saw light above. My diaphragm hammered away at my lungs as I thrashed upwards. I surfaced, spluttering right as another wave bore down on me. I barely wheezed before it hit and sent me rolling along the bottom and towards the beach. I had only been in the water for around twenty minutes, yet the ferocity of that wipeout had me feeling like I had been out for a marathon session. I stood in waist deep water, sapped of my will to return to the waves. I had failed at my objective to get the waves I had hoped for, and had the fear of Poseidon struck into my soul. That would be the last big storm of the season before the shift into mellower summer swells.
The fear that I felt on that day is something that all surfers have experienced. A traumatic event in the water, such as a bad wipeout, hold-down, or near drowning situation can linger with us for years. Everyone who has spent time in the ocean in any form is aware of the power it has to put us in these kinds of situations. The challenge lies in overcoming that fear in order to get back in the water.
Freediving to Train the Mind and Breath Hold
September of that same year, my diaphragm was hammering away in my ribs again.This time I was three minutes and fifteen seconds into a supervised static apnea attempt. I was floating face down in 3ft of calm lake water, holding on to a bar that was part of a freedive rig. This was part of the PFI Freediver course with Chris Adair of Bottom Dwellers Freediving. Having already completed their statics, the other students on the course gathered around to observe mine. I’d announced that I would attempt a 4 minute static, after having completed a 2 minute and 3 minute static prior. In order to lower my heart rate and enrich my blood-oxygen content, I had then completed a 5 minute pre-breathing cycle. Unlike after a wipeout in surfing, here my body was calm and motionless.
With a tap on my shoulder, Chris announced, “Three minutes and thirty seconds.”
I extended my index finger to indicate that I have heard him, and am okay to continue.
“Strong signal.” He responded.
With thirty seconds remaining, my diaphragm convulsed as the urge to breathe attempted to take over. I was no longer so calm; my body was fighting to take a breath as it could feel hypoxia setting in. The movements in my diaphragm would be visible to my safety, and were clear signs that I was struggling in these final seconds. In an oxygen deprived delirium, my mind went back to that brutal hold-down from last winter, where I had no choice but to hold my breath for as long as the wave wanted to hold me down. “Whatever you do, don’t panic.” I thought as I pressed on.
“Ten seconds remaining. Hands on the bar.” Chris’ voice was calm.
As he counted down from five, I set my feet on the lake floor and slowly emerged until my airway was above the water at the one second mark. Chris jumped right into coaching me through the recovery breaths: six deep, quick breaths each followed by an equally quick exhale. I then gave the okay sign. Realizing I’d completed a 4 minute static apnea, I grew a grin and began to giggle. Everyone was silent, staring at me. I was unaware that my lips were completely blue and that my giggles were drunk sounding. In fact, I felt drunk. Based on my outward appearance, everyone was bracing for the moment that I might experience a blackout or loss of motor control. Fortunately for me, that moment never came. As the oxygen returned to my body, the coloration of my lips went back to normal. I regained awareness and my cheeks turned a healthy red.
The PFI Freediver course covers the basics of freediving practice, always beginning with safety. After the apnea practice, we began the line dives by setting the line to a depth of five meters. At this depth, the plate marker was barely visible in the turbid lake water. After coaching us all through a few dives to the five meter mark, Chris unhooked the line and dropped it to ten meters. The pulley squeaked as the plate dropped into nothingness and my heart dropped with it. My mask fogged up as my turn to dive approached. Great.
By the end of the course, I had completed my certification and was able to reach a depth of fifteen meters with a ten-second hang at the plate. That weekend, I spent more time underwater on a single breath than most waves I’d ever surfed could keep me under for. I can’t say that it helped me to conquer my fear of the ocean, because I don’t think that’s the point. If you aren’t afraid of the ocean, then you’re probably tripping. What it did was help me step out of surfing and then back into the ocean in an entirely different way. I noticed that the same fear remained, yet I could test boundaries from a new vantage point, therefore becoming more comfortable with it. When you have a healthy relationship to your fear, it becomes more of an asset than a hindrance.
Overcoming Fear of the Waves with New Skills
At the start of the next winter when a fifteen foot swell appeared on the forecast, a familiar pit formed in my stomach. A certain point break I had heard of would light up with double-overhead waves. I got a call from a buddy on the day of the swell. He was already there. “Yeah, you’ll wanna get down here pretty quick.”
Monsters moved in the distance as we arrived and got eyes on. Wind howled into the walls of the approaching waves, sending long arcs of spray off the lip line as it zippered along a boulder strewn point. A shiver went up my spine and I knew that if I didn’t get moving soon, the cold would set in before I even got in the water. I ran back to the car to suit up.
Neoprene clad, trusty board under arm made by my buddy Rosin, I walked up the point with a buddy. It’s a cliche in surfing that the waves are always bigger than they look when you scope them from the shore. On this day I wished it were not true because they looked plenty big enough as we approached. This access would require a well timed jump off of large, algae-covered cobbles, then a dash for the deep channel on the other side of the whitewash. If you get caught by a set, you might get washed hundreds of yards down the point by sweeping whitewash and current. Due to the size and energy of the swell, waves steadily churned along the point without abating.
After a failed first attempt, getting swept down the point, I timed my second jump better and I made it to the channel. I was paddling out to the line up, looking sideways into the eyes of the grinding left-hand waves that hugged the shoreline. I had never surfed this wave before, and was assessing it for potential hazards and take-off zones. Just inside of the break, the heads of car-sized boulders broke the surface. The pit in my stomach dropped deeper. Breathe in for two, hold for two, exhale for ten seconds. My heart rate came back to normal as I got into a rhythm with my breathing and paddling.
About a dozen surfers sat spread throughout the line up. As I approached, a few heads turned and faces squinted through wind and offshore spray. No time for pleasantries as the ocean pulsed and waves rolled down the point. Water drew out into an approaching wall of water. A medium sized wave peaked up further inside forming a powerful six-foot wall. A surfer turned and went for it. He disappeared out of view as I scrambled wide over the shoulder. Another dark wall reared behind that. The next-up surfer turned to go. The wave heaved as he paddled against the gusting wind. Without enough speed, the bottom of the wave dropped out underneath him and he free fell into the trough. The preceding implosion dragged him underwater through to the inside boulder field.
With no one else opting for it, I found myself in position for the third wave of the set. As I turned and paddled, the wind gusted and I was completely blinded by spray. The wave hit the shallow section and began to pitch. I dug two more paddles and threw my weight over the ledge and I jumped to my feet. As I dropped to the bottom, I could see the wall ahead of me begin to pitch. I drove off of my toeside rail to try and tuck into the section, but I had dropped too far down the face to make it across the section.
The lip came down right on top of me, the force of it stuffing me into the trough of the wave. My ears popped as I plunged to the bottom. Thud. I shoulder checked a boulder and was dragged across it. Protect the head. Relax. Find my feet. Push off of the bottom. Surface. Recovery breaths. I regained my board and began hard paddles for the channel. I visualized my mistake as I paddled: The wave hit a shallow section and pitched faster than I anticipated. If I wanted to make that section, I would have to take a different line. I found my position back in the line-up. Another set was rolling down the point. The pack of surfers stirred to meet the approaching waves. One by one they went. Just as when we were in rotation for dives, I could feel my stomach tense up as each surfer ahead of me in the line-up took a wave, bringing me closer to my turn. All you can do in those moments is stay calm and hold your position so that you are ready to act. The surfer in front of me took his wave, leaving the horizon open to me. Nothing but dark green walls in front of me. The next wave formed up and I went. This time, I angled more across the wave as opposed to dropping to the bottom. This gave me the speed I needed to tuck higher and make it through the falling section. I highlined through a warping vortex of water. My fins hummed as I reached Mach 2 on this emerald racetrack, and shot out into the tapering shoulder of the wave. A moment of bliss, and I was shot out into the channel. I dropped back onto my board to paddle out for some more. Two waves in and I knew it was going to be a good session.
Building Confidence Through Education and Training
Freedive training helped me understand my physiology and how I react to apnea when it occurs in a “hold-down” when you are surfing. Beyond that, the systems and practices in place in freedive training are directly transferable. Take the pre-breathing and recovery breathing as a fantastic example. This helped me efficiently regain oxygen and prevent disasters in critical situations. The connections go further still and I am just at the beginning, really. After my first freediving course, I have since completed my Intermediate Freediver certification with Chris, where we dove to 25 meters on a memorably cold day in Victoria, BC, and I am currently preparing to finish my Safety Freediver and Freediver Supervisor certifications with Bottom Dwellers this summer. I do not believe that this training makes me in any way invincible. The ocean continues to humble me, and I hope for my sake that it always will. What it has done is help me to explore the places that I’ve dreamed of going for as long as I can remember.
About the Contributor: Adam Tory is an avid surfer based near Halifax, Nova Scotia. He provides surf coaching through his company, Hurricane Surf Company. You can find him on Instagram at @hurricanesurfco or @gnarcheologist.
If you are a surfer, kayaker, or a water enthusiast of any kind, the skills that you learn in a PFI Freediver course will give you the confidence to safely increase your breath hold and comfort underwater. If you want to focus specifically on the activities above, consider taking our PFI Breath Hold Survival course and learn how to train your breath hold, manage your mind and body, and improve your diet to help you perform better when faced with potentially hazardous situations in the water.