A Rude Awakening

Cody Wagner practices protecting the airway during a shallow-water-blackout drill in the pool with his father.

With no indication that anything would go wrong, my freediving partner descended out of sight. His float line was all that remained to let me know he had been there. The minutes that followed were a reminder that no one is exempt from the risks associated with freediving.

Having grown up in the Florida Keys, I'm no stranger to the ocean. Being in the water comes as naturally to me as breathing. I was a competitive swimmer, and my dad and I have been freediving together my whole life. Two years ago I had the opportunity to attend a Performance Freediving International freediver course taught by Ashley and Ren Chapman of Evolve Freediving. My father even wrote an article about our experience for Alert Diver (see Member to Member, Spring 2015).

It would be a complete understatement to say that this training changed the way I dive and think about diving. My dad and I recognized how risky our freediving protocols had been (we had a buddy system that amounted to "same ocean, same time"). We hadn't truly understood the implications of the hazards involved, especially shallow-water blackout. After taking the class, safety was the priority every time we dived. Following that first freediver course, I completed an intermediate course with Evolve Freediving and have trained with Ted Harty of Immersion Freediving on several occasions. The material covered and quality of instruction in both programs is first rate.

Although training emphasizes the theoretical aspects of safe freediving, sometimes it takes real-world experience to really make it sink in. For me that revelation came during a recent spearfishing trip. I was invited out on a coworker's boat with him and his two sons. It was a routine trip for us to the 50- to 60-foot reef off Palm Beach, Fla. Conditions were great: The current was slack, and visibility was top to bottom. We dived in a three-man rotation with a designated boat operator. After a few hours of diving and a couple of nice fish in the cooler, we decided to move to a stretch of artificial reefs in the 85- to 90-foot range.

The conditions were nearly the same, but the increase in depth warranted the use of a float line so we could track each other. Each of us had made a handful of drops with no issues when my coworker's 16-year-old son made his last dive of the day. It was a dive that he had already made a few times that day, but as soon as he surfaced at the end of his dive I knew something was different. His lips were bright blue. He took a couple of breaths before he stopped breathing and began convulsing — a loss of motor control known to freedivers as a "samba." By the time I reached out to grab him, he had blacked out and slumped forward in the water. I immediately floated him on his back to protect his airway, removed his mask and attempted to promote the resumption of spontaneous breathing as I had been trained. Almost immediately he began to breathe again, and he slowly regained consciousness.

The boat ride home was mostly silent, each of us immersed in our own reflections about what might have been. My coworker's son clearly experienced a dawning realization that he was not bulletproof, a stripping away of the all-too-common idea among freedivers that the hazards of the sport are dangers only to novice divers or are brought on by extreme circumstances. By the time the boat reached the inlet, the gravity of the situation had really sunk in. Astonished, the young man stated out loud that if he had been diving alone he would be dead. In lieu of a response that might have been a bit more comforting, I went with the hard truth: "Yes. Yes, you would be dead."

I had already been humbled by similar events: blacking out during static apnea and experiencing a samba during a line dive session in training. These events were enough to change almost every aspect of the way I dive, from gear selection to how my partners and I rotate. It was also enough to make sure that there is always dialogue with my partners about what to do in the event of a blackout or samba. I always tried to practice safety while spearfishing, but I did not always make it the top priority.

This event, however, happened in the real world. When I had blacked out, it was in a controlled environment, relatively speaking, and I was pushing myself to the limit because I knew trained professionals were there to assist me. When I blacked out I did not go through the emotions we all felt this day.

Enlightened by these events, we began by running through different safety scenarios in the water on our next trip. It was a great way to switch the focus from spearfishing as an overarching objective to safety first and hunting second. Everyone dived better that trip, which I attribute directly to our safety session. In a sport largely affected by mental disposition, the peace of mind from knowing that your partners are capable of being there for you in a pinch is an immeasurable asset.

© Alert Diver — Q1 Winter 2017