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Breathless: My Blackout Story

March 27, 2018

Slow, deep diaphragm inhale, long, slow diaphragm exhale. Pshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. The sound of the passive exhale through my teeth and into my snorkel calms me. I relax, doing a breath-up cycle I've done a thousand times before. I am floating in the Mediterranean. The water is crystal clear, the sea is completely glass, the current is totally still. It's a sunny warm afternoon and I'm less than 30 feet offshore from a sheer cliff. Conditions are ideal. There are over 70 dives on my watch. I am in the zone doing exactly what I do best. I have a golden grouper stuck in a hole at 42 meters (137 feet) and I’m preparing for extraction. It is well known that rocked up groupers are one of the most dangerous situations a diver can encounter. I do my last sequence of breaths followed by a peak inhalation and a well practiced entry. I effortlessly sink below the surface as I begin my dive. My hands are relaxed laying by my side as I equalize and slowly overcome my bodies positive buoyancy. I kick down relaxed but powerful until I reach 10 m (33 feet), my neutral point.

I then switch to smaller amplitude and less powerful kicks as I enter my negative buoyancy phase. At around 23 meters I tighten up and streamline for the long drop to the bottom. I'm conserving as much energy as I can not knowing what kind of mess I will encounter. I know I must make as much progress on this fish as possible because it will be another 12 minutes before I can dive again.  Repetitive deep days of scouting had been causing some decompression issues and these long surface intervals coupled with pure O2 at the end of the day had become mandatory. I land just above my spear at 42 m and slowly crawl up to the hole. To my surprise the grouper is lying just outside the hole dead and my flopper is simply caught on the lip of the ledge. It takes only a slight hand movement to release the shaft and I watch as my grouper is pulled to the surface by my friend Fotis. I'm a month and a half into scouting for the 30th CMAS World Spearfishing Championships. I'm on a new ledge I had just found and am pleased to look around and see schools of Sargos and many other Golden Groupers hanging just off the ledge. It was late in the day, the time the underwater world of the Med seemed to come alive. I perched beside a large rock looking off the ledge and held up my hand into the shape of a gun. I followed a school of Sargos around with my finger and after carefully selecting my target pulled the trigger. Bang, perfect mid body tournament style shot. 1200 points, I thought, this was going to be easy. I left my fantasy and start my slow effortless return to the surface. I'm perfectly weighted, I have no gun to hold or line peeling off my reel. No fish in my hand. I'm simply freediving. I begin the first and usually the hardest part of the dive and easily overcome the negative buoyancy. I kick upwards slowly with my ultra soft Mediterranean style carbon fins. I pass 70 feet and feel myself lightening up and again soften up my kicks. I feel great as I approach neutral buoyancy and bring my wrist up to check on my dive. I never do this on an ascent, and usually spend lots of time telling students not to either. 2:20 a good dive but nothing exceptional for me. I was surprised as it felt like I was down there forever.

Somewhere between there and the surface everything just faded out. I felt so relaxed it was almost like I just fell asleep.

I remember surfacing and looking at my dive partner and not doing the hard hook breaths I normally do. Then my face fell forward into his waiting hand. Just before it hit the surface he pushed me back and I came to as he was taking my mask off. It was just the two of us on an unpopulated stretch of coastline in the most perfect of conditions. We looked at each other for a few seconds and didn't say anything. He knew I understood what had just happened. Fotis had saved my life.

Everything I knew about myself and freediving changed that moment. I was no longer  invincible. These things happened to other people.

Friends, clients, students. Not me. For some reason I could push it further than anyone I knew and always return to the surface, hook breathe impossibly hard, and be just fine. We had anchored the boat nearby and began the swim back. We got on the boat, pulled anchor and Fotis took me to the Agios Stefanos church. According to legend, a fisherman built the church on the side of the cliff after St Stefanos saved his life. We tied off and he handed me the O2 bottle. I jumped in descended to five meters and had five minutes to think about life. I still had a month of hard scouting left before Worlds much of which would be done alone. I also had the deepest and most prestigious competition in the history of spearfishing to do alone. I came up from my decompression stop, took my gear off and Fotis walked me up the steps to the church. He walked me into the church, shooed the tourist out and gave me the prayer book. He left, closing the door and told me to pray to St Stefanos thanking him for keeping me safe and to ask for his continued protection. I had never prayed before and didn't really know how but did my best. Only 15 min had passed since I blacked out and only a minute or so since I'd come off pure O2. My head was spinning. I got home that night to my mom and girlfriend waiting for me. I sat in the car for a long time before going inside thinking of what would happen if I didn't make it home. Was this all worth it?

 

I've personally saved 13 blackouts. I've seen many more in competitions but I've been the primary or only responder to 13. Friends, students, clients and people I barely knew. I have a reputation for diving deep and maybe sometimes I push people a bit further than they should go. But I think that's why people come to me. To learn and see what they are capable of in a safe environment. Every time there's an incident I make a concerted effort to figure out why. I refuse to believe that they are random. That belief would destroy everything I do. I'm a tournament diver. We dive alone. That belief would make it mentally impossible for me to continue competing at the world level.

 

One single action is responsible for nearly every blackout I've rescued. It's not something that occurs during the dive. It happens before. An improper breath-up. More specifically over breathing. The problem with the 21st century spearfisherman is we all learned from freedivers. Nearly every single one of us has at some point in our lives taken "the class". This was a class designed by professional competition freedivers to take mostly spearfisherman deeper and of course make us safer. The class worked. All we heard about of was 60 foot divers going in 100 foot divers coming out. 2 minute statics to 4 minute statics in a few days. Brilliant. Everything these courses taught was well thought out to make us better and much safer freedivers. The problem with them was they were teaching spearfisherman techniques and skills that should really only be used in controlled settings. The line. Some of these things simply do not carry over to spearing. The most dangerous is a breathing technique referred to as “the purge breath". The purge breath is used to expel carbon dioxide from the body to a level slightly lower than what is normal. Despite its name it is absolutely hyperventilating.

Hyperventilation can be defined as breathing harder or deeper than one needs to.  These classes describe it as, "a slightly forced exhale instead of a relaxed passive exhale". "Blow an imaginary miniature sailboat across a pond but don't blow it over".

 

This is fine and dandy in the pool or on the line with 100 feet of vis and an instructor an arm's reach away. The problems occur when we leave class. We go back to ripping current, rough water, and bad vis. The memory of the instructor's emphasis on how light and relaxed these are supposed to be fades. Amongst remembering everything else you learned in class four purge breaths just become the step before your peak inhalation. You do four of these as instructed but the wreck isn't quite under you yet so you do a few more as you drift closer to it. You see a school of cobia slowly disappearing into the depths and don't have time for four gentle ones you do four hard quick breaths and go. Or the one I catch myself doing all the time, four purges then as I'm taking my peak inhalation I get a bit of water in my snorkel. I abort, blow it back out relax again do a few more purges then peak inhale. Worse yet is the students who quickly figure out four is good but eight is better. Any of these incidents and now you are at six or eight purges and dangerously low on co2. Spearfishing isn't freediving simply because the conditions aren't controlled. Too many instructors are encouraging the purge simply to post big numbers in statics. CO2 burn is the strongest urge to breath we have. Easiest way to fix that in 3.5 days is a few purges not years of practice or lots of CO2 tolerance tables.

 

Back to my own dive. What was different from that one versus the 70 others I did that day or for the 45 days before that? Conditions were the same. My watch tells me that dive wasn't longer than the others. It certainly wasn't deeper. I was completely relaxed and exerted far less energy on the bottom than I usually do when actively hunting. The difference was what happened before it. I was scared. I had anxiety about that dive because I thought I would have to extract the fish at depth. In the end I didn't have to do anything so we can't blame the energy expenditure on the bottom. It was completely the way I prepared for the dive. I guarantee I over breathed to the point of being so low on CO2 that my body couldn't access the o2 molecules in my blood.

 

At that point my typical breath up consisted of slow relaxed diaphragm breathing on the surface followed by 4 light purge breaths followed by 1 long slow diaphragm exhale then a peak inhalation. The problem was it wasn't a hard 4. It was a I think I did 4 I’m not sure I lost track oh there's a fish ok I'll start over. Since then a lot has changed.

In Greece I never quite recovered from this dive. Overnight my dives went from average 2:45 to average 2:15-2:20. When I got to Greece we were discussing the extreme depths and the dangers with our greek coach. Somewhere along the way he mentioned being willing to die. That's how you have to approach this comp. You can't dive scared. It's like playing poker afraid to lose your buy-in. It just doesn't work. Of course pre blackout Ryan was down. He thought there's no way that happens to me. For some reason I am better than that. In the end I wasn't at all and ever since my mindset has changed significantly. I went into that competition scared and believe it cost me the championship.  

I tried to phase out the purges and found I couldn't. I had an exact sequence I had done my entire life and that wasn't going to change overnight. What I did was turn my soft 4ish purges followed by 1 slow exhale into a very strict 2 light purges followed by 2 slow exhales.

 

Only a handful of people know this story. My Mom was with me for most of my time in Greece and this will be the first she is hearing of this.

 

As seen in Spearing Magazine V10.3:

 

 

 

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