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“Before a student comes to the course, they don’t know what they are capable of. They don’t know how long they can hold their breath in a relaxed or an active environment. They don’t know how they can swim. They don’t know how deep they can dive. They don’t know how long they can tread water.”
Do you know your limits? Fear often hides in the unknown.
Joe Knight is the founder of One Ocean International in Western Australia, a school that trains surfers how to cope with challenging surf situations through a rigorous watermanship course.
“After the course, students are not the same as they were before. It’s like hitting a reset button. What they thought was impossible or improbable to achieve, suddenly becomes very easy.”
Joe has taught students ranging from prepubescent groms all the way up to eighty-year-old women how to be skilled watermen. The progress in surf survival strategies, swimming, and breath holding that he sees is astounding.
It’s normal to have a healthy fear of the ocean – it will always be more powerful than our human bodies could ever be. However, reacting in a panic or from this fear harms us more than it helps when we’re caught inside a set that’s bigger than we expected.
No matter whether you’re just learning how to surf or have doing it for years, investing in a freediving, watermanship, or surf apnea course is one of the best things you will ever do for yourself. These courses will teach you how to stay relaxed, hold your breath, and handle whatever the sea throws at you. You’ll learn skills that will not only help you out in the lineup but also in everyday life.
But how do you know which course to enroll in, what to expect, and how to prepare?
Agata Bogusz, professional freedive instructor trainer and Polish record holder, suggests that surf girls look for courses specifically crafted for the sport.
“Pure Apnea (an organization) offers the “Surf Apnea” course dedicated to surfers, that teaches students how to deal with unexpected breath holds, handle discomfort, control the mind, and simply – survive hold downs.”
In strictly-freediving courses like AIDA Level 1 or AIDA 2 Star certifications, Agata explains that, “You can learn all basic physiology, safety, breathing and relaxation techniques that we use to preserve oxygen and stay longer underwater.” She adds, “I bet that after level 1, you will be so stoked that you will go straight to level 2.”
Personally, learning to freedive has been one of the best experiences of my life. I am prone to anxious thoughts and often find it hard to relax once the swell picks up in the lineup or the sky gets gloomy. But after taking a freediving course, I know that I have the ability to hold my breath for a few minutes – even if it feels uncomfortable.
When asked about how a surfer can prepare for the course, Agata says, “Freediving is mostly about relaxing and observing the reactions of our body (and mind) as we hold our breath and feel the rising level of CO2. We learn how to deal with discomfort. You learn to understand your body and mind, and how to control them better. You learn how to push, and how to stop before it’s too late. You learn that discomfort is quite a subjective thing — and dealing with it depends on your mind set.”
She adds, “That’s a great life lesson even outside of freediving and surfing.”
Surfers who join these courses can expect to improve so much more than they ever thought possible. Joe Knight explains, “So many people put breath holding, sea surviving, and watermanship high on this pedestal to achieve. But these skills are all easier than surfing, windsurfing, and paddleboarding. Apnea is the easiest form of ocean discipline to learn. In one day, a student can triple their abilities like breath holding, swimming, rescuing – there’s no other discipline where you can do that. Humans just have a natural ability to when it comes to being in the water.”
One of the most interesting things about these courses is that to excel, you need to be able to relax and focus – a talent that’s in stark contrast to the aggressive attitude often found at hyper-localized surf breaks.
Since relaxation is so essential for success, you can prepare for one of these courses by doing yoga and other meditation exercises. Freedivers often have a go-to relaxation technique that helps them calm their mind and body before a breath hold. Sometimes they relax each body part one by one, or visualize peaceful scenery. This strategy not only conserves precious oxygen but gets you more in tune with how the body is feeling as it submerges underwater.
And when you’re able to be completely relaxed underwater, it’s almost as if all your other senses are muted. When there’s nothing else to focus on but your own mind and body, you’re able to make smarter decisions when it comes to safety.
In many of the surf apnea courses, surfers do training exercises where they simulated being tumbled around underwater and only have a few seconds at the surface to recover. This is done for up to thirty minutes at a time – longer than what the average surfer is likely to be caught on the inside for. If you can handle this with a relaxed mind that’s tuned into what the body is feeling, you can surely replicate this out in the surf.
Getting certified in freediving, watermanship, or surf apnea can help your confidence in the ocean immensely. After just a few days of training, you’ll know how to relax, focus, and have an idea of how long you can hold your breath for. Chances are, you’re more capable than you think – and there’s only one way to find out for sure.