Sunday, 20 August 2017 was history in the making… for me. The current was really bad at American Wreck and Abana Reef, so we stuck to free immersion for my 2nd open water free diving session with Stefano.
The day before I was nervous as usual, but I was too engrossed in some weekend tasks to pay heed. Poni Dive Centre was busy gearing up for all sorts of characters – instructors, scuba divers, free divers and others. Thye Sing, head honcho of the center, was back from his travels and busy taking good care of CNN. Yes, CNN. They were around to film about diving spots and the industry in Brunei so the boat was quite lively with all sorts of chatter. I remained relatively unfazed otherwise.
Sabreena showed up late. I was getting a bit nervous at the thought of it being just me and Stefano, so imagine my sigh of relief when she showed up at the 11th hour. Otherwise, I was pretty zen on the boat ride to the first dive site and didn’t engage in much conversation with people.
My mind was clear (more like blank) as I was staring at a particular cloud formation against the bright blue backdrop of a sky for a good portion of the travel. I did some square breathing exercises on the ride to American Wreck. It had been a bit of an odd week at work and in my personal life so I’m still surprised that none of it came out to sea with me. Maybe the best way to get “in the zone” in free diving is for me to have a really tough time to a point that I DGAF. ‘Cos that’s what it really was for me – not giving a damn anymore.
My blankness cost me a bit of embarrassment ‘cos I was so eager to get into the water that I almost forgot to take off my life vest and put on my wet suit fully. I guess that’s what dive buddies are there for – to prevent you from being an idiot before and while you’re in the water – “you’re gonna take off your life vest before you jump in, right” (Thye Sing). There I was trying to keep a straight face and saying “oh yea of course, just putting on my fins first.” Right.
Anyhow, instructions from Stefano were clear. Sabreena was ahead in line. We were to go head first down the rope line, taking our time to equalize and take it all in. Purely free immersion (no finning). Did I mention the current was so bad? It swayed me like a lifeless doll when I was holding on to the rope.
I was fixated on getting my breathing to a steady rhythm, only looking up to see if it was my turn. There wasn’t much verbal exchange between me and Sabrina in the water as we were trying to conserve energy, I guess.
My first try was already a success as I knew I went down further than I did last session. Stefano’s relief when we met at the top, asking me “how did you find that? You were relaxed huh?”, was already an indication that something positive had transpired. I wasn’t so fixated on the depth as I was just happy I was getting the hang of equalizing and being in the moment. In fact, I didn’t know how deep I went until Stefano showed me his dive computer that read 15.6m. It helped to have my eyes closed as the one time I opened my eyes when I went down, I got a little bit anxious and turned back sooner. For the rest of the dives, I remembered to just focus again on the task at hand while sticking to my relaxed “prawn” position/stance.
At each of my tries, he gave me additional instructions to follow, which was another signal that I was progressing. I did notice in the last run that I was getting deeper, to which Stefano stated I had gone 20m. I was too stunned to say anything, focusing more on the recovery breathing and wondering if I had done the rope “pulls” upwards correctly. Stefano revealed he had moved the line some time during the exercise. He was so elated for both of us that he reminded me that it is all in my mind, and I would’ve probably gone further had the line stopper been set further.
We ended the session on a high note. Whilst 20m is an achievement itself, considering I couldn’t get past 11.5m last Sunday, I counted my success at being able to achieve a level of relaxation and mental blankness that I hadn’t in a long time. I basically could’ve been mistaken for being an introvert or a recluse against the colourful banter on the ride back.
I also found that the depth no longer scared me. It helps to think about what’s down there as the goal is to be able to do a recreational dive in the massive natural pool we call the ocean.
A dive at Abana Reef, meant to be a fun dive, did not happen. The current was aggressive that some scuba diver’s weight belt needed to be retrieved, Sabreena lost her snorkel and I watched Stefano free dive at the front of the boat, only to surface like 10 meters behind it seconds later. I wasn’t going to risk it and ended up just hanging on to the ropes on the side of the boat. From that experience, I realized that if I had to choose, I would rather give up good visibility for no current anytime.
Overall it was a humbling experience. As encouraging as it is, there is a bit of pressure to be known as the girl who managed to achieve 20m in her 2nd session with Stefano. I have been receiving a bit of attention for it and feel slightly embarrassed, recalling how much deeper my freediving comrades (who go with independent boat operators or dive masters) are able to go and soak themselves in the ocean regularly at depths of up to 35m. I’ll get there, I know. And in my own time.
My next session with Stefano will be towards completion of AIDA2 certification. That basically means doing some rescue dives and constant weight (finning) down 20m. We’ll also be doing some pool exercises beforehand.
In the meantime, I’ve got some course material to read up on.