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120m Under The Sea On A Single Breath

Beneath the waves, freedivers like Harry Chamas explore a world as inaccessible as the highest peaks or the densest jungles – in the deafening silence of the deep blue, they redefine the limits of human ability

Ocean engulfs more than seventy per cent of the Earth’s surface. Up to eighty per cent of known life exists beneath the waves. Yet it is said we know more about space than of the watery depths of our own planet, more of the stars in the sky than the sea that surround us, and for good reason. Humans were not designed to leave the land behind.

Void of oxygen and light, with bone-crushing pressure increasing with every passing metre, it’s hard to imagine a less hospitable environment for us to explore. Yet some, like British freediving record holder Harry Chamas, do just that.

The former Royal Marine turned underwater adventurer, who recently set a new British no-limits freediving record of 120m, is at the forefront of a sport in its infancy, in a world undiscovered. To dive to new depths requires physical strength, mental fortitude and a willingness to go where no one has gone before.

‘Psychological training allows me to reach the state of relaxation needed to dive deep

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Q: A lot of your training involves visualisation, but how does that prepare your body for the physical reality of diving over 100m down?
A:
‘To go deep you have to be able to physically relax. The mental and the physical are always connected. The two are often portrayed as different things, but mental and physical training is the same thing. If you feel fear, for instance, that will manifest itself in the body in the form of an elevated heart rate and tense muscles. I use visualisation – going through the dive, paying particular attention to what I need to do on each aspect of the dive – to familiarise myself with exactly what to expect and what to do during the dive. To be relaxed you need to be comfortable and confident with where you are and what you’re doing; there is nothing relaxing about being confused. That psychological training allows me to reach the state of relaxation needed to dive deep.’

Q: What’s going through your mind as you’re diving down?
A:
‘It’s very hard to block out thoughts entirely. That’s a mindless state of meditation and monks spend their whole lives trying to perfect it. So, it’s not easy to do that, but what I like to do is focus all my attention on the specific thing I need to be concentrating on at any given moment. For example, if I need to equalize the pressure in my ear, I’ll bring all my awareness into the moment and try to experience that, and feel that.’

‘The techniques and skills I need to use to get down to depth are really complicated, and very subtle – a lot of what’s going on is happening with my tongue and my throat, making slight movements to equalize my ears – so any distraction is going to cause me to mess up. I need complete focus at all times. That focus also keeps my mind away from what I’m doing, because what I’m doing is crazy. Freediving takes you as far as possible away from oxygen, so if you start to think about that, mid-dive, you’re going to get freaked out and something bad’s going to happen.’

Q: What physical training do you do?
A:
‘I go to the gym at least twice a week. I do compound movements: squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, dips, bench press, push press and so on. But flexibility work is just as important – that’s the thing I do most. I spend at least an hour every day stretching. There’s also a specific type of stretching you can do for your lungs that enables you to take deeper breaths and be more flexible: so your body can compress more and you’re more comfortable in the high-pressure environment.’

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Q: Freediving is a relatively new sport, so you don’t have the benefit of training wisdom that’s been passed down through the ages. Do you enjoy that pioneering aspect?
A:
‘It suits my personality really well. I’ve never liked being told what to do. I love being able to experiment and find my own way – there is nobody out there who can say my way is right, or my way is wrong, because no one knows for sure yet. That can be tricky as well, because there is a lot of bad information out there. Some stuff makes sense; some stuff makes no sense. But I love trying new training methods and experimenting with different approaches so that I can decide for myself what works best. But the sport is so psychological that what works for me almost certainly won’t work for someone else.’

Q: How did a lad from Liverpool get into freediving?
A:
‘I used to be in The Marines, which was hard for me because, as I said, I don’t like structure too much! When I left The Marines, I wanted to be free. I went travelling and ended up in Australia. I wanted to keep travelling and the only other people I’d met who had managed to stay travelling, long-term, were scuba diving instructors. I thought: “OK, I’ll become a scuba diving instructor.”’

‘As I began to spend more and more time in the water, it became the place I felt most at home, and it became the most normal thing in the world to spend my days freediving down and exploring new underwater environments. At first, I could dive a couple of metres, and over the months I could get deeper and deeper. I began to reach some good depths and it became something I loved, so I became a freediving instructor.’

Q: From an outsider’s perspective, freediving looks a very serene sport – is the reality something a lot more intense?
A:
‘The pressure as you get deeper is all-encompassing. It’s hard to describe it, because there is no comparable circumstance where you can feel anything like it; the only way to feel it is to be at depth under water. The natural instinct is to resist the pressure, but that is futile. The trick is to completely relax and let the water compress and crush your body. Being able to hold your breath is definitely one aspect, but there’s also the the insecurity of being so far away from the air; the darkness. These things combine to psyche people out from being able to go deep. For me, I’m able to not let those things affect me psychologically.’

For expert insights and information on the sport of freediving, visit Harry Chamas’ website www.freedivepassion.com

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