Swim the line
There’s an old saying: ‘calm seas don’t make good sailors’.
I moved to Cornwall when I was a kid, to a little village called Perranporth. I used to skateboard when I younger, so surfing felt like the next logical step. When we moved, I got a surfboard immediately and was out on the waves every day. The waters are rarely calm in north Cornwall, you’re always out in strong waves, battling currents, getting churned up and absolutely bashed to pieces when you wipe out. It never really fazed me. I loved being in the water, surfing, swimming and fishing in all weathers. Growing up in southwest England definitely strengthened my connection with the sea – I always felt most comfortable in the water.
I discovered freediving when I moved to Barbados in 2011. A few years prior I’d come here on holiday with a group of friends, originally for two weeks. It was on that trip that I met my now wife. She’s from Kent, but she was on vacation visiting her father. Some of my friends knew her friends, and that’s how we met. I ended up extending my trip to four weeks to spend time with her here. We both went back to the UK and after some time I moved from Cornwall to Kent to be close to her, and two years later we got married and moved out here.
Barbados has really beautiful warm, clear and deep waters, so that definitely drew me in. You can head out from almost anywhere on the coast and find deep water fairly close to shore. Within the first two weeks of moving here, I’d seen a few guys spearfishing and wanted to give it a go. It was definitely a learning process, but I was totally hooked. It was the first time I felt like I was really interacting with the underwater world and there is still such a strong sense of satisfaction in catching and preparing your own food. That self-sufficiency is very primal. I found that I wanted to fish every day, but it seemed that the only way to make money from that was to sell my catch at market, which didn’t appeal. I didn’t want to be in a position where, if there were 20 fish in front of me on the reef, I felt like I had to shoot them all in order to make more money. I always had a difficult time with the idea of shooting something I didn’t need or want. For me there was an moral barrier that meant I couldn’t just dive and shoot as much as possible.
Quite regularly, I’d come out of the sea with a couple of fish and people would ask me about how I got it. It made me realise that there was a market for other people who might want to learn how to spearfish. After a year or so on the island, I caught my first lionfish, a species not native to the Caribbean. It was a tiny thing, but it really drove home to me that they were making their way into Bajan waters. I realised that this could be at the core of my venture. Hunting this invasive species that is decimating Caribbean reef life introduced the sustainability standpoint that pushed me to actually do something. I decided to be brave, so I made a website, put it live and three days later, I got my first booking. Honestly, I was terrified. But off we went at 6am. We went over some basics on how to breathe properly, staying safe, identifying fish and it was all ok. We cleaned the fish and were done by 12pm. I never used to be a morning person, but now I never dread having to get up early to go diving or spearfishing. Getting up at 5am is so worth it to be able to do a job that brings joy to myself and others.
After running the spearfishing business for two years or so, I decided to go and get some official training. At the time there weren’t really any spearfishing instructor courses so I decided to go down the freediving route. I had some scuba qualifications, but the idea of scuba diving every day didn’t really appeal to me. However, none of the nearby islands offered freediving courses, so I ended up flying back to the UK to attend a school in Newquay in 2014. At that point, I was focused on getting those certifications and adding it to my business offering in Barbados – I’d never really considered the competitive side of it before. When I was a kid, I did a lot of kickboxing and had the opportunity to do competitions but I never really had the desire to try and prove myself against someone I don’t know – the idea of competition was never that interesting to me.
The following year, I flew to the Bahamas to do an instructors’ course and spent two weeks out there in the Bahamas in the blue hole with William Trubridge and Jonathan Sunnex. At the end of that course I ended up doing a 62m dive – to become an instructor you have to do a 42m dive, which I did on the first day of the course. I feel like I picked freediving up fairly quickly and it was after that course that I realised I was falling in love with the freediving side of things – it wasn’t just something that would be useful for spearfishing anymore. I went back to Barbados with a fresh personal best, opened up my freediving school and, after a bit of research, found that while there were lots of British freediving records, there weren’t any set for Barbados. At the time I was still working to get my citizenship – I was classified as a resident, meaning I could live and work there. But to compete as a Bajan, I needed my citizenship. I figured it would be a good credit to my work as an instructor if I could not only show my certifications but be the national record holder.
I was genuinely scared about the competition at first – not that something would wrong, but that my nerves might get the better of me, that I might panic. But I got my citizenship, signed up for the 2017 Bahamas competition, reached out to my instructor and started to prepare. The night before I was panicking for sure, but during the dive itself, I was totally calm. I actually forgot it was a competition until I was at the bottom of my dive and I reached the end of the rope. I grabbed the piece of Velcro and thought ‘oh my god, this is a competition, this is real.’ But I swam back to the surface and did my surface protocol. Everything went so smoothly, I was questioning whether I was in a false sense of security or if competing was something I could actually do.
Going down the line, my mind was totally clear. I was very overwhelmed the day before, but when it came to the dive itself, I just did everything I’ve always done. I tried to imagine I was back home spearfishing with no stress, no pressure and no cameras. After around 30m I hit negative buoyancy, so I just began to sink, and from then it was just like a dream. It’s hard to articulate that meditative state, feeling zoned out with the water rushing over your skin. Time condensed. It wasn’t until I got to 76m and had to grab the tag that I really thought of anything at all. I think I can attribute some of that calm to spending my childhood playing in rough seas and being totally calm in the underwater environment.
There are certain activities, freediving being one of them, where you really have to be present. The term mindful is thrown around a lot these days, but that’s something you can’t do without in freediving. But it doesn’t matter if you’re not already a keen meditator – the first thing we do on the freediving course is look at how to breathe and how not to breathe. We get in the water, face down with a snorkel, and focus on slow and gentle breathing. Floating on the surface of the water for a few minutes, focussing on the breath and feeling totally weightless, can make the spine relax and lengthen. It’s different from, for example, being on a yoga mat where gravity is still such a key factor. When you’re floating in the sea, there’s nothing. The only thought is inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.
Sometimes, I can see people trying to focus but they’re just going around and around in circles in their head, thinking about that phone bill they have to pay, wondering whether they turned the stove off or what emails they need to reply to. They stay tense. But when we really relax, it can open up this level of meditation that I don’t think you can get anywhere else. When you’re floating in water, there’s no pressure, no muscle or joint being stretched, no discomfort. The water provides a combination of that physical and mental relaxation, and that is such an important part of freediving. Arguably, it’s the most important part of the sport.
Freediving definitely requires some level of physical fitness, but a good 80% of it is mental. If your mind is not present and relaxed, it’s very difficult to do anything in the water. So a big part is realising that, while I might have emails to send and calls to make, right now, I can’t do those things. So I can just focus on what I’m doing right now. It’s those dives when I get distracted that feel difficult. And it is difficult because my mind was somewhere else. I think a lot of people that get into the sport for that reason. It’s a complete escape.
It’s incredibly rewarding to watch someone succeed, whether that’s on a spearfishing course and shooting their first lionfish or in freediving and doing their first long breath hold. Often people feel beforehand that these achievements are not realistic, so it’s very satisfying to see other people’s satisfaction in their own success. I recently took a family out, diving without fins, just having a bit of fun, going to five or six metres. They came back the next day to try the course and the father said: “Alex, I’ve been trying but I just can’t hold my breath for longer than 30 seconds.” But on that day he ended up doing 2.22 minutes. As an instructor I see this quite often so you’d think I’d be a little desensitised, but it always gets me seeing the look on their face as they come up out of the water, take a few breaths, check they’re ok and just have a chat to see how they feel. When I told him his time, his jaw just dropped – he couldn’t believe it. We’re not talking world record-breaking breath holds but for him that achievement was monumental.
Humans are far more connected to the sea than we might think. There are some crazy theories out there. One’s called the sub-aquatic ape theory, which states that we actually came from the sea and through evolution have developed this ability to live on land. There are a few reasons to not completely dismiss this. Our bodies are mostly made of water. When we dive it’s only the air in the body that compresses, the blood and fluid and water doesn’t compress underwater. Then there’s the dive reflex. Every human on Earth has a mammalian dive reflex. So, we are already connected to water. When you put your face in the water – especially when you hold your breath – and you have an elevating level of CO2 that reflex kicks in for everyone. It’s the same dive reflex that you find in marine mammals like dolphins.
The ocean is the lifeline of the planet, and in the last decade people have become so much more aware of that. We have taken advantage of it over and over again, polluted and pillaged it. When you surrender yourself to the ocean, even if you only dive to five metres, that’s enough for your dive reflex to kick in. It’s enough to accept that you’re five metres aware from your next breath. It’s enough to feel that connection again, which I think can only really be experienced by being underwater. Most people, for the most part, experience the ocean from the surface but I think it changes everything when you dive down and see what that world is like. You start to understand this massive synchronicity in the ocean, just like you see in nature on land. There is just something about having your body fully in the water that just feels so natural.
Going under the water, holding your breath and putting your body in what it might at first consider to be a stressful situation, I think connects us with something deep inside of us. When I’m kicking down the line and I’m in that meditative state, that’s the connection, and if I were thinking too much, I’d lose it. People often talk about trying to achieve a flow state, but when it comes to the water, you’re almost surrendering some of the responsibility. You’re not trying to force yourself into a meditative state. Being in the water is a catalyst – it takes you back to that ancient connection we have with the sea.
Photographs by Daan Verhoeven, John Alexander and Alex St Jean.
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