“If it jams, force it. And if it breaks, then it needed replacing anyway.”
That saying always makes me laugh, perhaps because it’s the very antithesis of my inclination. My view has always been that if something is done the right way, then the result will happen, and without force. 28 meters under the surface of the sea, with only a single breath upon which to rely, is not the time to be forcing anything.
At that depth, the ocean is applying a pressure to your body that is four times greater than it feels at the surface. Your lungs are squeezed to a quarter of their normal volume, and your blood automatically displaces itself to protect your insides. This sounds like a crazy form of danger and yet, ironically, our bodies are genetically wired to adapt to the conditions. A sense of peace and connectedness descends as the heart rate lowers. Our bodies release more red blood cells to carry the precious oxygen, and the ocean is giving you the most complete of hugs. It’s a relaxing experience… unless your monkey mind disturbs the tranquillity, and unless you force things.
I’d flown straight to the Red Sea from a project where every day at work felt like a battle; we were on a relentless schedule, commonly working in ways that were beyond our comfort zones. The days were long and felt more scrapping than flowing – working without rhythm is an exhausting way to operate. This vacation was a rare break, and an unexpected one; the time away had been approved barely a week before. I knew that with just seven days away I had to cram in as much as I could.
Chicago to Sharm El Sheikh is a seven hour time difference. Layer that jet lag with the exhaustion from the project, and then squeeze your lungs to the size of a grapefruit – depending on your grapefruit. That was how I found myself, just over a body length shy of my target depth of 30 meters (or just under 100 feet). I already felt I was at my limit, I turned to come up, but I had to go for it. That is what I had been doing during the previous six months at work, and the furrow of that habit had been ploughed deep. It was the polar opposite of the way I had conducted myself on every single one of my previous dives, of which there had been well in excess of fifty.
It was a strain, but I made it, and yet my mind was telling me that in going deeper, I had used up the oxygen I had held in reserve for my trip back to surface. Panic kicked in. Fear-fuelled adrenalin surged through me and my heart rate shot up. I tried to remain calm, but my mind was filled with dread, as much for doing something that was so out of character. The surface wasn’t coming quickly enough and I could feel the convulsions in my belly as I fought the urge to breathe. At 10 meters to go I passed the point of neutral buoyancy and if I let go, I’d simply float to the surface. But everything in me wanted to kick hard, to get there sooner. The anxiety from not kicking – when I desperately wanted to – only served to up the ante. Almost every single thing that happened after I “went for it” conspired to accelerate the depletion of my body’s precious oxygen reserves. Logic doesn’t win when fear takes a grip, and the need to get to the surface quickly was all-consuming.
I made it. My buddy, Dennis, whom I had never loved so much, had guided me the last part of the journey and met me at the surface for the standard recovery protocol. And then… nothing. “Paul. PAUL! BREATHE PAUL! BREATHE! PAUL BREATHE!” Hypoxia. Dennis had a firm grip on my arm, gluing me to the buoy in order to prevent me from sliding back under the surface.
In the last ten meters before you reach the surface, your lungs double in size and it means you can feel the lack of oxygen more dramatically. It’s the part of the dive where you’re most vulnerable, and getting fresh air into your lungs at the surface quickly is a habit, and a drill, that should accompany every single dive without fail. Only I didn’t breathe in. Blood was waiting at my lungs to be replenished but nothing was delivered and so, short on oxygen, my brain had blanked out. There was no sense of time passing; one moment I was breaching the surface, and then instantly I had people in my face yelling at me, and I had no idea why, I had thought I was ok.
We learn more from mistakes then we ever do from getting things right. I took some small consolation that I had not been completely stupid. I was physically capable of 30 but had been talking myself out of it, dive after dive, and this meant it wasn’t so beyond my physical capabilities that I suffered a black out. Most importantly, I hadn’t been suicidal enough to dive alone.
A few days later, during the last hour in the water before the end of the trip, I was diving with two friends, Zoe and Helena. I gently made it down to about 28 meters again when I felt that grapefruit-sized squeeze. “Hello friend”, I said in my head, and I actually smiled. This time I was calm personified, and I knew in my very soul that I could end the vacation with a dive of 30 meters. I thought about it for a split second and then decided that there was no point – I already knew that I could do it. Instead, I remained at 28 for a short while longer, just enjoying the sea’s over eager hug as we said farewell to one another. The sense of peace filled me completely.
From time to time in my life, I get that feeling of knowing that what I’m about to do has already been done, and that I have no choice but to simply execute it. Different people have different words for it, but it’s the sensation of that inevitability that is most important. That is what I was feeling before I began my ascent; I already knew I had completed the whole dive well. To have dived – perfection of the process – should have been my goal from the start. I gave one relaxed but energised pull on the line and allowed myself to move up, towards the light, where my friends were waiting.