Although I have no intention of experiencing a three wave hold-down during a huge Hawaiian winter swell, a combined Apnea and Surf Survival course seems to have become a pre-winter must do for many big wave surfers here on the North Shore of Oahu and I was interested to see if this could improve my overall fitness and comfort level in just average sized surf.
What does apnea have to do with surfing?
Apnea means the temporary cessation of breathing. Many people associate the word with a serious sleep disorder, but the process of training yourself to voluntarily hold your breath for longer periods can provide significant benefits for surfers, divers, professional athletes and weekend warriors. Apnea training increases your lung strength and capacity to oxygenate your body while teaching you how to tolerate CO2 build up in your system and remain calm and in control in dangerous ocean situations. And this is really the crux of it because it’s the build-up of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream that triggers the urge to breathe, followed by panic which can lead to irrational and potentially life-threatening behaviour.
How can a surfer improve their breath hold ability?
Ricardo Taveira, founder of Hawaii Eco Divers based in Haleiwa on the island of Oahu offers Apnea and Surf Survival Training courses which have been attended by many local and international professional surfers as well as lifeguards, police officers, military and navy personnel. The course is designed to increase your breath hold ability in tense situations underwater, and to aid surfers in dealing with extreme situations where mind control and calm are the main factors for survival. In addition to teaching apnea techniques and breathing exercises, the two day course simulates dangerous ocean situations a surfer might find themselves in and ways to save your own life as well as safely rescue others.
Apnea and Surf Survival Training: Day 1
Image by Shawnee Canjura
I had heard from a few people that this is a pretty challenging couple of days so have to admit I was excited but nervous when I jumped out of bed at 6 am on Day 1 to make enough coffee and snacks to fuel myself through what was sure to be a grueling day. Four hours of theory on the physiology of apnea and high surf risk management was followed by 6 hours in a pool practicing breathe ups and numerous underwater exercises simulating real situations found in the surfing environment. One guy passed out, another got sick and I am happy to say one of the other women in the course (not surprisingly a yoga instructor) kicked everyone’s butt on each exercise.
Apnea and Surf Survival Training: Day 2
Image by Hawaii Eco Divers
Day 2 was held at Waimea Bay where we started the day with two hours of CPR, first aid and rescue training before heading out for six more hours of open water stress apnea exercises simulating wipe outs or long hold downs. At least four people from Day 1 failed to show up the second day and two others dropped out before we even got into the ocean. I learned it is not unusual for participants to be so mentally or physically exhausted, they don’t complete the whole course. I made it through but just barely and was home showered and in bed asleep within about an hour after the course finished that evening; absolutely shattered but with a wealth of new skills that will definitely help me improve my surfing and allow me to challenge myself and stay calm in bigger conditions.
Would I do it again?
This is a course that will benefit anyone who participates in water activities and although it sounds intimidating, Ricardo is careful to ensure the exercises are completed safely and geared to your personal ability and confidence level. You can tailor the exercises to challenge yourself just as much as you are comfortable with and you will definitely learn skills that will improve your overall confidence and safety in the ocean. Once you’ve paid for the course the first time, you can repeat it as many times as you like. Many attendees come back each year to do a refresher course and I plan to do the same. I’m thrilled because through attending the course and regular apnea training, I’ve tripled my breath hold ability and can’t wait until my next course in a few weeks’ time to earn my Freediving certification…stay tuned.
Read the full interview with Ricardo Taveira of Hawaii Eco Divers 'All I Had to Do Was Remain Calm in Order to Survive'
Cover image by Hawaii Eco Divers