FREEDIVING IN TONGA

Cruising World - - Underway - Kate Macbain

I’m float­ing in the elec­tricblue wa­ter of Tonga’s Vava‘u group. My goal is re­lax­ation. It shouldn’t be that hard here, 50 me­ters from the white shores of a tiny trop­i­cal par­adise. Then again, I’m not float­ing on the sur­face, cock­tail in hand. I am face­down, tak­ing deep breaths through a snorkel in preparation for a 30-foot de­scent. I will hold my breath for nearly two min­utes while the cheery is­land of ‘Eua’iki and its clack­ing co­conut palms, thatched-roof fales and smells of lunch wound up in the breeze are left at the sur­face. I’ll need to fo­cus, but I’ll also need to be calm as I de­scend into my brief un­der­wa­ter ex­is­tence, where, if ev­ery­thing comes to­gether, I’ll find my­self sus­pended in an­other world.

This is Day One of my freediving cer­ti­fi­ca­tion course, and I’m im­me­di­ately hooked. Freediving is a pure form of sport, in­volv­ing al­most no equip­ment and an un­clut­tered mind. On a purely ath­letic level, it’ll whip you into shape if you take it se­ri­ously. For those of us who are keen to stay fit while cruis­ing but are less than thrilled with the idea of down­ward dog on the fore­deck ev­ery morn­ing, freediving is the per­fect prac­tice. It also puts you on a more level play­ing field with fish, so when you se­lect and spear your own din­ner in­stead of reel­ing in what­ever you hap­pen to hook, you can truly say you worked for it. For me, it’s a com­bi­na­tion of all these things.

Tonga is an in­cred­i­ble place, and seem­ingly de­signed for learn­ing the essentials of freediving. The nu­mer­ous is­lands that make up the Vava‘u group have steep drop-offs, so divers can ease into deeper wa­ter as they progress rather than plunge im­me­di­ately into the deep blue or, worse, have to be sur­rounded by the con­crete walls, chlo­rine stench and flu­o­res­cent light­ing of an in­door pool. The Vava‘u group also is per­fectly set up for leisurely cruis­ing. There are lots of sandy an­chor­ages, pro­tected bays and a lively lit­tle main har­bor. No an­chor­age is more than a few hours’ sail from the next, so short trips be­tween is­lands don’t re­quire ad­vanced plan­ning. Sun­down­ers and bar­be­cues at pic­turesque an­chor­ages hap­pen all too fre­quently, which, if you’re like me, is dan­ger­ous to main­tain­ing an ideal level of fit­ness.

Un­til I be­gan freediving, I only par­took in two forms of ex­er­cise while liv­ing aboard: grind­ing winches and walk­ing long dis­tances, car­ry­ing as many over­stuffed gro­cery bags as each shoul­der could bear. And I was at­tend­ing happy hour more of­ten than I care to ad­mit. I badly missed run­ning — the chal­lenge of it, the way my body had to work in sync, the feel­ings of ac­com­plish­ment and pride at hav­ing pushed my­self af­ter a tough ses­sion, and the lu­cid­ity that came af­ter a long run. I missed need­ing only a pair of shoes to get a glimpse of the out­doors.

Freediving re­lit that ath­letic flame for me. Un­like scuba, I didn’t need a bulky buoy­ancy com­pen­sator or oxy­gen tank to re-es­tab­lish my con­nec­tion with na­ture, and as I pro­gressed, the psy­cho­log­i­cal as­pect of the sport be­came more sig­nif­i­cant too. I be­gan pay­ing more at­ten­tion to the daily in­flu­ences on my state of mind and the minute pat­terns in my breath­ing. I paid close at­ten­tion to my diet. With prac­tice, I was not only able to dive deeper and hold my breath longer, but I be­gan to feel stronger, more ag­ile, and to re­gain the men­tal clar­ity that I’d felt I’d lost along with reg­u­lar car­dio ex­er­cise.

Why, as some­one who spends ev­ery day on the wa­ter, it took me so long to dis­cover this sport, I’m not sure. But when I found my­self 30 feet be­low, fo­cused but calm, phys­i­cally chal­lenged and men­tally aware, I knew I would con­tinue. For a brief mo­ment, blue­ness and si­lence en­veloped me. Then my di­aphragm be­gan con­tract­ing, a sig­nal that it was time to as­cend. The fish that had scat­tered at first en­counter now swam near me, cu­rios­ity pre­vail­ing over fear. To my left, the sand­bank rose gen­tly to­ward where I’d watched from shore ear­lier as a school of bait­fish moved as one unit, hunted by cun­ning needle­fish. To my right, noth­ing but depth­less blue. Whales sang in the dis­tance. Time melted. I felt nowhere and ev­ery­where all at once. I was a world away, just like I’d set out to be. —

Freediving is beau­ti­ful in its sim­plic­ity (above); the lack of bulky gear makes it a per­fect phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity for cruis­ers who are look­ing for a healthy pas­time — or want to be bet­ter at spearfish­ing.

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