Waiting to Inhale
BY Jason Frye
Im sitting on Ashley Futral Chapmans sofa in her living room overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway trying to relax but Ive been holding my breath now for a minute. Although a minutes not that long in this introductory breath-holding lesson a key skill in freediving its still intimidating.
Her voice pushes the discomfort and panic from my head my lungs wanting to burst until
“Breathe ” she says.
Ashleys husband Ren and I exhale forcefully inhale forcefully and repeat. The lesson is part of the recovery breathing process the final step in breathe ups exercises freedivers use to prepare for diving 60 80 100 feet or deeper without supplemental oxygen. The Chapmans insist Ill soon hold my breath for longer than I thought possible.
“Itll be easy ” Ren says. “Shell have you holding your breath for two minutes in no time.”
Ashley smiles at Rens confidence. The Chapmans are freediving instructors who make it their business to teach others. Last month Ashley broke a national record for freediving without fins; and in 2008 she earned a spot on a U.S. Womens Freediving Team.
“Inhale ” she says.
“Shuup ” Ren and I inhale for one second.
“Pause pause. Exhale ” she says.
“Psssssh ” Ren and I exhale as Ashley keeps time.
We inhale again this time for a little longer using our diaphragms to take in an incredibly deep but short breath.
We continue these breathe ups for five more cycles until its time for our peak inhale. If we were floating in the ocean instead of sitting in their living room this would be the final breath wed take before diving.
There is no shortage of Wrightsville Beach water sports from serene to extreme and in between.
For folks who love to fish nothing beats a day of casting into the surf or heading offshore. While pier fishing surf casting offshore and inshore fishing present their own set of challenges a growing number of fishermen are coming to the waters surrounding Wrightsville Beach to slay fish in their own environment underwater.
Spearfishing the sport of hunting fish and lobster with a pneumatic or elastic-propelled spear (Hawaiian sling) or speargun is drawing more visitors to North Carolinas waters every year. Wrightsvilles warm water offshore ledges wrecks and reefs make for good hunting. Many spearfishermen use scuba gear to seek their quarry but a growing number of passionate spearfishing enthusiasts choose to dive and hunt without the bulky scuba equipment. They choose to freedive.
Freediving is just that diving free of the trappings of traditional scuba gear. Limited only by the length of one breath and the tolerance for and comfort level with the deep freedivers don wetsuits fins and masks then plunge to incredible depths. For many the two sports go hand in hand.
“Freediving is so much more than hunting ” Ashley says.
“Freediving allows us to become part of the underwater world rather than observe the world ” Ren explains.
The Chapmans report that offshore Wrightsville Beach is beautiful. From the stark sometimes cloudy inshore waters to the clear current-swept sandy inlet beds to offshore ledges and shipwrecks each area has different fish mollusks plants and coral. Where one may be bright with coral growth and abounding with schools of small fish another may be darker deeper populated with octopi.
“Its all so different ” Ashley says. “Lobsters at one ledge octopus at another; then grouper gag hognose and other fish at different depths.”
“Over time Ive evolved as a freediver and a spearfisher ” Ren explains. “At first I would dive and bag every fish I could then I started shooting selectively now I take my camera and do most of my shooting with it.”
Alex Llinas a mechanical engineer at MCBH Engineers and a freediver and spearfisherman still dives for the hunt.
“I just got my first cobia ” he says proudly. “I shot it at about 36 feet and I got lucky.” At a little more than three feet long and weighing in around 40 pounds it was a nice fish to cap a day of diving.
“We went out off a couple of wrecks and ledges just off of Wrightsville Beach. At the first spot a wreck at 50 or 60 feet a few of us shot grouper then we decided to move on and go deeper. We went to a deep ledge and dove it. We didnt see many fish but the ledge about 100 feet deep was beautiful. After that we decided to hit one more spot as we came inshore.
“When we got to the artificial reef we wanted to dive I was one of the last people in the water. My buddy started yelling Come here come here shoot em. I turned around and started swimming toward him. Now you cant really swim toward fish they spook and swim away but these cobia were already swimming away.”
“I tried getting as close as I could. With a quick breath before I dove after them I didnt have much time but when I got close enough I saw that I had a choice the bigger one that was further away or the smaller one that was closer so I went for the smaller one.”
Llinass shot hit home and he pulled the cobia in hand over hand. It fought him.
“Id seen my buddies shoot cobia and I knew they fought a lot when they got close to the surface so I was working to get this fish close and brain him ” Llinas says.
Braining is killing the fish by quickly stabbing it with a thick-bladed extremely sharp dive knife.
“It was my first cobia and I was pumped ” Llinas says.
“Cobia ” he says “are curious. They usually check you out when you jump off the boat and I guess thats what they were doing. I was lucky to be the last one in the water and have the chance to shoot one.”
Ryan McInnis one of Llinass diving companions that day also shoots underwater. The freediver spearfisherman and producer of In-Sea TV organizes the annual Wrightsville Beach Spearfishing Tournament this year at Seapath Marina June 10-12.
“Some people see freediving as a macho thing but really its about satisfaction ” McInnis says. “It doesnt matter how deep you dive how long you stay down or if and how big the fish you bring home are as long as you had fun.”
McInnis says the waters around Wrightsville Beach are ideal for both sports.
“Here you have freedive and spearfishing opportunities that stretch from underneath the docks in Banks Channel all the way out to the Gulf Stream. Flounder sheepshead and spadefish are abundant in the inshore waters. Grouper and hogfish can be found on offshore ledges and the shipwrecks that pepper our coast. And offshore you have cobia pompano and pelagic sportfish accessible to those with a good boat and the requisite experience ” McInnis says. “Add to that all the wrecks ledges and reefs to explore and you have a near-perfect place to dive.”
Fortunately getting the requisite experience in Wrightsville Beach is easy.
“A good place to get started is with a freedive school ” McInnis says. “Safety is always the first consideration ” and the Chapmans echo that sentiment.
“You have to watch out for yourself and your buddy ” Ashley says “and you always dive with a buddy.”
Besides safety skills and diving/breathing techniques both McInnis and the Chapmans emphasize fitness and a certain comfort level with swimming and with the ocean. Many freedivers train by swimming running and other cardiovascular exercises and practice breathing in and out of the water.
“Ive held my breath for five minutes on land but a two-minute dive is exceptional ” McInnis says.
Back in the Chapmans living room Ashleys voice returns. “Just relax ” she says. My lungs ache and my hands begin to shake as I struggle to hold my breath.
“Relax your neck your shoulders your arms ” she says. “Concentrate on your breath on how easy this is.”
Relaxing seems impossible with the tightness in my chest taking over. Finally I gasp sucking in air for all its worth. Ashley and Ren smile.
“A minute and ten seconds ” she says.
Later when Im home sitting on my sofa I catch myself holding my breath. I think ya never know when I may want to go freediving.