A novice once again
I spent the weekend at Vobster doing my first open water dives.
OK. So there is short a pause while you check the user id but yes, it is me, nigelH. I was doing my AIDA Two Star Freediving course.

Now I've been messing about freediving off and on for a while now on the assumption that I'm a big rufty tufty scuba diver. However I wanted some formal instruction because I know I'm not actually very strong on any of my in water skills so I felt that having somebody teach me what to do from basics on upwards would be a seriously good move.

Emma Farrell I had started a couple of years ago with an experience weekend at the SETT in January 2004 where I got the core ideas about how to breath up, why you don't hyperventilate, how to use a buddy etc. but no real instruction. Then, earlier this year, I did one of Emma Farrell's SETT courses (deeperblue.net) which gave me a nice AIDA Deep Tank Freediver card but, as I think there are only about three real deep tanks worldwide, it's a novel, if rather limited, qualification.

However the SETT is an interesting dive if rather bland but even so doing the rescue drills was slightly edgy. No, not rescue as rescuer but rescue as victim. Dive to about your limit, turn and start back up but then give up and 'blackout'. Yes I know that my buddy was going to be all psyched up and the rescue might be a bit rough but it was going to happen and with a team of instructors watching I was probably safer than at home in the bath but that moment of 'close your eyes and relax even if you're a long way down' is tense.

So today I am live on the open water dives of the real course. I have my lovely new suit in spear-fisher cammo (I really must ask more questions when buying by phone) that ended up needing six kilos of lead. It's so skin tight that I am smeared in cheap supermarket hair conditioner as an allergen free lubricant to get it on smoothly without rucks and twists.

I'm allowed to arrive late on the Saturday as I have already done the same exam for the Deep Tank course that today's students are doing so it's quickly into the water. The suit delivers on warmth and we go off to try first a boat at about 4 meters and then the rear end of the plane at 7.

My duck dive sucks. It turned out later that it was my sense of direction. When my head is pointing straight down it clearly goes into error mode (GPF?). Once I realised that that was the problem I could fix it by following the ropes as they knew which way was up and down even if I didn't but my brain kept assuring me I was swimming at all sorts of funny angles and even horizontally. Thankfully up was always up once I turned so I knew exactly which way to go home.

Now the Freediving groups that use Vobster have put their hands in their pockets and put in a platform over about 32 meter of water with outriggers and ropes. The ropes start about a meter above the water and run down to a weighted 'plate' and are adjustable. Add a line with a snaplink on one end that attaches to your wrist and you aren't going anywhere unplanned. This is a slick competition requirement but works just as well for us numpties.

My duck dive still sucks but Simon, an instructor with the patience of a saint, takes me on and it begins to get better. Sometimes it clicks and I think I've got it and then I do a really awful one. However once I am off the surface things normally go well provided I remember to use big full leg kicks, which I seem to forget every time I concentrate on something else. (sigh)

At the end of Saturday the confidence is coming but I'm smashed. We've done at least four hours in the water and it's all ascents and descents so the ears are a bit tired. I have a nice hotel room in Bath, I eat well and sleep like the dead.

Sunday starts well and I'm back in the suit full of hair conditioner. I have to do my two qualifying dives in amongst sorting out the duck dive. The duck is a bit better so I work up my breath hold, that's face down in the water, to a comfortable one and a half minutes and an uncomfortable two then it's over to my rope.

John the instructor This time I have another instructor called John. Breath up, do five meters, just hold at five and then come back up. Looking up from five meters when you are stopped, waiting, not going anywhere shows it is a very long way. There are all these divers with long fins hanging down but they are a long way above you. I am remembering to clear the mask early and clear the ears often which is better because the descent rates are huge compared with scuba and the ascent rates are suicidal. After a five minute break breath up again and do 10 meters. This time I didn't stop but just turned round at the mark and come back up. No worries. It all went smoothly. Five more minutes to let the blood oxygen come back up.

"Ready for it?" asks John. "Let's do it now before you get any more tired." He straps his dive computer onto my wrist, the one that does not have the lanyard. "I will be with you all the way." That's reassuring.

Breath up, the duck goes well and fin down clearing fast, the rope looks like it's horizontal at one point as it vanishes down into the murk. There is a promised 'plate' at the end and a bunch of yellow lead weights appear. I stop with my left hand on them my shoulder where my own Sensus dive logger is situated level with them and I reach down my right hand with the dive computer because I really don't want to come back with 15.9 for a 16 meter qualifying dive. Turn up and fin. Once the speed is well up relax and streamline. I'm buoyant so I'm only going one way. John's face is exactly opposite mine on the other side of the rope. Surface, hold the rope, breath down. Punch the computer into the sky. Grief I will never say 'only 16 meters' again. 16.7 he reads. I admit to the stretch was because I wasn't sure if it was a salt water computer. 'It is' he say it, 'That was over 17 meters.'

I haul out onto the platform to await my turn to do my 'rescue' from 10 meters. The feeling of just starting down a rope that vanishes into the gloom and reaching the point where you suit compresses and you are negative so you are accelerating down is both a buzz and just a bit scary.

The 10 meter rescue isn't hard but I think the depth is picked so you are both negative. John has reset the line to 10m and is wearing the cuff and lanyard so the plan is dive and grab him. 'Follow me in ten seconds' he briefs and goes. He is out of sight when I duck dive but he is on the lanyard so just follow the rope. As the yellow weights come into view he is hanging motionless next to them. I put his head on my shoulder so I can hold his mask in place and swim us both up. On the surface I hold the line, remove his mask and run through the 'get them breathing' sequence. He was kind. Some of the higher certifications I saw take place the day before had to cope with a samba where the 'victim' simulates a convulsion and tries to make you drop them.

AIDA 2 Star card Well that would be it but Emma wanted to see some 'buddy to 10 meter' drills where you intercept a diver returning from a deep dive and escort them up through the last section of the ascent where they are at their most vulnerable. This is the point where my left ear, already squeaky, decided to call it a day so they only got two.

I skulled back to the shore, dumped myself under the hot shower, foamed out of the suit and back into some clothes. I still have to do a couple more bits in the pool and I rather hope I can come back to Vobster as a passenger and just do some diving with some tolerant types to work up some experience under controlled conditions.

All together a wonderful weekend. I leant a lot. I stretched myself into new areas and as a bonus, although I don't have much body hair, it is all lovely and glossy.

As a final step I went back in the pool and did my 40 meter breath hold swim and a two minute static surface breath hold. This was hard the previous time but now it came together much more easily. Hence the card...