Author: Anna Hattersley
When we see an image of a freediver swimming alongside a dolphin or exploring a shipwreck, it is easy to dismiss the idea of us doing the same as pure fantasy, but what if we entertained the idea that this could become our reality? What would this shift in perspective mean for our lives?
Whatever our dreams, what if we were open to the idea that they might be possible and that we are an obstacle standing in our own way?
I spoke to Emma Farrell, author of One Breath; a Reflection on Freediving, and asked how she became a freediver and made her dream a reality. What can we learn from her story to help us transform our own lives?
"I imagined it was for other people."
I have only met Emma once and that was over Zoom, but her enthusiasm for freediving and her desire to share her sport with others bubbled over. She wants to make freediving as inclusive as possible and now runs a freediving school, Go Freediving, at Vobster Quay in Somerset, UK. However, twenty years ago when she started out, the sport was less accessible and she never imagined her dream could be a reality.
On the eve of the new millennium, Emma was on holiday in the Canaries with a friend who asked her what she would be, if she could have a completely different life.
"A freediver," Emma replied. At the time, she was a filmmaker in her twenties who had never been freediving, didn’t scuba dive and wasn’t sporty. "I grew very quickly." she said, "I was six foot, gangly and malcoordinated by the time I was thirteen. To me it was, this is Emma, and she is rubbish at sport." She had watched the Big Blue and admired freediving legends Deborah Andollo and Tanya Streeter, but had never got any closer to her dream than that.
"I was very aware of what freediving was," she said, "and couldn’t think of anything more peaceful, relaxing and at one with the ocean, but I imagined it was for other people."
Later that New Year’s Eve, Emma bumped into a British guy who introduced himself as a freediver, so she dragged him out of the noisy celebrations, into the rain, to interrogate him about all things freediving. She later returned to England on a mission to become a freediver herself.
In the year 2000, there were no freediving courses in the UK, but the freediver that she had met in the Canaries had told her about the Submarine Escape Training Tank (SETT) in Gosport where he dived. Emma lived 250 miles away in Manchester at the time, but she was determined to learn, so headed down there one weekend.
“I was absolutely rubbish," she says of that first experience, "but I was absolutely hooked - I was obsessed.” And so it began, Emma would travel the 250 miles to SETT whenever possible to learn to freedive, but it did not all come easily.
"Learning was about listening to my body."
Equalising her ears as she dived was her biggest challenge and divers must be able to do this to dive safely and comfortably. Equalising your ears is the sensation you might feel, if you fly, when you swallow to make your ears pop to relieve the pressure in the middle ear. In the year 2000, people told her that it was not something you could learn, but she says she was stubborn and so determined to learn that she proved them wrong.
"With time, patience and good instruction, I began to unwind, and it slowly came," she writes in One Breath, "There was no magic change to my body, no sudden flash of inspiration. Learning was about listening to my body and experiencing change. It was, and still is, experiential. My body learned to recognise the water and become more flexible to the changing pressure."
"If I can do that, what else can I do in my life?"
As her freediving developed, she began to question the limits that she was imposing on herself. "The first time I ever held my breath for three minutes," she explained, "it made me realise, if I can do that, what else can I do in my life? We have had that so many times that students learn to freedive and then they radically change their lives." She has had students change jobs or move to another country, because the experience of freediving made them realise how much their own minds were holding them back.
On the one hand, Emma makes freediving sound straightforward, in One Breath, she writes ‘No matter how long you hold your breath for or how deep you may go, if you position yourself underwater and hold your breath, you are a freediver. Freediving does not necessarily mean pushing your limits. It is about being relaxed in the water and making such an incredible connection with our breath and body that to hold the breath is simply an extension of the breathing cycle.’
On the other hand, Emma emphasises the importance of learning from a recognised instructor on an accredited course to ensure that you learn to dive safely, and always with a competent buddy.
"Peace and connectedness"
“Freediving brings you together with people, directly into nature and forces you to do the best breathing you could possibly do," Emma told me. Freediving has taken Emma to reefs and competitions, shipwrecks and magical encounters with wildlife. One of her favourite freediving moments was when a curious dolphin swam up so close to her that it was touching her mask as she swam, with her arms at her sides, trying not to touch or disturb the wild creature.
When you are freediving she says, "You are forced to concentrate so intensely on what your body is doing and your environment that you may only be underwater for a minute, but that minute can feel like it goes on forever. Everything is in a state of peace and connectedness."
Central to freediving, and to life itself, is the breath and teaching people to breathe effectively has become central to Emma’s life. Not only does she teach breathing optimisation techniques to freedivers, but to Olympic and Paralympic athletes too, as well as long-covid patients. Since 2003 she has been a freediving instructor sharing what she has learnt along the way.
‘They [her students] are of all ages and abilities,’ she writes in One Breath, ‘from different countries and backgrounds, but they learn a common philosophy of peace, stillness and awareness. Their breath changes from hard wind to warm whisper, their bodies from stone to sand. To see them opening out and flowing with the water, and to hear how the course has changed the way they breathe and approach not only diving but all aspects of their life, is beautifully satisfying.’
"Wander where there is no Path."
Was it serendipity or stubbornness that enabled Emma to live out her dream? Was it the transformative nature of freediving or the power of the breath? Or was it that she dared to dream and speak that dream out loud? Whatever we believe, speaking our dreams aloud, if only to ourselves, is an important step that we can all take to making them a reality.
Anna Hattersley has been swimming outdoors year-round for more than ten years, mainly in Devon but elsewhere whenever she gets the chance. She is passionate about sport and the outdoors and sharing this with others. In 2014 she got together with local volunteers and saved her local lido, Ashburton Swimming Pool, from closure. She is still a trustee today.