Breath-taking, Feya Durkin
Oxygen by William Trubridge is a breath-taking story about one man’s quest to push his body and mind to the absolute limits. Trubridge is a professional New Zealand freediver, and Oxygen tells the story of his early days, his discovery of freediving, his ride to success, and his quest to dive 100 metres below the surface of the ocean, equipped with nothing but a single breath (and a really tight wetsuit).
Born on the 24th of May 1980 in Northumberland, England, Trubridge’s family chose to sail across the Atlantic Ocean when Trubridge was 18 months old. With their boat making landfall in Antigua and various tropical islands before passing through the Panama Canal and into the Pacific Ocean, Trubridge tells of his earliest memories learning to dive – and nearly drowning on land. When he was four years old, Trubridge was eating an ice cube, on which he started choking. His first instinct was to panic; however, he quickly realised that panicking would do no good as he was alone on the family’s boat. Trubridge stuck his finger in his throat and flicked out the ice cube. Trubridge talks about the “previously-dormant, atavistic” part of him that thought rationally and acted decisively in the face of panic.
The act of shutting out the instinctual fear and replacing it with rational thought is one of the key concepts of freediving: Trubridge says, “what I didn’t know is that later in life I would spend so much time trying to replicate that same self-control in the face of an extreme urge to breathe.”
After completing a few more years of sailing around the world, Trubridge and his family eventually settled down in New Zealand. Trubridge attended Auckland University in his later years, working on the human genome project. He didn’t enjoy it, however, and ended up leaving. He also tells of his first conscious attempt at freediving – sitting on his bed holding his breath, for a “pretty ordinary” two minutes fifteen seconds. In 2003, Trubridge flew to Belize and “tagged along” with a scuba-dive company. While the company was teaching tourists how to scuba-dive, Trubridge would swim to the bottom of the 15-20 metre deep dive site and surprise the unsuspecting patrons by popping out from behind a shipwreck. After being told to stop because it was spooking the tourists, Trubridge negotiated a ride to Honduras, and that was “when he became a freediver”. Trubridge would swim off the side of the reef and go downwards until he became negatively buoyant – he’d float downwards to depths of approximately 30 meters with minimal effort. He also spent long hours meditating and practicing yogic breathing, working towards his goal of becoming a professional freediver. He also tells of freediving at night: “I couldn’t ignore an awareness of how small the window of light I created was.” He was scared he’d turn around in the water and see a shark, but he never did, and eventually Trubridge grew calmer.
Freediving is a craft which requires mastery of both the physical body and the subconscious mind – the latter equally, if not more, important than the former. When Trubridge talks about his training, his mentor being the Italian freediver Umberto Pellizzari, he describes not only the gruelling diet of no alcohol, processed sugar or caffeine, and the painful “apnea hikes” – going for walks and runs while breathing only every 10-30 steps – but also the practices of yoga, meditation, and pranayama – yogic breathing, when there is an inhale, an exhale twice as long as the inhale, and then a pause twice as long as the exhale. When freediving, and the urge to breathe sets in, Trubridge talks about the two choices there are: to “allow yourself to become affected by hunger for air, or to acknowledge the sensation and choose to relax more deeply.” This makes freediving a unique sport: although the mantra “mind over matter” applies to any difficult task or elite sport, when you are many metres below the surface of the water with the overwhelming urge to breathe, you are very much on your own.
Seven years later, in 2010, Trubridge has many world records under his belt. He has founded his own diving company called Vertical Blue and hosts an annual freediving competition under the same name in the Bahamas. He is considered to be one of the best freedivers in the world – and yet Trubridge desires more. To dive to a depth of 100 metres with just the human body and a single breath was unimaginable when he started freediving in 2003, and yet the hectometer was Trubridge’s next goal. To dive to a depth where the pressure is so great that, for Trubridge, it was equivalent to a person of his size standing on every square inch of his body – and come back up again – is no mean feat. Trubridge managed the dive in training and, on December 13, 2010, at the annual Vertical Blue competiton, he became the first human to dive 100 metres deep, unassisted.
Oxygen is a deep and breath-taking novel (pun intended) about the limits of the human mind and body. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, although my personal career as a freediver ended as soon as it began when I tried holding my breath while reading this book – and managed one minute. Trubridge’s struggle to exert control over his physical body and subconscious mind makes for an intense read and, although there are many freediving terms which take a while to get your head around, I thoroughly recommend this book to anybody interested in the limits and extremes of human potential. Overall, Oxygen is an inspiring and awesome read, which I’d rate 8/10.
Feya Durkin is 15 years old and from Christchurch.