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Vol. 19, no. 5
October/November 2016


Apnea Extreme 
Story By: Catharine Lo Griffin
Photos By: Logan Mock-Bunting

For divers, photographers and spearfishers, freediving—staying underwater while holding your breath—is an interesting challenge. But throw in, say, a twenty-foot wave or a sniper on the beach, and holding your breath becomes a matter of survival. Performance Free-diving International’s Survival Breath Hold course teaches big-wave surfers, lifeguards, rescue swimmers, special ops teams—“anyone to whom the water can be dangerous and who needs to problem-solve the environment,” says PFI founder Kirk Krack—how not to drown.

PFI has trained more than nine thousand students and coached seven athletes to twenty-three world records. The introductory freediving courses cover the basics: how to hold your breath, how to relax and overcome the fears that arise with sustained apnea. Good enough for spearfishers and underwater photographers who don’t want to scare off fish with bubbles from a scuba tank. But in a survival situation, your metabolism goes off the Richter scale. It might be because you’re being rag-dolled by monster waves or because “the surface is an even more dangerous place to be,” says Krack, who has trained Navy SEALs. “Under such duress, you might have only one-quarter to one-third of the time your baseline breath hold would allow.”

The surf survival class includes simulating a three-wave hold-down—a very likely result of wiping out on a forty-foot wave—in which students breathe using limited lung capacity while their heart rates are elevated and a buddy creates a “stressed” water environment. Students learn to survive on no more than a fifteen-second “breathe-up” before being held down for another (and another, and another) minute—“a very violent minute,” Krack says. Krack honed the program by working with some of Red Bull’s top athletes—among them Brazilian big-wave surfers Maya Gabeira and Carlos Burle, and Maui big-wave surfer Ian Walsh. (As PFI’s web site quips, Red Bull gives you wings and PFI gives you gills.) The group recently met up in Bermuda to refine safety protocols for tow-in surfing that will allow everyone to “speak the same language” when it comes to search and rescue.

If you’re the death-defiant type, PFI’s three-day Survival Breath Hold courses will be held in Kona on November 26, 2016, and January 28 and March 25, 2017.