Rory Parker blows his ears out in a freediving competition trying to hit forty meters…
I’m back. Did you miss me?
Two weeks in Nicaragua, twelve hours back on Kauai, straight to Big Island for the Kona Depth Challenge. Damn hard on my body, all that traveling. Not something I’d be willing to repeat. Need time in my own bed, honest sleep, time to recharge.
But it was fun. Very fun. Until it wasn’t.
The Kona Depth Challenge was set up by Kurt Chambers. Kurt holds a couple national records, teaches freedive classes to make ends meet. A very interesting guy, we ran a fairly long profile/interview piece on him last year. Give it a read if you have not already.
A quick primer on freedive disciplines at the KDC:
Constant Weight with Fins (CWT): Diver kicks down along a line, either using bifins or a monofin, to a plate at a depth chosen by the diver. Must return to the surface with whatever weight they used to get down.
Constant Weight No Fins (CNF): Same as above, but the diver cannot use fins or touch the guide line.
Free Immersion (FIM): The diver pulls down using the guide line, then returns to the surface the same way. Once again, you may not drop your weights upon returning to the surface. Of the three disciplines, this one is the easiest.
In a normal contest, a diver must perform certain surface protocol for the dive to be considered successful. This consists of removing any gear (goggles, noseclip), saying, “I am okay,” and making an “OK” sign with their fingers. Because the KDC was essentially an amateur comp these were relaxed and a dive was considered successful if the competitor remained conscious.
Where scoring is concerned, the day prior the diver chooses their depth and is awarded one point per meter. If they don’t hit their target they are penalized the missed depth from their accomplished depth. Therefore a diver who elects 40 meters, but accomplishes 30, would receives 20 points.
In serious competition the depths are kept secret and there is a bunch of mind-fuckery among competitors. The KDC was more of a fun affair, akin to a local surf comp. Everyone wants to win, but no one is an asshole about it.
The evening before the event began featured a short safety meeting, a quick explanation of the rules, and the first time we named our depths, as well as whichever discipline we’d be attempting the following morning. Because I’d done, literally, no training prior to the event, and because I have no grasp of the metric system, I threw out 40 meters CWT.
I’ve previously kicked down to 120 feet, and so picked the number because I knew I was capable of hitting it without killing my body. However, I forgot that a meter is longer than a yard and that 40 meters is actually 131 feet. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
The next morning I showed up early to get in some the warm-up dives before my turn came. On the beach was Bobby Twitchell, a hellman deep hunter who runs the Maui Spearfishing Academy.
Bobby is a far better diver than I, and had just done 40 meters with no fins. He hit his depth, but suffered a lung squeeze and was forced to drop out of the rest of the comp.
Briefly: a lung squeeze is when your lungs temporarily collapse due to pressure at depth. You surface spitting blood. No more diving in the near future.
Forty meters is a relatively shallow depth to suffer a squeeze, so it didn’t get in my head too badly. These things happen, but they don’t happen to me. I’m invincible.
I swam out, did my warm-up, which consists of a few shallow drops to fifty feet then hanging out until contractions begin. My time came around, I breathed up, and managed to hit it effortlessly. In fact, the plate was set a meter-and-a-half deeper than it should have been, so I ended up hitting 136 feet during my one minute and twenty second dive.
Felt great. Very pleased with myself. Swam in for a post-dive cigarette, named 40 meters CNF for the next day, then hung out drinking beers while everyone else took their dives.
I was feeling like I was on top of the world when I got a call from my wife. On my buddy, Richard’s, phone. Because I’m a weirdo who doesn’t have a cell.
She had E.Coli, thanks to some dirty cocksucker who didn’t wash his hands. And fucking Hepatitis A!
I should’ve been on the next flight home. A better husband would’ve been. But she insisted she could handle, I should stay. Nothing I could do to make things better.
Forty meters was a stupid call. More than double the deepest I’d gone without fins. But I was feeling strong, and diving is a purely mental game anyway.
Competitive freediving is, at its root, a stupid pursuit. It can kill you, do terrible damage to your body. And there’s nothing to see. Just blue all around.
But it takes an empty head, and therein lies the appeal. My mind never, ever, stops going and for a brief time I can shut it the fuck up. I don’t go to a happy place, I go to the empty place. And I love it there.
Day two was a struggle. Worried about my wife, inexplicably nervous about my dive. During my pre-dive breathe up I had to force myself to stop hyperventilating, find that calm moment. Normally easy, but not so much that day.
One minute left, thirty seconds… go.
I enjoy no fins dives. Most people do not. But when you’re swimming well, your body is in the perfect rhythm, it’s a joy. Ten meters passed, twenty. At thirty meters my watch beeped to notify the depth. Then I did something stupid. I looked at the plate.
It’s very important to keep your chin tucked while diving. Stretching your neck can lead to trauma as the pressure collapses it. And you really don’t want to know how far you have to go. Ten meters is no distance at all, especially when you’re negatively buoyant. All I had to do was wait a little longer and I would have been there.
Instead it looked a world away. And everything came flooding back. My wife was sick. What the fuck am I doing. I panicked and turned for the surface at 101′.
And the trouble began.
“eeeeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE… POP!” Pretty much the worst fucking noise I’ve ever heard.
If you’re a regular reader you may be aware of the ear problems I’ve been dealing with over the last few years. If not, long story short, I came down with a massive infection which dissolved my mastoid (the honeycomb bone behind your ear), and required the installation of a titanium total ossicular replacement prosthesis to restore my hearing. The consequences for my freediving were totally unknown. I have the pleasure of being a test case.
One minute and forty seconds after I began my dive, I may have surfaced screaming. It may have just been mental. I don’t know. I do know that I was terrified, convinced I’d undone a series of very expensive, and excruciatingly painful, surgeries. I’ve had my left ear cut off and reattached three times so far. I do not want to go for number four.
I swam to a SUP they had anchored on the surface, climbed aboard, covered my right ear and begged someone to say something.
Oh man! Thank the god who does not exist. No blood. Hearing was fine. Ear drum still intact. Nothing to worry about.
Back to the beach. Smoke my cigarettes, bum out the healthy folks. Realize my ear was rapidly swelling, looking like I’d taken a hard punch to it. Lightly touching the side of my head set off a crackling that was worrying.
And that was it. I was out of the competition. Totally fucking crushed. Not only had I failed to hit my depth, I injured myself. How severely, I had no clue.
I’m an overly emotional guy, and keeping my problems from ruining everyone else’s good time was a struggle. I’d like to think I kept it internal, but I know I was a mopey little prick. So much build up, such high expectations for myself, and I fucking failed. Utterly.
Went to bed early that night, had a good cry. Showed up late the next day so I wouldn’t do something stupid, like try to dive anyway. Watched the swelling slowly subside. Made an appointment to see my ENT, Dr Netzer, as soon as I was back on Kauai.
The high point of the day was learning my wife had been misdiagnosed. No Hep A. What a relief! But she has advanced pancreatitis! Oops, no, wrong chart.
Hawaii medical care can fucking suck sometimes. I certainly hope whoever actually has pancreatitis got a call informing them of such.
A pizza and beer party wrapped things up. Winners got their prizes, I mingled with a bunch of very cool people who I’m very happy I’ve met. Like Steve, the guy with “God hates us all” tattooed across his collar bones.
It’s unfair, and indicative of my status as a totally self involved hack writer, that I have no idea how anyone else did during the event. I spent the time as I usually do, totally wrapped up in my own wants. My own struggles. And I know that others set out to do the same thing as me. Hit their deepest depths, push themselves past what they thought they were capable of.
I missed all that.
But I know what happened to my ear. The source of that awful, awful, POP! Just got back from the doctor, he explained it all to me.
I suffered a reverse squeeze, wherein a blocked eustachian tube causes baurotrama during ascent.
I’m lucky, in a way. In a normal human body it might have lead to a blown eardrum. However, due to the fact that I lack a mastoid on my left side, the overpressure blew out into the soft tissue, rather than through my ear drum. Basically, the air was forced into a gap between my skin and skull, inflating my head like a fucked up balloon.
Short term, I’m fine. I won’t die, won’t get sick. No big deal.
Long term, I’ve got some tough choices to make. This might be the end of my diving. I might just say, “Fuck it,” and deal with the future as it comes.
At this moment, as I’m typing, I absolutely fucking hate myself. Excuses are bullshit. I’m a total failure. I had my chance to do something special and I fucking blew it.
I’ve got to end with a big thank you to everyone present.
Thanks to the Kauai boys, Richard Tucker, Ed Corrales, and Elijah Assand for splitting costs with me. Sorry, Elijah, I know we were a bit much. Thanks to all the safety divers for keeping us alive and kicking. Mike Hong took amazing pictures of the event. Kurt Chambers put together a super fun event. And all the other competitors, too many names for me to remember. It was an impressive weekend of people pushing past their limits. Everyone should be very proud of what they accomplished.
Except for me. I suck.