Surprise Apnea for Surfers

There’s something exciting about that last breath, isn’t there? Maybe it shouldn't be so exciting, though. Maybe we all just need to calm down. A couple of gaspers, Tasmania. Photo: Stu Gibson
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"Great, Taylor...relax...good, keep still have plenty of oxygen left."

That's Hanli Prinsloo, South African freedive champion and our instructor for the morning, coaching me through chest contractions in a calming voice. There are eight of us here. Some abalone divers. Some big-wave surfers. Some just surfers. All looking to hold our breath longer. I am face down in the Half Moon Bay High School's swimming pool and it's been about two minutes since my last breath -- a big one that started in my belly, went into my chest and then up to my shoulders -- and my diaphragm is spasming. I'm taking fake breaths. My body is saying, "Your carbon dioxide levels are dangerously high." And my mind is saying, "F–k you, body, we're doing this." But in a nicer way. A calmer way. Because it's all about staying calm.

If you follow any big wave surfers on Instagram these days, you know that these breath-holding / freediving classes are en vogue right now. Heavy hitters like Ian Walsh, Derek Dunfee, Alex Gray and Shane Dorian are taking them. Because despite all the floatation devices and inflatable vests guys are using these days, when the shit hits the boardshorts all you have are your lungs. There are several different outfits that will train you to hold your breath longer, but I chose Hanli's because Greg Long recommended it and Greg's among the most prepared surfers I know. She has also trained most of the big wave crew in Cape Town, and those guys are as nuts and competent as any.
Hanli, in that yoga-instructor voice of hers, coaches a student through some deep breathing to prep for a breath hold in the Half Moon Bay High School swimming pool.
Hanli's class focuses on expanding your lungs and your mind. To start the day she teaches breathing and relaxation exercises that will help you grow your lung capacity and calm your mind. She details surprise apnea (apnea from the greek word meaning "cessation of breathing") theory and explains what is happening, physiologically, when you're holding your breath. This is even more important than the breathing exercises because when you learn what's happening in your body while you're not breathing you can manage your lack of oxygen in a more logical and calm manner. For example, when those diaphragm convulsions start, we learned, you're only half way out of oxygen.

During the second phase of the class you jump in the pool and work on deep breathing with a buddy (always with a buddy). When your lungs are good and stretched and your blood is rich with fresh oxygen, you turn face down and the timer starts. Underwater, you think about completely relaxing the pinky toe on your right foot, or you think about nothing or you count the cracks on the bottom of the pool. You do whatever you can that will keep you calm. Because when you stress, you burn oxygen. After a while, the spasms in your chest begin. It's a moment that makes your body say, "I'm tapping out. I need a breath." But now your mind knows that you're only half way, if you can stay calm.

I am now at 3 minutes, chest rising and falling in quick, fruitless gasps. Ignore it. My lungs sting. There's still more time. My mind and body duke it out: should I push through it or surrender to the spasms and indulge in the air, just two inches away? Hanli is talking to me again, her soothing, South African accent (a voice I know will replay in my head during future hold downs) encouraging me to stay down. "Perfect're doing great...still plenty of time..."

But really there was only about 10 more seconds, and I came up and sucked air with a "hook breath," a technique Hanli showed us that morning. Panting, I look to Hanli who smiles, gives me a pat on the shoulder and says, "3 minutes 30 seconds..." and moves on to encourage Maverick's surfer Colin Dwyer, who's floating next to us.

At the beginning of the class we all held our breath on land. My first attempt was just a little over two minutes, so I improved by over a minute. Everyone else shattered their first holds, too. Which was great, but this was without any physical training. Imagine what you could do with some exercise. We didn't have to imagine long, because we were then introduced to Peter Marshall. Peter's a world record-holding swimmer from L.A., and he led us in a series of swimming exercises designed to replicate catching a wave, wiping out and being held down. It was all very strenuous. Very huff-puff. But it felt good to know that you're doing an exercise that could save your life.
Pool Crew
Hanli and Peter and their pupils. Combined, they can hold their breath for about 45 minutes.
The class ended with handshakes and photos and shakas and email exchanges. Keep in touch! And they actually did. A few days later Hanli and Peter emailed us all some easily digestible literature on diet and training to continue our quest for the ever-expanding lung and mind. And now I can hold my breath for 15 minutes...give or take. --Taylor Paul

Would you like to hold your breath longer? Hanli is doing another class in the San Francisco this weekend, December 1 and 2, and there are a couple spots open. Big wave surfer or not, this will boost your confidence. Email her at for more info.