Deep breath: Learning to free dive with world champion Gianluca Genoni
by Chris Jefferies
“Free diving is not only a physical exercise, the head is very important as well,” Gianluca Genoni explains, and he ought to know. The Italian athlete and Blancpain brand ambassador has held 18 world records in both free diving and static apnoea, and the Swiss watchmaker has invited Boat International to the Town Hall Hotel in East London to find out how it’s done.
Looking in from the outside, static apnoea may seem like a curious discipline. In essence, competitors float face down in a pool of water and hold their breath for as long as they can before surfacing for air. It is an essential part of the training regimen for dynamic apnoea (or free diving as it is more commonly known), but Genoni argues it has meditative benefits that are comparable to yoga.
In order for the body to make the most efficient use of one lungful of oxygen, you must remain as still and as relaxed as possible, while clearing your mind of all thoughts that may raise your heart rate. “When I dive deeper, it is a mental exercise,” Genoni says. “I understand my body better, I am very relaxed. Free diving is not an exercise for strong men or crazy men; it is a psychological exercise. If you are relaxed during the dive, then you enjoy the dive.”
His demeanour is fitting for someone who competes in this most Zen-like of sports. In September 2012 he set an underwater scooter-assisted free diving record of -160 metres. Records later showed that 130 metres into the descent his heart rate hit at an incredible minimum of 12bpm.
The world record for static apnoea stands at over 11 minutes, but under Genoni’s guidance, I am set the rather more achievable target of two minutes. “Everyone can do this. With the correct technical breathing, it is very easy to do a big time,” he reassures me.
Fully kitted out in a wetsuit to maximise buoyancy and keep the core body temperature at an optimal level, I descend to the pool area with more than a mild feeling of trepidation.
Training begins with a series of guided breathing exercises designed to maximise lung capacity. Genoni explains his deep breathing technique, which is split into three stages: starting just above the diaphragm, moving up to the top of the chest and finishing in the mouth.
When holding your breath underwater a common reaction is to release bubbles through the mouth, but Genoni unequivocally instructs me: “Never breathe out during apnoea.” Instead this vital oxygen should be slowly swallowed as the oxygen in the lungs is absorbed.
The initial dive of 60 seconds seems intimidating at first but, with Genoni’s gentle encouragement and incremental duration increases, I sail past the two minute target and push onwards while he calmly counts off the seconds and minutes from his Blancpain 500 Fathoms diver’s watch.
With the neck, back and legs completely relaxed, the experience becomes far more enjoyable and meditative than had previously seemed possible, but eventually the urge to surface for air becomes irresistible.
Amateurs can expect to achieve a time of around three minutes, depending on resting heart rate and lung capacity, but the real reward comes from the sense of euphoric relaxation that follows. It may never replace yoga as the meditative sport of choice for superyacht owners but there is much to recommend static apnoea as a way of freeing your mind and exploring the limits of your body. As well as fully trained staff, still water is essential and Genoni agrees that a perfectly stabilised superyacht pool would be a great place to put his techniques into practice. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll never take oxygen for granted again.