From my book How to Be Cross Eyed: Thriving Despite Your Physical Imperfection — a mémoire and lifehacking manifesto
Me and water have a sordid history.
Breathless 90 feet down
The first time I almost died underwater was during my scuba certification dive. Scuba is a badass (and expensive!) hobby but it’s quite dangerous! Every seasoned scuba diver has a story or two (or more) about almost dying. There’s just so many things that can go wrong when you’re deep underwater pretending to be a fish.
Lucky for me, my PADI scuba instructor taught me well. I took two semesters of scuba diving classes in high school. We had a large swimming pool at our high school, twice a week a scuba instructor would bring in diving gear for us to use in it. The BCD (buoyancy control device), a vest you wear which you can control your buoyancy with by inflating it with your air supply. Those cylindrical air tanks, which are surprisingly very heavy when filled with air. And the regulator that you actually breath out of that makes that cool Psht, Psht, Psht sound.
The class culminated in a certification dive at the blue hole in New Mexico. A couple van loads of us aspiring divers took a road trip over the weekend. A blue hole is a deep spot that divers dive to test their mettle by descending to deeper depths. This particular blue hole is interesting because it serves as the entrance to a vast subterranean river system that runs underneath the continental United States out to the pacific. It’s a shaft of rock and stone descending about a hundred feet. We weren’t doing a cave dive, but down there in the murky depths surrounded by rock, it sure felt like it. We did three dives to different depths; 30 feet, 60 feet and a final night dive all the way down to about a 100 feet. Now even with scuba gear you wouldn’t want to just swim down, you would get too disoriented. Disorientation is a real risk factor in diving, down there in the blue you can easily lose track of what’s up and what’s down. We descended on ropes to platforms where we conducted various exercises and drills. The final night we descended into total darkness, photons of light only reach so deep, imagine being submerged in black ink, unable to see your hand in front of your face, it was that dark. But of course we had diving flashlights, which illuminated the eerie aquatic underworld and nocturnal denizens of those depths.
At the bottom of the blue hole was a tombstone that someone had placed there among the jagged rocks and boulders. Perhaps as a final warning for divers considering exploring the cave system. As I paddled around the darkness I saw that a few of my classmates had located the tombstone, excited to check it out myself, I kicked my way towards them. Perhaps due to my poor peripheral vision (I am cross eyed), perhaps due to the darkness or perhaps just because of my excitement I didn’t notice another diver kicking along diagonally to me. He kicked my mask and regulator off my face just as I was inhaling. Panic gripped me as water rushed into my lungs and I writhed about uselessly. My lizard brain took over for a dangerous moment as my life passed before my eyes; I began swimming, desperately for the surface. Which is of course wrong; rapid ascent causes the nitrogen in your blood to expand which has killed many a diver. But as I coughed the water out of my lungs my training took over, if you ever lose your regulator as a diver what you’re taught to do is drop your hand down to your right knee and sweep your hand back and around because your regulator tube will be in that zone. I grabbed the regulator, blew the water out of it and took the most desperately needed breath of air in my life. You don’t properly appreciate air until you’re deprived of it deep within what feels like a rocky coffin.
My dive buddy found my mask and handed it back to me. With Adrenalin still surging through my veins I strapped on the mask, tilted my head back and blew the water out of the mask with a few mighty nostril exhalations. Clarity returned to my vision of what might have become my watery grave; a few other divers had witnessed my close call. I gave them a thumbs up. I was ok.
The dive instructor eventually gave us the signal to ascend, upon emerging from the water, I got down on one knee and thanked God to be back on solid ground with air in my lungs.
Drowning at summer camp
The second time I almost died underwater was at a Young Life summer camp on Pelican lake in Minnesota.
Like I mentioned earlier I had been taking scuba classes in high school and was training myself extended breath holding techniques. If you want to double the amount of time you can hold your breath what you want to do is hyperventilate for about 5 minutes; breathing deeply in and out rapidly until your chest and arms tingle from the increased oxygen saturation in your blood. As I would learn there’s a significant risk of passing out when trying to hold your breath for over 2 minutes.
Young Life camp is a very american thing. It’s a nominally Christian youth camp. Located at pristine resort destinations these camps are filled with all the fun things that teenagers love. They bring together several hundred teens for a week of sun and fun, include a little religious teaching and just really hope that teens don’t engage in too much sinful pre-marital mingling. My misguided approach to impressing cute girls there was to ask some girls in the hot tub to time me doing my breath holding in the hot tub then I would try to ask one of them out on a little date going for a paddle in the lake in one of the little boats provided. Which kind of worked but one time I passed out while holding my breath. My body bobbed to the surface, terrifying the girls and some guys pulled me out of the water.
A very competent lifeguard performed CPR and resuscitated me. I’ll never forget that moment clawing my way back up into consciousness surrounded by a very concerned group of men praying for me to live. I tried to form words to let them know that I was ok but nothing but mumbles came out. A few minutes later I was able to make a joke that greatly relieved the tension.
Per camp rules they called an ambulance for me and I was wheeled out on a gurney. They probably should have let me walk though because several hundred of my fellow campers on the beach witnessed all this and a rumor spread quickly through the camp that I had actually died. Apparently girls were crying and eventually all very relieved when the truth came out that I was fine and recuperating at the hospital. This was pre-social media so a large group of girls got together to write me fan mail that the youth leader brought to me at the hospital.
I returned to camp the next morning and experienced for about a day what it must feel like to be a bona fide celebrity. I even scored a little boat date with the cutest girl at camp — my breath holding strategy had paid off!
As you can imagine this turned out to be pretty good for my adolescent social life. I was kind of an introverted and nerdy kid that had trouble making friends but after this hot tub episode my reputation as an adventuresome risk taker spread quickly through my youth group and high school. I now had a reputation to live up to! This set me on this path less traveled in life as a risk taker and adventurer.
Speargun fishing in Costa Rica
I woke up in my little bungalow bedroom excited for the day that awaited. Me and some new friends were going to be speargun fishing; snorkeling around with aquatic weaponry aiming to bring something home something slimy and scaly that my friend Burt, a master chef, would make into a succulent dinner for us. We’d booked a tour with a very colorful local character who would serve as our dive master/tour guide/reggae band singer/surf instructor/small time drug dealer. As I rode over the bumpy Costa Rican roads to his house, I focused myself on the adventure ahead. I was quite surprised when he made us strong vodka cocktails and offered us a few bong hits of weed to begin the day, which I refused — It was 10:30AM! He then drank another beer while gassing up his motorcycle and we were off to the watery hunting grounds.
We were going to be spear gun fish at a rocky point break, apparently the best place to do it. I foolishly selected a pneumatic style speargun — the kind James Bond killed a guy with in Thunderball — that required my entire body weight to load the spring to fire the fish speering bolt.
We had to walk a ways across some jagged rocks to the water, my feet were badly hurting as I finally slipped into the water which was far from placid. The zone around the point break was filled with giant jagged rock formations jutting out of the surf upon which wave after wave of water crashed upon. I was bruised and bleeding a bit from a few nasty encounters with the rocks but determined to kill a fish or two. I finally got a pretty good line on a silvery swimmer in the depths, shot my bolt and frustratingly missed. In the water I was way too buoyant to apply enough pressure to reload the bolt. Some of the bigger rock formations in the vicinity formed scabrous rock islands, I kicked my way over to one that looked somewhat scalable and quickly found that it was next to impossible to climb up and get the solid footing I would need to reload the bolt while wearing my snorkeling fins. I found a secure looking crag in the wet rocks to store them momentarily. I finally reloaded my bolt, turned around and was dismayed to see that the crashing surf had carried one of my fins out to sea. On the verge of defeat I contemplated just giving up on this whole shitty endeavor of speargun fishing; I could just stay put on this rock tell them to send a little boat to get me or maybe I could kick my way awkwardly back to the shore with my one fin. But I watched the rhythm of the water rushing in and out. There was a chance that I could get that fin back so I leaped back into the surf and swam like hell towards my departing fin triumphantly reclaiming it! I would go on to shoot at and miss another fish. But hey I still had fun (kind of) — next time I go speargun fishing perhaps it will go better if I have a vodka cocktail first.
The last time I thought I was about to get in a real knock down, drag out fight it was with that same surf instructor.
I had been going to the beach everyday there teaching myself to surf on a short board. I really wasn't very good but could get up and ride a wave more or less. My friends suggested that I take a lesson with him. I met him on the beach one morning eager to improve my surf game. The lesson started going badly right away, apparently my pop up form was awful and I wasn’t a sufficiently attentive surf student, he grew angry hurling rather childish insults at me. We eventually got in the water and he gave me a long board to practice with which was easier to get up on but I found it frustratingly unmaneuverable compared to the short board I was used to. Exacerbated with my progress, he left me to surf alone for about 30 minutes, which I appreciated. We returned to the beach eventually and he was still enraged at my poor performance; apparently I was his worst student ever. Fed up with this ridiculously unprofessional surf instructor I yelled and we exchanged further insults. As he angrily sucked down a cigarette while berating me I thought this guy’s probably about to hit me. But cooler heads prevailed and we eventually stormed off in different directions.
In my time in latin america I would learn that this was actually pretty typical. As a total novice in something you take a class with an instructor and he’ll pressure, berate and insult you nonstop for not being as good as him at it. It’s a cultural experience that I hope you manage to steer clear of!
- You might think that you’re an adventuresome tough guy but the water will soon show you just what a frail a little human being you are.
- If you hire an instructor to teach you something new and they start acting like a macho asshole for no reason don’t try to appease them, walk away.