Freediving blackouts

My blackout experience at Vertical Blue 2021

by Thibault Guignes

Here is my reflection on the blackout I experienced at the surface during the last Vertical Blue competition in Bahamas in July 2021

On July 15th, I went for a competition dive in Free Immersion discipline with an announced depth of 110m for an expected dive time of 3min30s. During my breathe up, my relaxation was not at its best as I had experienced some health issues prior to the competition. Even though I was not at my best, I also knew that such a depth was achievable and still in my comfort zone and the competition stress was manageable. I started my dive a few seconds after the official top and focused on the tasks at hand: Equalization and pulling on the line, eyes closed, deconcentrating my attention slowly.
During the first 30m, everything felt normal but already around 40m, some parasitic thoughts related to my health started to appear. It would be hard to remember the exact thoughts process as it went very fast.

As I was devising on the fact that this time I would not turn early, at 60m, I lost my mouthfill which went straight back into my lungs. Equalization has never been my limitation and I cannot remember last time this happened to me so I was very surprised and started to look for solutions.

Can I refill it? Can I reverse pack? Is it safe? Should I turn early … again!? Lets try … All these thoughts kept my mind busy and I kept going instead of turning early as would have been reasonable. On the moment I felt great and I did a mix of refilling my mouthfill, which still seemed a bit smaller than usual for the same depths and of reverse packing.

Between 60m and 110m, I had 50m to take the right decision and it seems like a lot of time. My memory of it is that it went so fast, I didn’t have time to even consider all the options. The special environment, maybe the narcosis as well and the focus on the objective can take you away from the right decision in the blink of an eye and on the moment I was convinced would be okay.
The last 10m of equalization made me tense a bit with the reverse packing and I believe that’s what caused me to be hypoxic at the surface after the way up.

Thibault descending during Vertical Blue 2021

During the way up I felt pretty good, too. I remember seeing the safety divers and that I kept pulling. Just around 10m it starts getting blurry and my next memories are from the safety divers hugging me. Having Diveye drone to record the whole dive is a great feedback tool as I could see afterwards that I had already trouble moving properly on the last 3 meters.

If you ask me now, on dry, outside of the action, I will always choose the reasonable option, and I believe at the bottom, given enough time, as well. But keep in mind that at the bottom, things go very fast and it is not always easy to see the right path. Reasonable and prudent people make mistake. Before experiencing depth past 100-110m, I tended to be quite judgemental when seeing another athlete blacking out in deep diving.

Personal experience, seeing other athletes that I know, respect, admire for their wisdom also experiencing Black outs despite doing all in the best possible way made me less prompt to judge from outside. You can be reasonable, do your best not to take any risks and to train as smart as possible, the “no risk” does not exist and it pains me to see so many people on social media labelling some athletes as crazy without understanding.

Thibault ascending in Free Immersion at VB 2021

We say in freediving courses that you should never black out if you train properly and conservatively. I completely agree with this statement for recreational freediving. When you try to push your limits, it is a possibility even though we do our best not to get there.

That’s why as trivial as this conclusion can seem, I will get from this experience in Vertical Blue a very brief piece of wisdom (We all probably knew it already … I will just try to reinforce it in my case despite it being a mantra that I keep telling all my students):

Never push my equalization ever again!!! And now… to the next dive!

Now that I reflected on this blackout and took some learning from it, I am just going to forget about it and go back deep. There is no point staying on it forever and feeling like a failure. That will not help me progress, and that will not help me not blacking out again. Now lets focus on the next dives and objectives. Black out is not such a big deal as far as you have a good safety and that it is not associated with pulmonary oedema.

A big thank you to the Vertical Blue safety and medical team that took such good care of us and allowed us to safely push our limits and enjoy deep diving!