My daughter, Eliot, and I are floating facedown in the Caribbean Sea a quarter-mile off the coast of Grand Cayman Island.
Our snorkel tips fight for air above the chop as we stare into the depths at a Greco-Roman warrior with a seahorse’s tail. A 13-foot-tall statue known as the Guardian of the Reef, it rises from a sand flat 65 feet below us. This is our final afternoon of a two-day freediving course, and it’s Eliot’s turn to go off-rope. A weighted guideline knotted every 16.5 feet, the rope has served as a focal point for our battery of trials. Having it at hand also made the ocean seem smaller somehow. No longer. The Guardian beckons Eliot with his raised scepter. I don’t want to let her go.
Except that I’m the one who brought her here. We came for the experience—to have fun—but when you’re father and daughter, life’s never that straightforward. Even less so when she’s 12, on the cusp of puberty, and literally transforming before your eyes, from a bright, honey-brown-haired, first-up-in-the-morning daddy’s girl to a moody, sarcastic stranger with breasts, hips, and the sleep habits of Dracula. Worse, my irrepressibly confident girl is suddenly taciturn and self-conscious. I hate the thought of fear holding her back. It reminds me too much of my own childhood.
Eliot’s body may be changing, but her hands still look small and vulnerable. Through my mask, I’m watching her right hand. With it she signals the progress of her predive breathe-up sequence: two seconds in, two-second hold, ten seconds out (with a slow hisssss through tongue and top teeth), two-second hold, repeat. With each inhalation, she brings her fingertips to her lips. The fingers hang for two beats and then arc slowly outward again as she exhales, as if she’s blowing a slow-motion kiss, or so I imagine.
All the while, Eliot fights the current, which has raged to life since our morning dive. She’s half the size of anyone in our group. The other three students are men in their twenties and thirties. I’m 49, as is our instructor, Mark Rowe, a former captain in the British Army’s Royal Engineers. (“We build things and blow stuff up,” he said.) Clinging to a float ten feet downcurrent, I worry over the energy Eliot’s wasting while at the same time trying to conserve my own. It will soon be my turn.
The first rule of freediving is never dive alone. In addition to being Eliot’s father, today I’m her dive buddy. My job, as Mark put it in class yesterday, is to “protect the airway.” He wanted to underscore our primary responsibility in light of all the ground we’d covered—gear, tides, currents, physical properties of gases, hypoxia symptoms. A freedive can turn tragic in minutes. To keep Eliot safe, I need to make sure she resurfaces and breathes.
As a parent, my most fundamental instinct is to protect my child from harm, but that flies in the face of my ultimate goal: to raise her to be a happy, healthy, independent adult who, if I’m lucky, drops by to see me every once in a while. Kids need structure and freedom, hand-holding, and room to fail. We babyproof so they don’t poke forks in power outlets, teach them to look both ways when crossing the street, and sign them up for swim lessons. But we also want them to be brave and outgoing. How do you teach children to take risks? When Eliot was six months old, I held her in a YMCA pool during a weekly daddy-and-me swim class. When she was four, I hoisted her onto my shoulders and crashed through chest-high breakers during a family beach trip. Not yet a teenager, she’s already starting to leave me in little ways. Will she be ready? The time seemed right for the next challenge.
Freediving has been called one of the world’s most dangerous sports, and I’m taking a big risk introducing Eliot to it. What if I push too hard and poison this and any future chances I have of being a positive influence?
Eliot begins her five final breaths, counting them on her fingers. Deeper inhalations, quicker exhalations. She waves her hand—the go sign—swipes the snorkel from her mouth, kicks her fins skyward, and lunges headfirst down toward the warrior.
A photo of Eliot inspired our freediving adventure. In it she’s frozen mid-frog-stroke at the bottom of our neighborhood pool, gangly girl limbs distorted in a web of refracted sunbeams, enjoying a moment of complete freedom and bliss. I snapped it when Eliot was ten years old, the summer before she began giving herself weekly shots of methotrexate, a drug that’s often used to treat cancer.
Eliot didn’t have cancer. Her medical woes began when she complained of wrist pain. My wife, Heather, and I chalked it up to gymnastics. After years of tumbling classes, Eliot had recently joined a northern Virginia gym, near our home in Fairfax, known for training world champions. She loved the sport’s flowing athleticism and enjoyed mastering new moves—walkovers, handsprings, aerials. In her sparkly leotard, Eliot spent half her time upside down, cartwheeling and doing handstands around the house.
When her pain grew worse, we saw doctors, including an orthopedist, who found no fractures. Eliot’s wrists stiffened, and the pain and swelling spread to her knuckles, elbows, knees, and neck. Lyme disease? Lupus? Negative. A couple of months into the medical mystery, our daughter woke with a bizarre lump atop her wrist. Her pediatrician recognized the ganglion cyst, a buildup of joint fluid, and sent us to a rheumatologist, who diagnosed Eliot with a children’s version of rheumatoid arthritis called juvenile idiopathic arthritis, or JIA. Basically, her T-cells, granulocytes, and other immune-system foot soldiers were waging war against the tissues lining her joints. A prolonged war: JIA is chronic, the pain and swelling constant. Over time, if the disease morphs into the adult version, it can erode bones and deform joints, fusing fingers into monstrous, mangled clusters and hampering mobility. In some cases, the immune system’s army attacks the eyes, lungs, and heart.
Among the early collateral damage of Eliot’s JIA was gymnastics. No longer able to cartwheel, Eliot quit. Heather and I arranged for a Section 504—part of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973—giving Eliot special dispensations at school. No push-ups in gym class. Even gripping a pencil was painful. She began weekly sessions with a physical therapist, who molded braces for her fingers and wrists. Those helped but only made Eliot more self-conscious.
And then there was the treatment, the weekly injections to suppress her overzealous immune system. Not only does the methotrexate make Eliot more vulnerable to viruses and infections, but it sends waves of nausea washing over her for an entire day. She soon came to dread any associations with the medicine—the sickly yellow fluid, smell of alcohol wipes, orange syringe caps. At a minimum, her weekly hell will last two and a half years. It’s painful watching as puberty and this disease tag-team our daughter, chipping away at her joyful, outgoing disposition, pushing our fresh-air girl indoors in front of glowing screens.
Then came the pool and my aha moment. Almost daily during the summer after her diagnosis, Eliot and I walked to the neighborhood pool, where she would spin and tumble underwater. Swimming, her temporary reprieve from gravity, gave Eliot’s joints a break. The cool water soothed her nausea.
The idea for freediving occurred to me the day Eliot and her friend, Vali, challenged each other to an underwater swimming contest. Eliot filled her lungs and swam 15 feet, 20 max. Vali bested her, but only by a few feet.
“Want me to teach you some breathing techniques that will help you stay under longer?” I asked Eliot. She did, and a door opened.
When Eliot was barely five weeks old, an editor sent me to Grand Cayman to report firsthand on the physiology of freediving. I never told Eliot much about the trip; she never seemed interested. Now she was. I taught her how to use a simple breathing sequence to relax and oxygenate her blood, and the importance of always having a buddy, even in a pool. Eliot was soon swimming a full pool length, nearly 50 feet, on a single breath. She had her body back.
“Would you be up for taking a freediving course?” I asked, describing the magic of swimming in a crystal-clear ocean, something Eliot had never experienced.
“Yes!” she said.
Later, with Eliot out of earshot, Heather reacted differently.
“Of all the things you could do with our child, why freediving?” she said, sounding like a cornered animal. “Why not snorkeling?”
“Snorkeling’s fun, but where’s the challenge?” I said. “Besides, Eliot has a knack for freediving. She really wants to learn. Why are you so afraid of it?”
“Because it’s dangerous!”
“It doesn’t have to be,” I said, remembering all that I’d learned a dozen years earlier. “Eliot’s growing up fast. This could be a confidence booster at a crucial time in her life.” I regretted not doing anything as challenging with our other child, Eliot’s older brother, Luther, now 16, and felt time and opportunity slipping by.
“Yeah, but it seems like you’re flirting with disaster,” she said. “People die freediving. All the time.”
“This is structured risk,” I argued, a chance to show Eliot how proper training can minimize danger and open up a world of new experiences.
When pressed, Heather admitted her own visceral, almost claustrophobic fear of the deep. I once was afraid, too, I explained, until I saw how liberating freediving can be, like flying underwater.
“The ocean is so unforgiving,” she said. “Eliot’s my baby girl. I don’t know what I would do if anything happened to her.”
If Eliot was afraid the morning before our first class, she didn’t show it. For one thing, I couldn’t get her out of bed. Once she was up, I stepped out of the bathroom and found her glued to her phone.
“Put that away!” I said, scarfing down a room-service croissant. “Our driver will be here any minute.”
“Okayyy! Chill out, Dad.” Her eyes remained on the phone while she feverishly finished texting with her friends back home.
We were enrolled in a level-one course administered by Scuba Schools International. On the first day, we would spend the morning in the classroom and the afternoon practicing in a swimming pool. On the second, we would move to the ocean, running through drills and dives in a morning session and then another after lunch. If we passed all the qualifying exercises, we’d walk away certified freedivers.
Eliot’s attention waxed and waned all morning. Mark, our instructor, explained the mammalian diving reflex—all the involuntary things your body does to stay alive below the surface. When your face touches ice-cold water, your heart rate slows by 30 percent in a few seconds. As you descend, capillaries in your hands, feet, and other extremities constrict, shunting oxygen-rich blood to the heart, brain, and other primary organs. As you go deeper, the pressure builds—one atmosphere for every 33 feet of water—squeezing the air trapped in your sinus cavities and lungs. At 33 feet, your lungs are half their normal size. They’re flexible, but only to a point. Below about 100 feet, the lungs’ compression limit, blood floods the small vessels and alveoli to prevent your chest from being crushed like an empty milk jug.
There’s also air trapped in a freediver’s mask. “If you don’t equalize your mask, the pressure will suck your eyeballs out,” Mark explained. Not at the maximum depth of 66 feet we’d be attempting, but that’s still deep enough to rupture blood vessels in the eye, which sounded painful. That got Eliot’s attention.
Mark continued, explaining shallow-water blackout, a risk that’s common and potentially lethal. Insidious, too, with the majority of all freediving blackouts occurring after a diver surfaces and takes a breath.
“Right,” Mark barked with military crispness. “Any questions?”
What Eliot and I signed up for wasn’t literally a matter of life and death. We wouldn’t be pushing our physical limits like competitive freedivers do or chasing grouper into stony crevices with a speargun. Instead, we would dive in relatively calm waters with excellent visibility, buddied up and under the guidance of a professional trainer. During each of our qualifying dives, Mark would descend alongside us in case we got into trouble.
I wanted Eliot to push her mental limits, and that would require focus. While freediving, you need to tune in to your body’s subtle signals, such as the urge to swallow or a fluttering diaphragm. These and other involuntary sensations mark your oxygen and carbon-dioxide limits. They’re kind of like physiological waypoints, letting you know when to return to the surface. Good freedivers learn to focus regardless of external distractions, like surface chop, currents, chilly water, or sharks.
“Know your breathing limits and what that feels like,” Mark told us. Doing so puts you in control and calms fear, which is your enemy. Fear floods the body with adrenaline, bumping up your heart rate and causing you to burn through oxygen. Unchecked, it can explode into panic.
A dozen years ago, at the start of my earlier freediving course, the only frame of reference for how I might react was a bad childhood experience. I was about Eliot’s age, treading water in a muddy South Carolina lake, when my hard-charging friend David challenged me to a bottom-touching contest. He disappeared, and after what felt like an eternity exploded through the surface clutching a fistful of mud. My turn. Heart thumping in my hairless chest, I sucked a lungful of air and pawed downward into darkness. The water grew colder by degrees. All measure of time and distance vanished. Reaching for the bottom, I imagined sticking my hand into an old tire or a nest of water moccasins. Panicked, I clawed back to the surface empty-handed.
That event and others like it shaped my self-image as a boy who choked. At the neighborhood pool, I slunk out of the water anytime the older boys went on a dunking rampage and regularly sat out of Sharks and Minnows, worried I couldn’t make it to the drain—home base—and on to the far wall on a single breath. During a family trip to Wyoming, I paced for 45 minutes on a rock ledge 30 feet above Yellowstone’s Firehole River, unable to will my body to jump, while others elbowed past with glee, including my younger brother.
The late Norwegian ethnographer and ocean explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who crossed the Pacific aboard the balsa-wood Kon-Tiki, was terrified of the water as a child, the result of an accidental plunge at age five. After that, Heyerdahl told me during an interview, he thought of water as a force that sucked you down. Only as an adult did the noted adventurer realize that water actually lifts you up—if you know how to swim.
By high school, fear was smothering me. In the years that followed, I learned to face what scared me by taking stupid risks: scaling a water tower one night, descending through a hatch in the dome, and swimming in the icy blackness 150 feet off the ground; climbing atop a moving train in Uganda and riding there until forced down by soldiers waving machine guns; leaping off a city bridge in Lima, Peru, harnessed to a frayed climbing rope rigged up by strangers. Friends weren’t egging me on; the pressure came from within. I was hungry to explore the world and tired of the fear that was holding me back.
We must all negotiate our own relationship with fear and risk. But as Eliot’s father, I have a role to play, at least for a while longer. My goal is to lead by example, serve as a patient and compassionate guide, and push—just enough—when she feels like quitting.
I knew to avoid pushing once our ocean drills began. But I found it hard not to give advice.
“Be sure to stretch your calf muscles,” I told Eliot before her second attempt to reach 33 feet, the depth at which most of our drills would take place. “And drink lots of water. Remember what Mark said about the dangers of cramps.”
“I know, Dad!”
During her first go, Eliot turned back after 20 feet and bolted for the surface as if she’d seen a shark. She’d swum farther back home at our pool, but now she was under intense pressure, from both the weight of the water and the gaze of our army-captain instructor, three strangers, and me.
Eliot finished her breathe-up and dove again, with Mark following her down. She passed the first knot, marking 16.5 feet, and kept going. Just before the second knot, she spun around and rushed back to the surface.
“Hook!” I yelled once her head emerged, leading her through her recovery breaths, as Mark had taught us. Eliot sucked air and held it while I counted to three. This brief pause helps prevent surface blackouts by giving the lungs a chance to fully process oxygen into the blood.
She exhaled, and I repeated the sequence—“Hook! One! Two! Three!”—studying her face for blue lips, convulsions, and other signs of trouble. After one more hook breath, I guided her through three short cleansing breaths and got a verbal sign that she was OK.
“You almost made it,” Mark said, looking at his depth gauge. “Nine meters.” Thirty feet.
“You’re rushing through your turn, Eliot. You need to relax. I have an idea,” I said, trying to sound helpful rather than critical as we cleared the area to make way for the next student. “Set a goal, and when you reach it, try pausing for a beat to regain your composure before heading for the surface.”
“Stop it, Dad!”
Mark, bobbing near the dive float, spoke up. “We know from the pool yesterday that you can hold your breath well, Eliot. There’s no rush. I’m not asking you to go to 66 feet.” His comment echoed my own, but it also carried a message for me: you’re not helping. He was right. I was trying to control my daughter when I needed to trust her. Let her go, I told myself.
Mark pressed on with the drills. Another student, an investment banker from Siberia named Alex, couldn’t get below about 20 feet. Sinus congestion was preventing him from equalizing. His Polish banker friend, Bartek, hit 33 feet, but his form was shabby and inefficient. I felt good and hit all my marks. The final student, Kramer, a Jeff Spicoli clone raised on the island by Texas expats, dove like a dolphin. During the pool session, Kramer had surprised Mark by holding his breath for four minutes on his first try. The long-haired blond was enigmatic like Spicoli, too. When I asked him what his secret was, he replied, “It’s all about the heart, man. You’ve got to control your heartbeat.”
Eliot’s turn came around again, another chance to hit the target depth. This time, though, the drill required her to reach 33 feet and then remove her mask and surface without it.
I said nothing during her dive prep. Through my mask, I followed her progress—clean duck dive, chin tucked, body straight, steady pace. She reached the second knot, ripped off her mask midturn, and kicked back to the surface. I was so excited I forgot I was her buddy. Kramer was there, though, yelling “Hook!” and loudly counting.
“Nice job!” I said, beaming, once the sequence was done. “You nailed ten meters—without a mask!”
“Thanks,” Eliot murmured, embarrassed by the attention. But she was genuinely pleased. I could tell by her smile.
That dive broke the ice. Eliot nailed the rest of the drills. Afterward, as we kicked toward shore, her mood switched from serious and sullen to playful.
“Dad, look at those fish,” she said, swimming down to chase a colorful school hovering in a small crater in the ancient reef. At the pier, playful became giddy. “That was really fun!” she said, meaning the entire morning. I remember a similar elation following my first ocean session 12 years ago, when all I could think was: I didn’t panic!
As we suited up again after lunch, Eliot’s mood deflated. Looking down, I saw why. The stiff rubber of her fins had chewed up her flesh. Angry blisters covered her toes and heels.
“They hurt,” she said, her voice small and frustrated. “How will I put my fins back on?”
“Mark said to wrap them in duct tape.”
“That won’t do any good,” she snapped.
Her petulance seemed to make the blisters my fault, but I didn’t take the bait. I’d been there before, most recently with her methotrexate injections.
She started so strong but after a few months began dreading the nausea. Now, when shot day comes around, she complains and procrastinates, even threatens to quit the meds altogether. Heather and I have tried cajoling, bargaining, bribery. I’ve angrily put my foot down when what I really wanted was to hug her and tell her she never has to take the medicine again. But she does have to, possibly for a long time. When the two and a half years of weekly injections are behind her, Eliot’s doctor will wean her off the medicine to reevaluate. If Eliot’s JIA remains in remission, the ordeal might be over. But some children with JIA never get rid of it. As they transition to adulthood, they must manage the condition indefinitely with medication and physical therapy.
“Hey, Eliot,” I said a few minutes later. “Can you give me a hand wrapping my toes?” Calmer now, she came over to help.
“How are yours coming?” I asked once we were done.
“Tell you what,” I said, tearing off a long thin strip, “let’s start over on those loose ones so they don’t fall off in the water. You spread your toes, and I’ll wrap.”
“Alright, everyone, the current has really picked up,” said Mark, clipping our dive floats to a fixed buoy above the Guardian of the Reef. Tired from the 400-yard swim out, Eliot and I grabbed a float. I felt my body rise slightly, tugged southward by the fast-moving water. Below us the knotted guideline, anchored by 15 pounds of lead, curved out like a giant archer’s bow. Demonstrating a fins-free, hand-over-hand ascent, our first drill of the afternoon, Mark looked more like a mountaineer inching up a slope than a freediver in vertical ascent.
The current didn’t mark the only shift in conditions. The wind was up, and the afternoon light cast a brassy glare across the chop. Underwater visibility was worse, the ocean deeper and darker beneath our fins. When Bartek, the Pole, lost the rope during a dive and resurfaced 60 feet from his buddy, I thought of Natalia Molchanova, the 53-year-old Russian freedive champion who disappeared a few months earlier during a 115-foot dive while giving a lesson off Formentera, Spain. She was most likely dragged down by the current—one far swifter than anything we faced. Still, the edgier conditions hinted at the true power and scale of the ocean.
Appropriately, we spent the first hour or so on rescue, response, and revive drills. Eliot’s form and confidence continued to improve. When it was time for the simulated deepwater-blackout rescue, the day’s last and most challenging drill, Eliot was first to volunteer. (“I like to get things over with,” she told me later.) Mark, hovering below at around the 33-foot knot, pretended to be out cold. I watched in awe as Eliot, needing no reminders, dove to rescue him. Mark is twice her size and four times her age. He served in wars in Iraq and Bosnia. And here was my daughter, cradling his chin and head in her hands, swimming him to the surface, and supporting his floating body while calling out and slapping his cheek to get him to start breathing again. Protecting his airway.
“Congratulations, Eliot,” Mark said after the drill was over. “You passed the course.”
“Way to go, girl!” I said, high-fiving her.
“I’m an actual certified freediver,” she said, unable to avoid a hint of teenage snarkiness.
With the drills complete, Mark let us go off-rope.
That’s how I find a lump in my throat as Eliot takes her final breath and aims for the bronze giant 65 feet below. Stay calm, I think. It’s all about the heart.
On the way down, Eliot equalizes her sinuses and mask every few seconds. She passes the first knot and the second knot and turns back a few feet above the Guardian’s scepter. Mark looks at his depth gauge: 40 feet. At first I’m disappointed. I know she can dive deeper. Then I catch myself. She did great.
When it’s my turn, I aim to grab a handful of sand at the Guardian’s base, even though I’m tired from fighting the current. Descending past the Guardian’s scepter, I’m surprised by a flutter in my belly. It seems too soon. But I kick down and down, past his shield and the seahorse tail, to the statue’s three-tiered plinth. My eyes and forehead start to pound. I’m having trouble equalizing my mask. A few feet short of the bottom, I turn and pause. Instead of grabbing sand, I tickle the bottom with my fin. Far above, the mirrored surface flashes. So much water. Strange how it presses down. I feel a twinge of fear, which might once have sparked panic. The fear grows, swirling within me. But I swim with it, steady and calm, back to the surface, where my daughter—my freedive buddy—watches over me.
Logan Ward is the author of See You In a Hundred Years.