In the water, two miles off the coast of Puerto Rico, there’s a bit of trepidation. Seven students treading water are about to dive deeper than they’ve ever gone – no tanks, no tethers, just freediving down over the edge of the famed Mona Trench. Fortunately, they’ve got some guidance.

They’ve all put their trust in a 6’4″ Carolina boy named Joe Sheridan.

FII Freedive and Waterman Survival Extended course instructor, Joe Sheridan. Photo: Courtesy of Anthony Dooley

Sheridan would seem to be the ideal guy to be a Freedive and Waterman Survival Extended Course instructor. On the water side, he’s got a lifetime of SCUBA experience. He spearfishes, surfs, and has competed in freediving competitions. He’s reached 165 feet free immersion and has held his breath for 6 minutes and 15 seconds.

But then there’s the other side.

Sheridan doesn’t teach like a drill sergeant, but he is militant about safety. Photo: Courtesy of Anthony Dooley

Sheridan was an Infantry Officer in the U.S. Army and Army National Guard. While he doesn’t approach freediving like some drill sergeant, he is militant about safety. And for students pushing themselves to scary depths for the first time, attention to detail is a good thing.

He’s an easy person to put your trust in. Sheridan has a fantastic demeanor, able to relay the information needed, but also keeps students at ease, building their confidence, and genuinely keeping it fun.

He and his brother Bryan have had an independent sales rep business in the surf and outdoor industry for over 25 years. He got heavy into freediving and in 2012 took the Freediving Instructors International Instructor Course with the group’s founder and world record holder, Martin Stepanek and FII (Freediving Instructors International) Instructor Trainer Errol Putigna. We chatted with Sheridan about his obsession with being underwater and adhering to the philosophies of FII safety.

If someone is getting into freediving on his or her own and gradually improving their breath hold, why take the Level 1 Freedive Class?

I had trained in several advanced freedive training courses but had not taken the intro basic course. There was a time when that was not required. I was diving beyond 100 feet, holding my breath well over five minutes and really blown away by how these early courses helped me improve. When I went to Instructor School with FII, which was a different organization, they require that all instructors take any course as a student before they can become an instructor for that course. Makes sense.

Anyway, day one in the pool was humbling. The FII standard must be adhered to by all instructors. Demonstration quality is essential. What each of us thought was “the right way” was not even close for demonstration quality. Not one instructor candidate did a proper water entry, even though most of us were already diving beyond 100 feet, competing and spearfishing. [laughs.] Wake up call!

We were in that pool for a long time until we got it right. We spend a lot of time in the pool with students on water entry before they even get into the ocean for this very reason. It’s the foundation of the whole dive. It’s got to start with proper technique for safety and efficiency.

Proper diving and water training begins in the classroom. Photo: Courtesy of Anthony Dooley

We learned firsthand from Stepanek himself, who’s a 13-time world record. We must be exceptional freedivers, able to demonstrate proper technique and communicate how to perform safeties, but we also must be superb teachers. It’s the skills students learn in the course while supervised that they use after to help them continue to get better.

So why take Level 1? Because it provides anyone, experienced or no experience at all, with the tools to earn the skills necessary to be safe, efficient and reach new personal bests all the while being comfortable underwater on a breath. It’s not about the depth or the amount of time holding your breath. It’s about applying the technique, trusting in your body, relaxing, and believing that these new skills will take you as far as you want to go. Just getting to depth isn’t any good if you’re not using proper technique for efficiency and more importantly, safety.

Sheridan believes that getting correct technique from the start is the key to Freediving. Photo: Courtesy of Anthony Dooley

You’re pretty passionate about taking the class in person with an instructor. Talk about that.

There’s so much information available online, but taking a professional course by an experienced instructor will ensure that the student has a sound understanding of the physiology and proper training techniques to keep it safe and progress efficiently.

Without having a professional supervise the training, there’s no way to really ensure that the safety aspects are always adhered to. Without an instructor, there’s really no feedback from a professional both complimenting what’s being executed correctly and what areas need improvement. With direct supervision and teaching, students are able to progress quickly in just a few days.

I think it’s really irresponsible for athletes to not take a course, whether it’s mine or another professional organization. There are a lot of courses available all over the world. The key is to find the one that makes the most sense for that student and discuss the training with the instructor prior to the class. It shouldn’t be based on convenience and price either. This is a serious investment in any water person’s safety and performance.

When you’re able to hold your breath this long, the fish come to you. Photo: Courtesy of Anthony Dooley.

When most people try to first swim underwater, the natural inclination is to move fast to where they have to be and get back up to breathe.

In dynamic apnea training, which is what we do in the Waterman Survival pool drills, untrained or new students tend to speed up towards the end of their swims.

The problem with this is that it speeds up the onset of hypoxia, burning up our “fuel” and potentially being in a situation where it could lead to a loss of motor control or full loss of consciousness in a blackout.

The key here is to relax when the very strong urge to breathe comes, and go slow. Focus on technique or going to a happy place. But it’s humbling and also very rewarding. It’s human nature to want to get to the other side of the pool, but it takes a humble athlete to truly feel his/her body’s symptoms and slow it down to keep it clean and stay humble.

Most students in the class get this exact realization the first hour in the pool doing CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) tolerance drills. It’s a huge reminder that when it’s really uncomfortable during a hold down, it’s far better to completely relax. That urge to breathe in most individuals is a high level of carbon dioxide, not a low level of oxygen. Training our bodies to adapt to these higher levels will help safely push out that urge to breathe when we need it most.

Sheridan’s manner keeps students relaxed before they go to new depths. Photo: Courtesy of Anthony Dooley

What is basic safety protocol that most people overlook?

Never. Dive. Alone. No excuses, ever. Always breath hold train with a trained buddy. We teach Freediving Supervision in the course and how to set up a training environment in the pool and in the ocean to ensure static apnea, dynamic apnea and depth training are safe.

Depending on the discipline, sometime it’s difficult to see the signs of hypoxia as a safety diver for the buddy performing the drill. We set up timing schedule and signals to provide communication between buddy teams.

Sheridan with an eye on his student and perfect technique. Photo: Courtesy of Anthony Dooley

How do you keep people relaxed and having fun when they’re doing something that’s so daunting?

Utilization of our diaphragm and learning correct breathing before we dive can very much help students to relax, even if they’re anxious. I always encourage students to not focus on their breath hold time or depth. Focus on the technique, relaxing, going slow, or visiting a happy place.

With all drills in the training, we are talking, diving and troubleshooting with the students on the surface and underwater to reassure them we’re there to help.

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