Blacking out is often seen as a failure or as a dramatic outcome of a dive. If it should not happen normally, sometimes circumstances - external or environmental factors, bad decisions - can lead to it. Experiencing a blackout in training or in competition is not the end of the world. Still, it calls for a reflection about the causes to maximize the chances of it not happening again. Indeed, in normal conditions and with a good and conservative training plan, you should not experience a blackout or even hypoxia in deep diving. Here is Thibault Guignes' reflection on the surface blackout he experienced, during the last Vertical Blue competition in the 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 3:30. 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 the 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 !? All these thoughts kept my mind busy and I kept going instead of turning early as would have been reasonable. At 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 ok. 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.
During the way up I felt pretty good too. I remember seeing the safety divers and that I kept pulling. Just around 10m it started getting blurry and my next memories are from the safety divers hugging me. Having a Diveye drone to record the whole dive is a great feedback tool as I could see afterward that I had already trouble moving properly on the last 3 meters.
If you ask me now, 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 mistakes. 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 blackouts, despite doing it all in the best possible way, made me less prompt to judge from the 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 labeling some athletes as crazy without understanding.
We say in freediving courses that you should never blackout 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 BO experience in Vertical Blue a very brief piece of wisdom "never push on equalization"! Also, a big thank you to the Vertical Blue safety and medical teams that took such good care of us there and make it safe for us to push our limits and enjoy deep diving.