by Dean Laffan
It’s almost 1:00 am as my taxi from Denpasar airport bumps to a stop at my warung in the sleepy little town of Amed, in the North-East coast of Bali, Indonesia. A ‘warung’ is your typical Balinese locally owned accommodation, often with an attached restaurant, all run by the family. Amed is far from the picture of a typical Australian Balinese holiday which is usually centred around the tourist mecca party towns like Kuta or Canguu. Arriving in Amed is like visiting the United States bypassing LA and New York and heading straight to small-town USA; a Balinese version of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry.
The three-hour taxi ride follows a six-hour flight from my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. Everything I need for this trip to Bali is contained my single freediving gear bag. As a tech and cave diver, I still chuckle every time I pack my freediving bag. ‘Now let me see what do I need? Fins, booties, mask, snorkel, wetsuit, weight belt and … err what else? Well no that’s it! Cave diving this isn’t.
My room is ridiculously awesome. It is literally on the beach and the sliding glass doors face east out over the waters of Jemaluk Bay. I lay on the bed with my doors wide open, breathing in the warm Balinese air with the sounds of the waves washing gently onto the black volcanic sands of the beach.
As I fall asleep I’m still in disbelief I’m even here. Six weeks ago, I hadn’t even heard of Amed and did not know where it was. So what am I even doing here? Though I’ve been a tech diver, a cave diver, I’m here to learn freediving from the best instructors in the world for a training camp called “Deep Week.” There are 80 students and 40 accompanying instructors here in Amed and we are here because of one man, an internet phenomenon named Adam Stern.
How To Make Deep Dives and Influence People
Adam is an Aussie from the New South Wales central coast, but he spends a lot of his time offshore in various tropical locales around the globe either running his freediving courses or competing in the various global freediving championships. He is the current Australian Champion in Constant Weight which means diving on a monofin up and down. He also scored a bronze medal at the World Championships in 2017 with a personal best (PB) dive to 106m/348ft. As he jokingly says in the introduction to some of his videos; “Hi, my name is Adam Stern. I hold my breath and dive really deep.” Funny and true. He’s seriously good.
In mid-2016, Adam began to upload various YouTube videos on freediving, sometimes of his own dives in competition, but he quickly started to build a library of useful ‘how-to’ videos for beginner freedivers. Tips like how to Frenzel equalise, how to ‘breathe up’ prior to diving, dry training tips etc.
When you watch him you instantly get his appeal. He is highly engaging, projecting endless levels of energy and fun, with a famously distinctive giggle. His laid-back delivery and loveable character combined with the highly insightful tips and hints he dispenses have made him a global superstar in the booming sport of freediving.
Let me throw a couple of numbers at you so you understand his astounding social media reach. When I first started to think about this article in mid-June, Adam had 70,000 YouTube subscribers, but now at the time of writing this piece only a month later, he has already grown to 80,000+ subscribers on YouTube, plus another staggering 167,000 followers on Instagram. But to be clear, his social media profile is not a result of him chasing ‘Likes’ but rather grown organically because he has ‘paid it forward’ and the community has responded.
By comparison, GUE’s own YouTube channel has just over 5,000 subscribers, TDI/SDI has just over 3,000 and PADI has 36,000. I’ll just let that sink in for a while. A kinda goofy, but highly likeable Aussie guy who makes his how-to videos in his backyard, shot and edited by his amazing wife Erin on the niche sport of freediving, has more than double the digital footprint of an industry behemoth and marketing powerhouse like PADI.
As another comparison, the current world championing in Free Immersion and Constant Weight (Monofin) the much loved and highly respected Alexey Molchanov has only 1,300 subscribers to his own YouTube channel. The landscape of elite freediving is a pretty small club, Adam and Alexey are great mates. Indeed Deep Week is run under the Molchanov School banner. So you would assume Adam must be doing something right and I’m here to tell you, he certainly is at that. Adam has done a brilliant job of building what Seth Godin calls ‘the tribe,’ a passionate group of followers who loves what he does and can’t get enough.
It Takes A Village
Over the next 24 hrs, I am slowly joined by my fellow students from literally all over the world. A few Americans but a veritable United Nations pile into Amed. Chinese, Filipino, Malaysian, Australian, New Zealanders, Middle Eastern, South African, French, Greek, Italian, Croatian, Belgian, you name a country and there’s probably one of them here. It’s my first time meeting a real live person from the home of Genghis Khan, Mongolia!
Before long we are all ready to begin the latest of Adam Stern’s famous Deep Week training camp. Oh and to further boggle your mind I am in the second Deep Week for this month, the previous one booked out within days, also with 80 students, forcing Adam to scramble and put in a second course. So, in less than a month, Adam has run 160 students through his week-long freediving program. A staggering number, especially considering he does four or five Deep Weeks per year. So annually the total numbers are around 400 students per annum.
One of Adam’s popular ideas has been to have a special guest instructor at each Deep Week. In the one just before my own course, it was the Croatian powerhouse of the pool, Goran Colak. In my week, it is the superb French National Champion Thibault Guignes. More on Thibault and his incredible teachings later. In November of this year, again in Amed, Adam will host the undeniable Weapon of Mass Destruction in global freediving, the incredible no-fins World Champion and record holder William Truebridge.
So at each Deep Week, it’s like learning Formula 1 from Lewis Hamilton, film directing from Ron Howard or dare I say, cave diving from Jarrod Jablonski! It’s mind-boggling that basic freedivers can access such world champions for training. And all the instructors work their butts off, both in the water and out. They are available at any time for in-depth questions on all aspects of freediving.
Hippy Hippy Shake
As a GUE tech and cave diver, I cannot emphasise strongly enough what a different vibe, freediving is to what I was used to in compressed gas diving. By its nature, freediving tends to draw a certain kind of character. I would guess that 80% of freedivers are practising either meditation or yoga. Yoga is highly beneficial to achieving the sort of relaxed state you need to attain to successfully free dive.
There is a definite ‘hippy’ vibe in the community, which are mostly younger people in their 20s and 30s, and in a major counterpoint to the tech diving community, easily half of the students are women. Furthermore, whilst you can skate a bit in terms of fitness when you have essentially limitless gas in big tanks or a rebreather, you cannot escape the need for good physical fitness in freediving. By nature, the sport self-selects to fit, healthy, motivated individuals. You simply cannot go very far, or deep if you are overweight, a smoker or are overly fond of beer.
Our time here during the course is split between two locations. On the beachfront is the freediving school and café called Apneista. All our shore dives begin here. Up the hill about 2km along the narrow blacktop, you come to the stunning facility called Blue Earth. Some students walk, but many rent a local motor scooter for US$4/day and use that to get around as many of the restaurants and other facilities are sprawled out along the coast road which runs for several kms.
Blue Earth is one of the most ridiculously beautiful and spectacular places you will ever see. Built in traditional Balinese fashion in a sprawl up and down the steep headland overlooking Jemaluk Bay. It features multiple levels of timber decks that jut out into space with sensational unobstructed views of the coastline and Mt. Agung. It is jaw-droppingly beautiful and constructed entirely of local timber.
Along with two bars and a restaurant it also contains several large ‘shalas’ or yoga halls which function as our classrooms over the week. There are no chairs or tables all the shalas feature large piles of cushions and bedrolls that you pick up and sit on then put away at the end of class. They also have a brand spanking new 25m fiberglass lap pool in the middle of the facility used for training.
Oh lest you think this is some exclusive, expensive operation like a ‘Davos ‘for freedivers, the entire eight-day program which runs from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm over eight days is only US$695. Living expenses in Bali are crazy cheap, my amazing room on the beach was US$20/night. Typical tasty freshly prepared breakfast, lunch or dinner is about US$5. Local Bintang beer is US$1 So my entire trip including the course, flights, transfers, food, drink and incidentals was less than AU$2,500/ US$1,800.
A Day At Deep Week
On day one we all meet at Blue Earth in the biggest of the yoga shalas with an insanely spectacular view of Jemaluk Bay. Adam outlines how the week will go to the 120 odd people scattered all over the shala sitting on cushions on the floor in a lotus position. The vibe resembles a modern-day Woodstock for freediving. After the briefing is over we all have a massive group selfie and split off into each of our various student levels which in the Molchanov school are called ‘Waves’ and the first of the day’s concurrent theory sessions begin.
Each day starts with an optional yoga session which is very well attended. Then comes the morning theory sessions. By late morning students and instructors make their way down the hill to Apneista on the beach and get ready to dive. The first two-hour diving session starts at 10:00 am the second commencing at midday. There are about a dozen freediving buoys already setup and each buoy has a dedicated instructor.
The student numbers per buoy are capped at three students. So you get two hours of solid instruction, feedback and correction over multiple dives each day and the instructors are without exception, friendly and highly supportive and very capable. Occasionally you will hear a cheer from a nearby buoy and a lot of celebratory splashing as someone has surfaced with a PB dive to depth.
Spare a thought won’t you, for Adam’s cadre of instructors. They pull consecutive two-hour shifts in the water without a break. Consider the work rate. In a three student group on a buoy one student is diving, one is breathing up preparing to dive, and one is recovering having just dived. Each diver leaves every five minutes or so, which is 12 dives per hour, so in a two-hour session, a student should get in at least four dives and eight over the two-hour training session. Pretty doable right?
But the instructor has to safety every student diver. This entails the instructor diving down to meet the student at roughly one-third of their maximum depth. So in that four-hour block, the instructor would make 48 dives. At Wave 1 level these dives may only mean meeting the student at 6 or 8m. But at Wave 3 and 4 levels, the students are diving 40-50m so the safety is required to meet them at around 15-18m. Forty-plus dives to 15m in four hours, now that’s a workout. Oh, and it’s an 8-day course with a single rest day in the middle. On the final day, I spoke to instructor Julian De Hauteclocque Howe who had just returned from his final four-hour session. He commented that it had been, “a busy day.” A little prodding reveals he clocked 54 dives that day. Half of them ‘only’ to around 15m or so, but the other half ranging between 20m to 35m! No wonder the instructors are lean, mean diving machines!
By 3:30 pm we are back at Blue Earth for the afternoon theory sessions followed by an optional High-Intensity Training (HIT) session and finally a super relaxing guided meditation which is conducted by Adam’s amazing mother Andrea. This relaxing session is timed to conclude in the gloom of twilight and is the perfect way to end the day on a cloud of relaxed bliss.
By the early evening, people clump together in various social groups and either stay at Blue Earth for their excellent food and astonishing views or head downhill once more into town to one of the myriad warung restaurants that line the coastal road for several kilometres. Mercifully there is not even a single rowdy bar in Amed and by about 9:00 pm most of the warung restaurants are closed, lights are off and everyone has retired for the night.
You might suspect that the town comes alive at first light, but you’d be wrong. Certainly, just before first light the fisherman push off the beach in their outrigger boats, but by and large it’s a slow start to the day. You can’t even really get breakfast anywhere until 8:00 am. So if you need your 6:00 am coffee to get started, forget about it! This is ‘island time’ baby!
Hanging With Thibault
The next seven days pass in a blissful procession of deeply interesting theory sessions discussing topics such as advanced Frenzel equalisation, mouth fill technique for deeper diving, dryland training for freediving, stretching your chest and intercostal muscles for increased lung capacity. At this point, I must say that the classes by Thibault Guignes were incredible. Whilst the sport of freediving is in its infancy of education and some instructors can be a bit laissez faire, Thibault by nature is super organised and highly prepared. He has his own school called Freediving HQ Philippines in Panglao, the Philippines where he has ten instructors on staff and is booked out for months in advance at a time, I can see why.
I don’t have time here to recount all of his amazing lessons, but let me mention just two astounding moments. Part of his dry training exercises features a lot of stretching. The flexibility is crucial for staying relaxed in freediving, so part of his routine involves lying face down with a large plastic drink bottle between his sternum and the floor. Over time this and other stretching has loosened the ligaments that hold his rib cage together and allow him to greatly expand the maximum capacity of his lungs. Now that’s commitment!
Although slightly built, (he was previously an avid competitor in triathlons), he takes off his T-shirt to demonstrate some aspects of physiology and at one point takes a full breath. Jaws drop all round as we see just how much flexibility there is in his chest and how his entire thorax now looks like a bodybuilder! To further boggle our minds, he puts his palms against the sides of his chest and pushes in hard, bowing and compressing his entire chest and ribs. Gasps ripple around the room. Its heady stuff.
Now, before I talk about Thibault’s deep hangs, I would be remiss not to highlight some issues around safety. Thibault is a world-class freediver with multiple dives over 100m. He is an elite freediver. He was not recommending this for any of us students, but he was being very open in sharing what he does in training for his record dives His regime is meticulously constructed so he never has to push hard into the dangerous hypoxic territory.
This technique that I’m about to describe is a way to build-up to the actual dive to depth before he physically goes there. His safety divers who meet him on his ascent, are themselves world-class freedivers. All his dives are calculated precisely for travel time, he is very consistent in his travel times and he does not hesitate to turn the dive at any time if he does not feel right. Ok, so on we go.
He showed some screenshots off his dive computer (pictured below) The profile shows a precise downslope and a symmetrical matching upslope back the surface and in between, a dead flat bottom time. He explains that as he is training to go deeper than his current PB, he can ‘simulate’ that to some extent without physically going there. It’s a peculiarity that freedivers no matter what level from beginner to world record holders all travel both up and down in the water column at about the same speed which is around 1m/second.
The profile shows Thibault diving to 65m and then hanging on the line to simulate the travel to 120m and back 65m. Yes, you just got those quick maths right! Not only does the man dive down to 65m on a single breath, he then just hangs at depth for two minutes, before starting his ascent! Drawing further wide eyes and slack jaws was another of his dives to 90m with a lazy hang of 45 seconds before returning to the surface Talk about gobsmacked. This is just one example of the level of instructor Adam has been able to bring to Deep Week and why they are such an ongoing success, booking out in record time, every time.
Throughout the week there are also dedicated workshops on the different freediving disciplines. Let me break down the various acronyms for you.
CWT – Constant Weight. This means you leave the surface with the same weight you return with (no ballast or sled) at beginner level this is done with standard long-bladed freediving bi-fins, in advanced cases you may choose to use a monofin which delivers more power and greater speed with better efficiency than separate fins.
FIM – Free Immersion. In this case, you don’t need fins as you pull yourself down the line hand over hand until you reach negative buoyancy and begin to freefall, on the return you also pull up the line had over hand back to surface. You cannot mix FIM and CWT, it’s one or the other, or you are disqualified.
CNF – Constant Weight No Fins. As the name implies bare feet and hands. This is often performed with no mask or goggles, just a nose clip clamped over your nostrils allowing you to clear your ears hands-free, as your hands are needed to perform the regular breast stroke like hand action to propel you up and down in the water column.
VWT – Variable Weight. Divers ride to depth on a metal sled attached to the line and swim back up under their own power. This is a modern version of the classical Greek tradition where a rock was used by sponge fisherman to get quickly to depth. It is still practiced today, called ‘Skandalopetra’
NLT – No Limits. Divers ride a sled down like VWT, but ascend using a lift bag attached to their wrist via a lanyard. The rapid ascent rate allows the deepest attainment of depth.
It is worth a small detour here to mention that the current world record for NLT is currently held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch, at a mind-boggling 214m/702ft. If that’s not enough for you Herbert also ‘completed’ a deeper dive to the unbelievable depth of 253m/830ft in 2012, but blacked out on ascent and almost immediately after surfacing suffered a severe cerebral DCS which initially left him in a wheelchair but after months of therapy he made a substantial, though not complete recovery. That dive ended his competitive career, though he still freedives today for his own pleasure.
When diving deeper than 20m it is a usual safe practice to wear a tether to the downline. This is a 1.2m plastic-wrapped steel cable with a shark clip on the line end and a Velcro wrist strap at the diver end. The shark clip is oversized so it falls freely on the line. In any emergency where the line ever became an entanglement hazard, the diver simply rips off the wrist strap and ascends the line, though in practice this is very rare.
The other use for the leash is a little more serious. The downline terminates at a round aluminium plate about 0.3m in diameter. The shark clip cannot come off the end of the line. In an emergency where the diver has blacked out at depth, it is quite a speedy process for the surface safety to untie the down line at the buoy end and quickly haul the plate up and in so doing, recover the unconscious diver to the surface where resuscitation is usually successful.
According to the 99% rule of thumb, 90% of blackouts happen on the surface, 9% happen between 5m and the surface, and the remainder occurs below 5m. The danger is not the blackout itself, but the subsequent aspiration of water and possible drowning. To make things worse, they generally occur without no warning. That’s why breath-hold safety divers, in the case, the instructors, meet students at one-third of their max depth on the ascent. In the event of a blackout, the safety diver protects the student’s airway by closing the mouth and nose and brings the diver to the surface for resuscitation.
Whilst breath-hold deaths by spear fisherman, aka “spearos,” are not uncommon (over 50 per year in the US vs about 20 for tech divers), deaths in the world or national competitions are almost unheard of. Only two deaths have been recorded in the last decade. One was in 2017 when the Irish Stephen Keenan was rescuing Italian female champion Alessia Zecchini from 50m at Dahab’s Blue Hole. He successfully handed her off to other rescuing safety divers but in doing so, he suffered a shallow water blackout and could not be revived. This was the first death of safety diver in freediving history.
The only other death in the competition was in 2013 when American diver Nick Mevoli was competing at the Vertical Blue competition in the Bahamas. He surfaced from his 72m no fins dive (CNF), but soon after collapsed, stopped breathing and could not be revived. An autopsy later established he had suffered lung barotrauma at depth causing bleeding into the lungs. Further investigation revealed had recently suffered similar but less serious squeezes and this led to medical recommendations that freedivers suffering lung squeezes leave a much longer recovery period before recommencing deep diving.
Ahead of arriving in Bali you receive access to the online Molchanov website which includes a community board, a series of WoWs (Workout of the Week) and a detailed PDF manual covering the many aspects of the course including diving technique, history, physiology and safety.
To meet my Wave 2 criteria I successfully completed the following criteria in Amed:
2:30+ min Static Breath Hold
55m+ Dynamic With Fins
35m+ Dynamic No Fins
24 – 30m CWT and FIM in the open water
15m Constant Weight No Fins
Demonstrate Free fall technique
As I progressed through Deep Week, I’m struck by what a contrast freediving is to tech and cave diving. So much about what we learn in GUE is dealing with ‘stuff’ and situations and a lot of that is to do with gear. Riding your scooter, rotating your stages, making the gas switch, tying to arrows and cookies, communicating with your team. For sure it’s all great fun and very rewarding when it all comes together. But compared to freediving, it’s very much ‘externally’ focused.
You don’t need to consciously deal with what is going on inside your own body, it’s autonomous. You, you breathe in and out, it’s subconscious, your active mind is pinging out like a radar, where is buddy? where are we in the cave? how is my gas? how are my bottles riding?
Freediving is the exact opposite. Once you are tethered to the line and preparing to dive, there is almost nothing outside of your skin that you need to be aware of or care about. It’s a very singular pursuit, it’s only your own performance that you can affect and control. In tech diving, we need to deal with various degrees of equipment, in freediving you are the equipment. You get there and back based on your own body and mind. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different.
As a long-time tech diver, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the change-up from compressed gas to breath-hold diving. I have in previous conversations with non-divers described cave diving as a form of ‘moving meditation’ the art of moving carefully, slowly, gently through a delicate environment.
But freediving takes that moving mediation analogy to a whole different level. Yes, you need a base level of cardiovascular fitness, but it’s as much about training your mind as it is your body. The ability to completely relax in preparation for the dive, to remain calm and focused as the C02 driven contractions start to occur, keeping good form in the water and applying different ear clearing techniques as you descend deeper and deeper. It has been said that:
“The scuba diver dives to look around, the free-diver dives to look within.”
The thought has occurred to me that we as freedivers use our travel through the water column and it’s change in pressure on our body, to simultaneously take a journey within the mind. It’s a journey only possible by diving to depth on a single breath and feeling the big ‘hug’ of the pressure when you reach residual lung volume. It is both humbling and inspiring and you surface in elation, wanting to go again and again. In freediving, I have truly found a confluence of mind, body and spirit.
Home on Blue Water Planet
Deep Week concludes with an absolutely wild party at Blue Earth. Guys and girls who have been on their best behaviour, cut loose and it’s booze and dancing till late in the night. It’s after midnight when I make my way back to my warung. It’s quiet, dark as I walk along the narrow road and there is not a soul to be seen.
As I approach my room right next to the beach, I’m struck by a random thought. I walk the short distance to the water and peel off my shirt and shorts and naked as the day I was born I wade into the warm 32C degree water of Jemaluk Bay. I rock gently in the barely-there swells and float face up gazing into the sky … which is spectacular beyond belief.
There is zero light pollution in this far-flung country town so the entire sky is lit up with stars, bright and dense from horizon to horizon like a photograph from the Hubble. I can see white stars and also hints of other stars in red and blue light.
I spot the Southern Cross, though it’s not quite where it should be to my Melbourne born eyes, some constellations are recognisable, a few more I don’t recognise. I can see the misty swathe of galaxies I’ve never even seen before and I’m filled with peace and wonder.
I float there, my face kissed by the cool starlight of the cosmos, my body embraced by the warm ocean water and I’m reminded of something the British astrophysicist Brian Cox pointed out in his excellent TV series ‘Wonders of the Universe.’ That is: if you took every single grain of sand from every beach in the entire world, and counted them out, they would not even begin to equal the number of suns in our universe, never mind the planets that revolve around them.
Floating on my back with the sand grains of Bali beneath me and the endless stars of the universe above, I am sandwiched between our own blue water planet and the endless majesty of the universe. I ponder the irony of gazing into outer space, while floating in inner space. I feel at once incredibly small, yet also connected to the universe and feel lucky that we live on this beautiful blue orb, the only water planet in our solar system and I wonder if my life will ever be the same again.
I certainly hope not.
Contributing photographers: Adam Stern, Trista Fontana, Bridget Ferguson, Dean Laffan
To give you an idea of what human beings can accomplish, here are the current world records for each freediving discipline.
* For clarification Variable Weight means the diver can use weight to get to the target depth, usually a sled or similar device and returns to the surface via a combination of finning and pulling up the line by hand. No Limits uses the same sled device, but divers ascend by deploying a small lift bag secured to their wrist for a more rapid ascent and less effort, allowing a much deeper target depth.
Dean Laffan: Fuelled by a boyhood fascination with the books and TV shows of Australian diving pioneers like Ron and Valerie Taylor, Neville Coleman and Ben Cropp, Dean took a scuba course as soon as he left school and has never left the water since. After discovering GUE in 2001 he was instantly sure he had found his ‘tribe’. He was one of the organisers of the very first GUE class in Australia run by Jarrod Jablonski.
After many technical and cave dives including some ground-breaking cave diving expeditions to the Nullabor, it was only in 2018 that he finally fulfilled a long-held ambition to take up freediving, which has now become an obsession.
Dean lives in Melbourne Australia with his ever-patient wife and three beautiful children and remains eternally grateful to be born at a time in history when we can still find new frontiers to satisfy our endless curiosity of discovery.
Divers Helping Divers: Next Stop Ukraine
What can one diver do to change the world? Ask tech diver and fitness instructor Kenzie Potter Stephens, who is completing her undergraduate studies at KIT in Germany. Kenzie and her impassioned team reached out with open hearts to help fellow Ukrainian divers. The results? They conducted ten 1500km car caravan trips, ferrying supplies to the embattled country. They also bravely rescued and found homes for nearly 200 Ukrainians. Divers make a difference!
Text and images by Kenzie Potter Stephens. Lead image created by Rico Besserdich.
As divers, we often speak of community, teamwork, the effective use of energy, and applying a holistic approach to both our dives as well as our lives. I would have easily said I knew why these principles were so important; however, it is only recently, when under fire, their true meaning became clear to me.
News of the war in Ukraine is a constant in our lives. We are inundated with images of unimaginable crimes against humanity and are horrified to witness mass genocide in this country. In Europe, massive crowds of refugees needing help is a common topic of concern. It is exhausting to be confronted daily with our own fragility and mortality and to be disturbed in our own little worlds with our own little problems—problems that pale in comparison to those of those refugees.
I can fully understand anyone who is overwhelmed or even annoyed by the constant coverage. When the war first broke out, I found myself glued to my phone in utter and complete shock. I had trouble sleeping and would even awake at night to check the current death toll. Nowadays I, too, flinch as soon as I hear news concerning Ukraine, and my first instinct is to turn off the radio. So what changed?
Two months ago, feeling nervous on the morning of my last final exam for the winter semester, I was brushing my teeth when I realized I could no longer ignore the misery that surrounded me. I had grown up in the US Army; both parents served in one way or another. My father had done a few tours in Kuwait. My childhood had been spent with reminders of war—harrowing tales of tragedies, traumas, and heroism were part of my life’s narrative.
In spite of, or perhaps because of this upbringing, I had avoided both war movies as well as political discussions about “right” and “wrong.” But this was different. This war was within driving distance for me. This invasion was happening to people who shopped at the same stores I and my friends did, visited the same cities, and worked in the same businesses. This was personal.
Setting The Wave Into Motion
In a series of events that now seem surreal to me, I was able to set up a small team via social media (including platforms like Craigslist) consisting of equally motivated individuals within a 100-mile radius of my town. My husband and I canceled the much-needed vacation that was planned to bring us stress relief from our busy, safe lives, and I spread the word. I couldn’t quite place it at that moment, but something about shouting my mission out into the world seemed so daunting at that moment. Like a loose area of snow you somehow know is going to send off an avalanche that will change everything. And change everything it did.
Within a single day, hundreds of people reached out, made donations, sent well wishes, and our hallway began to fill with boxes–supplies and sleeping bags. The response was overwhelming, and I canceled my fin-swimming training in order to process and sort the sheer volume of donations. As a dive instructor in training, I am generally in close contact with other diving instructors, and one has become a great mentor to me. Immediately, he connected me with a dive colleague of ours, Igor Siryk, located in Poltava, Ukraine. Within minutes we had aligned our missions and created a joint plan on how to get him humanitarian aid. My thrown-together team asked me if I knew him personally, to which I said: “The world is full of divers who are close friends that you just haven’t met yet”.
The financial support following my shout out was so massive that I made two of the largest in-person purchases I had ever made in my life (aside from my drysuit). Never would I have imagined myself walking into a German army shop and plainly stating, “I need to equip an army with protective gear. Here is $2000.” After loading up on boots, camouflage nets, propane stoves, backpacks, binoculars, and such, I headed over to an electrical shop and bought every single external battery pack and heavy duty flashlight I could find, amounting to around $1500.
Both shops gave a 5% discount and wished us good luck. Still, the final stop to the grocery store in the same building for food for the next few days was what really touched me. As I pushed my cart full of electrical supplies past the cashier, I was prompted to produce a receipt. In doing so, I explained the mission and on the spot, the cashier opened her wallet and with tears in her eyes, handed me the last 10 Euro she had.
The next day, our team packed their cars and finally met for the first time. Rolling up to the tee: The managing director of “Carbon-Scooter,” who was also part of our local diving community, whose daughter had photographed my wedding, and who now had a bus load of valuable medical supplies for our new friend, Igor Siryk.
Our convoy consisted of four cars with 16 free seats, seven drivers, and a ground crew that supported us from our starting point in Stuttgart, Germany. Despite being complete strangers, the meeting felt familiar and exciting, like old friends who were casually loading up buses to head off to a place no one had actually been before. Around 8 pm on Friday evening, about a week after the invasion of Ukraine, we were off.
The Helmet City
Twenty hours later we arrived in Chelm, (pronounced: Helm, literally meaning helmet–quite fitting to our mission) Poland, which was 10km/15 miles from the Ukrainian border. Igor had given us the contact information of a Polish logistics company that would bring our donations directly into Ukraine and to the cities needing it most. After finally finding the correct truck lot and office, we then engaged in a conversation between all parties in six different languages: Polish, German, English, Ukrainian, Russian.
The initial confusion and exhaustion from the road was so large that it even took us a full 15 minutes to understand that one man spoke only Dutch, and could not, in fact, understand a single word of the information we had translated into Polish for him. After a good laugh, the mission continued. One team unloaded the boxes, the next worked together to label each box in Ukrainian, and the last loaded it into the storage space where it would be held for the night, before getting driven to Poltava, Ukraine.
Seeing our boxes stacked up, ready to go, with a team full of strangers working together hand in hand was really quite moving. Finally, we had the feeling that we could actually make a difference.
A List Of New Homes
Knowing we had to be exhausted, but unable to feel it, we jumped back in the car and headed over to the local refugee camp, where it had been suggested we would find refugees wanting to travel to Germany. The lobby of the converted gym was full of people with yellow vests, smiles, and rosy cheeks and, in contrast, those with exhausted eyes, small children, and trash bags and suitcases filled with the only belongings they could carry.
As soon as I stepped foot inside, my diver brain immediately shut down any feelings of panic and grief. This sight triggered my full task-solving mode. I, along with two other drivers, found our way to the head volunteers and stated our case. Anton, one of the only English speaking volunteers there, nodded and told us that borders were chaotic, the people were scared, and the realization that they were homeless had oftentimes not yet set in.
A new busload of people poured out into the parking lot and hurried in from the cold, and Anton made a list with 16 free seats. Seconds later, we were surrounded by a crowd of people all trying to “buy passage” to a new home. Ann, 17, spoke English and said she would take anything that got her and her mother somewhere safe. Lena had her six-year-old daughter’s hand clenched in hers as she desperately explained that two additional families would be arriving in the night. If we could only wait, they would go with us, she promised. Olena was a 40-something-year-old woman with a stern, calm face, who said she was alone and had no family to be tied to. She had only one question: “Is it safe?”.
Finally, there was one place left to offer. Lilly, a young mother who fought back tears and panic, had a four-year-old daughter and asked if we would take her child alone, that there was family waiting, and she needed to get her little girl 900 km/550 miles to Dresden, Germany. Unable to imagine allowing that child to travel all that way without her mother, the other mothers agreed to squeeze together in order to make room for one more.
Still more people had gathered around us, talking to Anton, or to me, or anyone who would listen, but our cars were more than full, and we were forced to turn them down. When our part was done, we spent a short night in an old barn that had been converted into guest rooms. Sitting together before bed, we all agreed this would not be our last trip.
The next morning, we picked our 17 people up from the camp and set out on the journey “home” – 17 hours, 1500km/900 miles, away. At about halfway, we met up with Lilly’s brother-in-law. As soon as Lilly and her daughter got out of the car, the brother-in-law’s own daughter who couldn’t have been older than four herself, hugged the Ukrainian girl tight, stroked her hair and told her that everything would be okay, she was safe now.
Before leaving with the other 15 Ukrainians, Lilly asked me via Google Translate if I could pick her up the next week on my way back to the border for the second trip. She explained that her son and husband were still over there, but that she needed to bring her daughter to safety. (Note from the present: Lilly ended up spending three days with her daughter and family before we brought her back to the border, where she got a ride with our truck driver back to her husband and son, where she remains to this day).
Finally, around 5 am on Monday morning, we arrived in Stuttgart and Karlsruhe, Germany, where friends and family of ours had previously offered to take in anyone needing a home. Despite the exhaustion, the Ukrainian families all perked up once more as they met their new families and realized for the first time that we were in fact helping them, free of cost, no strings attached. I was convinced I saw the mothers breathe for the first time in days, knowing their little ones would have a bed instead of a train floor to sleep on. Olena hugged me with teary eyes, before she gifted me her cloth bracelet in Ukrainian colors and hurried off into her new room.
After more than 50 hours of driving and little sleep, our team who started as strangers felt like a family that had always known one another. Without bureaucracy, more than two days of planning or meetings, we had changed 17 lives and had seen the worst and best of what this war meant. Finally, sinking into my safe, first world fluffy bed, the mission without “deco stops” fulfilled, I was able to decompress, sob, and realize what had happened.
A Status Update Grown Into A Full-Blown Operation
The week after our first tour to Poland was by far the hardest. There was a severe sense of some sort of culture shock or perhaps secondary shell shock from something so significantly different from the kind of life any of us had previously experienced. Everyone was certain that we needed to help more, better, and bigger.
Now that we had physically been there, had talked to people in the middle of it all, and had seen it with our own eyes, we knew there was work to be done. Any sign of government help had been missing in any and every place where it was obviously desperately needed. Thus, while the state heads were busy talking, we got to work planning and doing.
One point was clear: driving private cars required a high investment of drivers and small capacity for those seeking refuge on the way back. We needed to obtain some minivans or small buses in order to maximize our ability to help. In Germany, a car license allows you to drive with a maximum of eight passengers, besides the driver, before a commercial license is required. Thus our team made it a priority to find nine-seater buses.
Once we overcame our initial difficulties communicating with the logistics company, the head of the operation there – Anastasia – proved to be an absolute sweetheart and a real asset. Although we had no real proof yet that our donations would actually be arriving where they were needed most, we all shared the distinct gut feeling that they were on their way. We knew of the challenges even the largest organizations and governments faced in transporting goods into Ukraine, especially into the most affected cities. Our supply chain was certainly something special and unimaginably valuable. With a clear mission in mind, gathering donations continued.
I must preface this point by saying that our drivers accomplish a huge feat. The trip to Chelm (Helmet City) takes about 20 hours, one-way. It is extremely taxing. It is difficult to sleep, the mind is riled up, the car is uncomfortable, and being a good co-pilot is a serious task. Still, the trip is harder yet on our travel guests. These people have been traveling via any and every mode of transportation: on foot, in buses, overfilled trains, trucks, tanks and even inside the occasional trunk. We tried our absolute best to make the transit to their “final” destination as comfortable as possible, but arriving after 20 hours of driving at 5 am was simply no longer an option. Mainly, this gave our Ukrainian guests no time to get to know their host families before they had to entrust their children, grandchildren, friends and themselves to complete strangers in the dead of night. Additionally, we were forced to face the reality that our first tour was full of people that had mainly fled before the war. The next waves of refugees would consist of increasingly traumatized and sick families and individuals.
By luck, chance, or perhaps fate, it just so happened that a fellow yoga teacher reached out to me. She had friends in Poland who wanted to help house the drivers or perhaps some of the refugees on our travels. These friends ended up having other friends, who had bought a house in need of renovation that was sitting empty until the craftsman shortage let up. Within just a few days, this group of friends rallied together and were able to come up with 30 cots, blankets, pillows, cribs, electrical heaters and children’s toys. They fixed the running water, and every weekend since then, the local kindergarten has supplied us with bucket loads of “Bigos,” a Polish national dish. Today, this place is proudly called “The Wroclaw Stop” (TWS) and is filled with memories from the travelers who have passed through.
Thanks to them, only one or two buses had to drive to Chelm to drop off donations to Anastasia’s firm “Magnolia Plus,” while the others drove to Wroclaw (Breslau), 600km/400 miles closer to home. Saturdays were spent gathering the Ukrainians, bringing them together in TWS, spending time with them, and creating a good foundation of trust and friendship. Sunday mornings at 8 o’clock, the TWS crew brought pancakes and toast, and the buses rolled out at 9 am. We arrived around 10 hours later with enough time for the Ukrainians to enjoy a warm meal with their hosts and get acquainted with their new surroundings before falling into their real beds.
A wonderful thing about placing Ukrainians with our friends and family is that their circles of friends and acquaintances witnessed the journeys of these desperate people, and they saw how they too could help. The circle widened. Today, we have an extensive list of hosts that we fall back on weekly. Many hosts reached out through the company “Bosch’s” intranet, others found us via news articles, our website, or Facebook. One of the saddest parts of many testimonies people give us when offering their homes is that they registered with their local city offices only to be told that creating a support network would take weeks. After more than ten weeks of experience, every single one of us can confidently say that the government had unfortunately failed in creating an effective network.
The application process for both sides is grueling. It’s slow, and almost impossible to understand. Private organizations have been more effective in helping many people out of refugee camps, off the streets, and into environments that actually allow integration. I myself took a group of our very first Ukrainians to register at the local city office where there was a serious lack of a clear plan on how to go about the registration process. Today, I am happy to say, many cities have been able to streamline the process, and welfare often arrives after just a few days or weeks. Unfortunately, the streamlined process is wholly unhelpful for thousands of people waiting in refugee camps unable to connect with host families due to government restrictions and bureaucratic red tape in Poland and Germany.
Personally, I avoid this term wherever possible because I feel it is dehumanizing and strips these people of their personal identities —all of the experiences they’ve had, the skills and abilities they possess, as well as their unique opinions, beliefs, and feelings. Many of those who have traveled with us have since become great friends to whom I look up to, with whom I can enjoy a sunny day, or nonverbally share in their children’s most precious moments, without needing to share a language. These friendships motivate me to work toward making the trip easier for both sides. Nowadays we have many channels through which those seeking refuge can reach out to us and receive support.
Each week, the aim has been to get the full list of travelers by Thursday, generally amounting to something between 15 and 30 people. This allows time for us to find fitting host families. The assignment takes place on a basis of information such as the number of children, their ages, allergies, pets, stairs up to the rooms, medical conditions, personal needs such as peace and quiet vs. the opportunities that a bustling city offers, friends in proximity, level of assistance needed, and much more. Still, each week, no matter how much we planned and sorted, unexpected things happened. There was little left that would shock me at this point. Chaos has become a constant, and I have learned to live by the idea of “Plan the dive. Dive the backup plan x, y, and also z.”
The result? As of today, we have made 10 tours to Poland and have helped almost 200 Ukrainians travel to Germany and find refuge in private guest families. Within the first few weeks, our team and operation gained so much traction, that we finally founded our own not-for-profit organization. This allowed us to prove our legitimacy toward Ukrainians and donors, to apply for special NGO offers, and to issue donation receipts needed by many companies.
We have been able to borrow buses from various clubs and organizations, as well as from private individuals. We have received many generous monetary donations, and the best part is that every single cent goes 100% to the mission. There are no administration fees, no salaries to be paid, no rerouting: every dollar that goes into our account, leaves our account to help Ukrainians. We buy medicine at reduced prices for Poltava, Ukraine, shoes and diapers, canned food, and even bought a birthday cake for Igor, as a little surprise, in the height of war.
Season Tickets To The Hospital
Heartbreakingly, the war follows the people on their escape, and only one week of war was enough for us to feel the repercussions in Poland. Suddenly, almost every child we encountered seemed to be sick. By the time they arrived at TWS, their eyes had glassed over and their little bodies were hardly strong enough to hold the bucket in front of them, into which they threw up every ounce of fluid or solid food they consumed.
Our first experience was quite terrifying. A little boy could not even keep water down, and apparently hadn’t for a day. Upon asking, his mother admitted that they had been on a train for over 30 hours with no breaks. The small amount of food that was available on the train was soon gone. The children had thus been forced to live off chocolate and candy bars, their mothers thinking sugar being what they needed. In reality, their children were entering a dangerous state of malnourishment and their bodies were so out of balance, store-bought electrolytes had no effect.
We spent the better part of the night at a small local hospital, and while the boy was wheeled from doctor to doctor, I simply collapsed onto the most uncomfortable hospital chair, feeling overwhelmed, sad, and scared. Thankfully, the cocktail of vitamins, salts and other good stuff was able to get every child back to their strength. We have since become regulars at the hospital and often end up leaving families with sick children in Poland, and picking them up a week later, when the little ones had their strength back. What a sad thing to be in the habit of doing.
WARNING: The following text contains graphic and potentially upsetting information.
The Hardest Stories
A few weeks into our operation, I received a call from a stranger who had gotten my phone number from who-knows-where. This was normal by now and no surprise. I spent hours on my phone every single day communicating with Ukrainian people, hosts, drivers, companies, team members, and donors. The woman on the other line was Olga, who had married a German years ago and lived an hour or two away. She called requesting help to get her friend who was still in Charkiw, one of the hotspot cities on the eastern front of the war. The friend, Julie (not her real name), and her husband had decided to stay in Charkiw with their two children, one and four, in order to help cook for and feed the military.
One day, a Russian invasion group hit their building. Julie’s husband immediately grabbed the children and his wife and ran with them to a nearby bomb shelter, always staying a little behind and shielding them from the bullets. Just a few yards from the life saving shelter, Julie’s husband was shot dead while his children watched him collapse. In the shelter, Julie had to be put under sedation and was not responsive for days. By the time we picked her up from the border, we could hardly recognize her from the photos we had previously received of her. The children were fine. As far as they knew, their Daddy was in the hospital waiting to get better and would follow later. Today Julie lives with her children in Germany and is learning to cope.
Another call we received two weeks ago was from Igor. In general, Igor is a very sturdy, big guy. He doesn’t show much emotion, and he is lucky enough that his wife and children are also living in Germany with extended family. Igor has been in Ukraine since the beginning of the war and coordinates the humanitarian aid that we, and others, send to his organization “Humanist Poltava.” Every few days we receive short status updates from Igor mainly consisting of what is needed. The most recent have been tourniquets used to stop the bleeding with severed limbs and open wounds as well as a recent call with Igor close to tears, begging us for food, any kind, as the people are starving.
We have had fathers who were diagnosed with cancer in Ukraine, which prompted their wives to return with their children to spend the last days with them. We have had mothers who were so confused and scared by the unfamiliar language they returned to Ukraine in search of doctors that could help with simple medical conditions. Anna (not her real name) is also a mother of two with various problems that had already been serious before the war. She was left with two children born of situations beyond her control, leaving her to earn money by any means possible, and eventually using substances to cope, all the while loving her children and her country. The war has forced her to flee her home for the sake of her children, but her innate wish to fight for her country has left her confused and unstable. She had been passed around multiple homes and brought the best of people to their maximum helping capacity. The system has no place for people like Anna.
She is not in an abusive relationship which is “required” for many support offers; rehab would cause her to lose her children, refugee camps add horrific amounts of stress, and she has not been stable enough to register, so child services cannot work with her. How many more Annas have fallen through the cracks? Angela (name changed) is another gentle soul. She quickly became great friends with her host and the pair of them went through their days together as if they had known each other for years. The family dog loved her, the friends of Angela’s host loved her and her German skills had significantly improved in the past months.
A few days ago, she received an email from her work: she must return immediately or lose any rights to her job. With two dogs, a sister and a nephew relying on her to pay off the house, she was forced to pack her bags and take the next bus. Angela’s mother, who we had previously retrieved for her, remains in Germany, and Angela’s host communicates with her daily, their lives forever intertwined from now on.
NOTE: End of potentially triggering content. Please read on for the heartwarming part.
The Silver Linings
As I said at the beginning of this article, yes, I flinch when the news mentions Ukraine. I turn off the radio when they report where the troops have moved and how many civilians are left unevacuated. It does not make me, or anyone else who avoids the topic, a bad person. The reality is traumatizing and it can be suffocating to a point where daily chores feel difficult. But the reason we do it is for the beautiful moments. Seeing four-year-old girls consoling one another; knowing Angela and her mother have been reunited on German soil after weeks of fear, watching Anthony, the eight-year-old son of the family I look after in Karlsruhe racing to the German ice cream parlor on his new bike, reading Igor’s messages about how great a difference we make for Ukrainians’ lives, and having a picnic with all the Karlsruhe Ukrainians on a warm, summer day with only clouds in the skies. There are many more memorable, heart-warming experiences.
Our mission truly attracts the kindest-hearted people who give all they can with their entire heart and soul and who radiate genuine love. Today, we have been able to personally help almost 200 Ukrainians. But even if that number was only one, it would have been worth it. I have had the honor of meeting people who will inspire me for the rest of my life. Olga, Julie’s friend, has become a guardian angel who is just a phone call away from anyone I am struggling to communicate with or help. Dorota, Marek, Zu and the rest of the TWS crew have become partners. Ann, the 17-year old daughter from our first tour has become a great friend. I truly believe she is the strongest person I have ever met, and seeing her flinch in pain at loud noises and planes, breaks my heart.
Together we will win this war. We will stand together, help one another with every last penny we have and when this is all over, we will take a long trip through Ukraine, and let all of our new friends-for-life show us their life and culture. Slava Ukraini, and may the skies over your heads always be clear.
In Ukrainian: Разом ми переможемо в цій війні. Ми вистоємо разом, допомагаючи один одному останнім пенні, що в нас є і коли все це закінчиться, ми будемо довго мандрувати по Україні і наші нові друзі покажуть нам своє життя і свою культуру. Слава Україні і мирного неба Вам.
The team’s website is here: Süd-West Sonne für die Ukraine e.V. (South-West Sun for the Ukraine e.V)
Follow us on Instagram: @Suedwestsonne
Follow us on Facebook: Suedwestsonnefuerukr
Kenzie Potter Stephens is a production artist for InDepth as well as part of the GUE marketing team. She is currently working on two BS degrees in Industrial Engineering and Marketing, as well as Biochemistry at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany.
In addition to her activities as a yoga teacher and an underwater rugby trainer, she has completed her GUE Tech 1 and Cave 1 training and is on her way to becoming a GUE instructor. As a scientist, she is currently working within the Phreatic Organisation based in Cala Gonone, Sardinia, to research and protect the extensive cave system in the Gulf of Orosei.
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