‘Gozo is the perfect freediving spot’

Dawid Tran Van is the 2023 Polish Cwtb freediving national world record holder who made Gozo his home. Here, he shares his underwater journey.
Free diver Dawid Tran Van. Photo: Matt Hush

“The scuba diver dives to look around, the freediver dives to look inside,” the renowned freediving world champion Umberto Pelizzari once said. This quote rings true for Dawid Tran Van, the 2023 Polish Cwtb (constant weight with fins/bifins) freediving national world record holder who calls Gozo home.

Likening the experience of freediving to meditation, Tran Van has found that the discipline helps him to clear his mind and feel more at peace with himself. “I love it because it’s all about control and being calm. If you have any tension in your body, it’s harder to hold your breath and feel comfortable underwater,” Tran Van explains. “If I’m having a bad day and I go for a dive, then I always feel better after getting out of the water. It’s like medicine.”

When Tran Van moved to Gozo in February 2020, he originally planned to stay for just six months before returning to Poland. Within the framework of an Erasmus+ volunteering scheme, he had received an opportunity to work as a lifeguard for the Emergency Response and Rescue Corps. He saw this as a chance to experience island life, but he did not foresee himself falling in love with Gozo and deciding to stay there.

The more time Tran Van spent in the water, however, the more intrigued he became by the pull of the deep blue. “When I first arrived, I thought I could swim, but I did a few strokes, and I would get really tired after a few metres. Lifeguarding helped me to improve my swimming, and I started snorkelling,” Tran Van recalls. “My first free dive was quite painful because I didn’t know that you had to equalize the pressure in your ears beforehand, so I hated it. I never thought I would come to like freediving as much as I do now.”

Equalising involves filling your sinuses and the cavities in your head with air to make freediving a pleasant, pain-free experience. There are several ways of doing this, but the simplest technique involves swallowing saliva or doing the Valsalva manoeuvre (pinching your nose and blowing through it at the same time to force air into your Eustachian tubes). However, this technique is not the best for freediving at depth, as it will be hard to bring the air up from your lungs. The Frenzel manoeuvre, on the other hand, can be used to reach depths of 30 to 40 metres. This method involves moving the air on the roof of your tongue to the soft palate. For free divers who want to reach greater depths, the mouthfill equalization, a more advanced version of the Frenzel method, can be used. This entails filling your oral cavity with air, closing the glottis and opening the soft palate. As this combination of movements never occurs naturally in the body, it is often the hardest technique to master.

Photo: Václav Krpelik

After getting the hang of the various equalization techniques and completing a course in freediving using lines and lanyards with Inner Dive, Tran Van began to enjoy the process a lot more. With the support of experienced free divers such as the owner of Deep Med Fabrice Bonello Du Puis and InnerDive founder and world champion Jesper Stechmann, Tran Van started freediving on a daily basis.

“I adjusted my routine to be able to dive,” Tran Van says. “I start work at the gym at 5:30am, so I can go diving around 10 am because most people tend to go at this time.  Then I go back to the gym and continue to work.”

Gozo is a popular location among the freediving community because there are a number of spots for beginners and advanced divers to explore. “There’s so much variety, but my favourite location is the Coral Gardens in Dwejra,” Tran Van shares. “That place is perfect for all levels — beginners can snorkel and go down a bit further if they want to, but there are also holes and rock formations that you can go through. Free divers are a bit like cats. Cats like to go into boxes and small spaces, and if a free diver sees a hole underwater, they’ll want to go through it.”

When freediving, it’s important to never go unaccompanied or with inexperienced divers for safety reasons. Tran Van is highly appreciative of the extensive freediving community in Gozo. In fact, it was one of his fellow divers who encouraged him to compete in the AIDA Croatia Adriatic Depth Trophy 2023, which was held in Krk island earlier this year.

“The Adriatic is colder than Gozitan waters, so that was a challenge. I usually warm up in the water before I begin the dive, but I just sat on the boat beforehand. I didn’t want to freeze because that affects my relaxation,” Tran Van explains. This technique paid off, as his participation in the competition led to him becoming the Polish Cwtb (constant weight with fins/bifins) national world-record holder.

This achievement meant that he qualified for the CMAS World Championship in Roatan, Honduras, which is due to begin on August 19. “Freediving is not a huge sport. It’s gradually growing, but so far, the Polish government only covers the participation fee and some of the training sessions. So, I organized a campaign on Go Get Funding to help me to cover some of the costs,” he explains. Tran Van arrived in Roatan in late July and will be there for almost the whole of August, as he will also be competing in the Caribbean Cup at the end of the month.

“The Polish national uniforms just arrived this morning,” Tran Van comments from his accommodation in Roatán, a glint in his eye. “It’s starting to feel very real.” Despite representing Poland, Tran Van’s freediving journey began in Gozo, and he even refers to Gozitan waters as his “home waters”, so it’s fair to say he’ll also be representing the Maltese Islands in spirit, if not in name.

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