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Athletes

Jun 08, 2018

Kimi Werner: Dive Into The Deep Unknown

Kimi Werner is a 37-year-old Hawaiian professional free diver and a decorated spear fisher.

WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

She has dived all five of the planet’s oceans, explored the Artic to the Antarctic, and has spent more time underwater than anywhere else. Then, for her love of the ocean, she quit the sport.

by OLIVER NERMERICH

Originally printed in The Outdoor Journal, Issue 14, Winter 2017. Subscribe here.

What’s going on in the deep blue? Are there valuable lessons we can uncover in order to improve our lifestyle? And what can we do to protect all these unknown wonders underwater? As land dwellers, the best way to explore the ocean starts with listening. That’s why we jumped at the chance to chat with Kimi Werner. Today, she travels around the globe as an ambassador of nature and inspires others with her simple and sustainable lifestyle – one based on lessons she learned from the ocean. She’s Mercedes had the opportunity to meet this perennial globetrotter during a recent film shoot with the GLC in Hawaii. So let’s take a deep breath and get a glimpse into the unknown – home of spearfisher and freediver, Kimi Werner.

Photo © Justin Turkowski @cinematowski

Pressure and Peacefulness

TOJ: The largest habitable space on our planet is the deep ocean, yet we know very little about it. So, take us with you on your dive: what do we see when diving 70 to 100 feet down? How does it feel?

KW: I can feel the pressure starting to squeeze me on my way down. The light just becomes so beautiful, dancing on the surface from far away while diving. The ocean is full of peacefulness for me. It is the perfect place to forget the clamour of the world. I can often hear the sounds of whales in the background and just the many sounds of the ocean…I feel like I have to go with the flow underwater. Like I’m not in control, I’m at the mercy of the sea, so I need to be responsive, alert and open to change. But all of that only makes me feel free and happy.

Photo © James Perrin @perrinjames1

Maui Way of Life

TOJ: You grew up on Maui, Hawaii, where your father was a dedicated freediver. At the age of four or five years, you started tagging along with your dad, who would go spearfishing just to put food on the table. Do you remember your first catch on these trips and how you felt about it?

Photo © Justin Turkowski @cinematowski

KW: Well, I didn’t catch my own fish back then but just watched my dad do it. I’d sometimes feel sad for the fish that died, but my parents taught me how to turn that feeling into respect and gratitude. The way my parents worked with nature and its natural resources responsibly really shaped the sustainable lifestyle, which I am practicing today.

Photo © Justin Turkowski @cinematowski

The Interdependence of Life

TOJ: I guess, every time you dive, you gain a better understanding of the ocean. Furthermore, even longer breaks of diving could be instructive for perceiving differences in the deep blue. You stopped diving under water for almost 19 years. Looking back, how did the ocean has changed over the years?

KW: Climate change and the loss of our natural watersheds seem to have the biggest influences on the negative changes that I see. Sediment and dirt brought into the ocean from rains cover the reef and settle on it. This kills the health of the reef and all the animals dependent on it suffer. The reef used to be so much more colorful and alive and the fish were so much more abundant. But due to development on land, the rain does not get naturally filtered through the earth and leaves the way it’s meant to. It basically rushes from the land, over concrete, picking up heavy metals and chemicals the whole way down to the ocean. Every time it rains, the reefs and oceans hurt more than ever before.

Photo © James Perrin @perrinjames1

My Purpose in the Ocean

TOJ: What do you do in order to protect the ocean? How did you find your way of support?

KW: Even during the time I was competing in spearfishing, I was more interested in how to protect our oceans from overharvest and from so many other issues that lead to the depletion of our ocean resources. I realized I wasn’t fulfilled just competing and that my role in the ocean had to serve a greater purpose. No “I feel like the best version of myself.” trophy is ever worth giving up your life. So I guess I found my way of protecting the ocean when I found back to my roots: to get your own food from the ocean. That alone, helps protect it because I do so mindfully in regards to making selective and sustainable choices. We often don’t know what kind of affect we are having on the ocean when we buy things from industrial scale fisheries with little transparency. Aside from the food aspect, I also make documentaries about reef ecosystems and how to protect them. I also spread awareness of the microplastics in the ocean from single-use plastic products. I try to promote reusable responsible products instead.

The Unavoidable Risks

TOJ: I’ve read that freedivers intentionally let their heart rates drop to under 40bpm. That sounds dangerous. What else happens down there with your body? And when does it pose a risk to you?

KW: I love feeling the compression on my body. I like feeling that squeeze from the many atmospheres of water that are putting pressure on me. It’s amazing how much our bodies can compress. Hypoxia is the most dangerous part of freediving because it can lead to shallow water blackout. Hypoxia means that you don’t have sufficient oxygen and blacking out is a common effect that comes from that.

Photo © James Perrin @perrinjames1
Photo © James Perrin @perrinjames1

No Room for Panic

TOJ: It must be so tricky to hold your breath while hunting. You need to be totally relaxed, but you’re on the watch at the same time. How does it all work together?

KW: I have to be alert and aware of my situation at all times and always on watch but there is no room for panic or fear-based decisions. Any stress or fear that runs through me is channeled into a calm confidence of serenity. It’s amazing how the intensity and the calm can coexist simultaneously and become all the more powerful to handle each situation. Long slow exhales while breathing up helps lower my heart rate and inhaling from the lowest part of my diaphragm ensures that the oxygen exchange is at its best and gives me the most oxygen possible.

TOJ: What was your scariest moment underwater?

KW: My scariest moment underwater was being surprised when a 17-feet-great white shark approached me on the surface. I know she could’ve eaten me at any second she wanted to. Thereby I became fully aware of the fact that humans are not at the top of the food chain. However, it turned into my most beautiful moment: We made peaceful contact and started a beautiful interaction between two predators.

The Lighter Side of Diving

“There I was, topless, with an octopus, cracking up!”

TOJ: But being underwater shouldn’t just be always flirting with danger. Do you remember a situation where you had to laugh while freediving?

KW: Of course! I laugh all the time underwater. Sometimes my mask fills with water because my cheeks rise when I laugh and breaks the seal of the mask to my face. One time I caught an octopus but it used one of its eight legs to untie my bathing suit top! You don’t mean it! It’s true. There I was, topless, with an octopus, cracking up!

TOJ: Today, as a freediver, a trained chef, an award-winning artist, international speaker and environmental advocate you can finally do what you really love. What is currently the best part of doing what you do?

KW: I love the amazing places that I get to see, the kind people I meet along the way and how I never stop learning. If I had to choose my absolute favorite part of what I do, I’d say, just the fact that I get to connect with nature so deeply, that will make me forever grateful.

Photo © Brooke Dombroski @brooklynhawaii
Photo © Brooke Dombroski @brooklynhawaii

Life Lessons Learned

TOJ: What has the ocean taught you for your life? Can you list up your personal top five life lessons?

KW:
1. When you feel the need to speed up, slow down.
2. When you feel like you “blew” the perfect shot, don’t get discouraged, learn from it. It will only help you when the next opportunity comes.
3. Go with the flow, don’t fight it. In the ocean and in life, the only constant is change.
4. Being present is everything. It’s so good for my soul and for my mental health. It’s important to be right here, right now, in this exact moment and nowhere else.
5. We have the ability to turn fear into courage. Stress and fear are not enemies, they are the energy that runs through us to help keep us alert and help us preform the task ahead. It’s simply our job to harness that energy and welcome it by transforming it into positive confidence and calm power.

Connection to Source

Photo © Brooke Dombroski @brooklynhawaii
Photo © Brooke Dombroski @brooklynhawaii
Photo © Brooke Dombroski @brooklynhawaii

TOJ: Thanks for sharing! Last but not least: do you have a vision for the future?

KW: Oh, yes! My vision for the future comes from the past. Once upon a time, people were more connected to nature and our part in it. Any time anyone sat down to eat a plate of food they had some idea of where that food came from–of what the animal looked like and how it lived, of where the plant grew and who harvested it…simple things like that. But nowadays people don’t have that knowledge and even when trying to search for it, the answers are hard to find. I hope one day, we will all be connected enough to the source, that we will understand the stories behind the beautiful plants and animals that not only feed us but coexist in this beautiful world.

Photo © Justin Turkowski @cinematowski
Photo © Justin Turkowski @cinematowski

Interview by She’s Mercedes in collaboration with The Outdoor Journal.

Follow Kimi on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter

Feature Image © James Perrin @perrinjames1

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Environment

Oct 22, 2018

Surfing the Dream in Taiwan

In a small coastal village of Taiwan, something special is emerging between the jungle and the ocean.

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WRITTEN BY

Alison Watson

Tucked away in a remote part of the eastern coast of Taiwan, surfer and board-maker, Neil Roe is working on his next creation. It’s a magnificent piece of crafted wood which begs you to touch it. On seeing it, I am seduced by its smooth curves, the rich grain of the wood and the delicate geometric insets. Is it possible to fall in love with a surf-board at first sight?

A deeper admiration surfaces when Roe explains that this board has literally emerged from the jungle outside. Roe shows me a log of wood lying in the workshop: “This is the wood we use. It’s called Paulownia and it’s a very strong and light wood that doesn’t absorb salt water and won’t rot. It’s also the fastest growing hardwood.”

The jungle road to the workshop is a doozy.

“Roe tells me how he scours the Taiwanese jungle for fallen logs after typhoons have passed.”

My eyes are drawn to the twisted hunk of fallen tree. It’s difficult to believe that this transforms into the gleaming surfboards that rest against the wall. Roe tells me how he scours the Taiwanese jungle for fallen logs after typhoons have passed, and after haggling with the local indigenous people for a good price, he will haul the log back to the workshop.

Roe and business partner, Clyde Van Zyl, currently work from a rough studio that rests beside dense jungle some 2 km from the small town of Dong’ao. The town is perched near a bay with dramatic cliffs that plunge abruptly to the Pacific Ocean. Roe describes it as the ‘start of the real east coast of Taiwan’. Other than some low-key fishing operations and guests of organised kayaking trips, the pebble-lined beach in the bay remains relatively deserted. I’m told it’s possible to camp for the night and enjoy a fire on the beach.

Rough Jungle Workshop

“Before you even get in the water, just picking up a wooden board connects you with the earliest history of surfing.”

To get to the Zeppelin Wood workshop, however, we need to drive inland on the opposite side of town. We direct our taxi driver, flagged down from the train station further up the coast in Su’ao, deeper towards the jungle-clad mountains. As we drive onto a muddy dirt track she becomes increasingly agitated. It’s a relief then, when we see Roe popping out from a derelict-looking shed on the side of road and giving us a wave. She promptly tells him that we owe her more money for the rough driving conditions she has endured getting us there. It’s an exaggeration but I’m not about to argue. I’m keen to get inside the workshop and check out Roe’s creations.

Normal greetings aside, I can’t help but ask the Mandarin Chinese-speaking Roe how he ended up here. It’s a long way from Durban, South Africa. He explains that he was once slaving away behind a computer as a product designer, enduring constant deadlines, and feeling unsatisfied facing the daily office grind. He started dreaming about the possibility of going to Japan, famous for its woodwork and joinery, and finding some wood design guru who would agree to mentor him. And so, off he set.

Roe and Van Zyl’s surboard workshop in the Taiwanese Jungle

But a quick stop in Taiwan on-route visiting an old university friend teaching English quickly turned into three-months, six months, then a year: “I remember I was on a surf trip to Taitung with some friends, camping on an empty beach, jungle clad mountains rising up behind us, Pacific Ocean blue in-front, empty waves rolling endlessly down the point right there. I was hooked. I remember thinking… Can you really do this? Is this kind of life possible? I felt so free in that paradise. I never wanted to leave. I’m still here ten years later. Still smiling.”

Not long after this, he and Van Zyl searched the east coast for some place small to start building their business from, with key requirements of being cheap, close to the waves, and having accommodation to begin a small guesthouse. But the business has now outgrown the current facilities, and the owner of the guesthouse returned home and wanted his house back. The pair are currently searching for new premises to expand their dream of surf and lifestyle.

One of a Kind Craftsmanship

Their expansion plans also align with their new partnership with a surfboard manufacturer further up the coast who will do the final epoxy-fibreglass finishing of each board. It’s a messy, time-consuming job that’s best done on a larger scale and Roe tells me this will make the whole process more efficient. He’s hoping that once cranking they will be able to make finished boards within ten days.

Neil Roe left his office life behind to follow his dream

But this isn’t mass produced product at budget prices. Roe is aiming for the type of surfer who has a passion for a different type of surfing and is prepared to invest in a one-of-a-kind board, made by hand, and coming from nature.

I ask Roe to explain the difference between riding a wooden surfboard to the modern foam composites. He hesitates, searching to put into words the obvious devotion he has for his craft and surfing: “There is an emotional pull for a wooden board, a type of nostalgia that draws you in. Before you even get in the water, just picking up a wooden board connects you with the earliest history of surfing. The ancient Hawaiians used to shape boards out of Koa logs harvested from the jungle. There are so many classic stories and photos etched into our memories of pioneer surfers riding balsa boards.”

Hand-crafted surfboards to meet a variety of sizes.

Aside from the aesthetic and emotional reasons, wooden boards have other qualities according to Roe: “They are heavier, and this weight translates into a different feel in water. I think it makes you surf more in tune with the wave, as you start to use gravity and wave power to get speed and direction. You follow the waves lead and you end up surfing differently and a kind of graceful style evolves. Combining the extra weight with the stiffness makes for a silky-smooth ride you just don’t get on other materials. This is especially noticeable on the wooden longboards in bigger, faster and choppier waves.”

Taiwan’s Typhoons Bring Waves

“Any invitation to come on over, enjoy a fire on the beach, surf, explore the jungle and generally get lost in this fascinating part of Asia is one worth taking.”

Surfing in Taiwan is gaining popularity but it’s still a little rough around the edges. But that’s probably what makes it special. The waves are most consistent between the months of November to March, although typhoon season from April to September can also reward surfers with big beefy waves. Water temperature doesn’t go below 20 degrees. Best of all, Roe tells me that you can easily find empty waves in the weekdays, and even in the weekends if you are prepared to look. There are plenty of places to rent boards and travel is relatively easy.

Taiwan is still relatively unknown as a surf destination but it’s an ultra-cool place with good waves and the laid-back style of Bali – without all the crowds.

Just remember to bring an international driver’s licence, as well as your national driver’s licence, if you intend to rent transport. We didn’t and renting a car was impossible. Luckily, public transport is good with a train system running down most of the east coast with plentiful cheap connecting bus services. Most surf shops run shuttles, can hire out scooters, or are close enough that you can walk to the break. But having a car would give you much greater freedom to explore this wild coastline.

While Roe and Van Zyl are concentrating on developing their surfboard business they also encourage people to visit the workshop and get involved in the process of making something. And the pair offer a small number of dedicated surf trips where travellers can: “Chase waves, camp on the beach, visit the hot springs, and explore waterfalls and mountain swimming holes.” Basically, Roe says it’s the kind of surf trip that they like to do themselves when they have free time: “For sure we’ll take some of our boards along for the surfers to try out. But hopefully we’ll also make some friends along the way.”

Finished Zeppelin Board in Taiwanese temple.

Any invitation to come on over, enjoy a fire on the beach, surf, explore the jungle and generally get lost in this fascinating part of Asia is one worth taking. You may even fall in love with a piece of wood beneath your feet.

Images by Dr Alison Watson

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