Novelist Patricia Engel dives into the realities of her characters
“I was starting to regret this whole freediving plan in the name of research"
Illustration Hanna Barczyk
I’ve lived by the ocean for 13 years now, but I’m an inland girl. I grew up in Northern New Jersey, near mountains where the closest body of water was the Hudson River, followed by a decade in the seemingly limitless concrete terrain of Manhattan. Yet living seaside in South Florida has turned me romantic for the deep blue, and envious of those who’ve been fortunate to live all their lives by the water.
My third book, The Veins of the Ocean, evolved into an homage to those vast depths. I found myself embodying characters native to coastal life, and I knew in order to write their story well, I’d have to get to know the ocean in a much more intimate way.
I’ve always been a good swimmer, and took up scuba diving at 15. I figured the next step would be to try freediving, or breath-hold diving—essentially scuba without tanks—a sport that has always intrigued me. In scuba, there’s the clunkiness of tanks, the constant noise of bubbles and respirators, the awareness of sea creatures disturbed by your artificial breath and fin currents. You must descend slowly, as if bouncing on a cushion, even as turtles whiz by. Freediving, on the other hand, is a silent and solitary free-fall headfirst, your only guide a rope down into the dark abyss. I signed up for a certification course taught by a local freediving champion, attended classes, read the book, memorized safety protocol and aced my swimming pool training, where, hanging on the edge of the deck, I learned specific yogic breathing patterns to prepare to “pack and stack” oxygen into my body. I was soon holding my breath for close to four minutes, using new meditation techniques to keep a clear mind and conquer the fear of drowning and the body’s natural impulse to gasp for air.
Thrilled and feeling fearless, I was ready for the ocean.
As is often the case with the sea, things didn’t go as expected: the boat was tiny; the sky was dim and cloud-covered; the ominous sound of thunder in the distance didn’t faze the instructor. Our vessel sliced against the currents of Biscayne Bay toward the open Atlantic. Soon, land disappeared and the horizon was an endless indigo bleeding into dark sheets of rain. I held onto the railing, looking for a stable focal point, but with the bobbing and rocking, it was hopeless; up came lunch, then breakfast and last night’s dinner. The other divers on the boat looked at me with something resembling pity, but we didn’t know each other very well and they kept a distance. I was starting to regret this whole freediving plan in the name of research—did I really need to deepen my relationship with the sea? But part of writing is writing what you know. So I focused on the ocean. I felt it challenging me, asking me how far I was willing to go to be a better writer, to write a more honest book, to test my own physical and mental limits.
We dropped anchor about five miles offshore and suited up, no easy task given the way the boat was shaking. The instructor set up a descending line with markers at 5-, 10- and 15-meter depths, with a floating rig for us divers to hang onto as we each waited our turn to dive. I slipped on my fins, spat in my mask and said a two-second prayer so I wouldn’t die that day.
Then, I threw myself into the water.
I held onto the rig and closed my eyes as waves splashed my face, telling myself not to panic, but to surrender to the current, syncing my breath and my heartbeat as I prepared for my first dive. The instructor called me to the rope and I breathed deep, packing air into my lungs as I’d trained to do in the pool, then dove under, pulling myself down the rope with one hand, holding my nose with the other, while a small stream of bubbles escaped my lips. I hit the first marker—15 feet. After a few more dives, I hit 30 feet despite the crushing pressure on my skull and ears. I’d never felt as insignificant or as vulnerable as I did that first afternoon, suspended underwater with nothing but my body—and a bit of oxygen in my lungs—to keep me alive. Yet somehow I’d never felt as strong or as accomplished either.
That glimpse I got of the ocean during my minutes down there, that solitude, that stillness and that particular shade of blue, which I have never seen duplicated on land, in art or even in my imagination, opened my eyes to the Earth’s unseen depths, nature’s infinite possibilities, and to the fact that, even in our own interior, there are depths undiscovered. Those dives made me a better artist, and whenever I’m stuck on a character or a story, I still look to the ocean as a faithful companion pushing me to go deeper.
Patricia Engel’s third novel, The Veins of the Ocean, is out now in paperback; patriciaengel.com