It’s hard to imagine that an activity as common as diving for quahogs in Narragansett Bay could lead to a record-breaking freedive that, by all accounts, could have killed him but that’s exactly what happened to Bob Croft.
“It didn’t take us long to discover that we could dig quahogs from the bottom with our hands and feet quite easily,” he wrote. “The most reachable clams were found in water about three to four feet deep, and retrieving them often required holding our breath and upending, with our legs sticking out of the water … I always managed to get the most quahogs because I could stay submerged the longest. I had no idea how significant that ability would prove to be in years to come.”
Bob Croft’s life on Warwick Neck started when his family moved there after the Hurricane of 1938, an event he and his family lived through in Groton, Conn.
“My memory of the storm was standing with my sister Joan, looking out our third floor apartment window and watching debris fly by,” he relates in his autobiography published last year. “I had just passed my fourth birthday, so I didn’t fully understand the magnitude and danger of what was going on around us.”
Croft wrote that he thought that was great fun and it was only later that he came to appreciate how devastating that storm was. That was not to be the last adventure Croft would have without realizing the danger. A peculiar habit he developed as an 11- or 12-year-old boy turned out to be less common than he imagined.
“When we lived on Warwick Neck, I used to sleep outside in a hammock whenever I could and I developed this technique of packing air into my lungs by using my tongue as a pump,” Croft said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “When I was in the Navy as a submariner, I didn’t know that other people didn’t do that.”
One of Croft’s jobs in the Navy was training crewmembers to escape from subs, which had been known to sink every now and again. When he was freediving in tanks, his instructors were doing the conventional method of filling their lungs with their diaphragms. It eventually dawned on him that his method of “airpacking” using his tongue was unique when he began to break records holding his breath under water while freediving, which is going as deep as you can without the aid of a breathing apparatus, like scuba lings or a diving helmet.
Before Croft proved otherwise, experts thought deep freediving was certain death. The U.S. Navy Diving Manual said a dive below 120 feet could prove fatal, and 200 feet was the boundary of physical possibility.
“This was based on the belief that the human thorax could not survive such compression,” said Croft. “But I was routinely holding my breath at the bottom of the training tank and I could spend five or six minutes doing it.”
When a biologist who was studying the methods that seals and dolphins use to spend extended time underwater wanted to expand his research to the human limits, someone told him about Croft and his extraordinary gift for packing air and staying under water.
“When Bob Allison asked me if I would work with him, I said ‘Sure.’”
Just like the kid who wandered off as a toddler, or swam to Patience Island from Warwick Neck as a boy, the possibility of currents or tides or being run over while swimming through a shipping lane, Croft signed on for the scientific research that lead to his record freedive. Curiosity had always motivated Croft and testing limits was second nature for him.
Croft was too young for World War II and still too young when Korea came along, but he convinced his parents that he could become a Navy Reservist with his parents’ permission and he ended up serving on the submarines that used to fascinate him when they streamed up the Thames River to the Groton Submarine base. He was assigned to the U.S. Submarine School instructing submariners in ways to survive a sinking submarine. He monitored escape trainees as they ascended in simulated escapes, to make sure they exhaled on the way up.
His technique of “airpacking” allowed him to hold his breath for five to six minutes. In 1962 he was invited to the Naval Submarine Medical Research Lab where he eagerly volunteered as a subject and investigator for submarine-related research projects, testing diving contact lenses, subjecting himself to high-frequency sonar at close range.
“Submarines are always noisy and I now have two hearing aids,” said Croft. “That high frequency sonar did a real job on my right ear.”
But he was setting freediving records and his breath-holding projects resulted in him being featured in Science magazine.
His lung packing technique became a regular tool of freedivers around the world.
“Before I made those dives, there was never any formal competition,” he said. “Now, they have competitions all over the world.”
The airpacking method found its way into training for Navy SEALs, and through a retired SEAL, “it was later rediscovered in 1992 at an experiment in an undersea lab in Key Largo. From there, the technique was studied at Duke University and later was exhaustively studied at several laboratories in Sweden,” according to an article on the International Legends of Diving website.
Croft was assigned to a right-out-of-a-James-Bond-movie spy submarine, X-1, that had been converted to a research vehicle. The crew all had to be experienced divers as well as submariners but most of what Croft and the crew did remained classified.
“After the Navy, Bob went to work for Tarrytown Labs, a descendent of the Union Carbide-Ocean Systems deep diving research lab,” according to the same article, “where he worked on, among other things, development of decompression tables for dives to 1000 fsw. He later worked for Ingersoll-Rand and then Dresser-Rand, where he did training and training videos.” He is still being invited to freediving competitions but he no longer participates.
“I’m in my 80s now and my doctors won’t allow it,” said Croft. “But I proved it could be done by any healthy male or female … I went to 212, 217, 240 feet … I taught them how to use their tongues as an air pump.”
And to think that he taught himself to do it, as a boy on Warwick Neck, lying in a hammock, with nothing to do but make plans for the next adventure.