This post is also available in: Español (Spanish) Italiano (Italian)

Ambush and variable weight: two extremes

In my sporting journey that began in the 1980s, I have always tried to develop spearfishing techniques to the maximum, selecting the ones that are more fun but also more effective. Fun has always been guaranteed by the practice of spearfishing with the ambush technique in the foam, in a few meters of water, with elusive but also relatively abundant preys, thanks to the triggering of the food chain caused by the intense wave motion. The very high number of apneas, the very often turbid water of the sea becoming rough or calming down, the feeling of having to be so controlled, aquatic and quick both in kicking and in the bracing shot, has always made me prefer this technical solution as the most fun. Excellent gym, fishing in ambush allows great possibilities for athletic and mental expression and triggers virtuous mechanisms on specific training of the lower limbs, because of the kilometers swam during a spearfishing day. If we look at spearfishing in variable weight, this world is turned upside down. The rhythms of the dives are very slow as are the thoughts that cannot be separated from a great and careful self-control, which leads to extreme relaxation. Surface stops and fatigue, the physical work needed to recover the ballast with your own hands, take up much of the time. The movements are slow, measured and carried out in “economy”. You cannot afford mental frenzy, nor out of place excitement. The shot also often requires a weighted evaluation, it is almost always planned carefully before the descent when shooting in the den. In short, another world compared to ambush. Another world yes, also for the amount of catches, certainly lower in number, but much, much heavier on average and important in their quality.

Gabriele Delbene after his Abyssal World Record in 2013

The mixed variable structure: Josè Amengual my inspiration

The first step towards approaching deep spearfishing is obviously to proceed step by step. I think the so-called mixed variable weight is the most sensible approach. I will take it a bit wide, but I have to tell you a little about the story of my inspirer, Josè Amengual.

Around the age of 18 I was already able to fish in constant weight at depths beyond 35 meters, but this entailed the accumulation of lactic acid in the muscles which made it really difficult and, let us say it potentially dangerous, to face the depth daily with the same commitment. At that time I was a compulsive devourer of articles in specialized magazines. I admired above all the Italian depth experts, but my field of study of deep-sea sperfishing techniques was particularly directed towards the Spanish and French, who were perceived as the hyper-specialists of the moment. The great World and European Champion, the Spaniard Josè Amengual, was a great source of inspiration for me.

One beautiful morning in October 1984 (I was 17 years old) I did not go to school just to see live and witness the start of these great athletes from the wooden pier of the “Amatori del Mare” (Amateurs of the Sea), organizing club of a European Cup competition in the waters of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto, islands close to La Spezia, my hometown in Tuscany, Italy. It was amazing for the lanky, shy and very passionate boy that I was, seeing for the first time for real the sports heroes of which I had only then read the deeds and seen the photographs in the magazines. I saw the solid and determined Mazzarri. Renzo won the test with a catch of huge mullets cought with the aspetto technique in the turbid water using a pneumatic speargun and a 5 prongs, all made of steel, a result that was only the starter of what would later be his sensational world hits. I saw Zanki, the tall and cheerful Yugoslavian feared for his talent and speed on white fish. The granite in physique and will Paolo Cappucciati who, attently exploring a handkerchief of the wall of the island of Tino, put together a beautiful catch of only big congers with which he obtained a magnificent second place.

And then there was him, Josè …… I knew all about him, about his unfortunate past as a polio child who had made him slightly claudicant and imposed a very particular dive, of the countless national championships won in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, of the titles of European Champion in ’82 in Bulgaria, but above all of the World in ’73 in Spain (surpassing a wild and legendary Scarpati) and ’81, in the difficult sea of ​​Florianopolis, Brazil. There was something truly remarkable and special about this short man with an intelligent smile, but certainly not a statuesque physique.

Josè Amengual standing with the wetsuit and on the next dinghy Marino Ferrer at the end of the competition

While I was looking at him almost hypnotized, between the incredulous and the timidly curious from a dozen steps away, on the narrow iron and wooden dated jetties, the activity of dozens of people around me was frenetic. Chatter in unknown languages, decisive steps of many people on those old nailed boards, some hasty order intended for the organization’s volunteers, walks weighed down by boots and bulky equipment created strange acoustic effects, like the rumble that contrasted with the lapping of the sea in movement for the first boats leaving the pier. The towing pulleys that men put into action could be heard creaking loudly, cursing because an old engine did not want to start despite the manual efforts. In the air, the bluish smoke of the slightly too rich mixture was unpleasant to the sense of smell, the simultaneous starting of the two-stroke engines that crackled at low rpm and had to be heated-up was deafening. Everyone raised their voices to be heard from a few steps.

Delbene on the dinghy with Josè Amengual, his boatman and a friend
Delbene (left) on the dinghy with Josè Amengual (in wetsuit), his boatman (in blue) and a friend (in white)

The crisp air of early morning was loud and exciting. Everything was ready for departure to the center of the competition field. However, I was too shy to ask to get on board with someone, I was a little less excited than the others and I was already preparing for a lonely, almost melancholy wait for the boats to return. At that moment the stroke of luck that changes the fate…. Amengual’s boatman, whom I knew by sight, was among the last to leave the old pier. The smoke enveloped him already as he made a complicated reverse between the poles of the suspended piers. He noticed me alone, standing impaled and with the school backpack on his shoulders. The loud noise of the engine forced him to scream: “Well … and who are you with?”
In a moment I found myself assisting in the race the greatest Champion in the history of spearfishing. That experience was incredible.

Mine was an elementary reasoning. If I who am nobody do dives often longer than two minutes and more, these phenomena will make apneas at least three minutes.
Nothing could be more false. Josè began to dive right under where the departure was given, in a few meters of water, on small plates that I also knew and that did not have fish. But my experience as a novice did not have the knowledge of some race tricks. Often, in fact, if seabreams run in open water, after the enormous disturbance of all those engines that accelerate together, we will find those seabreams scared in the “booster” lairs. So in the preparation of the competition field you have to have a particular eye and “mark” the beautiful dens as conformation even if they do not host fish. Amengual quickly took a couple of seabreams 800 grams each, but with apneas between 25 and 40 seconds, I timed it. Unbelievable! In a few minutes he had turned my ideas upside down … strategy, technique and flair instead of great apnea.

He continued for almost the entire race not to exceed fifty seconds of freediving and 7/9 meters depth, gathering a good catch with nice mullets also taken in a meter of water, shooting from the surface behind an outcropping rock. He came third and first of the foreigners.

About 20 minutes after the end of the race, he led us to the Tino wall, near the granite giant Cappucciati. There the wall exceeded 20 meters and Josè descended into the water with the same belt he wore before, but this time deprived of a quick release lead of one kilogram.

His balloon was connected to a transparent and floating PVC tube. At the end of the tube of fairly generous dimensions there was a lead cylinder of about 4 centimeters in diameter, 25 centimeters in length. The lead was covered along its entire length by a thick rubber air chamber.

He grabbed the buouy and down into the water. He made some very calm dives. He put the lead between the belt, also made of thick air chamber, and the belly. Then he went down very heavy, then leaving the cylinder on the bottom and continuing the action. Without reaching the minute of apnea, around twenty meters he caught a conger. He then recovered the cylinder with his arms and very quickly.

I was very struck by the apparent absence of effort with which it re-emerged. I planned to do the same with small variations to adapt to my physicality and to the depths that I proposed to attend during the hot Summer months. At the end of the prize giving I had a moment of fearless courage and asked Amengual the weight of that amazing (for me) cylinder. The champion smiled at me with an intense gaze, perhaps sensing that I had grasped the importance of the detail. He replied gently:  “Tre kilogramo e medio“.

After this revelatory experience I also began to adopt exactly the same system at first. The technique known as the “mixed variable weightincreases the exercise quotas that remain very similar to those of the constant set-up, but it takes away a certain muscular dose of fatigue in the legs to transfer it partially into the arms, in a moment in which you breathe. Surface recovery times also increase slightly because the 3.5kg load is light enough to be easily recovered and this can be done for hours in a row. Of course the weight of the lead on the thick line can be modulated according to needs and uses starting from 2 kg (minimum arm effort) up to 4 kg and more. I believe it is very advisable to make contact with slightly more demanding depths gradually, adapting the body and mind to the different pressure and psychological sensations and decrease the physical stress during the dive. For those who fish only and exclusively in constant weight, this method can be excellent to use when carrying out heavy work at a high depth. In this mode, the safety margins are greatly increased. The classic case is having to work a grouper for example. As a couple (possibly never do it alone) a companion will come down and as soon as he returns to the surface he will start recovering the lead again, then offering it to his friend who in the meantime will have adequately prepared himself. This will allow you to lower your risks, minimize downtime and speed up fish extraction.