Back in the winter of 2009, Andrew Chin and Ram Barkai took on an unprecedented challenge – to swim in Lake Zürich in the dead of winter.

This is Chin’s first-person account:

The Lake Zürich winter swim 2009 was a challenge of both mind and body for me. I was very nervous and scared as Ram wanted to swim further than I thought possible. Although I was keen on the challenge, I did not want to put myself at risk in any manner. I woke up hours before the swim and mulled things over and over in my head. I was not going to swim: hospital or worse was not an option for me. Then I calmed down a bit and thought, “You’ve done 10 minutes, so why not do 1 km? It’s only 20 minutes at most.”

If Ram had any fears, he was a lot better than me at hiding them. We had walked the course so I know the markers for 1 km, 1.5 km, etc. When Amanda arrived at about 11 am, I told her I was only doing 1 km as I knew I could do this without dying. At the start, we spent what seemed hours with TV, radio, the doctors and others. The safety briefing turned out to be my salvation as we discovered we had 4 boats on the water and they would allow one of us to continue if the other voluntarily decided to stop.

Just after 2 pm we entered the water. I splashed myself but Ram was already in and swimming, I followed with a shallow dive and a big yelp as the cold took the air out of me. It was hard to breathe properly at the start and my stroke is slightly altered with the left coming out the water more. We swam along the jetty. I had a half pause for a cruise boat which the Sea Polizie forced to beat a hasty retreat. We turned to towards the bridge, the end marker.

My hands were already numb as were my toes but it was actually quiet lekker. I was going to do it! I felt strong and was swimming faster than Ram. I purposely slowed down a little and we swam stroke for stroke, sometimes a little too close. I was aware of the boats after 5-7 minutes but they were slightly behind us and not the position I am used to making navigation a little harder. We were swimming strongly and I felt good, showing the thumbs up.

I knew I needed to keep my mind active to know how I was doing in terms of the cold so I repeat Andrew chin, Monica Spiro, Leila Chin, Rebecca Chin – my little family – over and over to myself. Near the 1 km mark, I notice Amanda on a boat waving a huge South African flag and I shout out ‘Viva!’.

After this I let my mind go a bit and felt a few strokes go sloppy. I swallowed some water. I was now only saying Andrew, Monica, Leila and Rebecca. It was more difficult [to repeat]. Ram was now a meter or 2 ahead of me and the fun is not there. Normally I push myself through this moment. but my thoughts are that’s it…a few more strokes and I am out.

A minute later I stop and put my hand up the signal. I am finished. Ram stops and calls for me to continue. I can hear Amanda shouting he must swim. I tell Ram to go as I swim towards my boat. I half climb the ladder and they pull me up by my arms. I am OK is all that goes through my mind as I am covered with blankets, space blankets and clothing. The boat is going into the head wind and it’s icy cold! I am so cold but I just lie still as instructed. I feel 100% safe.

Soon the boat stops.

With help, I manage to get up and climb off the boat. I feel a little dizzy and lie down on a stretcher; I am covered with blankets which I pull over my head and am stretchered inside. I have asked about Ram a few times. He has made it, I am very happy for him. They put the stretcher in a dark corner and for a short moment I think I have gone blind, I tear at the blankets and breathe a huge sigh of relief.

I tell them that I am cold and want to shower. I walk through the restaurant in my socks, boots, gloves, beanie and blanket. In the shower, things improve quiet quickly and I make the water hotter every few minutes, I am shaking violently and my feet are blue and purple, but I know from experience this will all pass. Finally I stop shivering after 20 minutes and manage to dress myself. Dressed I am greeted by quiet a few smiling faces all happy to see me functioning like normal. The only sign from the swim is a slightly numb pinky and ring finger. This will come right with time.

I was about 1.4 km in 4.3ºC (39.7ºF) fresh water for 23 minutes. Outside it was 0.5ºC with a wind chill of -7.5ºC. I am chuffed with thanks to Ram for talking me into this and his 2 km swim.

Copyright © 2013 by Open Water Source