A pre-event report by Ram Barkai on swimming from Russia to America across the Bering Strait:
A notorious group of South African extreme swimmers are at it again.
Only this time their challenge sees them heading to one of the most remote, frigid and hostile waters in the world – the Bering Strait. They will attempt to swim from Russia’s mainland, across the Bering Strait, to Alaska on the mainland USA. Combining their efforts with a team of Russians and fellow notorious adventurers from around the globe, the 110 km relay challenge and world’s first attempt promises to be an epic adventure and true test of human physical and mental endurance.
The concept of this challenge was born a while ago by several Russians extreme swimmers who wanted to investigate if it was possible to extend Lynne Cox’s short swim between the Russian and the American Diomede Islands to actually complete a relay from the two continental mainland.
“Cox is perhaps best known for swimming the Bering Strait in 1987, from the island of Little Diomede in Alaska to Big Diomede, then part of the Soviet Union, where the water temperature averaged around 4°C (40°F). At the time people living on the Diomede Islands — only 3.7 km (2.3 miles) apart — were not permitted to travel between them, although the Eskimo communities there had been closely linked until the natives of Big Diomede were moved to the Russian mainland after World War II. Her accomplishment eased Cold War tensions as Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev both praised her success.”
The Bering Strait is an extremely remote place on earth. It is covered with thick ice most of the year. It starts defrosting during Northern Hemisphere summer and clears of ice for couple on months during mid-to end summer.
The Bering Strait is approximately 82 kilometers (51 miles or 44 nautical miles) wide at its narrowest point. It connects the Chukchi Sea (part of the Arctic Ocean) to the north with the Bering Sea (part of the Pacific Ocean) to the south. The International Date Line runs equidistant between the Strait’s Diomede Islands at a distance of 1 mi (1.6 km), leaving the Russian and American sides usually on different calendar days, with Cape Dezhnev 21 hours ahead of the American side.
Five years ago a group of Russian swimmers started developing the idea of swimming across the entire strait in a relay team. Due to our [The South African team] involvement in international extreme swimming and the formation of The International Ice Swimming Association from Cape Town, we were approached to assist with the recruitment of the international swimmer contingent and to add vital experience to the larger team. Steven Munatones was called to help and find these extreme swimmers around the world.
The logistic and political hurdles to fulfill such a mammoth adventure are much larger than any one could ever have imagined. We are told that foreign affairs offices, Departments of Defence and Presidents in both Russia and America are aware of the project.
They had to give their firm blessings before true organization could begin. Even now, only a couple of weeks before the swim’s start date, we still realise that the crossing from Russian waters to USA waters is a fragile issue and opportunity that can be cancelled at the last minute. We really hope that issues like Snowden and other potential differences between these two giants are not going to derail our icy adventure.
We plan to leave as late as possible to allow for family and work time. Our departure looks set for 26-27 July. We need to get to Yakutsk in Central Russia by the 28th to join the international team. Yakutsk is located in the middle of Siberia around 450 km south of the Arctic Circle. From there we work our way up to Chukotka, located in the Russian Far East. From there we continue to Anadyr and we will eventually end up in Uelen just south of the Arctic Circle on August 1st to get ready for the big adventure. Uelen is near Cape Dezhnev where the Bering Sea meets the Chukchi Sea, it is the easternmost settlement in Russia and the closest Russian settlement to the United States.
Uelen is as remote as one can get in this world. A tiny fishing village on the Arctic Circle with a few hundred strong native population. We may need to carry beef biltong with us because it looks like the only thing we will be offered to eat there is either whale or walrus blubber. We will be arriving mid-summer and temperatures should average around 3-5ºC.
The swim, like any other pioneering expedition into new territories, will be fraught with unknowns, obstacles and plenty for us to explore. The Russian have made a phenomenal effort. The logistics and political issues that had to be tackled and resolved are enormous. There will always be doubt as to whether we will indeed be allowed into USA waters. And a fair chance that we will only find out how effective the political co-operations have been while we are in the middle of the swim in the Bering Sea. But these issues and chances are part of the adventure and we can all hope for the best. To date, every expedition to walk, boat or kayak across the Bering Strait has met failure and/or arrest.
In Anadyr, we will board on a Russian Hospital ship suited to the Bering Sea conditions. The ship will be equipped with helipad and a helicopter. It has staff compliment of around 100 people, which includes sailors, kitchen, engineers, doctors, and nurses. We expect around 50 swimmers. Approximately 25 from 14 countries around the world and 25 from all over Russia. We are honoured to accompany some of the most famous extreme cold water swimmers around the world.
South Africa is represented by 5 swimmers including the Chairman and the founding members of the International Ice Swimming Association: Ram Barkai, Andrew Chin, Ryan Stramrood, Kieron Palframan, and Toks Viviers. Membership in IISA and experience in icy waters and difficult seas played a critical factor in the swimmers selection and IISA has been very instrumental is the selection process. The team covers some of the world’s most daring and competent cold water swimmers.
The swim has two parts – a relay swim across the strait and a possible solo swim between the two Diomede islands situated in the middle of the Bering strait. Both are huge, highly specialised swims. The water temperatures vary from 2-8ºC, averaging around the 4ºC. Although conditions are suppose to be ideal for the crossing, ideal is a relative term. The Strait is relatively narrow and naturally creates very strong currents and tidal shifts. The Strait is around 82 km but we expect to swim around 110 km. We assume this will take around 48 hours non-stop. The sun rises at 0:44 in the morning and sets 22:05 at night, giving us a day of 21 hours and a night of 3 hours. Swimming in a place like the Bering for 48 hours requires a lot of goodwill from Mother Nature. A lot can change in the middle of sea in the Arctic Circle in 48 hours. Wind, waves, currents and rain. We hope Poseidon will remember us favourably from our previous adventures and appreciates our love for his playground – the ocean.
Swimming in water temp of 4ºC with air temp of around 5ºC is not a simple task. We can probably endure it for 30-40 minutes per session. But we would then require at least a day to recover physically before we dive into the water again. The effect of Ice Swimming on one’s body is still a new territory. Some need few weeks to recover completely from a 1-mile swim in water under 5ºC. So how do we get back into 4ºC water again and again and perform physically? The current plan is to swim 15 minutes to 20 minutes per interval.
With 40 swimmers swimming 15-minute legs, the swimmers are estimated to swim between 4-5 legs with 10-hour breaks between. With 50 swimmers, the number of legs will be 3-4.
We expect 50 swimmers in the initial team. But experience shows that due to a myriad of inevitable issues out at sea, the 50-strong team will more than likely end up with a maximum of 40 swimmers able to endure the hardships of repeat exposure to ice water. Every 10th hour each one of us will have to cover around 1 km in 4ºC waters. This may seem fairly simple. But should we lose more swimmers from the team, it will become exponentially more difficult and demanding. It is unlikely that the swimmer’s core body temp will recover 100% before the next swim interval. This means that every swim will be that much harder and more dangerous.
We are in a hospital boat, so we are in safe hands. But nevertheless, it is going to be a very interesting challenge.
The logistics of a relay swim in hostile open water are also extremely challenging. We expect to have a few other boats in the water. One boat will carry 4-5 swimmers awaiting their interval, others lead the swimmers and will shuttle exiting swimmers back to the main ship. Just getting a swimmer back into the main ship after an icy swim is not an easy task in itself. Most swimmers are debilitated and will struggle to climb a ladder or steps after the even the first swim interval. Hand-over between swimmers will have to be extremely slick or face wasting expensive time and increasing swimmers risk. We don’t know with what the notorious swell and waves may present us. It could be calm and wonderful but if the swell or wind picks up, being in the middle of the Bering Strait, swimming, can only deliver a hugely increased level of difficulty.
Sea life? The Bering is too far south for polar bears unless we come across lone lost ones. They are usually not happy chappies. Walruses are common in these waters, so are whales, killer whales and dolphins. It shouldn’t be a problem, but it will add to the mental stretch of this adventure.
We were very lucky to be involved in this endeavour for the past 3 years. The usual suspects are the same team that swam in Alaska, Patagonia, Cape Horn: Ram Barkai, Andrew Chin, Ryan Stramrood, Kieron Palframan, and Toks Viviers. We take a lot of comfort in the team. We have been together through some rough icy waters in foreign countries digging very, very deep. We learnt to lean on each other and also bollock each other when in desperate need to vent our anxiety. In time we have established some our unique quirky unwritten rules about the team dynamic. In extreme adventures like this you can’t change the team once you are there, therefore it HAS to work! If one member throws his toys significantly, he need to pick up his swim brief, goggles and go for a short cold swim to cool down. Always works! Regardless, the fact that our accumulative cold waters experience is vast, we are all very well aware of the fact that it is an extreme sport and every swim is different and treated as a new challenge with utmost respect. We are scared, but not intimidated and we look forward to another once in a lifetime adventure.
No one has ever done this before. No one has managed to cross the Bering Strait legally even in a boat. Few attempts ended up arrested or deported. How can one resist this?
Why are we doing it?
The billion-dollar question that always comes up and I still haven’t heard the perfect answer. We are doing it for two reasons: the one is a personal one. We love it! It makes us appreciate life and every little grain of it. The second one is our passion for water and specifically the oceans, its vastness, beauty, marine life, cleanness and all of it right to be respected and protected.
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Photos courtesy of Sam Logan of Leap Communications.
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