Antarctic Circle Ice Challenge: The Goal, The Men, The Cause
In 1913, the famous explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton ran the recruitment ad shown above.
“Some claim the ad is a myth, who cares?” says Barkai, ever the imaginative and adventurous soul from Cape Town. “The reality is that Sir Shackleton managed to recruit a bunch as described in the ad before his famous Antarctica trip on his ship the Endurance. Maybe this ad and what followed for Shackleton can begin to demonstrate the billion-dollar question we are asked so often: Why?”
As Barkai and his band of merry ice swimmers describe, “Man has always been drawn to the raw beauty of nature – to the challenges it presents and to its ultimate power. There is nothing in the world as raw in its beauty as Antarctica. Its deadly beauty with its nature-made art, sculptures, deserts, frozen waves and glaciers. Its vastness and mysteries are beyond the world we know. It’s like an entire new hostile planet.
So imagine – you take a space shuttle to this ‘hostile planet’ – a place even Star Trek never dared venture, and instead of getting dressed in your protective space suit armed with technology and comfort, you rather undress, everything, put on a small brief swimming costume, cover your upper head with a silicon cap, place a pair of goggles on your eyes and the. dive in to the frozen liquid solution they call sea, on this newly discovered hostile planet and go for a swim.”
For us, Shackleton was not mad, but just an inspiration and the epitome of the human spirit.”
From a mid-winter swim in Lake Zurich in Europe to the Patagonia Extreme Cold Water Challenge at the tip of South America, Barkai and crew have always pushed the boundaries of open water swimming. “On February 21st, we will embark on a long flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina. From there we will take another long haul flight to Ushuaia, deep South into Patagonia, on the Beagle Channel. We have been there before, but on the other side, in Puerto Williams, Chile, where we swam across the Beagle Channel and back. We then headed to set our world first swim at Cape Horn around the Sailors Graveyard. We remember looking at the lights of Ushuaia saying we will be back one day to venture even further south.
From Ushuaia we will join a cruise ship with Quark Express expeditions, travelling all the way down south until we are cross the elusive Antarctic Circle. It took 3 years of correspondence with various shipping companies to find one willing to entertain assisting in our mad endeavour, allow us join onboard and agree to assist with safety and medical requirements. We plan to cross the rough Drake Passage in two days, reach the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and make our way down south to Marguerite Bay where we hope to make our main attempt and set another world record end of February.”
Their swim is the Antarctic Circle Ice Challenge at the bottom of the world. At the surface, the challenge is simple: a one-mile attempt in this mass of swirling frigid waters. Practically, the logistics, costs and uncertainty of swimming in extreme conditions in an unpredictable open sea are significant obstacles to success. They will swim somewhere near where the ship is anchored, confirming the distance with GPS.
But the organization of the ice swims is complicated. “There are six of us so we will have to split into two or three teams and rotate once the a team has fully recovered. Although we will have a doctor, expedition professionals, zodiac and other support, in terms of ice swimming and enduring these temperatures, we are the experts and we will have to look after each other. No one there understands ice swimming quite like we do.”
With Barkai at the helm, the possibility and probability of a safe and successful execution of these grandiose plans is high. Although only three swims have been completed in Antarctica, Barkai claims one of them. In 2002 Lynne Cox was the first to swim in Antarctica at Neko Harbour around 60º South. She swam 1.2 miles in 25 minutes and wrote a book about her journey that inspired the current generation of Antarctic ice swimmers. In 2005 Lewis Pugh followed her footsteps and swam 1 mile in Deception Bay and an additional 1 km further south at around 65º South. In 2008, Barkai completed a 1 km swim in a frozen lake inland Antarctica at 70º South and was awarded with a Guinness World Record for the world’s most Southernly Swim.
“But no one has ever swum a mile south of the Antarctic Circle (66.5622° South),” describes the sextet of hardened adventurers. “The logistics of one swimmer compared to the much larger six swimmers, is exponentially more complicated. Risks are compounded, not just added. The attempt will take place in a bay which never seen a swimmer before. Water temperature in the area will vary between -2ºC to +1ºC. We hope for the ‘warmer’ 1ºC, but we have to prepare ourselves for lower temperatures.”
And preparation and planning is what these men do well, extraordinarily well. For every degree difference in the water temperature makes the swim and the recovery that much more difficult. While many ice swims are performed along a shore or in a pool that is carved out of a lake, the South Africans will be swimming in the open sea which brings about different challenges. “There are several possible hazards that we will need to avoid while swimming in the ice waters. One is floating glaciers and pieces of ice in different shapes ands sizes. They float and drift quite fast and constantly drop pieces weighing a ton or two right in our swim route. There are killer whales or orcas – the name we prefer. Thankfully they tend to avoid humans, but we may be not appear very human swimming in the frozen waters for some time.
But there are leopard seals. Leopard seals are large and muscular with a dark grey back and light grey on its stomach. Its throat is whitish with the black spots that give the seal its common name. Leopard seals are predators, feeding mainly on other seals, penguins, fish and krill. Killer whales are the only known natural predators of leopard seals. The leopard seal is bold, powerful and curious. In the water, there is a fine line between curiosity and predatory behavior, and it may ‘play’ with penguins it does not intend to eat.
And last, but not least, there are plenty of the 15 species of whales cruising around.”
Like the team of men that survived under the leadership of Sir Shackleton, the team that will attempt the Antarctic Circle Ice Challenge has been together for some time, attempting and completing some extraordinary adventures and extremely tough challenges for many years: Toks Viviers, Andrew Chin, Ryan Stramrood, Kieron Palframan and Ram Barkai.
When Toni Enderli had to withdraw, the team was thrown for a curve. “We needed to replace him with someone experienced, someone hard-core and someone who can handle for 14 days stuck on a ship under hugely stressful conditions, with us.
Since we, usually fund our own adventures, we have to operate on a shoestring budget – flying obscure cheap routes and spending hours and hours in various remote airports. The ship is the dearest part of the trip so we have managed to find two triple-bed rooms on the lower deck right alongside the ship’s engine room. So we needed a sixth swimmer. So we called on Gavin Pike, our sixth member. Gavin is based in Amsterdam with serious swimming credentials. He swam with Andrew and Ram most of the length of the Orange River, has done various long, extreme swims and is a good friend of ours. As world-renowned explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes said, ‘Choose your expedition partners very carefully. You will hate everything and each other at some stage in the middle of the expedition and if you can’t get over it and focus – it may be your life!’ We all have been there before and realised how true his words were, and still we are here together heading towards another unknown beautifully mad adventure.
Gavin Pike: “Having pushed myself in extreme water temperatures beyond the threshold of what my mind and body could sustain in the past means that I have huge respect and caution for the task we are undertaking. I am venturing into something that I have yet to prove to myself is possible … yet have to believe I can do it in order to get in and start.
We are embarking on this ice swim in the most extreme temperatures and environment possible so really hopeful of ‘favourable’ conditions to accomplish the challenge. I am loving the cold water preparation and feel exhilarated by the challenge ahead knowing full well that I will be filled with dread at the moment I need to take that plunge in Antarctica.”
Ryan Stramrood: “The lure of a swimming challenge in Antarctica for me signifies the pinnacle of adventure, as well as the outer limits of ‘extreme’. A swim inside the Antarctic Circle is arguably the next natural progression in my ice swimming career. The stark conflict of the serene, magnificent, tranquil beauty of the place versus the unbelievably hostile and deadly conditions we will endure in the water, make this a very compelling adventure and a frightening challenge for me. Further, to jointly hold the record of a mile swim in both the Arctic and Antarctic Circles is a significant personal driving force.
To do this with some of my very best mates is the cherry on the top.”
Ram Barkai: “My first visit to Antarctica in 2008 was a true life-changing event. It made such an impact on my life that I knew I would be back again and this time to swim a mile. The combination of the raw beauty of the nature there, the ice, the glaciers the wild life and its vastness, is something I can’t describe. No picture, as beautiful as it gets can capture the owe ones feel when in Antarctica. Swimming has always been my true passion, probably more a lifestyle. I always felt better in the water than outside the water and for whatever bizarre reason I find the icy cold water a “comfort”, a very special zone of existence for short periods only that has an amazingly welcome effect on my body and mind. I know it will be a challenge with all the unexpected usual’s thrown at us when we just had enough.
But this is part of it and going into there with my best mates give a huge sense of comfort and anticipation of fun.”
Now I have this opportunity to do this and of course to be able to swim there makes it just an awesome experience. I know how tough this will be after experiencing a mile above the Arctic Circle a year ago where I pushed my body to its extreme.
However unpleasant I know it will be worth it in the end when we all come home successful and enriched by the Antarctic’s beauty.”
Andrew Chin: “Going to Antarctica has always been a dream for me, sitting here now I think maybe I should have left it as a dream. Well, the swim was never really a part of my dream. I am drawn by the beauty of the continent, the sense of adventure and the opportunity to do my final cold-water test. I have done 3 swims of over a kilometre however the coldest I have swum in is 2.5ºC and that was only 8 minutes. The idea of doing the swim is not as bad as the reality of the recovery. I don’t look forward to the pain it holds but the endorphins afterwards and the “high” seem to draw me in. I am uncertain about whether I can accomplish a mile or even if I want to. I want to share in the adventure and experience with my “swimming” mates and overcome an inner fear that has no place in the real world. This is my final Ice Mile and would like to end at the top, this is my K2.”
Toks Viviers: “I really enjoy cold water swimming and always thought that swimming in Antarctica would be the epic of a cold water swimmers adventure, now I have the opportunity do just that, with a group of great friends .What more can one ask swimming in such an environment.”
If any six individuals can achieve their dream, these men can.
Their track record in the English Channel, Alaska, Siberia, Murmansk, Bering Strait, Strait of Gibraltar, Alcatraz, Magellan Strait, Beagle Channel double, Cape Horn, Ice Miles, plenty of Robben Island crossings, the length of the Orange River and many more. More importantly, they all know each other very well and been together through many highs and lows in some hairy situations, always watching over each other.
“Yet, again, we are k………ing ourselves. We know we are heading for another unknown scary experience in a deadly beautiful place. Yet, we have to go, because we just love it,” explains Barkai.
“A common question after the “why are you doing it?” is “for what charity or cause?” It has always been an interesting question. We are all normal people with families, kids, mortgage bonds, and work. This is our passion. Yet, we love the ocean, we love nature and the outdoors and we promote its beauty and the need to care for it in every step of the way – it is after all our second home. It is for this reason that we have two complementing amazing causes we support through our challenges:
One being our new strategic partnership with World Wildlife Fund’s Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) where we provide a unique platform of exposure for them. SASSI champions the plight of all the oceans’ great inhabitants and educates on the many issues surrounding over-harvesting and consumption choices – it is the natural fit for us.
Our second support cause is very dear to our hearts and our pet project – The SEAL Open Water Swimming Trust that we established several years ago. We come across many causes and issues urgently requiring attention and we try to do our best – from teaching kids and people to swim in remote places, to promote healthy lifestyles and active lifestyles. We talk in schools and other institution and donate all the proceeds to the SEAL Trust. Our Trust support kids requiring assistance in development areas, supports established programs that teach swimming coaches so they in turn are well equipped to go to the development areas and teach kids to swim. And most of all we promote the human spirit and the need to lead healthy, active lifestyle.
Keep it cool, don’t overheat, over-harvest, pollute or steal from our home – the ocean.”
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