Fearless And Frozen At The Bottom Of The World
Courtesy of WOWSA, Southern Ocean, Antarctica.
The incredibly adventurous men of the Antarctic Circle Ice Challenge – Ram Barkai, Andrew Chin, Toks Viviers, Kieron Palframan, Ryan Stramrood, and Gavin Pike – tell their story of their recent Antarctic Circle Ice Challenge on the bottom of the world…
“On our last day in Antarctica, Deception Bay, an active volcano, was mostly under water.
Water temperature here can get to above 10ºC but today it’s 1.8ºC, raining and wind blowing a gale. Tonight we sail north to the Drake Passage heading back to civilisation and the real world. Our adventure will take time to sink in.
By now, we are so used to being surrounded by ice, penguins, whales, leopard seals and extra-terrestrial scenery that it is difficult to imagine the sunny beaches of Cape Town, Camps Bay at 36ºC, shorts, slops and t-shirts.
Like most of our adventures and challenges, things always turn out differently to what we expect or anticipate. It is the nature of such an expedition. You prepare as much as you can and then you plunge yourself into Mother Nature’s arms (in this case, very cold bosom) and take it one day at a time. We learnt a lot, we grew a lot as a team and, of course, we had experiences, which rival all that came before. The weather here is so unpredictable that we quickly learnt to be prepared for the VERY worst wherever we went. You simply can’t afford to be caught unprepared. Wind, waves, temperature, currents can twist and turn within minutes and from kayaking or swimming in a pond with the sun on your back, you can find yourself in a 35 knot wind, large swell and a current pulling you off your course. Then there are the ever-present, inquisitive and darn scary leopard seals, which chase from behind.
We all set our challenge to swim a mile below the Antarctic Circle, however, after two days within the 68º south latitude at Marguerite Bay, it became apparent that the gods would not make it possible for us. The open, exposed sea is very different to a pool cut in the ice. The water temperature is the same, but the safety considerations are very different. The sea here is very deep. We have to cruise around to find a place to anchor. You can’t drop an anchor in 2 km deep water, even if you are few hundred meters away from shore. True to form, we argued our case tirelessly to get our swim done as planned, but the expedition leaders put their foot down on Day One. The next day we found another beautiful bay – just about every bay here is breathtakingly beautiful, BUT, always deadly. The weather picked up again and we couldn’t swim. This was a very touchy moment for us as we realised that we would not be able to swim south of the Antarctic Circle. We knew that it was only a symbolic issue because conditions and water temperatures are all the same here, but emotionally we were gutted. We travelled a long way to not be able to swim where we hoped, planned and dreamt.
We left the Circle area and started to head north. Day after day, we woke up in the morning; spent all our time preparing and planning for our swim. The anxiety became unbearable, we couldn’t relax into the trip and enjoy our surroundings. We tried hard, we kept our sense of humor, but deep inside we started to crack. The final straw was once again being denied at Petermann Island. The surroundings were so beautiful, it looked surreal and not from this world. Flat sea, like a mirror for the first time, giant glaciers all around, all compacted in amazing shades of blue looking like they were just about to crack and collapse into the bay’s waters. Thick ice floating all around in all shapes and sizes. From fist-size to car-size just moving around quietly. We were ready for our swim. Nothing can stop us now. We had several meetings with crew and safety team. Ryan, Ram and Kieron were on the first shift. We paired with each other. Toks was seconding Ryan, Andrew seconding Kieron and Gavin with Ram. The expedition staff knew a lot about Antarctica but nothing about ice swimming. The doctor was getting more anxious than us, not knowing what to expect. They have all been to Antarctica many times, seen a lot and done a lot. They have established a very healthy respect for the environment and to see a bunch of guys plunging into this icy, dark hostile water was against all their survivals instincts. Rule number one in Antarctica: Stay dry at all costs! Rule number two: If you do get wet, accidently, get out as soon as possible, and get dry. It is a matter of life and death and deeply entrenched in their psyche. Our mission very clearly, shatters their rules and takes them (experienced expedition people) way out of their safety comfort zones.
We decided to start and end at the ship – swim 825m out, 825m back to recovery. Huge amount of planning and preparation. We had a recovery room ready with heaters and dry towels. We had 5 Zodiacs in the water, 2 kayaks, two doctors and were 100% ready to go. We sat in the room, dressed in Speedo costume, cap and goggles, covered with a thick jacket awaiting the imminent call from the expedition leader to swim. No one talking to each other, all very much in a zone, extremely nervous, deep into our quiet place to visualise the dive, the moment of contact with -1ºC water, the swim and of course, the battle to recovery, just waiting for a knock on the door. But suddenly Andrew jumps up and says, ‘look out the port hole!!.’ We clamber to look outside. To our horror, within few seconds that pond-like bay in which we would swim had turned into an angry sea, wind at 35 knots, ice shifting rapidly around and waves picking up. The kayaks and cruising Zodiacs were out-and-about and just made it back to the ship. Just like that, once again, the swim was off! We were guttered! The tension and anxiety was just unbearable. We all gathered in one of our rooms frustrated and on the verge of nervous meltdown. Finally, in an attempt to ease the tension, Ryan got out the guitar and we made a song based on the “Let my people go” theme, but instead titled it “Let the swimmers swim”. It was good fun; we managed to break the tension with humour and laughter. We called the expedition leaders to our room and performed our gig for them with a subtle message that “we need to swim – or we will go mad”. We are Ice Swimmers and that’s what we came here to do.
The message got through.
A decision was taken that the following morning at 6 am in Neko Harbour (where Lynne Cox made the historic first ever Antarctic swim) we would make our attempt. We got up at 5:30 am. A meeting on the bridge confirmed that conditions had not improved much. After discussions with the captain and the expedition leader, we decided as a team to swim and thankfully got the thumbs up from the expedition leaders too. The wind was at around 15-20 knots with some gusts. Again, we decided to swim 825m one-way and back. The time had arrived.
Ram, Ryan and Kieron got ready. Zodiacs, kayaks, doctors, leopard seal and Orca spotters, GPS handlers, photographic and video crews were all prepared and deployed. Time to venture down the starboard side gangway and swim. The air was chilly at 0ºC, but the wind was biting. The water was around -1ºC, deep, dark, with great visibility. We stood on the gangway, no time for chit chat; we spotted the South Africa flag flying proud thanks to the other staffers on board. It was a goosebumps moment. One quick handshake and we were away.
All diving in, one after the other, like a rookery of penguins diving of an iceberg. The swim had started. Over 175 people on board our ship were cheering for us from the various decks, waving flags or just supporting. We heard nothing … we were frozen in focus. Ryan and Kieron paired up and took off with Ram slightly behind. It was a hard swim, but little did we know how hard is it going to get. We are all very experienced in the water, we know our speed, stroke rate and distance being covered as we stroke ahead. The halfway Zodiac just remained far away from us. We fought hard in the bitterly frozen water, but progress was slow. Ryan crossed the halfway mark of 833m after over 17 minutes, Kieron slightly behind and Ram after 21 minutes. We usually reach that mark after around 13-15 minutes. We knew something was very wrong. The rest was a battle of the titans.
Ram, having realised that we were swimming against a very strong current, knew that his chances of finishing the swim are close to nil. It would mean at least 40 minutes in -1ºC and possibly slower as he tired. After 1.2 km and 30 minutes, Ram decided to call it a day and avoid the undignified exit by being dragged out with a gaff. Ryan and Kieron pushed ahead with Kieron starting to slow down rapidly, his stroke deteriorating badly as his body shut down. Finally, Kieron was pulled out just under 100m from the finish. He gave his all, an absolute 100% effort and he simply could not do one more stroke. The conditions have pushed the swimmers right and left and we all possibly swam a longer distance. However, hard as it was, Andrew had to make an executive decision for and pulled him out. The medical crew took over Kieron’s recovery. Ryan dug very, very deep and managed to pull through and get to the finish line after 32 intense minutes. What a giant effort and very well done. The recovery was its usual horrible roller-coaster of the after drop, ice cold toxic blood mixing with the core lukewarm blood and lots of confusion, blank gazes, deep digging, shivering and much needed support.
We all gave it our best. It was a horribly tough challenge. Kieron was gutted with being so close to the end, Ryan was elated, but also very disheartened and upset that his teammates didn’t swim the full mile and would not be celebrating on the same level. Ram was also disappointed, but he knew that that is the nature of this extreme game. We all realise that this is what it is all about. A huge team effort, some tears of sorrow, others of joy. We gave it everything we had! We weren’t scared to dare! “Nothing great is easy!” As swimmers, we only found out after the swim that a large leopard seal had noticed us from around 400m away and started making its way rapidly towards us. This panicked the support teams, but thankfully, they allowed the swim to continue. We watched some of the footage seeing the giant seal leaping in our direction with glee – leopard seals eat up to 30 penguins a day, we could have been the meal of the day! It was gliding towards the back of the pack were Ram was, looking for the fresh meat of the youngest of the herd, as it got around 50m from the swimmers it realised that there is no young fresh meat there and changed direction rapidly. If we only knew, we would have swum twice as fast! Three minutes after the swim, three large killer whales appeared scanning the area. Just another day at the beach!
We moved few miles south to Paradise Bay, which obviously was not named by a swimmer! It was Gavin, Andrew and Toks turn. We got everything ready. The poor second team, after watching the first more experienced team swim and battle with the elements, were getting ready. They all had an overbearing feeling that if the first team battled so much they would surely have no chance. Andrew made a call – why even try if your chances for a mile are so slim? Following our horrible experience of fighting winds and waves at -1ºC we realised that there was only one way to attempt the swim. They would take a 1-mile course from the ship and swim with the chop behind them, one way back. Any other direction was suicidal.
We got the second team into their respective Zodiacs, each with his seconder and crew. Ram with Gavin, Kieron with Andrew, and Ryan with Toks. We managed to convince Andrew to get on the Zodiac and at least dive in and swim for “fun” as long as he wanted. We knew that this was the last chance we have to swim in Antarctica. We started heading away from the ship towards the 1-mile mark. The ship got smaller and smaller. The swimmers were covered with blankets at the bottom of the zodiacs to avoid the icy wind chill. The mile distance looked absolutely daunting! Even the seconds started to get all anxious. But the time had come. Ram started a loud count down from 10 and at 1 with all diving into the 0ºC dark waters. Andrew used his extended Afrikaans vocabulary to describe the how felt about the swim as he emerged from his entry. Toks’ old engine was struggling. He needs at least two kilometres to warm it up and we only allowed him to swim a mile. Gavin was on a mission; he had a tough experience few years back swimming with Ram in Scotland. He was so focused and determined that the leopard seal was too scared to reappear. The decision to choose a course which is not against the waves and chop proved a wise one. The guys were swimming strongly. Andrew, who made the decision to only do 1 km climbed out after his 1 km swim. It was the right decision for him; he was in good spirits and continued to educate the Canadian and Australians crew with flowery words in Afrikaans. Gavin and Toks were getting close to the end of the swim. The fact that they were not swimming head on into the wind made their time in the water significantly shorter. Gavin and Toks reached the end of their miles in close succession. Although in serious need of recovery, we all saw fleeting smiles of acknowledgment of their awesome achievements, mostly in relief that this is over now.
What a great achievement. Gavin was the only swimmer who had not completed an Ice Mile before. We cracked open a bottle of Talisker Strom and awarded him with the red jacket of an Ice Swimmer. Well done Gavin and welcome to our mad club of frozen ones. No better place in the world to do your first Ice Mile.
Kieron and Ram were researching the possibility of attempting another Ice Swim in Deception Island couple of days later; however, conditions deteriorated and it was simply unsafe to attempt another swim.
We are so eager to get home. We miss our families terribly and are desperate for dry warm land, t-shirts, shorts, slops and an icy beer. We have so many beautiful pictures and footage, so many stories and amazing memories. We met some great interesting people and are very grateful for everyone on the ship, from passengers to expedition staff, to captain and crew for letting us follow our mad dreams, for the support and for looking after us. It hasn’t sunk in yet. But it will slowly, later, as we browse through the pictures and look at thing from a real life perspective.
Thanks to our sponsors that made it easier for us to afford this: Olrac SPS, BNL clean Energy, Spiros Mica, Speedo, Talisker, I&J.
Just another day at the beach.”
Copyright © 2014 by Ram Barkai