Antarctic Circle Challenge, Ice Swimming Hall Of Fame Honor Event
In 1913, the famous British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton ran the recruitment advertisement shown above.
101 years after this advertisement in 2014, South African adventurers Toks Viviers, Andrew Chin, Ryan Stramrood, Kieron Palframan, Gavin Pike and Ram Barkai figuratively signed up and ventured to attempt their own Antarctic Circle Challenge.
In 2014, the six South African ice swimmers swam south of the Antarctic Circle at 66.5622° South. The group challenged themselves logistically, physically and psychologically to raise money and awareness for the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative. While others had swum in the Southern Ocean before, this was the first time a group of ice swimmers had headed down to the bottom of the world together.
“Some claim the ad is a myth, but who cares?” said Barkai five years ago. “The reality is that Sir Shackleton managed to recruit a bunch of fellow adventurers as described in the ad, even 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 adventurers are asked so often: Why?
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 into 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.”
Up until 2014, Barkai and his fellow Cape Towners had accomplished a mid-winter swim in Lake Zurich in Europe and the unprecedented Patagonia Extreme Cold Water Challenge at the tip of South America, but they were ready to continue pushing their boundaries of open water swimming. “On February 21st 2014, we set off on a long flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina. From there we took another long haul flight to Ushuaia, deep south into Patagonia, on the Beagle Channel. We had 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 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 joined a cruise ship with Quark Express expeditions, traveling 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 endeavor, allow us join onboard and agree to assist with safety and medical requirements. We crossed the rough Drake Passage in two days, reached the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and made our way down south to Marguerite Bay where we hoped to make our main attempt before the end of February.”
At the surface, the Challenge at the bottom of the world was simple: an Ice Mile in swirling frigid waters. Practically however, the logistics, costs, weather uncertainty of swimming in extreme conditions in an unpredictable open sea presented significant obstacles to success. They planned to somewhere near where their mothership was anchored, confirming the distance with GPS.
But the organization of the ice swims were complicated. Barkai explained, “There are six of us so we split into 3 teams and rotated once the others on the team had fully recovered. Although we had a doctor, expedition professionals, zodiac and other support with us, in terms of ice swimming and enduring these temperatures, we had to look after each other.”
Up until 2014, only four solo ice swims had been completed in Antarctica. In 2002, pioneer 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 renowned 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 Ice Kilometer further south at around 65º South. In 2008, Barkai completed an Ice Kilometer in a frozen lake inland Antarctica at 70º South and was awarded with a Guinness World Record for the world’s most southernly open water swim.
“But no one has ever swum an Ice Mile south of the Antarctic Circle (66.5622° South),” described Barkai about the goal of the sextet of hardened adventurers. “The logistics of one swimmer compared to six swimmers is exponentially more complicated. Risks are compounded, not just added. We planned for attempts in a bay which never seen a swimmer before. Water temperature in the area varied between -2ºC to +1ºC, but we hoped for a ‘warmer’ 1ºC, but we prepared ourselves for the lower temperatures.”
Preparation and planning is what these men did extraordinarily well. Every degree difference in the water temperature makes the swim itself and the recovery 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 swam in the open sea which brings about different challenges. “There were several possible hazards that we needed 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 orcas that thankfully tend to avoid humans.
And 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 had been together for years, attempting and completing some extraordinary adventures and extremely tough challenges.
Barkai recalled,”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 fund our own adventures, we operate on a shoe string budget – flying obscure cheap routes and spending hours and hours in various remote airports. Our ship had 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 me 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 realized how true his words were, and still we were there together heading towards another unknown beautifully mad adventure.
Pike said “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 undertook. I ventured into something that I had not yet proved to myself was possible … yet I had to believe that I could do it in order to get in and start.
I loved the cold water preparation and felt exhilarated by the challenge ahead knowing full well that I was going to be filled with dread at that moment that I plunged into the Antarctic Circle.”
Stramrood said, “The lure of a swimming challenge in Antarctica for me signified the pinnacle of adventure, as well as the outer limits of extreme. A swim inside the Antarctic Circle was arguably the next natural progression in my ice swimming career [at that point in my career]. The stark conflict of the serene, magnificent, tranquil beauty of the place versus the unbelievably hostile and deadly conditions we endured in the water, made the Challenge a very compelling adventure and a frightening challenge for me.
To do this with some of my very best mates was the cherry on the top.”
Barkai recalled, “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 an Ice Mile. The combination of the raw beauty of the nature there, the ice, the glaciers the wild life and its vastness, is something I cannot describe. No picture, as beautiful as it gets can capture the awe one feels 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 welcomed effect on my body and mind.
Going to Antarctica with my best mates gave me a huge sense of comfort and anticipation of fun.”
Now I was presented this opportunity to do the Challenge and to be able to swim there made it just an awesome experience. I knew how tough this was going to be after experiencing a mile above the Arctic Circle where I had pushed my body to its extreme.
However unpleasant it was going to be, I knew it would be worth it in the end when we all came home successful and enriched by the Antarctic’s beauty.”
Chin said, “Going to Antarctica had always been a dream for me, sitting here now I think maybe I should have left it as a dream. 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 did 3 swims of over a kilometer; however, the coldest I had swum in was 2.5ºC and that was only for 8 minutes. The idea of doing the swim was not as bad as the reality of the recovery. I was looking forward to the pain it held, but the endorphins afterwards and the high drew me in. I was uncertain about whether I could accomplish a mile – or even if I wanted 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 was to be my final Ice Mile and would like to end at the top, this is my K2.”
Viviers said, “I really enjoy cold water swimming and always thought that swimming in Antarctica would be an epic cold water swimmers adventure. I had the opportunity to do just that, with a group of great friends. What more can one ask, swimming in such an environment.”
If any six individuals could have achieved their dream, these men could.
Their track record included swims in the English Channel, Alaska, Siberia, Murmansk, Bering Strait, Cape Horn, Strait of Gibraltar, Alcatraz, Magellan Strait, a Beagle Channel double crossing, Ice Miles, plenty of Robben Island crossings, the length of the Orange River and more. More importantly, we all knew each other very well and had been together through many highs and lows in some hairy situations, always watching over each other.
Yet, again, we knew that we were heading for another unknown scary experience in a deadly beautiful place. Yet, we had to go, because we just loved it.”
Barkai explained, “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 our second home. It is for this reason that we had two causes that we supported through our challenges:
One being our strategic partnership with World Wildlife Fund’s Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) where we provided 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 was the natural fit for us.
Keep it cool, don’t overheat, over-harvest, pollute or steal from our home – the ocean.
Our second support cause was very dear to our hearts and our pet project – The SEAL Open Water Swimming Trust – that we established years ago. We had 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 promoting 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.”
Ice chunks, icebergs, the Drake Passage, leopard seals, orcas, stiff winds, unexpected delays in the Antarctic waters ultimately greeted the ice water team. But Stramrood, Barkai, Chin, Viviers, Palframan, and Pike made it.
They were – are – good, resourceful, and helped with a dash of luck as the water dipped down to -1ºC (30.2ºF).
Henry Hartman’s quote – “…success always comes when preparation meets opportunity…” – epitomized the South Africans trip down to Antarctica.
Barkai described their swims after a rough Drake Passage crossing, “All of us had our turn in the Antarctic waters. Ryan, Kieron and I swam at 7 am in Neko Harbour. Andrew, Toks and Gavin swam in the evening at Paradise Harbour. Extremely poor weather, safety concerns, and a tight ship schedule caused the most delays during the total of 8 days of cruising. It was a complete mentally draining rollercoaster, with us mostly confined to our cabins, and with at least two swim times allocated per day, we were on constant standby. There were lots of great stories and wonderful pictures. Leopard seal chased the first group of swimmers from a distance, orcas appeared straight after the end of the swim. We bashed into ice boulders through our swims, and the icy cold water was -1ºC. But, ultimately, we all safely recovered, extremely tired, and very appreciative of the support.
I cannot describe the cold in Antarctica where every meter of water was littered with sizable chunks of ice or icebergs“
But the Antarctic Circle Challenge was successfully completed and it will remain an important chapter in the history of ice swimming dat the bottom of the world.
Antarctic Circle Challenge joins the following members of the Class of 2020 in the Ice Swimming Hall of Fame:
* Fergal Somerville, Honor Contributor – Administrator
* Petar Stoychev of Bulgaria, Honor Swimmer
* Christof Wandratsch of Germany, Honor Swimmer
* Antarctic Circle Challenge of South Africa, Honor Event
* Murmansk Winter Swimming of Russia, Honor Event
Copyright © 2008 – 2019 by World Open Water Swimming Association