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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Deadliest Swim, Russia to USA Across the Bering Strait

Written by Ryan Stramwood and edited by the South African team

What an insane icy journey. No other words to describe it. The following was written over the course of the 12-day challenge, without knowing if/when we would get reception or any connectivity, so it reflects daily team emotions and insights.

August 4th - We never got to shore in Provodinia. The special permits were emailed to the ship, but there is not enough connection to download them and therefore no one was allowed to go ashore.

So our hopes after 4 days at sea of getting off and stocking up on essentials before heading to relay start point (Cape Dezhnev) were dashed. Thank God we got to contact our families with the bar of reception found while anchored close to shore, before setting off again. The weather was foul and wind chill extreme.

105 hours later we arrived close to the start point. Huge decisions had to be made as to the official start time to co-ordinate weather patterns and currents.

The currents are probably the biggest concern, as an accurate vector must be established which took the different paces of many different swimming styles and abilities into account. Ram Barkai and Ryan Stramrood joined a strategy meeting on the bridge together with a the surfer-dude who kite surfed across the Bering Strait two years ago. He is here to assist with wind and current information. The meeting ended with the two South Africans volunteering to head out with the reconnaissance team on Zodiacs to find the best start point and then to be taken 3 km off-shore, out of the shelter of the Cape, into the teeth of the wind and to swim on a specific course for some time 5 minutes while being measured with GPS to determine the current strength and direction. An amazing experience, our long awaited first dip in the Bering and useful data collected.

The water was a balmy 8ºC (46ºF) and although still with a bite, it made us wonder about the reports of temperatures between 1-5ºC (33-41ºF). This type of exaggerated reporting is not uncommon we have found over the years. But it was a welcome learning nonetheless.

At 16:30 on Monday August 5th, the relay began with Melissa O'Reiley as the first swimmer representing the USA and stepping off Russian soil. The relay format is precision - 3 swimmers per Zodiac, 10 minutes in the water per swimmer, with a 'high 5' change-over.

So each shift takes approximately 2 hours in total of which 60 minutes is at sea: 10 minutes journey from ship to the current swimmer, 10 minutes to prepare for the change over while the previous swimmer finishes, 10 minutes x 3 for each swimmer in the water, then 10 minutes back to the main ship once all swimmers on our Zodiac are done. Every single session is recorded and swimmer change-over officiated by the Russian, European and Guinness Book of Record Book representatives to ensure proper conduct.

The South African team made up the second shift at 17:30. The water was wild, but the 8ºC (46ºF) temperature for a short period was not too bad. It possibly all sounds so simple, but there is nothing gentle about the Bering Sea. It is never still with large rolling waves and a relentless, penetrating, icy wind. Once our first official session was complete with little incident, we were in very high spirits - 6 days of cabin fever finally broken. Immediately following each swim session, we are taken back to the main ship where there is a production line of reheating treatments, followed by essential medical check ups and data recordings. A bit over the top we initially thought. But from there things suddenly got very serious. The wind got stronger and stronger making the ocean almost unplayable, especially in a Zodiac. The water temperature dropped from 8ºC to 2.5ºC (36.5ºF) - a difference only a few will fully grasp, hands and feet solid frozen in an instant. As there is often no point of vision for the swimmer, we rely on the boat skipper for direction. These guys are excellent skippers in very difficult conditions, but they do not have a clue about seconding a swimmer. So you can possibly picture the scenario - 1 am in the morning, wild sea (for reference - the cut off for Robben Island swim is 10 knots.

Our sea was 25 knots minimum, biting wind chill, 2.5ºC water, no boat immediately alongside to guide you often losing sight for a second as the boat entered a trough and the swimmer a crest, no English speaking crew with whom to communicate, all while staring down into the deep dark Bering Sea to glimpse many life forms below as they stare back up.

This temperature is immediately life-threatening and one's body reacts strongly. It takes some strength of mind to keep calm and is very frustrating when you veer off in the wrong direction until a loud horn blows to get your attention. Following the first 2.5ºC session, suddenly the reheating team and medical checks made a lot more sense. Our hands and feet took a hammering in the ice water and ached like hell. It was a reality check to think that we would have to get back in after a few hours rest and it took a toll on our minds - although the relay had just begun, we had already been travelling for 10 days and were tired. One Yakutskian swimmer lost the fight and sank 2 meters below the water before he was fished out with a gaff and revived. Every swimmer had to use a bright orange flotation device attached to the waist, so if you go down, you won't get lost. It was great for spotting the swimmer and it added huge comfort. It is highly recommended for extreme swims, however, it can add drag and irritation when the wind blows.

This was a moment of truth to all. We are all experienced swimmers, but 2ºC (35ºF) again and again for 3 more days at these conditions seemed on the verge of impossible for us. To think we still had 2 or 3 days of this at extreme temps was quite hard pill to swallow at that point. But it was what we signed up for.

The relay was stopped as we reached the Diomede Islands, just on the border of USA water and the dateline. The weather turned extremely bad and it was impossible to continue. This gave everyone a welcome rest.

The temperatures on our 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th swims slowly climbed 4ºC (39ºF), 5ºC (41ºF), 8ºC (46ºF), and 10ºC (50ºF) respectively as we drew closer to the US mainland. Our 6th session was at 2 am and was one of the most frustrating. Albeit warmer water, a very think fog moved in within seconds and together with the fierce wind it made navigation impossible. We ended up swimming in circles, literally. Very frustrating as we are all pushing very hard in our sessions to move the team forward.

Suddenly, on the August 8th, the fog lifted and there was Alaska in clear view! Our first sighting of the USA end point, only some 20 km away. This called for much pandemonium as a million posed photographs up on deck. Up until this point there had been doubts as to whether we would actually make this thing work - it had been really tough. But most of the international swimmers on this ship could solo swim that distance easily, so we all felt it was pretty much in the bag and calculated that we would finally be off the ship in less than 12 hours.

But no ways was the Bering Sea going to let go of us that easily. Although predicted it would, the current abruptly changed from a moderate Northerly to and aggressive Southerly. Immediately the relay was set off-course and therefore stopped at a GPS co-ordinate to allow us to devise a new strategy. We were in danger of missing the Cape Prince of Wales peninsula and adding days onto our challenge. The organisers decided to cut the 62 strong team down to 27 of the 'top' swimmers who only do freestyle - the faster stroke. The 10-minute swim times were also increased to 15-minute sessions. The South African team sits very comfortably in the top 10 in terms of pace and even higher in terms of ability in the rough cold seas. We knew we would be in top half of the list, but did not know how key our role would be.

Again, we were selected to head out to conduct another swim current reconnaissance. Each time we leave the Mother Ship, there is a significant process of getting ready. It is freezing on the Zodiac and the relentless wind chill and sea spray from waves means full warm kit is worn on each excursion, only with a Speedo underneath it all. The wind and waves make sure you are always properly soaked and frozen before you get in. The recce went well and we gained 1100 meters against the current in the 45-minute session. Slow progress, but progress nonetheless and ocean current data successfully collected and used to set the course for the rest. We measured it at 2 km/hour from the South East (head on).

But the concern on all our minds was that of the new 27-strong team, there are still many much slower swimmers, extremely capable, but slow. They would surely lose position rather than gain. After approximately 12 hours after the new format started, it was established with dismay that we had progressed only 2 km. The current's strength had rocketed to an impossible 7 nautical knots/hour (13 km/hour) and we were heading further off course every minute. No one can out swim it. Again, the swim was stopped to re-evaluate and a decision made to resume swimming at 3 am with a new strategy.

We awoke at 3 am to find nothing happening and the weather extremely bad. A quick walk on deck revealed that we were anchored again in Russian waters alongside Big Diomede Island, some 20 km back from the last logged swim position. Apparently permission to be in USA water expired on the August 8th, the date we were scheduled to leave Nome. Today is the 9th. I think spirits are at their lowest.

Ram desperately wants to call Neve on her birthday today, Toks [Viviers] is desperate for information on his terminally ill mom, one of the Argentinian team has his daughter's wedding in 2 days which he will surely miss, Andrew [Chin] and Ryan [Stramrood] are desperate to contact families and offices, Alasdair who is with us to document our trip is in the same position. I am sure everyone on the ship has some serious personal connectivity anxiety.

Zero connectivity is one of the toughest parts. There is so much time to sit and do nothing which drives the mind crazy. The other issue is that we brought along snacks which catered for 4/5 days at sea. We are now on day 10 at sea and even the simple luxury of a nibble is gone. Only the Irish ladies catered properly, bringing over 20 kg of snacks and treats all the way from Ireland. For the first time we have reached a point where we did not believe the mission would succeed. Weather and currents are simply too strong.

If we had no time constraints, then we would dig deep to plug away at 200m per hour until we reach shore. But we all have responsibilities back home, we all have limited Russian visas and we are all beyond craving the simple things - a decent cuppa, anything fresh and cell phone signal to call home. 10 consecutive days on ship food, as hard as they try, followed by intense swim sessions in the cold, places some physical requirements on the body and we can all feel the effects of fatigue. As we swim through the day and night and as it is only slightly dark for 3 hours per night, we have no idea of what day it is and body clocks have just switched off to get the job done.

Its been a full day of sitting at anchor with absolutely nothing to do. The South African team gathers all international swimmers into a meeting hall to establish group sentiment and whether we should approach the organisers as one voice with some requirements and set a cut-off date that we can not surpass. It is a good meeting, but becomes apparent that most of the team budgeted for a few extra buffer days. Shortly after our meeting, a full team meeting was called by the organisers. Besides being warned that we are running out of nearly everything and that the hot water would be switched off, the message was in terms of the challenge was positive. The Russians had secured an extra 4 days of USA permissions and no way were we considering throwing in the towel. This is a R25m project, land is clearly in sight and personal requirements would not be considered. Our team and all others therefore had no choice but to accept that our return time to loved ones and responsibilities, was completely out of our hands. Thankfully Cristian Vergara could pick up a few bars of reception from Little Diomedes Island while we were sheltering just on the other side of the border and kindly let us send text messages home - some peace of mind. We believed an update has been posted to FaceBook too.

Its the August 10th. Ryan quietly (or so he thinks) turns 40 years old on the ship while it lies in Russian waters but returns to USA, across the date line in the night close to the correct co-ordinate to resume the swim. It is 2 am and we are 16 km from the finish still being held at bay by the currents. We have crossed over the international date line 4 times as we toggle being Russia and USA waters. It is quite weird to think about (today becomes tomorrow but is suddenly yesterday and then tomorrow again. And Ryan's birthday will stretch for a full extra 24 hours.

Thankfully the ship has one time and we stick to it (Vladivostok time). Although the swim is to recommence shortly, the ship is rolling heavily and it is obvious that the weather is worse than ever. A walk to the deck confirms this fact. We head back to bed fairly certain that there will be no swimming in these conditions. It's insane. But 3 hours later at 5 am, Toks is suddenly woken and given only 20 minutes before he must head out for his session. From a warm cabin bunk to a wild, icy Bering ocean in 20 minutes is a massive adjustment and mentally draining. Ram, Ryan and Andrew will swim in a few hours time.

We return from one of the most adrenalin-filled sessions ever: 10th swim as part of relay. 7-meter swells which were breaking into whitewater, tumbling the swimmer and near rolling the Zodiac on a few occasions. 10 minutes ago it was a lot calmer. This is as seen on Deadliest Catch.

Andrew, not a fan of big waves, is in a state but still gets in to do his set. Ram and Ryan are almost enjoying the ride and are yelling like school kids. Until the mother set sprang from nowhere. We gripped whatever we could and braced ourselves for impact with adrenalin at a high. Thankfully Andrew was in the water and only got a bit tumbled by the whitewater hitting him. With our safety now too seriously threatened, the relay was again stopped.

Another 12 hours of sitting and waiting. After getting into bed at 8 pm, Ryan and team were called to a meeting in the gymnasium only to find a make-shift party and birthday ceremony. It included many speeches, small gifts (lots for fridge magnets), an accordion and, of course, a guitar. The effort was absolutely hugely appreciated and will certainly go down as the most unique 40th birthday party ever - on a Russian Hospital ship called the Irtysh, smack in the middle of the Bering Sea, crossing over the international date line so to add an extra 24 hours to the same day, while leaving Russia and entering the USA, all with a bunch of Russian friends and those from 14 other countries, in a ship hall that is rolling so much you have to hold the wall or sit down so as not to fall over. One for the memory!

August 11th, and the list of 62 swimmers is now down to 15. A mission which sourced local sea current information from Nome, Alaska has lifted spirits. Again we are up at 2 am to get ready to head out into the teeth of icy wind chill and this time pouring rain too. The water temp is the least of the concerns and sits at a comfortable 12ºC (53ºF) now. Our gear is still wet from the previous session which saw waves breaking over us and it is simply miserable and very very hard to still do after 12 days at sea. There is no food, no coffee, no snacks to eat before heading out. Only a sip of water.

Upon return to the ship 2 hours later, wet, cold, hungry it is still only 5 am and therefore still not breakfast time nor the availability of a simple coffee to warm the core and lift the spirits. Everything is on ration. As predicted, only the strong are still going, pulling the team meter by meter towards the shore. Our last session of a collective 45 minutes in the water gained only 750m - progress nonetheless. Some swimmers not on the list are very willing to swim and strong of mind, but their paces are not able to overcome the fierce currents.

Following our session, our team is asked to swim again very soon and to increase the time in water to 20 minutes. We are only 9 km from the shore. SO close, but with only a handful of swimmers able to progress. We agree, but moan loudly about the lack of coffee or anything else. The organiser suggests that he will steal some beer from the General for us if we help make this work. We accept of course but right now its comfort food we seek. Now being up for 5 hours, already completed a swim session, being asked to go back out there, but no chance of sustenance. Our moans meet deaf ears, and we just have to suck it up. Being so close to shore but not able to reach it for days is killing us and we will now do anything to keep going.

We complete our 12th session in the ocean, all pushing as hard as we can. As soon as we are finished and warmed up, we eagerly head up to bridge of the ship to see how we have progressed. At last, the signs are good. Although a thick cloud covers the Cape, we can visibly see that the land is closer. We are now only 5 km to go and the current has been beaten. It is smooth sailing from here, a simple swim to the end. To climb out and set foot on another continent only 250 meters from shore and the swim is stopped.

We are all recalled to the ship for a meeting to advise who will be selected to have the honours of officially finishing the mammoth challenge. Rightly so, it will be a USA and Russian representative who will carry their respective flags ashore, followed by a short beach ceremony very cold, so very short.

The South African team is exhausted. We have worked hard, our spirits kept high for the full duration, our senses of humour always in tact in the most trying of circumstances and our heads held high to the very end. We had to dig hard. And to play the role we ended up playing, our extensive experience in rough conditions and ice cold water has shown clearly. The only thing missing from this adventure was Kieron and that's a regret we will all have forever.

Russia to USA, across the awesome, relentless Bering Sea. A fight to the very end. But a respect for Mother Nature now bigger than ever before. Done!

Photo courtesy of Ryan Stramwood.

Copyright © 2013 by Ram Barkai of iCE Capital (Pty) Ltd.

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