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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Recollections Of The Most Risky Open Water Swim In History

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Nuala Moore, Jackie Cobell, Ram Barkai, Anna Marie Ward, Yrjö-Koskinen Mariia, Aleksandr Jakovlev and Dr. Nataliya Fatyanova, the Chief Medical Officer from Russia, presented fascinating photographs and behind-the-scenes information about the Bering Strait Swim at the 2013 Global Open Water Swimming Conference in Cork, Ireland.

Formally known as the First International Intercontinental Swimming Relay Across the Bering Strait, the Bering Strait Swim was a stage relay and, we believe, the most dangerous and risky open water swimming relay in history. With 66 swimmers ages 13 to 67 from 17 countries being guided and escorted by the large Russian crew in the unpredictable Bering Strait, there were a lot of people both on board and in the water who needed to be protected under some wildly dynamic conditions.

The swim started at Cape Dezhnev, Chukotka at 4:24 pm on August 5th with 66 swimmers ages 13 to 67 from 17 countries and 15 regions of the Russian Federation.

Major General Yuri Melnikov, Chief of Operations of the Eastern Military District in Russia was in charge of the event that conducted under the Cold Water Swimming Association of the Khabarovsk Territory and Aquatic Sport Federation of Amur Region. Logistical support was provided by the Eastern Military District Forces with Admiral Konstantin Sidenko in charge.

The escort ship was the Pacific Ocean Fleet’s Hospital Ship Irtysh which was supported by 3 RIBs that covered the swimmers. The team boarded the ship in Petro-Kamchatsky and took 4 days to get the starting point. During the time, they took medical examinations and participated in briefings, safety drills, and presentations, listened to the Guinness Book of World Records representatives, researchers, and kite surfers who traversed the Strait.

The swimmers started off in legs of 10-15 minutes with RIBs shuttling between the larger boat. However, the swim intervals varied with the conditions and water temperature. As each swimmer completed their changes with a high five, the relay rotated as planned continuously for the first three days, but then the team had to stop due to safety reasons.

When the conditions were judged to be safe, the relay commenced as the athletes and crew dealt with wind and fog with variable air temperatures and water temperatures between 2-10°C. “What was difficult were the transfers from the hospital ship to the RIB, in the water back to the RIB, then from the RIB to the ship. This took a lot of time where you would get wet and cold. There was anxiety getting in and out of the water in the ocean swells, but we were all looking out for each other. When the swells were large, the big Russian men on the RIB would grab us and haul us into the RIB in one smooth move. They would look us in the eye and just time catching us as the swells made things very difficult.”

Besides the exhaustion due to lack of sleep and living in close quarters living on a ship, Dr. Vic Peddemors told the team about the über-predator, the killer whale, in the area. “Up there I would be pretty sure that they feed on marine mammals, so they would potentially be interested in approaching a human swimmer. Personally, I would get out of the water.”

But despite the remoteness, there was trust and belief among the team. “This was an opportunity to go where very few people have been before. We did not know if this swim was possible, swimming from Russia past the Diomede Islands, over the International Dateline, passed close to Fairway Rock, and onto beach in Alaska,” summarized Moore. "We brought a lot of food and tea with us and people would want to talk and drink something warm between their swims. We built up great camaraderie and trust among us."

And it was that swimmer-to-swimmer and swimmer-to-crew trust was resulted in their ultimate success as they finished on August 11th – 144 hours 28 minutes or a little over 6 days - as the swimmers walked up on Cape Prince of Wales in Alaska 86 km after their start in Russia.

"We also received the help of the governments on both sides as the visa period had to be extended for two days," recalls Moore. "The Russians were very helpful, as were the Americans on the Alaska side. It all turned out well."

With memories to last a lifetime.

Copyright © 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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