Tuesday, January 22, 2013

That was brutal!  But if you are considering a swim across the Strait of Magellan then please do it!  This blog may seem to focus on the difficulties and challenges we faced during the preparation and actual swim but only because I promised my friends I wouldn’t skip any last detail in hopes that with this info they may be better prepared to make the attempt one day as well. 

The swim is epic.  Chileans are truly astounded with people who skin swim in the estrecho!  Each and every person we met in Punta Arenas asked twice if we were really swimming it sans wetsuit…the navy captain, the two Chileans who swam with me, the news reporter covering the story and even the navy doctor who gave me the final pre swim check-up.

The people of Punta Arenas know well the history of swimming in the estrecho.  Upon arrival I learned of a very recent incident with four stowaways who jumped from a passing cargo ship only two hundred meters from shore but never made it to land and perished.  Locals still remember that as late as the early 90’s only 5 of the 7 people who attempted the crossing without a wetsuit actually survived to talk about it.

During training for this swim in Seattle and San Francisco we were committed to going out in the coldest, wettest and most miserable conditions possible which equaled just a little better than the best possible circumstances we could expect in the strait on crossing day.  We had plenty of days in Seattle with 30’s air temps and down to the teens with the wind-chill.  The waters at home ranged from 46 to 51 which turned out to be the warmest temps encountered in the strait but only during the final 100-200 meter stretch of the Tierra del Fuego side!

The local support provided during the swim was incredible!  My host and Punta Arenas based coordinator was Claudia, Roberto and Martina with Pedro from San Francisco attending as well.  Feel free to contact me for information on this outstanding group of swimmers, coaches and support.

The first open water practice swim day had us in 40.8 degree water which was the coldest I had ever experienced.  We entered the water just a few hundred meters from a recent ship wreck that had ripped the vessel in two.  Only the front half of the boat was resting on shore with no idea where the back half was, maybe the bottom of the strait or in the belly of a shark?  The water was cold at first but after about 90 seconds of hard swim effort the chill was no longer a (primary) issue. 

On the second o/w training day one of those little things that shouldn’t bother me had happened.  One of the local swimmers swimming with us and wearing only a skin suit could not bring herself to get in the water.  I thought for sure after a little standing around she would be okay so I jumped in and began following the shoreline east and away from the wreck.  A great local swimmer who had lived in Punta Arenas all her life should be okay without a wetsuit in this water, right?  This day the water was just 39 degrees right to the shore and that is a tough temperature to jump in at if not conditioned for it.  I returned after 20 minutes and everyone was on shore dressed and ready for lunch.

The actual jump dates fluctuated often and one time changed just 24 hours prior to the swim but finally seemed to settle on a 2 pm Sunday the 20th of January attempt.  The moving jump time/date was a little disconcerting but something that was absolutely necessary.  The navy wanted to bring a specialized frigate size boat that could motor right up to shore in case we needed a quick exit back to the base and was the reason for the full day change in schedule.  When Pedro made the crossing back in 2000 he lost consciousness once on shore and again during his transport in the cold, slow and open zodiac back to base.  That seemed to be a critical window and is exactly the same case when swimming in Seattle.

On jump day we packed up and started our 2 hour journey to Punta Delgada to meet with the navy and prepare for the swim.  We arrived 3 hours early which was good since we had to meet with the navy captain, two other swimmers and get our briefing about the most recent water and weather conditions. 

Upon arrival at the navy base I looked across the strait and saw the low, flat outline of Tierra del Fuego on the horizon.  It truly looked and felt like we were at the end of the continental mainland which we were.

We had no less than 25 naval support people including the garrison commander with us during the crossing. The Chilean Navy was extremely professional and thorough in the preparation and will only allow an attempt once they are certain all safety precautions are in place.  The interview with the navy captain just prior to the swim included discussions on what types of surface conditions to expect as well as a brief explanation on the different water dynamics to anticipate for the day.  The worst area was the center channel which comprised of many vertical thermoclines but mostly consisted of freezing cold, fresh and fast Antarctic waters.  At one point I said don’t worry I will not jeopardize myself to make it across and he promptly and politely said “the estrecho will decide more than you on what happens this day”.

People can attempt a Strait of Magellan crossing only a few days each year.  To receive certification by the navy you must follow a certain set of rules.  Basically it’s the English Channel rules which states you must start on shore with a standard swim suit and cap (no neoprene) and not receive any assistance from the support craft during transit and exit under your own strength on the opposite shore.  I was there to get that certificate.

I was happy to finally meet the two other swimmers who would be making the attempt that day.  The two young Chilean guys were on their third try at this crossing and seemed very nervous about today’s attempt. They were doing the crossing in full wetsuits, and although my Spanish isn’t very good, I could tell the instant they realized I was swimming skin.  Their eyes got wide and they asked “piel!?” then shook my hand vigorously and gave me the customary hug and kiss on the cheek. 

Rather than simply numbering us to keep track of the swimmers for radio communications between the boats they assigned us each the name of a historical naval vessel.  The two wetsuit swimmers were the Spanish variation of ships Perseverance and Indefatigable while I was tagged with Shackleton’s the Endurance.  They wrote that first letter on our hands in case we were unable to speak due to the cold during the swim which turned out to be a great idea.

About 30 minutes prior to the 2:00 pm jump time the captain announced a delay in our start by one hour due to the latest report from the ferry pilots.  It was amazing to watch the ferry pointing east/west with a blast of diesel exhaust billowing out the pipes but moving slowly in a southerly direction because of the ripping current. 

The waters close to shore were filled with whirlpools, eddies and up-swells and I wasn’t sure if it would stop within the next 60 minutes.  It never really stopped.  After the 60 minute delay I walked to the beach with the medic and navy captain and noticed the two wetsuit swimmers in the zodiac about a hundred meters offshore.  When I asked the navy captain where they were going he said they asked to start half a kilometer out and away from the strong whirlpools still twisting close to shore.  I reminded him I would still start from the beach then there was some radio discussion and the two swimmers were brought back to shore to start with me.

When first planning the swim I expected to be across in 60 minutes with a worst case in-water time of 90 minutes.  I felt well-conditioned for the cold water and decided against the use of grease or a Lanolin/Vaseline mix on my body since it would be difficult to quickly remove once across and may impede my recovery time.  Instead I placed a small dab of Vaseline on the tops of each foot and on my lips and was ready to go.  I looked over and saw the wetsuit swimmers lathering up with a heavy grease mixture over their unprotected hands, feet and face.  For a split second we stopped and stared at each other and likely thought the exact same thing about the other: are they serious?!

The navy captain looked at me and gave a nod, I returned it then he blew the whistle three times and we were off…