Ryan Stramrood, Ram Barkai, Toks Vivier & Andrew Chin
The world first relay swim from Russia to the United States
Ryan Stramrood, Ram Barkai, Toks Vivier & Andrew Chin
Length of swim 134km. In a straight line the coasts are 86km apart but due to currents etc, the course the swimmers followed was much longer.
Duration of expedition 12 days, of which 5 days were continuous swimming.
Risk of death by misadventure High. Hypothermia, frostbite, and drowning, or some combination of the above, all posed significant risks to the swimmers.
• Diving into the water at 1am for our second shift, water temp dropped from 8°C to 2°C, big sea, dark waters - if this was to prevail we wouldn’t have been able to finish.
• Doing another shift at 7pm, huge sea, fog water at around 6°C, crossing the dateline and the border between Russia and America. Huge moment!
• Waking up the next morning back on the Russian side, due to permit expiry. We nearly burst into tears; we knew that this could be the end of our adventure!
• Last day, seeing the Alaskan beach a few km away – we knew we had done it. We couldn’t believe it, we were so exhausted and elated.
• The Captain and the expedition leader called us to the bridge to say that we, ‘Team SA’, have saved this expedition with our spirit and determination. We knew that it was a huge team effort and there are some other very strong swimmers, but we pushed and led by example all the time, and to get that recognition was just awesome. People have no idea what reputation we South Africans have out there in the extreme swimming world.
In running Nightjar Adventurer, we have noticed a certain attraction to ice. Perhaps this arises from the surreal solitude that winter wonderlands tend to exude, or perhaps it’s the challenge of conquering an elemental form that we can hardly touch without damaging ourselves. Whilst we can speculate as to the ‘why’, the ‘where’ is a little more definite. If you want ice, you go to the Poles, and if, despite all instincts of self preservation you wanted to swim in the ice, then the Bering Strait looks like a wonderfully juicy stretch of water to attempt… assuming you’re looking at the Strait on a paper map and not staring at it from the freezing bow of a ship, that is.
Face to face with this most treacherous stretch of water, the realities of ice swimming become significantly more pressing concerns. The first reality is hypothermia, and the big question for an ice swimmer is not whether or not it will happen, but instead whether it will be mild or severe when it does occur. Just to be clear, hypothermia is not child's play - it is the condition where the body begins to shut down because it can no longer sustain a sufficient temperature for normal cellular function. As if that wasn’t intimidating enough, frostbite is another serious risk. Equally frightening, this can be thought of in layman’s terms as localised hypothermia - areas of your body where the temperature at a cellular level has dropped too low, start dying off. The process involves cells rupturing as they freeze, and the general consensus is that this is to be avoided by rational human beings.
The study of the effects of extreme cold on our physiology is still rapidly advancing, thanks in a large part to the pioneering efforts of ice swimmers, so it is hard to say whether the other effects of ice swimming on the body are genuinely independent or just complex instances (and interactions) of hypothermia and frostbite, but nonetheless, there is still more adversity to be faced by an ice swimmer. The swimmer’s skin will change colour, becoming redder as blood rushes towards it to keep it warm, which can cause an uncomfortable burning sensation. Limbs become weak, making the actual swimming quite challenging. This is compounded by the fact that most ice swims occur outdoors where natural conditions such as wind, waves and currents make for already tough swimming. Even the little things are not left untouched - for example, the swimmer’s eyelashes could freeze together if they get wet! Finally, as the body enters survival mode, the mind recedes into a form of tunnel vision that can make rational decisions difficult.
There are several Victorian treatises on the benefits of a good ice dunking, such as improved circulation, a greater immune resistance to illnesses brought on by fluctuating temperatures, and even a greater liveliness and sense of well being. Although we take much of the medicinal learning of the grave-robbing era with a pinch of salt, there are some results coming out of the study of ice swimmers, although at this stage it is hard to say whether their healthiness results from the survival of exposure to cold, or simply from the determined training that they undergo to ensure that they are capable of partaking in the sport! So, with possible health benefits, a textbook’s worth of risks and challenges to overcome, and that most intrepid calling of pushing the boundaries, of treading new footsteps, this sounds like the territory of an adventurer, and this year South Africa saw four of her own stepping up to the plate.
On the surface of it, the swim from Russia to Alaska simply involved swimmers getting into the icy water, performing an ice swim, and getting out again, repeatedly, as this was done in relay format, with 66 swimmers from 26 countries coming together in an incredible display of camaraderie to take on this formidable obstacle. The swim was done in shifts of three, with each swimmer doing 10 minutes, before getting back on the inflatable boat used to ferry shifts to and from the mothership. Each swimmer had to high-five the next member in the relay to count as a successful handover. With so many swimmers on board, this meant that swimmers could catch a few hours of sleep between shifts. However, the open ocean brought with it a few complications. As a hint, consider that Discovery’s Deadliest Catch is filmed in these waters… On bad weather days, the wind and resulting swell not only made swimming difficult due to being tossed around in the water, but the swimmers also had very few navigational aids to prevent them from swimming in circles, and when those points of reference keep disappearing behind the swell, the swimmers wasted a lot of energy deviating off course. The other significant factor was the current - or rather collection of currents, not all of them very well charted - that the swimmers had to skirt around, cut across, or simply plough through. It is an unavoidable application of physics that if the speed of the current in the opposite direction of the desired swimming course is faster than the swimmer can swim, they will move backwards, and indeed on several occasions, ground was lost or mere metres were gained over a swimmer’s entire shift in the water.
There were Russian, European, English and Irish channel swimmers as well as Guinness Book of Records representatives on board the Russian Military hospital ship, the Irtysh. The ship housed the 120-odd crew, medical staff and swimmers on the journey to ensure that no corners - or rather, metres - were cut, and thus every difficulty that the ocean threw at them, the swimmers simply had to bite down and overcome. The further they swam from the Russian shore, the colder the water became, hitting a low of 2°C, and the wind and swell grew constantly. At the Diomede Islands, near the USA border (and International Date Line), the weather became unsafe for both vessel and swimmers, and they had to anchor to wait out the storm. By this stage, one swimmer had lost consciousness in the water, having sunk nearly two metres before the support vessel could grab him with a gaff and revive him. One boat lost its swimmer in the thick fog. One must understand that the Bering is in the Arctic Sea, and it is deep and vast. The swimmer was finally retrieved, thanks to the bright orange float attached to him.
The swimmers appreciated the rest, but soon continued. Waking up the next morning they found themselves back in Russian waters, and realised that all the delays had resulted in the expiry of the ship’s USA entry permit. That was a moment of truth. The past three years’ attempts to swim the Strait had failed due to politics, and suddenly this seemed a likely outcome again. The swimmers couldn’t add any value here, so they sat, waited and hoped. Finally after 12 hours of nail biting, the new permit arrived. It was time to push even harder.
Pushing on towards the Alaskan shore, the water began to rise in temperature again, through 5°C, 6°C, 7°C to a balmy warm 8°C, and finally, after almost 5 days of swimming, land was in sight. With around 114km behind them, and a mere 20km to go, spirits were high and all the swimmers were preparing for one last push. With the majority of the world’s best ice swimmers present, there were several individuals on the ship who could have covered that distance in one solo swim, so surely the entire might of the relay team would slay it in quick order. The weather was as agreeable as it was going to get, and the next shift set off.
Pretty soon, it was clear that this world record attempt was far from being in the bag. The current suddenly changed direction, and increased speed at the same time, pushing the relay off course. This dangerous foe had been anticipated, but upon witnessing its full fury the swim was paused for a regroup. At this point, the decision was made to reduce the 50-odd remaining swimmers down to the top 15, in order to reduce the risk of a swimmer losing ground against the current during their shift. As witnessed by their impressive performance in last year’s Russian Ice Swimming Championships, which saw them nominated for Nightjar Adventurer 2013, the South African swimmers sat comfortably in the top group, both in terms of their pace and also through being amongst the most experienced with these types of difficult conditions in rough seas. To make matters more difficult, besides knowing the current existed, the expedition had very little data on the current, so the South Africans performed a reconnaissance swim, measuring the current at 2kph against them. Although several of the top 15 could gain ground against this, it would be tough and there was a definite risk that some would not.
The small group of swimmers meant shorter rest times and recovery from the cold water. Slow and frustrating progress is made, and after hours they are a mere 9km from shore. At this point, the South Africans and the other strong team from Estonia are called again for an extra effort, with all of them doing 20 minute sessions in the water with the promise of beer as reward if they can break through the current, which, after giving it their utmost, they succeed in doing. This push brings them within 5km of the Alaskan shore, and with the force of the current now behind them, the relay makes steady work of dispatching the distance, stopping 250m from shore in order to ceremoniously allow an American and Russian swimmer to carry their nations’ flags onto the beach.
With their instrumental and altruistic efforts to aid in the completion of what is widely regarded as the riskiest open water swim in history, Ram Barkai, Ryan Stramrood, Andrew Chin and Toks Vivier have earned their nomination for Nightjar Adventurer 2014. We leave you with this thought: the entire swim was done in regular bathing suits.