26 January 2009

the return journey

and finally, leaving.

not to mention finally sober, after one too many pisco sours with dinner, roadside strawberries and rasp-, and hundreds of congratulatory emails.

visiting Cristian's family farm in Rapel, southwest of santiago, first in a whirlpool of urban madness at the airport, not yet ready, then let down gently in a brilliant landscape of galaxy-stars and dusty eucalyptus along the drive. Patricia and I marvel at the air and I am so relaxed-- steakwinecountryside and most of all success-- that I can barely keep myself vertical. strawhorse-hair pillow perhaps the best I've ever had. zamindars, landed gentry, Patricia and I awake and jokingly embrace, giggling, until Cristian brings the coffee.

a snowy dog, unusually vocal and loveable, keeps us company through morning hotdrinks, pan amasado and copious doses of honey. Cristian's tiny, spry father takes us on a tour of his property by boat. I look out nervously for tarantulas, despite knowing that they are relatively harmless.

it seems like aeons since we parted ways with the Lautmans. I miss Scott's dark-tinged good humour.

empanadas, a detour for handicrafts, argentine dinner and extra-strength pisco sours, and we're off again to santiago, changing into winter clothes and finally accessing the internet in the lounge.

suddenly headachingly sober, I find myself right back where I started, breathing invocations on an escalating aeroplane, mercifully seat-mate-less in a spacious exit row-- i'll swim for help! -- and back to the marvelous feeling of a new bookmark in life, a fresh launching-point.

photo: Leopoldo Espinoza Vera

23 January 2009

los nadadores que cruzaron...

photos: Leopoldo Espinoza Vera

los nadadores que cruzaron....

La Prensa Austral: Cruzaron a nado el estrecho de Magallanes

are at the moment enjoying the afterglow of many bottles of wine and a fantastically roasted lamb in the company of the wonderful extended family and home of Claudia
Nelyda Molkembuhr Sapunar, our brilliant host, who has taken on the production of this swim under the aegis of Chile Deportes...

our swim, assisted by the Armada de Punta Arenas and a wonderful armada of tonino-- Magallanes dolphins-- and penguins, was more than successful. it was positively magical, beginning with calm, then sandwiched between severe storms, ending in a tranquil sea with laughing dolphins accompanying the boats to shore.

Scott finished first in 1 hour, 18 minutes, and Mark, Cristian and I, after battling offshore currents and whirlpools, landed about 100 yards apart around 1 hour 53 minutes.

The water was 40 degrees.

22 January 2009

raise your right arm....

s-day: the crossing

I woke early from a deep dream of clear, clear, pebbled waters seen from a ship-- and after a moment realised that the howling, shuddering winds that had been shaking the building for days had finally died down. it was calm, and raining lightly. in the kitchen scott, ready to go, always smiling, sits on the counter swinging his legs.

after a week of white bread and yet another steak dinner, I've been innoculated for breakfast alfajores and chilenitos. one by one we awake, ready, and spend a couple of hours trying to kill time, fussing with our bags and rooms, fussing in the kitchen, fussing.

our van arrived early and we departed precisely at the appointed time-- 11.30am-- for Punta Delgada, about 200 kilometers north and east, at the first narrows. The ride over is fairly tense, though the Strait is calm and almost flat. the air is more chilly than I'd like it to be.

as we pass more guanaco and ostrich, sheep in the fields, Radio Magallanes announces our swim and describes each of us, to our great delight.

around one o'clock, arrival in punta delgada. the wind is slight and the water looks calm. dolphins-- small cousins, at least, called Tonino-- waltz in pairs near an anchored rig. Cristian and Patty near the water-- hands in, Cris declares it feels like 50 degrees. all smiles. I kneel in the musselshells, iridescent purple beach, roll up my sleeves and place my palms gingerly at the waterline. it washes over me and I feel my heart skip a beat. the water is clearly colder than our training-ground, clearly not 50, clearly 40 or below. my stinging palms. I lie, agree, nod. we're going to be fine. I see Patty eyeing me carefully; she's felt the water, too.

Cristian and I stand, look past one another. birds cry overhead and the sun peeks through the stillness. it is remarkably peaceful.

a group again in Armada headquarters, with entourage-- seeing the landing-point by telescope, we laugh nervously socialising while they harshly question Claudia about our abilities. she hustles us back downstairs, where we look at maps, discuss the configuration of ship and zodiacs and end up watching whale-watching shows in a darkened room with the edgy CNN Chile reporters.

initial plan had us with two Armada boats, two zodiacs, two captains. judging by the report, one single ship left Punta Arenas at 0800 hours. the four of us will have to manage our crossing with just two zodiacs. it's complex, because Mark, though wetsuit-clad, may lag slightly behind me; I will attempt to keep up with Cristian, usually about ten feet in front; and Scott will smoke us all with his Olympic gord-itas.

we are once again hustled to another distraction, thankfully-- lunch, at the small tourist place across the gravelshelled plaza. I order a sandwich and pick nervously. tea, soda, and binoculars, all eyes on the Strait, and as the ferry arrives it spins, just as Lynne Cox described, like a toy boat in a draining tub. The current pushes it so that it crosses the 4 kilometers from Bahia Azul like a side-crawling crab. we can see this flow, like a four-lane highway between the shore and midstream, ebbing at 5-knots to the Atlantic. terror overcomes me. I turn to the television and furiously ponder Michelle Obama's feathery inaugural number.

the wind has picked up. my anxiety shows on my face and Marianne seems to understand that I am close to tears, or breakdown, or something drastic. Scott, ever good-humoured, keeps tabs on smiles. Cristian is acting tough and ignoring me, which makes me ever more nervous. it's psychological, I keep telling myself. nerves. just focus on relaxing. outside the windows the weather has soured- the waves are escalating and the wind has climbed back to a steady howl. the clouds loom grey. we may not even get the chance to swim.

the red ferry leaves, pushed like a leaf into an almost-diagonal limp across the strait. the blue ferry totters in, turning a full 180 degrees before grinding up to the concrete loading dock. three truckloads of sheep roll up the ramp and past our piles of gear, which are now covered with a spattering of rain. the sky grows darker. cristian is in flip-flops and I wonder whether I can stand to be that cold until the Armada arrives-- our boat is, as of yet, a speck on the horizon to the west. i head inside to put on my suit.

three o'clock-- we swim at 15.20. mark is slathering his torso with crisco. the reporters circle, snapping photographs of us trying to look tough. I can barely speak by this point. it's raining hard now, almost sideways, and the wind is at least 35 knots. whitecaps dot the strait. it's beginning to look like a force 5 or force 6 storm; there's no way we'll even get a chance to try if the weather doesn't relent. but our boat is not even within sight.

then suddenly it is, heading east almost a half-mile out. it pulls close to shore, then appears to move sideways at about 10 knots. I turn away. minutes later, hoping to see approaching zodiacs, I look out and find our late-arriving Armada moving backwards at quite a clip, out toward the Atlantic. it's painful to watch. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. they seem to be putting zodiacs in the water, but the Strait is a whirl of white and grey, and I lean into the wind, resting on my back at a 60-degree angle. the red ferry is spinning like a top on the other side. Completely intimidated, I begin to doubt not just our ability, but my own intentions and strength. it's nerves, I think desperately, just nerves. we're going to make it across. it's so close. it's right there.

the zodiac is arriving at the loading dock. I exchange my boots for flip-flops, abandoning my previous gear-configurations, and stuff the pockets of my 15 below coat with sweaters and hat. I'm taking almost nothing now, putting myself in the hands of our entourage, which seems to be growing by the minute. my cap and goggles in my pocket, I turn to face the water again. suddenly, miracuously, the wind has died down. the sun is even beginning to peek out from behind the clouds. I feel elation and relief swell up in my chest and throat and have a sudden craving for chocolate.

we all eat oatmeal cookies, our spirits rising, and watch the Armada unload a second zodiac. by the time it reaches shore, are on the beach, amidst a motley crew of frogmen, naval officers with guns on string-halters, press and Chile Deportes officials, ambulance personnel and random men in orange jumpsuits who want photographs with los gringos.

we begin to strip, and I lean down several times to examine the sand-- a habit of mine. whenever I get in the water for a difficult swim, or on a day when I'm not convinced of swimming, I always collect a shell. any shell. it doesn't have to be pretty. somehow, the act of doing this-- I rarely keep them, often passing them to whomever I meet later that day-- calms my nerves and reminds me that getting in is always the hardest part. but I don't pick anything at this moment-- I consider, briefly, sticking a shell in my suit, but leave it- the consideration alone is enough to calm me.

I don't even look at the water.

Cris, Scott, Mark and I pose for photos, finally naked to the elements. it's chilly, and I start flapping my arms just to keep my blood moving. something somewhere in my brain understands that getting chilly on the beach is psychological, but another part of me is concerned that chill will take minutes off of my ability to stay in the water. I have serious doubts at this point, and a healthy dose of fear of the cold. but we're ready, and our things are loaded into the zodiacs, along with our friends. someone screams wait and someone screams now and then we're wading into the water, putting on goggles.

it's cold. it's really cold, and as if we're psychic, we can hear each other scream internally. it may be that Cristian and I spoke about it, but I don't recall. somehow, though, at that moment, everything fell away, and I was more than ready to swim it.

I walked straight in, and then we dove, Cristian and I at once, whether by word or by thought I can't recall, and there were cheers all across the beach, the boats, the decks of the ferry. and then we were swimming.

it wasn't clear like Punta Arenas. It wasn't sunny and warm like Punta Arenas, either. it was freezing, greygreen, murky and full of silt. I recall swimming hard, kicking hard, thinking I should swim it at the pace of a 75-yard sprint. I gathered speed, remembering to relax.

it occurred to me that we hadn't discussed which side the zodiacs would cover. Mark to my right seemed to be pacing well with me, and I thought we might hold that. but some sort of current must have come between us, and I found myself sprinting hard, very hard, to catch up with Cristian. the distance between us shrank-- ten feet, five feet, and then I could see his whole body underwater. three or four strokes and I'd be next to him. I imagined how comforting that would be. my body felt warm and strong, my arms chilly but not frozen. my pace increased and to my confusion, Cris was pulled far east of me, and behind. I decided at that point to put my head down and just sprint, no matter where the zodiacs or other swimmers were, no matter which way I was heading.

but not having guidance was maddening. for some time I focused on Scott's boat, the lead zodiac, which drew rapidly ahead and was a distinct spot on the horizon. our own boat hovered ahead, to the left, then the right, and left me so far behind that I had to sight multiple times to find it. thankfully, the swells felt like they were carrying me forward. i kicked madly, almost on autopilot. cristian appeared again, to my far right. once again, I almost caught him, only to find that he'd slipped to my far left. when I breathed every six strokes on my left, he appeared to be floating. I nearly panicked with worry and had to stop myself from stopping to check on him, since our zodiac was nowhere in sight. finally, resigning myself once again to swimming alone mid-Strait, I just put my head down and swam. I figured that it was better to conserve energy by not sighting than to worry about wasting strokes in the wrong direction. If I started swimming off to the side, the zodiac would eventually correct me, or so I assumed. in retrospect, this may have added thirty minutes to our swim. we must have swum at least six kilometers with the detours and zig-zagging.

never try to share a zodiac like this on a cold swim. it's not only terrifying-- it's terribly risky.

sprinting away, full of emotions, sometimes rabidly angry at Patricia and the zodiac pilots for not guiding me, then forgiving and pulling my thoughts back to the map and where I was swimming-- I'm swimming to Tierra del Fuego!-- I sprinted on, never feeling cold, never feeling tired. somewhere around halfway, not surprisingly, my body began to gain on my mind. I suddenly found that I'd been daydreaming, and my zodiac was far ahead, too far for me to see clearly which way they were pointing. the land on the horizon did not grow; my sense of direction was completely gone. it must have been about 45 minutes into the swim, but I had no sense of time. what I did realise was that I was disoriented-- not in my senses, but within my head. I was not really sure where I was or what I was doing. my brain must have been diverting all its oxygen and resources to my muscles, because I was still able to swim hard. I had no doubt that my body would continue swimming long after my ability to recognise speech or thought was gone. I didn't feel cold.

I saw cristian up ahead and made some gesture of hopelessness to the crew on the zodiac. they zipped around and came up on my left. stay near me, I said as calmly as possible, not wanting to own up to my disorientation. not yet. I knew that I was already hypothermic, but I felt that if I were close, I would make it. am I close? Patricia looked at the land and gave me an encouraging nod, though she later admitted I was just past halfway. that slight encouragement was what I needed. I put my head down and started sprinting once again.

relationship to your crew, on any swim, is always tenuous and fraught with complex emotions, especially when close, dear friends are on the boat. it's a little bit like having parental guidance: maddening, but essential, alternately dismissed as useless and embraced as a sole source of comfort. though they were probably one hundred meters in front of me at times, I saw Patty's tireless, direction-giving silhouette dominating the boat, trying to guide us; I thought of washington crossing the delaware, cracking myself up in the midst of it all.

time rolled on and by, and there was splashing behind me, and funny noises. I assumed it was my own kick, my own mouth. they later told me it was two toninas, clearly watching my back and frightening away the flocks of penguins that we swam through. the fumes from the boats were making my head spin, and I couldn't see the zodiac. I kept the grey armada ship in my sight to my right, knowing that Marianne and the captain would have an eye on me in binoculars. there was no room for worry, nor was there space for thinking about breathing the exhaust. I just swam. at some point, spots along the shore began to grow and I felt my progress.

the zodiac appeared, somehow, and once I'd made eye contact with Patty, thank goodness she was there!-- there seemed to be no question of it leaving again. I focused on telling myself what I was doing, where I was, and that I would finish- the only things that I seemed capable of hanging onto in my strange high. somehow, my body felt neither cold nor tired, though Anu later told me that I was whining of both in our final exchange.

the shore rose suddenly, then grew in size until I could see the paintings, the red ferry, the ambulance. somehow, I couldn't get where I was trying to go, and was being rapidly swept west along the shore. fixated on the ramp and the ambulance, I couldn't seem to process another landing place until I was thrown over by a small but violent whirlpool. I did breast-stroke to get through the current. it was hard not to just stop swimming and tread water, confused. all ten people on the boat were screaming at me in at least two languages.

just when I was so disoriented that I thought I might not be able to land, I saw people running on the shore, falling over themselves on the steep, muddy-looking beach. I sprinted one last time, barely able to feel my arms. gravel beneath my face. I stood, then ran.

there was commotion and someone wrapped me in a blanket. I jumped for joy, then looked for Cristian. seconds later, there he was, fifty yards away, having had a crash-landing at a different point. we all ran for one another.

one hour, fifty-three minutes. forty degrees. boat fumes, and some wayward guidance. though the water became rough as soon as we left the shore, it calmed on our ride back, and we were accompanied by leaping toninas and ample sunlight. it was a surreal scene, a tranquil ocean pastorale, remote and perfectly lit, in stark contrast to the earlier gale.

somehow, all four of us had crossed-- Scott first, in one hour 18 minutes, then Mark and Cristian and myself, almost all at once, in that order.

success. an evening of fantastic drinks and surprisingly light food ensued.

21 January 2009

on the eve of the swim

photo: Leopoldo Espinoza Vera

12.22 am

We swim tomorrow at 15.15. As ready as we can be, myself armed with more red meat in my system than I've taken in in most of my 32 years and an encouraging swim today. Scott and Cristian and I spent the day antsy together, inauguration day. The others-- Mark, Mary Anne, Patricia and Anu-- went for a penguin-colony cruise, which I sense was more stormy than they will admit.

Our swim today, brief for rest's sake, was clear and chilly-- the water here once again strikingly clear, glassy, unmercifully choppy. We stayed in 17 minutes, just long enough to warm up and stretch out, and came out without shivering. I didn't feel cold until I stepped out of my hot shower and realised the window was open. The wind on the beach was strong and constant enough that I found myself leaning back and resting on its momentum.

rainysunny punta arenas, in a colonial square. we rubbed the foot of a sailor at the base of a statue of hernando de magallanes-- supposedly a prerequisite for crossing the Strait. our photo-opp was followed by a young man and a mangy dog. the dog refusing to leave the frame, us giggling. clear skies, some snow. mad whitecaps in the Strait at the end of every streetscape.

in my mind? excitement, and some worry about my speed. I hope the zodiac stays within my sight range so that I don't need to expend energy looking up. I hope that the water is not so clear that I can see bottom-- I don't want to know that much, I don't want to see the shipwrecks lined up like a ghost-town. I don't want to swim through kelp. I want to get across. I want to get across. I don't care if I get cold near the end, but I want to get across. I want to get in and swim, now.

20 January 2009

inaugural edition

Inauguration day!

we swam fifty minutes yesterday, easily, with the sun on our backs despite the wind and cold.

we swim the Strait tomorrow at slack tide, around 17.30 Chilean time, two hours ahead of New York. all four of us will swim together, with two Armada boats and two Zodiacs accompanying.

the reporter colored his account dark, in my opinion, but there we are, shivering masochists, as he would have it!

18 January 2009

first swim in the Strait

first swim near tierra del fuego.

black dolphins flying against the current to the pier as we strip by the roadside. Scott, Cris and I wade into the thick purple kelp, colder than it felt last night and then we are up to our waists. tentative between the bits of rusty metal and mussels along the bottom, we stand a moment, feeling the wind. Cris and I dive at the same moment, and then we are swimming.

moments and my nose scrapes bottom. the three of us laughing, standing, walking through sandy shallows and then deeper again, calves, knees, and we are adjusting our goggles and off again to the pier, chasing the dolphins through thick kelp. Scott is yards ahead; Cris and I catch him just beyond the pier. we flame red. five minutes.

and off again, in the other direction. I panic after a brief entanglement with ruddy white-spotted kelp. it's shallow. I spot the hull of a boat, buried; a beer can, golden; crabs lurching in the waves. Cristian spys a boot, left foot.

I'm not cold, but I'm cold. suddenly we're far from shore, and flying south with the current. the water tastes less salty than last night, and is incredibly clear. Cris and I swim head to head until it begins to get shallow, as Claudia had warned us it would.

We turn and sprint into the current, a totally different light, storm light. a sudden wind breaks up the surface and my mouth is full of cold smooth ice. back to the pier, this time in strangely small but violent chop, and I pull into Cristian's draft to avoid the kelp. it is there, deep fuchsia waving like thick heads of hair along the bottom.

at the pier, I realise that I am cold- whether from exhaustion, relaxation, flight, or just the cold, cold water. the straits are calm again. we turn, swim to scott, and head in. thirty minutes-- our longest swim in 40 degrees yet. I shiver for what seems like nearly an hour. Tomorrow, we'll meet with the Armada, then attempt a full hour before meeting Anu at the airport...

the end of the Americas

after three takeoffs and three landings on the airbus, arrival in Punta Arenas. A warm reception from Claudia and Carlos of Chile Deportes, the woman from the government sports agency who is hosting our swim. It's windy and sunny and about forty degrees cooler than Santiago.

a stop at our training-beach-to-be. Cristian and I slip off boots and shoes and nervous-ecstatic roll up our pantlegs. The waters of the Strait, chilly and a brilliant choppy swirl of turquoise and purple, tasting of salty kelp, slowly numbing my feet. the wind howls and screeches against the electric-blue sky.

The taste of seafood, locos and centolla, bringing out subtle nuances of the sea, tastes one often finds in the complex flavor of the water while swimming. by the second bottle of wine, 10.30 at night. the surreal cerulean light, tinged with indigo, of a sun that doesn't quite set at 11, and teases its way back up at 5.

the desolation, the strangeness of a city by the sea, where the weather varies from minute to minute in a perpetual winter that leaves a heavy mark even on the summer. prehistoric trees, strange groves, primary colours against the sky and Strait, an endless palette of greys and blues.

it's the end of the earth. journeys from east to west are dramatic. journeys to the extremities of north and south are another planet-- as if we hover nearer to space, in a world of wind, speed, cold, light.

in a land far, far away...

meanwhile, back in Coney Island...

while we summer in Chile....

impressions of punta arenas


back in New York, Michael reports-- dear Michael! without whom swimming becomes slightly less lighthearted-- he and Jonathan braved sheets of ice along the beach, 12-degree air and 34-degree water. perfect arctic conditions. it's really amazing how we have the ability to experience this sort of training in our hometown-- and at the same beach that becomes our living room, our bar, our gym in the summer months. I am inclined to say that I would rather swim there than anywhere else in the world. and it's not just training-- there is no particular goal involved. it's just beautiful, and crazy, and challenging, and continually presents itself as a new opportunity to stretch and overcome limitations of all sorts.

so how on earth did we end up here, on a bunk bed in the Chile Deportes hostel, the wind howling and shuddering around our slight refuge? what does this mean?

someone in our party, donning jackets after dinner, catches a bottle of wine which explodes on the floor with a bang. Libations, christenings, weddings come to mind. the black dolphins in the strait. children playing along the shore beside the hulls of rusted old ships as the clouds re-array their whiteness and wine-blue haze against a sunnyraining sky. all good omens, if omens. again, the tendency to overinfuse with meaning-- though Cristian and I, at least, are inclined to resist that sort of romanticism. the Lautmans, merry, witty, vacationing, have a different style.

the chop we saw from the airplane was terrifying: whitecaps as far as the eye could see, even from 15000 feet. the weather here turns on a dime.

it's going to be a tough swim.

16 January 2009

expectations of Magallanes

The miracle of aviation always brings me instinctively to the threshold of prayer. Still, after years of feeling religious all the way down a runway, I never get beyond that point without stopping and questioning this reaction.

I'm usually struck by the meaninglessness of particular words or actions that come to mind. Invoking one god or another, muttering this benediction or that, solemnly or otherwise-- these are all pretty pointless. They might make sense in attempts to relate the feeling of a momentous action, but trying to feel a connection to a greater being, for me, doesn't have much to do with religion. I can bismillah- and sh'ma my way across the strait, crossing myself between strokes, but it won't do a damn thing if the ocean changes, or if my mind or body fails me.

The control of my mind, on the other hand, is certainly my own, and if I choose to call on something or another within myself, or to generate some sort of vibe in my head and body, that's another story. In cold water, these things are so present, so urgent, that I prefer to leave it bare-bones, unnamed.

This reminds me of my first Hudson swim, which had me terrified and shaking for nearly two weeks beforehand. All for naught? I'm not sure whether I would have been as mentally prepared had I not gone through the fear. In the end, the swim was a wonderful, light experience from the minute I jumped in the water.

As for fear, this swim around, I've been so busy these past two weeks that I've barely had time to sleep, let alone think about anything. On Tuesday, Cristian called up to tell me about a katabatic wind current known as a williwaw.

The williwaw blows off Antarctic mountains, creating micro-hurricanes on the Strait. The pernicious wind gust apparently plucked a Mexican swimmer from the strait, 800 meters from her goal, and slammed her back down into the water, displacing the meniscii of her knees and cracking her lumbar into little bits.

This strange wind only happens in Magallanes and around the Aleutian Islands, off Alaska. It sounds almost supernatural. We are clearly headed into very wild territory, very unknown territory for swimmers.

Relaxing today in Santiago with Cristian's family, the reality of the swim grows and fills my mind. I've rarely been so focused in travelling; I can't wait until tomorrow to get down to Punta Arenas and see what we're really getting into.

Now that we have a small entourage, I'd like introduce them, briefly:

Anuradha Bhagwati and I went to Yale together, though we were barely even acquainted-- we played in the Symphony together. I spotted her on the beach at the CIBBOWS race, Grimaldo's Mile, in August, and we've been in touch since then. She'll be writing an article and has already proven herself an extremely thoughtful journalist over hours at the beach with Cris, Jonathan, Michael and myself.

Patricia Sener is a dear friend at this point, though I still remember her as we were introduced, four beers into a post-race party, singing karaoke in a wife-beater simply labeled CONEY ISLAND POLAR BEARS. We are fast friends, swim-buddies, team-mates. She is probably one of the only true open-water photographers, and will be bringing her considerable talent to our story, as well as looking out for us in the Strait and otherwise. And blogging: Salty Tales

Between these two intrepid journalists and our own documentation, verbal and photographic, this swim should be pretty well covered.

The New York Times sent a reporter to the beach with us on Wednesday-- that's yesterday, though it feels like last week-- to watch while we gave the 15 below coats a first run. He seemed a little underwhelmed. At least the story will be getting out. The coats are excellent, well-designed and warm-- much moreso after the swim than before. We only took a dip, just about ten minutes, but it was a nice one. the water was very clear, and the air was pretty nippy: around 22 degrees, minus windchill.

Thursday morning I held the newborn baby of dear friends-- Kabir. Standing by a picture window overlooking the snow-globe of the West Side, this little tiny sleeping head rolling about in my tricep, I wondered at the innocence, and the potential- a little person, with no knowledge of snow, or cold. Several hours later, a plane crash-landed in the Hudson, leaving 150 people inches from the chilly waters-- no doubt a terrifying experience. The world is a strange and many-colored adventure.

All of this brings me back to the basic notion I was trying to get at before: cold-water swimming will really straighten out your spiritual priorities pretty quick. It's just you out there. Even with training partners you love and trust, with no competition, and intense support for one another in and out of the water, it's still everyone for herself. You are in charge of your body and your mind. It's up to you not just to keep a tight watch on every physiological sensation; you must also be aware of how psychology affects that, and balance accordingly. Finding and keeping this balance is where the connection to a larger cause comes in: only in this case, the Great External is natural-- the ocean-- and the Deep Internal is right there, naked in the cold, accessible, unavoidable.

After the Manhattan Marathon swim this July, I recall a conversation with Cristian, something about channel-swimming. He leaned in, to impart yet another brilliant gem of open-water philosophy: you have to be very, very comfortable with yourself to do long swims. That definitely goes for cold as well.

10 January 2009

I'm thrilled to announce that we've teamed up with a great cause: the
15 below project
, a Canadian-based initiative to provide weatherproof parkas for the homeless. They have distributed 3,000 free coats on the streets of the US and Canada, on behalf of the advertising firm Taxi.

The 15 below jacket, the brainchild of Taxi's creative director Steve Mykolyn and designer Lida Baday, is an all-season, lightweight coat to be given free to the homeless across Canada and the U.S. The coat is easily insulated with newsprint: newspaper is tightened into balls and stuffed into the coat's inner pockets.

The coat is made from Aquamax, a waterpoof, breathable fabric laminated with a nonporous membrane. Mykolyn tried out the garment during an eight-hour test in a meat freezer, and stayed warm through temperatures that dipped as low as -29 degrees Celsius (-20.2 F).

We will be sporting these innovatively-designed parkas to warm up before and after our Strait of Magellan swim (water temperature around 40 degrees) later this month.

Over months of cold-water jaunts, Cristian and I have learned the immense importance of restoring and maintaining warmth after winter exposure. We have read extensively about hypothermia, core temperature and so-called 'survival thresholds' for ocean waters. We watch each other carefully for the warning signs of hypothermic danger, and take care to leave the beach quickly to replenish our lost body heat indoors-- a luxury.

This cold-water challenge is within reach because we have learned, with careful training and utmost attention, to withstand cold, and to understand the process of reversing the cold. We also have the resources to regulate and maintain our body temperature against the elements.

Others not only lack respite from the cold; they live in it, night and day.

The 15 below project is close to our hearts, and to our cores. We have experienced extremes of cold that can kill. Before we swim, and when we exit the water, we wear warm outer clothes that will retain and replenish our body heat.

Rather than our usual parkas, for our Strait of Magellan attempt, we will use 15 below jackets.

The 15 below project is seeking corporate sponsorship to take over production and distribution of the coats.

For more information about the 15 below project:


01 January 2009

Four American swimmers to attempt Strait of Magellan crossing from the End of the Americas to Tierra del Fuego

On the 20th, 21st or 22nd of January, 2009, four American swimmers will attempt a crossing of the Strait of Magellan, from the end of the Americas to Tierra Del Fuego in Punta Delgada, Chile.

The swimmers are: R. Cristian Vergara, 50, a Chilean-American accountant and accomplished distance-swimmer from Brooklyn; Rachel Golub, 32, a New-York based musician and writer; Mark Lautman, 59, Chair of the Economic Development Commission of New Mexico and coach of 1972 Olympic gold medalist Cathy Carr; and his brother, Olympic trials finalist and 200-meter butterfly world-record holder (50-55) Scott Lautman, 55, Human Resources Manager for Alaska Airlines in Seattle. The four will swim the icy, choppy waters in simple bathing suits, caps and goggles, with escort boats provided by the Chilean Armada.

The water temperature will be close to 4 degrees celsius, or 40 degrees fahrenheit. The swimmers will be in the water for one hour or more, depending on conditions, swim speed, and currents over the 2.4-mile distance. Only two swimmers have successfully completed the crossing, which is complicated by strong currents, unpredictable weather, and frigid water temperatures.

Mr. Vergara and the Lautman brothers have numerous worldwide adventure swims under their belts. Ms. Golub, a relative newcomer to open-water swims, has been training year-round at Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, New York with Mr. Vergara. She is optimistic about the swim: "when we realised that we were capable of raising our cold-endurance threshold, we set upon a common dream: to complete a swim that very few have done, distinguished by Antarctic currents-- an environment inhospitable to both people and ships. In the spirit of Fernando de Magallanes and the intrepid Portuguese explorers, we are setting out on a great adventure in Nature. This challenge is within reach because we have learned, with careful training and utmost attention, to balance our minds and acclimate our bodies for cold-water swimming."

For their crucial pre- and post-swim warm-ups, Vergara, Golub and the Lautmans will be using parkas by the 15 below project, a weatherproof, lightweight all-season garment designed for free distribution to the homeless by Canadian advertising firm Taxi. The coat is easily insulated with newspaper, tightened into balls and stuffed into the coat's Aquamax shell, which folds up into a backpack. In initial tests, the coat retained warmth for eight hours in temperatures as low as -29 degrees Celsius (-20.2 F).

"Rachel, our two other training partners and I have all read extensively about hypothermia, core temperature and so-called 'survival thresholds' for ocean waters," says Vergara. "Unlike many who suffer the elements day in and day out, we are lucky to have the resources to experiment with extremes of temperature in a controlled situation. The 15 below project, which reaches out to the homeless, is close to our hearts, and to our cores."

For more information about the 15 below project: