22 January 2009

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.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, many congrats to an incredible feat! Heard you announced at the Tampa Bay Swim then found your blog linked at the US Masters Swimming forum. Glad to be able to read about your experience - thanks for sharing.