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Antarctica Ice Swimming Adventure By Ram Barkai

Antarctica Ice Swimming Adventure By Ram Barkai

Courtesy of Ram Barkai of International Ice Swimming Association in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica.

Ram Barkai is the visionary behind 14 swimmers completing the Antarctica Ice Kilometer Swim in Port Lockroy on November 23rd and in Mikkelsen Bay on November 25th in the Southern Ocean along the Antarctic Peninsula.

41-year-old Alexander Brylin of Russia, 55-year-old Yunfeng Wang of China, 44-year-old Leszek Naziemiec of Poland, 52-year-old Paolo Chiarino of Italy, 54-year-old Andrey Agarkov of Russia, 33-year-old Samantha Whelpton of South Africa, and 51-year-old Sergio Salomone of Argentina, 45-year-old Clinton Le Sueur, 37-year-old Diego López Dominguez, 42-year-old Wyatt Song, 42-year-old Petar Stoychev, 25-year-old Victoria Mori, 46-year-old Madswimmer founder Jean Craven, and the 61-year-old Ram Barkai completed the inaugural Antarctica Ice Kilometer Swim.

Barkai tells his story of this adventure, “Ice swimming in Antarctica can be compared to opening the Everest summit to mountaineers.

Until recently, very few people have swum in Antarctica. Lynne Cox pioneered it in 2002, Lewis followed in 2005 and I couldn’t resist it in 2008. My dream was to share this extra-terrestrial experience with fellow ice swimmers, ever since.

I was very aware of the dangers involved in swimming in such remote and hostile place, but like the Everest, North Pole, and South Pole, humans have examined it, studied it, tried it, and learnt from their mistakes. All of them are accessible nowadays and offer a life-changing experience to those willing to go the distance and those who are driven and attracted to such challenges and experiences. All I wish is for others to experience it and to leave it as they find it, as I found it, untouched and unchanged and keep safe.

The journey of this adventure race started in 2008 during my first Antarctica swim, followed by a group of my close swimming friends at the time who I lured into that crazy adventure of swimming in Antarctica. Six of us swam in Antarctica in 2014, and later on in 2015 an extraordinary Indian swimmer managed to complete a mammoth swim followed by an American marathon swimmer in early 2018.

And now, a group of 14 of us from nine different countries, managed to complete a swimming adventure race in Antarctica. That brings the total number of people who have swum in Antarctica to date to 23 from 12 different countries. That is amazing [see below].

Around 2012, we decided at International Ice Swimming Association board of directors to set a 1 km minimum for adventure ice swims around the world, in order to be recognized officially. It is not required to follow International Ice Swimming Association rules or decision, but since it is an extreme sport, we have established a very solid foundation of knowledge and rules to ensure Safety and Integrity in our mad passion.

Antarctica Ice Swimmers:
1. Lynne Cox (USA) 2002, 1.96 km in 0.00°C water in 25:00, Neko Harbor at 64.8° S latitude
2. Lewis Pugh (UK) 2005, 1.00 km in 0.00°C water in 18:00, Petermann Island at 65.2° S latitude
3. Lewis Pugh (UK) 2005, 1.65 km in 2.00°C water in 30:30, Deception Island at 62.9° S latitude
4. Ram Barkai (South Africa) 2008, 1.00 km in 1.00°C water in 22:05 at Maitri, Long Lake at 70.5° S latitude
5. Ram Barkai (South Africa) 2014, 1.25 km in -1.00°C water in 30:00, Neko Harbor at 64.8° S latitude
6. Ram Barkai (South Africa) 2018, 1.00 km in -1.20°C water in 18:47, Mikkelsen Bay at 63.5° S latitude
8. Ryan Stramrood (South Africa) 2014, 1.65 km in -1.00°C water in 32:08, Neko Harbor at 64.8° S latitude
7. Kieron Palframan (South Africa) 2014, 1.55 km in -1.00°C water in 30:00, Neko Harbor at 64.8° S latitude
9. Andrew Chin (South Africa) 2014, 1.00 km in 0.50°C water in 20:00, Paradise Harbor at 64.9° S latitude
10. Toks Viviers (South Africa) 2014, 1.65 km in 0.50°C water in 25:30, Paradise Harbor at 64.9° S latitude
11. Gavin Pike (South Africa) 2014, 1.65 km in 0.50°C water in 25:57, Paradise Harbor at 64.9° S latitude
12. Bhakti Sharma (India) 2015, 2.25 km in 0.50°C water in 41:14, Paradise Harbor at 64.9° S latitude
13. Jaimie Monahan (USA) 2018, 1.65 km in 0.50°C water in 30:49, Paradise Harbor at 64.9° S latitude
14. Paolo Chiarino (Italy) 2018, 1.00 km in -1.20°C water in 14:15, Port Lockroy at 64.8° S latitude
15. Leszek Naziemec (Poland) 2018, 1.00 km in -1.20°C water in 14:42, Port Lockroy at 64.8° S latitude
16. Yunfeng Wang (China) 2018, 1.00 km at -1.20°C water in 20:14, Port Lockroy in 64.8° S latitude
17. Alexander Brylin (Russia) 2018, 1.00 km in -1.20°C water in 20:19, Port Lockroy at 64.8° S latitude
18. Sergio Salomone (Argentina) 2018, 1.00 km in -1.20°C water in 17:01, Port Lockroy at 64.8° S latitude
19. Samantha Whelpton (South Africa) 2018, 1.00 km in -1.20°C water in 18:39, Port Lockroy at 64.8° S latitude
20. Andrey Agarkov (Russia) 2018, 1.00 km in -1.20°C water in 25:27, Port Lockroy at 64.8° S latitude
21. Petar Stoychev (Bulgaria) 2018, 1.00 km in -1.20°C water in 11:08, Mikkelsen Bay at 63.5° S latitude
22. Victoria Mori (Argentina) 2018, 1.00 km in -1.20°C water in 12:02, Mikkelsen Bay at 63.5° S latitude
23. Diego López Dominguez (Spain) 2018, 1.00 km in -1.20°C water in 12:41, Mikkelsen Bay at 63.5° S latitude
24. Clinton Le Sueur (South Africa) 2018, 1.00 km in -1.20 C in 16:17, Mikkelsen Bay 63.5° S latitude
25. Jean Craven (South Africa) 2018, 1.00 km in -1.20°C water in 16:22, Mikkelsen Bay at 63.5° S latitude
26. Wyatt Song (Australia) 2018, 1.00 km in -1.20°C water in 18:21, Mikkelsen Bay at 63.5° S latitude

Barkai continued, “Ever since 2014 when six of us from South Africa swam in Antarctica, I tried to go back with a larger group. Finally, around two years ago I managed to link with a ship and a team that were happy to accommodate us and look after us, little did they know what was coming their way.

On November 16th 2018, 14 of us and another 13 non-swimmers, friends, family and our Doctor Ice, Sean Gottschalk, gravitated to Punta Arenas in Chile to embark an Antarctic ship RCSG Resolute, and headed down south to the frozen continent, the last untamed, untouched, and the most hostile, beautiful and deadly place on earth, for a 1 km swim in a standard swimming costume, one cap and a pair of goggles, nothing else.

The two and a half days in the Drake Passage is guaranteed to squeeze every ounce of sense of humour from most. With 8-meter waves and strong winds, it is not everyone’s cup of tea. I am one of those lucky ones who never gets seasick, still sleeping while riding these waves wasn’t much fun.

With 14 swimmers and one doctor, I planned to have heats of 3 or 4 swimmers at a time. The ship had a gym with a sauna, shower, and a Jacuzzi next to it. We inspected it and decided to make it our pre-swim change room and post swim recovery room. The set up was great and safe.

I learnt from my first swim, to always do a short test or a warm-up swim before the main swim. I found it very helpful in preparing the body and the mind for the long swim. It is always hard and unpleasant, almost as an icy wake up call. But it made the main swim easier for me. I planned a 200m or maximum 5 minutes swim as soon as we are allowed to.

On November 21st after five days, we landed in Wilhelmina Bay, a surreal, beautiful place with penguins everywhere and a little beach with countless floating icebergs from an apartment-block size to a little car size. We set two Zodiacs 100m apart, around 15 meters from shore in between the icebergs. We all swam according to our heats, two lengths of a total 200 meters. We finished at the start Zodiac and each swimmer had to get on the Zodiac at the end of his/her swim. We changed on the beach with the odd penguin staring at us and saying, ‘You are not a penguin, you not supposed to swim here.’ They were everywhere.

We had two support crew on the Zodiac to assist the swimmer to get on. Once on, the swimmer jumped back in the water and swam ashore to a big block of ice for some pictures. Some couldn’t resist hugging or even kissing that block of ice. The Zodiac was there to practice the end of the main swim, in case the ship engine was on and we couldn’t finish at the gangway.

The test swim was just great. The water temperature near the ship was around -1.6°C, which is seriously icy. However, the water temp at the test swim location was surprisingly warmer at -0.8°C. What a treat. Air temperature was fairly consistent the whole trip at around 0°C. However, the wind speed varied from 0 to 40 knots at times and that means significant wind chill.

The test swim was done with the water calm and crystal clear. Everyone was happy, excited, and a little nervous. We swam 5 minutes, it wasn’t easy: hands, fingers and toes were in agony. Now we need to swim 5 times that distance. What we didn’t know that the weather was going to turn, and the rest of the swims will be significantly worst that we expected.

We couldn’t swim the following day.

The ship had many other passengers with other plans and we had to wait. The pressure was on.

It was November 22nd; the eve of November 25th was marked for leaving the sheltered areas and heading back into to the big sea, The Drake Shake and Ushuaia. We had everything ready, swimmers’ heats, seconds, recovery plan, etc. A 1 km swim in these waters requires strict planning of every single detail. Now, put a few swimmers in the water and the process compounds itself. It’s a place that doesn’t allow room for error or hesitations.

If anything was to go wrong, at any stage, we had a plan and a procedure just like Everest, North and South Pole expeditions.

Then November 23rd came. We set anchor late afternoon at the beautiful Port Lockroy area (64.8° south). We received a green light for the swim. We gathered at the tiny gym and I gave all a final brief for the day. Initially, I seeded the heats based on speed with the slower swimmers first and fastest swimmers at the end. I was to swim alone in my heat after everyone was done. However, we had two Russian swimmers, Sasha and Andrey who couldn’t speak English and a Chinese swimmer, Yufeng Wang, who only spoke Chinese. Their support had to have the ability to communicate with the swimmer. Sasha lives in far east Russia on the border with China and he could converse reasonable Chinese. Wyatt from Australia was originally from China and could speak good Mandarin. We also had another Andrey who joined the Russian swimmers. He spoke good English and we could use him as a second.

The first heat included Paolo from Italy, Lezsek from Poland, Sasha from Russia and Wang from China.

We set course of 1 km from the ship heading to the gangway. We used the ship radar and GPS. Water has settled around -1.2°C and the wind was rather light at around 5 knots. We looked at various options for the course, but we couldn’t swim alongside the ship for safety reasons. I wasn’t happy with a shore-based swim [because] too far to bring swimmers back to the ship after a long swim. I also knew that these places have ever-changing currents and winds and we needed to pick a route with the least resistance.

Later on, we realized that it can change 180° during a swim. Nothing is easy or simple in Antarctica. I was on a roving Zodiac as a race director and safety officer. Each swimmer had his or her own Zodiac with at least two people on board. Once we got to the start location, the ship looked far away. It was very daunting.

I had three call start:

1. Take off your clothes
2. Get in the water
3. Go

It all went very fast, it was rather cold to keep the swimmers waiting naked in this place. Finally, it was a GO. The first heat was swimming. The wind picked up a little bit with a little chop, but still in a similar direction to our course. Paolo looked strong and so did Lezsek. Sasha is a breaststroker so he was slower. I knew all the swimmers. I’ve seen them all swimming in the ice before, all but Wang. He qualified, meaning that he has completed a 1 km under 5°C in under 25 minutes before. Sasha vouched for him.

Yet, I had to watch him closely.

Every swimmer had an inflated Restube, attached to them, for visibility and safety. It could be an irritant if the wind blows it in the wrong direction. Yet I decided that it was required for safety and most didn’t even noticed it. Wang started swimming in the wrong direction heading left, straight into a group of rather large icebergs. The support team screamed and waved, but he just headed towards the icebergs like a paperclip to a magnet. Suddenly, his Restube came off and he didn’t even notice. The Zodiac cornered him, got his attention, and told him to maintain eye contact with the Zodiac at all time. I instructed the Zodiac to stay around 2 meters from him or he will be pulled out.

You can’t stop a swimmer in these temperatures and make him put on his Restube again. Luckily, he listened, his stroked looked slow but steady with consistent stroke rate, he was fine. Paolo and Lezsek swam consistently and finished after 14+ minutes, Sasha and Wang finished closely at around 20 minutes. It was now recovery time. Everyone was feeling great and recovering well.

The second heat was getting ready. We had a slight delay as the weather came in and visibility dropped. Wind picked up to 20 knots and it started snowing. We knew we had no time to spare, so as soon as we got the green light from the ship captain and the ship expedition leader, we headed out.

This heat had three swimmers: Sam from South Africa, Sergio from Argentina, and Sergey from Russia. We headed to start location. By that stage, it was snowing heavily, and the wind started to change direction. The first heat may have had some luck with the wind, but the second heat had to pay it back to Mother Nature. I could barely see the mother ship. It was like the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean, a silhouette in the thick mist. Yet, Jack Sparrow, had it easy comparing to these swimmers.

It was real with water temp at -1.2°C.

I stalled the start and moved the Zodiac to the left, anticipating the changing wind. We stopped near a large group of floating icebergs, the same ones that Wang was so desperate to touch in his swim. I had to start the swim and made sure the pilots were aware of the coming left push. Sam and Sergey swam strongly, but the wind changed to around 10 o’clock pushing the swimmers to the right and raising high wind chop. The swimmers had to breathe high to avoid drinking water. They did however swallow a large portion of the Antarctic sea as they closed in on the ship.

Andrey was much slower, but he comes from Siberia, Tyumen and his stroke was strong and consistent the whole time. I wasn’t worried about him. Sam and Sergey were pushed close to the ship’s bow. They had to swim around the massive anchor chain towards the gangway. Later, they described how surreal it was. The water was so clear, they could see the anchor chain going down for dozens of meters disappearing into the dark blue abyss. Also, swimming next to the larger ship from the bow to the gangway is not for the faint hearted.

In the English Channel they look huge, but still far, 2 meters next to the big ship while the water is crystal clear is quite a scary site. Sergio finished in 17 minutes with Sam behind him in 18 minutes. Later on, both told me they were not sacred at any time, just marvelling the surreal sites. -1.2°C can have some benefit to the swimmers’ mind. Andrey slowly but surely finished his swim at 25 minutes, strong as a sea lion.

The wind picked up to 30 knots and the expedition leader called the swim off for the day.

We all realized that tomorrow is now or never.

After a long debate with the doctors and the ship, we decided to load all the remaining six swimmers, excluding myself, into one heat. We received extra help from the ship doctor and a nurse. We had two extra floats and we recruited every single person in our team to help. Out of the 27 of us, swimmers and supporters, Doc Sean, Dr. Natalya from Russia and Alet were at the recovery area. Kait Barkai as chief timekeeper and all the rest, Tom, Pavel, Ivan x 2, Julie and Wyatt’s sister. Everyone was on the Zodiacs as support.

It was a scene from some James Bond movie. Seven Zodiacs heading in the dark sea, heavy snow, fog and 20 knots wind into the distance. I know it sounds insane and dangerous. But we had a huge support and safety structure and we had very clear strict instruction. We briefed everyone with termination protocol and procedure. We had radar and a big team watching over us. Each Zodiac was equipped with radios, GPS, blankets and a radar sweeper.

When I spoke to the Captain about the course in the bridge just before the swim, he pointed out a flat iceberg as the 1 km point. I did think to myself, ‘That looks rather close, we can do it.’ We obviously looked at different icebergs. As we approached that little iceberg, my GPS said 460 meters and I said, ‘Oh @#$%!.’ We carried on, further into a field of small icebergs, as we reached the 1000m line.

I gathered the six Zodiacs around me. It was snowing heavily and my beloved red jacket was soaking wet. The wind was gusting at 25 knots with wind chill of -7.5°C, but we were swimming downwind. Still, unless you are very experienced and a fast open water swimmer, these conditions will be rather tough in any water temperature.

We had six swimmers, Petar from Bulgaria, the current world champion, Victoria from Argentina, young and strong open water swimmer, Clint and Jean from South Africa, Diego from Spain and Wyatt from Australia. All are experienced and strong swimmers. It stopped snowing and the ship was clearly visible, but looked like it was around 5 km away. We gathered between two small flat icebergs (the size of an SUV). I called the swim. We started to drift. Jean jumped in front of the iceberg and ask permission to start on its left side. It was so surreal and so beautiful and needless to say, just mad.

The swimmers galloped ahead with Pater breaking water like Aquaman, closely chased by Victoria and Diego 100m behind them. It was an amazing race. Everyone visualized this moment for over a year. Later on, they all said it was a moment they have been waiting for so long, all they wanted to do was to swim.

This time, the ship engine was on and we couldn’t finish at the gangway. Kait was on the finish Zodiac and the brief was for the support Zodiac to leave the swimmer around 20m before the finish, let him or her touch the finish Zodiac and they will pick the swimmer on the left and take him or her to the gangway and recovery.

However, when a swimmer approaches a Zodiac in such conditions, the protocol is to switch the engine off for safety reasons. Petar finished in a blazing 11 minutes with Victoria and Diego at 12 minutes just behind him. That all went quickly and fairly smooth. However, as Clint, Jean and Wyatt approached the finish at 16 and 18 minutes, the finish Zodiac with Kait the time keeper, started to drift back with the swimmers chasing it. I called the time as the gangway line where the Zodiac was initially placed, but the swimmers were suddenly surrounded by several Zodiacs and many people waving and shouting, and they had no idea that I called the end of the swim. None of them were going to get on their Zodiac before they touched the finish Zodiac and risk getting disqualified. It was an intense finish and soon all the swimmers were out of the water and heading to the gangway to recovery.

Recovery is always a hard process and even more so when water temperature drops to -1.2°C.

30 minutes later everyone was euphoric, well and over the moon. A dream, a once in a lifetime dream has just been fulfilled. It was such a team effort it was heartwarming to see. We all looked after each other, language and culture barriers placed aside. What a sight it was.

It was now my turn to swim. Everyone was waiting for me to swim so the after-swim party can start. No one was going to start celebrating until I swam. However, the expedition leader called the swim off. Wind has picked up to 30 knots and they were not prepared to risk it. I was told I may swim tomorrow. But we all knew it was now or never.

We were heading to Deception Island the next morning. The water there is warmer and easily reach 7-8°C and in some places even 20°C. It’s a massive underwater active volcanic island shaped like the circle with a small opening. We spent the next three hours waiting, trying and begging.

I spent the day on the water overseeing other swimming. I was tired, but very keen to swim and get it out of the way. In my mind, I have done many ice miles. They were hard and here I was going to swim just a 1 km. I had no doubt I can do it. The expedition leader mention he was worried I was not a spring chicken anymore at 61 years and conditions are rather harsh.

I asked if the ship has enough food supply as I wasn’t going to let it go back until I swam. Finally, Sam leaned on the leader with persuading charm, and he said he’ll ask the captain. A very long 30 minutes later he came to observation deck where we were all seated and said, ‘You are on!’ He asked the Captain and the Ukrainian Captain said, ‘If the swimmer wants to swim, let him #$%%$# swim!.’

Five minutes later, we were heading to those icebergs to start my swim. I was so psyched up when we arrived, I took off my clothes, dived in and started the swim. Needless to say, it wasn’t easy.

At -1.2°C, my hands froze instantly. I had two large blocks of ice hanging off the end of my arms trying to push water and get me forward. The impact of water temp around and below 0°C on your swimming capability is exponential. The average adult human body is 50-65% water. The freezing temperature of our body fluids is around -2°C. My feet were solid frozen and my legs felt like I am dragging two frozen long sticks behind by my frozen ass.


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