World first for South African extreme swimmers

Ram Barkai jumping into 1°C water in
Antarctica in 2008.

The quintet will brave icy water in
South America’s Patagonia region.
(Images: Picasa)

Icebergs frequent Patagonia’s straits.
(Images: Wikimedia)

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Bongani Nkosi

Swimming across frosty seas is the stuff of nightmares for most, but not for five extreme-cold swimmers from Cape Town who are gearing up for a chilling adventure in the menacing waters off the coast of South America.

The intrepid team – comprising Andrew Chin (41), Ram Barkai (53), Toks Viviers (47), Kieron Palframan (36), and Ryan Stramrood (37) – will attempt three swims in South America’s Patagonia region: a snaking passage around Cape Horn, and swims in the Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel.

The quest to cross more than 1.6km around Cape Horn will be the team’s most challenging and daunting swim – they will have to pass through part of strait that connects South America to Antarctica. There’s only about 800km between the two landmasses.

With water temperatures hovering between sub-zero and 3°C, this body of water is one of the world’s chilliest throughout the year.

The Cape Horn channel is notoriously known as the “sailors’ graveyard” due to the strong currents and winds, unyielding waves and icebergs that dominate the Chilean territorial waters. Although it’s often crossed by daring yachters, swimmers have stayed away until now.

“The Cape Horn is thought of as a dangerous sailing place,” said Chin in an interview.

What makes the five Capetonians so eager to take the risk? If they’re successful, they’ll become the first men in the world ever to have crossed the body of water. “We’ll do Cape Horn specifically because it’s never been done before.

“Swimming there will be something new; no one has ever done it before,” Chin said. “It’s more about the challenge.”

Two preparatory swims

The swimmers will leave South Africa on 11 February 2011, and plan to start their quest on either the 14th or the 15th.

A 5km swim in the Strait of Magellan, with waters between 3°C to 6°C, will be their starting point. A 2km route in the 4°C Beagle Channel will be next. These two swims are expected to be less challenging than the Cape Horn given the different climate dynamics.

Strong winds are expected to make swimming conditions very difficult, if not impossible – but the team don’t seem to be too put off by the water temperatures.

“The colder the water, the more challenging the adventure will be,” said Chin.

Predictions are that the weather will favour the adventurers, but if unexpected strong winds or any other adverse conditions emerge, they will not risk their lives. “We could go there and do nothing if we have two weeks of bad weather,” added Chin.

They will do the swims wearing only speedos, swimming caps and goggles – and will try to finish all three routes within 10 days.

Veteran swimmers

The quintet is made up of renowned long-distance and cold-water swimmers who’ve proven their mettle in local and international adventures.

Chin himself is a veteran long-distance adventure swimmer. His successful missions include the 13.2km Pennock Island Challenge ocean race in Alaska, twice crossing the 2.4km strait between Alcatraz Island and San Francisco in the US, and clocking 23 minutes for a 1.3km swim race in Lake Zurich.

The Pennock Island Challenge is the world’s longest and coldest of swimming races.

Along with Barkai, another participant in the upcoming South American adventure, Chin became the first swimmer to cross the 7km route from Diaz Beach to Buffels Bay around Cape Point in 2004.

Barkai is also an accomplished long-distance swimmer and holds a Guinness World Record for completing the most southerly swim – a 1km dash through 1°C water in Antarctica in 2008.

The South African has also swum the icy Pennock Island race in Alaska and the one in Lake Zurich.

Barkai founded the International Ice Swimming Association in 2010, which was launched during the One Mile Ice Swim challenge in Fraserburg, near Sutherland, in the Northern Cape. Sutherland is known as South Africa’s coldest town.

“We enjoy pushing ourselves, pushing our boundaries,” Chin said.

Viviers is an experienced cold water specialist who’s completed the Pennock Island race, as well as Alcatraz to San Francisco. He completed the One Mile Ice Swim in Fraserburg in July 2010.

Palframan and Stramrood also hold impressive records in long-distance swimming through icy waters. They’ve both completed the Pennock Island Challenge and have successfully crossed the channel between Robben Island and Cape Town on many occasions, among many other achievements.

Chin has done a lot of research into adventure swimming in Patagonia over the last four years, he said. They’ve assembled a team of assistants and other resources to see them through. Chin feels that “this is the time”.

The team says they have accumulated enough confidence from their previous ice swims to take on the South American waters.

“Some of us have considerable experience in cold water and we’re aware that this could be the biggest swim challenge we’ve undertaken so far,” said Barkai.