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Flotilla of ice swimmers planning Bering Strait crossing

Alex DeMarban
Photo courtesy J Bay Swim

The first person to swim the deadly Bering Strait has words of warning for an international relay team of ice swimmers hoping to stroke 86 miles from Russia to the United States in body-numbing temperatures this summer.

"I think it's really dangerous to go out in that cold water again and again and again," said Lynne Cox, who rejected an invitation to join the group in part because she's uncertain how they'll warm up between their 15-minute swims.

In 1987, Cox was 30 when she swam the 2.7-mile distance from Little Diomede in Alaska to Big Diomede in Russia, crossing the International Date Line wearing only a swimsuit, cap and goggles. Because of strong currents, the swim actually turned out to be 5 miles long.

After spending more than a decade preparing, she spent slightly more than two hours in water as cold as 38 degrees, about as chilly as a refrigerator. The feat was notable in part because it helped thaw relations between the Cold War superpowers.

But that's just one of several frigid crossings the extreme swimmer and author has accomplished over the last 40 years, always with doctors, rescuers and other professionals at the ready and safety plans and medical equipment in place. She's cautious after seeing friends nearly die from cardiac arrest during their cold-water swims, including one who suffered pneumonia for several weeks.

With the sport of open-water swimming "exploding," she finds herself often warning others about the dangers of ice swimming. All kinds of ill-planned expeditions are popping up, but cold-water swimming is not to be trifled with, she said.

"I'm really concerned (about the relay) because when you jump into cold water and you swim, the peripheral part of your skin cools down really rapidly and that cool blood starts to circulate into your core," she said.

"If they go back in the water again and they're still cold, they're more susceptible to having their temperatures drop faster and lower. It's like if someone gets frostbite, they're more susceptible to getting frostbite again."

And that's the danger, she said. Are the swimmers going to get warmed up enough sitting on a boat crossing the edge of the Arctic Ocean? And with the group miles and miles from the mainland and medical facilities, how quickly will help come if hypothermia strikes?  

"What are their backups? How many support boats will they have? Will they have re-warming facilities? What happens if someone goes into cardiac arrest?" she wondered.

Organizers of the swim could not be reached for this article by press time.

South African swimmer Ram Barkai told the Dispatch by email that he's in. He's expecting "rough conditions," but he's eager.

"I am fascinated by swimming in cold water and the human ability to deal with it," wrote Barkai, founder of the International Ice Swimming Association and record-holder for the southernmost ice swim.

On the other hand, Barkai added: "It is an extreme sport and a dangerous one. Safety and the selection of swimmers will be a critical factor. I will not swim if I feel that we compromise our safety."

An ice swim is at least a 1-mile swim in waters that are 41 degrees or colder, wearing only a swimsuit, cap and goggles. 

The plan for the Russia-Alaska ice swim, created in part to honor past Russian expeditions, is for some 30 swimmers from a variety of countries to each swim 15 minutes at a time. The crossing between Cape Dezhnev in Russia and the village of Wales in Alaska, about 100 miles northwest of Nome, will take an estimated 30 hours. Each person might have six swims, says a web site about the effort.

The relay, expected to start in early August, will connect the easternmost point on the Russian mainland with the westernmost point on the U.S. mainland. Water temperatures are expected to range between 40 degrees and 50 degrees.

Cold water isn't the only thing the swimmers and their support boats will contend with, said Cox. Weather can be brutal, the currents powerful. "They won't be swimming a straight line," Cox said.  

Cox's first impression of the Bering Strait came decades ago, after landing in Little Diomede in a storm blowing more than 40 mph. "Beyond belief scary," she thought when she saw the raging seas below her, she said in an interview on Tuesday.    

For the planned Bering Strait crossing, Cox hopes it can be done safely. Experts, doctors, rescuers, safety equipment like defibrillators and re-warming gear like hot water bottles must be available. Unlike the prevailing wisdom, she recommends exercise after each swim to warm up. Swimmers should also eat calorie-rich foods.  

"It's so important that a strong safety element is put in place," she said.

Bill Streever, a biologist at BP in Anchorage and author of the 2010 book “Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places”, shares Cox's concern. Having jumped into the Arctic Ocean near Barrow more than once, he knows it can take a full day to warm back up after even a short dip in icy waters.  

He too said the swimmers will deal with more than cold. Lion's mane jellyfish, the world's largest jellyfish, are often larger than a man and can trail tentacles several feet long. Arctic Ocean dwellers have a nasty sting.  

"A lot can go wrong in the Bering Sea," he said. "It's not a pond."

Still, he admires the group's ambition, especially considering they'll do it in bathing suits.

"That's awesome," he said. "Just don't try to recruit me."

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com

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