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Ryan Stramrood swimming the Bering Strait Relay
Ralph Teller

The Bering Strait Relay - The Most Deadliest Swims

by Ralph Teller

This Bering Strait Swim Relay is first such swim in history

The Place. The Bering Strait is 82 kilometres (51 mi; 44 nmi) wide between the Chukchi Peninsula, Russia (the eastern most point of the Asian continent) and Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska ( the western most point in the USA). The Bering Strait lies slightly south of the Polar Circle. The Strait is relatively shallow with depths varying between 98 feet (30m) and 160 feet (49m) and connects the Bering Sea, Pacific Ocean with the Artic Ocean.

The Bering Sea is one of the most dangerous bodies of water in the world. There are three main reasons for this; shallow depth, volatile weather, and extremely cold sea temperatures. The depths average 35 fathoms (about 200) which means the waves are shorter and pack more power than deep sea waves. Strong currents make navigation very hazardous.

In winter when air temperatures hover around -50F for long periods and winds can reach 100mph. The Bering Strait can be covered with thick ice and is only ice free from June to October. In summer, water temperatures average 5C (40 F). Strong north-flowing currents sweep the upper portions of the Bering Sea. In the Straits currents flow 1-2 knots.

The Swimmers. Wearing only Speedo costumes caps and goggles, between August 4 - 10 2013, a team of 65 swimmers from 17 countries performed a relay swim across the Bering Strait, the first such swim in history!

These are cold water adventure distance swimmers and considered to be the most experienced open water and winter swimmers from all over the world! They swam from Cape Dezhnev, Russia to Cape Prince of Wales, USA.

The Bering Strait Swim Relay Swimmers at swim start

The Adventure. This world-first epic relay adventure began on August 5 from Cape Dezhnev in remote Russia. The relay was sponsored by the Russians and a large Russian army vessel and two small Zodiac boats supported the swimmers. Visibility in the stormy ocean was often hampered by thick fog. Water temperatures at the swim start were 8C.

At 5km from shore, the water temperature dropped to 2C (35F). When the water temperature dropped from 8C to 2.5C - a difference only a few will fully grasp, hands and feet became frozen solid in an instant. The swimmers hands and feet took a hammering in the ice water and ached like hell. This temperature is immediately life threatening and one's body reacts strongly.

The Rules. The relay format was precision and was designed to help the swimmers manage the harsh swim conditions. There were 3 swimmers per Zodiac, 10 minutes in the water per swimmer, with a 'high 5' change over. Each shift takes approximately 2hrs in total of which 60 minutes is at sea (10 minutes journey from ship to the current swimmer, 10 minutes to prepare for the change over while the previous swimmer finishes, 10 minutes x 3 for each swimmer in the water, then 10 minutes back to the main ship once all swimmers on our Zodiac are done). Every single session is recorded and swimmer change-over officiated by the Russian, European and Guinness Book of Record representatives to ensure proper conduct.

The water was wild and never still with large rolling waves and a relentless, penetrating, icy wind. The sub-zero wind chill temperatures severely tested the swimmers physically and mentally.

The most challenging part of the relay was the last 20 km when the current became so strong that even the most experienced swimmers were able to swim only the distance of 150 m in 15 minutes. Sometimes the current was so strong the swimmers could make no forward motion.

"At one stage, one of the swimmers was rescued with a fish gaff after sinking from cold and exhaustion. This was one of many crazy, frightening moments," said swimmer Ryan Stramrood. "Swimmers started to drop out and we ended with only the strongest 15 enduring 15 minute intervals at a higher frequency". Stramrood is a distance cold water adventure swimmer on the South African team. See Ryan Stramrood How to Acclimate to Cold Water Swimming.

The Strongest Swimmers. Space doesn't allow here to name all 60 swimmers, but the physically and mentally strongest swimmers able to progress the Relay in the strongest of currents included Ryan Stramrood - South Africa, Craig Lenning - USA, Toks Viviers - South Africa, Melissa O'Reilly - USA; Henri Kaarma - Estonia, Paolo Chiarino - Italy, Ram Barkai - South Africa, Cristian Vergara - Chile and Andrew Chin - South Africa, in addition to a few Russian swimmers whose names I do not know.

Every swimmer had to use a bright orange floatation device attached to the waist, so if a swimmer went down, he would not get lost. It was great for spotting the swimmer and it added a huge mental comfort. These bright orange flotation devices are highly recommended for extreme swims, however, it can add drag and irritation when the wind blows.

Halting the Relay. The relay was stopped as the swimmers reached the Diomede islands just on the border of USA water. The weather turned extremely bad and it was impossible to continue. This gave everyone a welcome rest.

The water temperatures on our 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th swims slowly climbed 4C, 5C, 8C and 10C respectively as we drew closer to the US mainland. The warmer water though brought with it a very thick fog. The fog combined with the fierce wind it made navigation impossible. At this point, the swimmers ended up swimming in circles, literally.

Heavy Fog and Extreme Currents. On August 8, the fog lifted and Alaska was in clear view with the USA end point only 20km away! But no ways was the Bering Sea going to let go the swimmers that easily. Although predicted it would, the current abruptly changed from a moderate Northerly to and aggressive Southerly.

Halted again. Immediately the relay was set off course. We were in danger of missing the Cape Prince of Wales peninsula and adding days onto our challenge. At this point, the Organisers decided to cut the 62 strong team down to 27 of the 'top' swimmers who only do freestyle - the faster stroke. The 10 minute swim times were also increased to 15 minute sessions.

After approximately 12 hours after the new format started, it was established that the swimmers had progressed only 2km. The current's strength had rocketed to an impossible 7 nautical knots/hr (13km/hr) and they were heading further off course every minute. No-one can out swim it. Again, the swim was stopped to re-evaluate and a decision made to resume swimming at 3am with a new strategy.

Extreme Swells. On August 10 the swim resumed. At times conditions brought 7 meter swells which were breaking into white water, tumbling the swimmer and near rolling the Zodiac on a few occasions. At this point, the swimmers safety was too seriously threatened, the relay was again stopped.

Perserverance = Success. On August 11, the list of 62 swimmers is now down to 15. The teams were up at 2am to get ready to head out into the teeth of icy wind chill and this time pouring rain too. The water temp warmed to a 'comfortable' 12C. With only 5km to go and the current has been beaten, the swimmers had a simple swim to the end and history was made!

The official GPS distance swam was 134km. The Relay, expected to take 48 hours, took 5 days of swimming, due to the currents and wild seas. That's Heart and Perserverance!

More about Ralph Teller. See Ralph's 1Vigor Log Calendar.

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