This past summer a group of 66 swimmers completed the amazing feat of swimming across the Bering Strait from Russia to Alaska. Ireland’s Nuala Moore was one member of this phenomenal team and this is her account of the swim. As a point of clarification, when she refers to “ribs” she’s referring to “rigid hulled inflatable boats”.
Taking on the Bering Strait was one of the greatest experiences of Open Water we have had. The Bering Strait was insane-on so many levels from flying half way round the world to spend 6 days on a ship just to get to location-Cape Dezhev to work with a team whom we had just met, working with coxwains and systems that were not tested and working with a team who were all coming from so many backgrounds, many not having seen deep water before, or even worked on a relay at this level-either way we were all bringing enthusiasm to the expedition, marathon, extreme, ice, first timers, juniors and military-The common bond was passion, trust and the willingness to take on the project-whatever the outcome.
The swim team was a massive group of 66 swimmers 17 countries, 15 russian federations and another 30 just for the day to day running of the operation and that did not include the crew of the ship.
I think the core of the expedition was to know the risks as being as real and as supersized as they come and just to go with it. Without doubt the possibility to a negative outcome at any one swim leg was huge yet we worked and worked each moment and trusted. Our experience from our Round Ireland Swim Relay spending 16 hrs a day on Zodiacs we had encountered everything that the OW can throw at us but experience does not offer confidence it forces respect. We also had encountered separation of a swimmer, where off the West Coast of Ireland a trailing wave forced Anne Marie away from her rib and I think this also put us in a different situation of preparedness.
Anne Marie and I treated this as an expedition; we looked at every eventuality, working together on the ribs, we carried over 20kg of foodstuffs, incl coffee, cappuccinos etc, we covered all medicals and secured top of the range weather proof clothing and thermals for conditions.
When the moment came and the relay started the weather was surreal, the water ranged from 7/8 deg on the shore to 2.9 deg within a 40 hr period and the water went from being 2 m waves to 6 m waves. The challenge of the weather was that the fog appeared and disappeared quickly so the visibility was difficult with the crews being 2 km from the Command ship. Once the swimmer changeover happened, Anne Marie was gone off but I was challenged once or twice on getting back onto the rib. The fact that she was swimming off unaccompanied was an emotional and real issue, and an unnecessary risk so we discussed that we would breaststroke or steady beside the rib until the other swimmer was back on board. Some didn’t but for us we knew the risks.
The transfer back to the ship was quick but the conditions were difficult so the jump from rib to ship was a moment in time. Landing up onto a steel structure with legs being bruised and heads being banged, each swimmer was met with a full medical team. ECG’s, Echo gram to identify the stresses and then blood pressure and pulse oxygen, the recovery was a full team in a heated room. Sitting with hot towels poulticing out the cold from the core, sitting under a running warm shower handed a cup of tea and just being monitored with medical doctors who all recognised absolute trauma. Being managed with a team of coxswains who all have worked on the edge of military and strangely enough the one thing they would work tirelessly to do was not lose you. That’s all you keep in your mind. You’re in a cog in the wheel but the wheel will turn because of everything. It’s so easy to throw caution to the wind when this is the management structure.10-15 minutes is short enough for focus for the units, any longer would have made it too long away from the ship-the ribs were exposed with 3 swimmers so each turnabout was 45 mins at sea so about 2-3 hrs in total from preparation to recovery and as the days went on the number of swimmers reduced. Safety is priority as many of swimmers had never seen open water before least alone these conditions and for the more experienced swimmers these conditions coupled with the expedition would take it’s toll but as the swim progressed the water temperatures increased so what was lost in emotional and physical energy, it was gained in warmer waters.
My only fears lifted when the exhaustion and the need to finish kicked in. Meetings being held on how to cross a 20km section, (we had demons from the Round Ireland Swim-it’ll be over when we reach land) we were where we were supposed to be, the weather had stopped us twice, the fog had proved a challenge, we are all alive.
The tides proved something that they had not experienced. Coming from Ireland we live on tides and understood that 6 hrs up and down we didn’t interfere in the thinking-they would figure it out, there were enough cooks in the broth.
When the tide was running north with the massive flows of current yet when there was a southerly coming tidal flow (bearing in mind we were on springs) the power may equal or at least lessen the northerly flow and progress was possible.. for us the last 20km was about using the speed on the ship, it’s about finishing so once it was decided on where the speed was, the guys went in and got across it. We never went backwards, we never stood still like many channels and to be battling in 10 deg water and still making 100m was great. For me the Captain and the crew got us to the exact location we needed to be-right in front of the beach at Port Prince of Wales. As the zodiacs came back we were still staring at the beach we were due to land on.
The size of the water and the movement we would have had great experience of, also working on zodiacs and back to back swims for 16 hrs a day. We took every day in our stride and enjoyed each moment of the insanity.
The Bering Strait Relay changed from being the cold of the Ice Swimming world, with back to back immersions at 3-5 deg water to an insanity of the Extreme Swimming with trailing breaking waves at 14-18feet and finished with the wisdom of Marathon Swimming where currents and flows were encountered and speed was slowed to a standstill and just managing the situation.
We loved every minute of the expedition and understanding the goal, the needs-even when it meant that a knock on the door at 3 am was for a cup of tea and a few minutes chat, many guys coming off a bad swim needed somewhere to go-we don’t sleep when the swim is in the game. (We had a kettle and our door was always open) -team is all that matters. There are no winners-there is a moment in history that will most likely never be repeated for reasons of logistics but mainly for a ship, a military and a team and a unit who by nature of their occupation there was always going to be a plan b, for a group of swimmers who are bonded by a few days of insanity, for a team of medicals who watched the human body defy logic and for coxswains who managed ribs in seas that you would never expose swimmers to, who minded our safety-whose eyes were 10 steps ahead of us and for them the responsibility was off the Richter scale. They were the true heroes.
All we had to do was swim from Russia to America but the whole team had to get us there. I am not one for dramatics but there was absolute reason for fear and respect. When is started many were pumping up the swim with fighting talk.. For me I walked into the Gym, said a little prayer to the icon of the St Dmitry (the Warrior Saint) coming from coastal communities both Anne Marie and I, all we wanted was for everyone to come home safely… that was the best thing.. the second best was reaching America.
We achieved both.
The Bering Strait was one of the most challenging bodies of water-it is volatile, waves running every which way-all vying for position-the risk was colossal and it was the nature of the team which made it possible and for that privilege we are both very grateful to say we swam from Russia to America.