The Endless Swimmer

When people learn that Pedro Ordenes, 55, has swum to or from Alcatraz 126 times, or that he crossed the Strait of Magellan in 39-degree water, they often joke about his sanity. That's before they hear about his idea to swim the Bering Strait.

When he's not swimming or training triathletes and distance swimmers, he is often in his home office of Ordenes International, a consultancy that organizes telecom connections between Asia and the Americas. Somewhere amid the office junk is a videotape, which he pops into the VCR. The tape is fascinating to him. He's the star of the story, and he barely remembers it.

"Every time I see this, it was like it wasn't me there," he says.

On Dec. 30, 1999, Ordenes swam across the Strait of Magellan. The tape shows Ordenes gearing up for his swim in a Chilean navy boat, smearing his stocky frame with lanolin to provide a thin veneer of protection from the waters he's about to step into. The Strait of Magellan, in Antarctic waters off Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America, offers one of the most unforgiving swims imaginable. At 3.5 miles, it's not as long as the English Channel, a popular challenge for open-water swimmers. But it can be 20 degrees colder than the channel, windier, and it wrecks you -- most swimmers give up before they finish. The English Channel has been conquered by more than 800 swimmers; a mere five have crossed the Strait of Magellan. Two have died trying.

Even from the relative safety of a ship, the strait isn't much fun. Aboard the HMS Beaglein 1833, a young naturalist named Charles Darwin wrote about being only grateful to leave the area: "Rock, ice, snow, wind, and water, all warring with each other, yet combined against man, here reigned in absolute sovereignty."

The Chilean naval authorities almost called the whole thing off. They were expecting a tall, young athlete, and the guy who showed up that day was 5 feet 6 inches and 53 years old. Was he kidding?

A person who sits in a bathtub full of ice cubes to prepare for a swim isn't joking. "When I can spend 20 minutes doing that, I know I'm about ready," Ordenes says.

Ordenes has a map of the route he swam. It's a stretched-out, backward S. Pushed hard west by one current, bounced east by another.

Watching the tape, he'll occasionally recall something and point to his body on the screen, pushing through the whitecaps and the 14-knot winds. "There's the moment where I felt like, 'I don't know if I can do this,'" he says. Toward the end: "There, I was in a whirlpool. I was getting desperate." A group of dolphins found him halfway through his journey. It's charmingly melodramatic to watch them leap and circle him as he pumps his way through the whitecaps. They "saved my life," he says. "At that moment I was about to pass out. I was about to give up when I saw them."

The images of him talking to reporters afterward are both celebratory and disturbing. He looks like hell. He'd spent nearly two hours in 39-degree water, and his normally dark skin had turned a ghastly, pale white. Weeping into a Chilean flag, he tried to speak, explaining that he was weeping not out of pride for being the oldest person to swim the strait, but for the people who helped him get across.

Long-distance, cold-water swimming isn't a new phenomenon; the challenge of getting from here to a faraway there existed well before Gertrude Ederle shocked the world in 1926 by being the first person to swim across the English Channel. The inmates who tried to escape in 1962 may even have known that a swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco was doable; a woman named Gloria Saglione pulled it off in 1933. Training for long-distance swims can be rigorous, of course -- a lot of time spent practicing in cold water, physical conditioning, training yourself how to urinate and vomit properly during your swim to glory.

But a lot of successful training for cold-water swimming happens in the brain. In his research on English Channel swimmers, Dr. Edmund Acevedo, director of the Applied Physiology Laboratory at the University of Mississippi, found that the swimmers tended to play a cat-and-mouse game in their heads. They were thinking about the swim, obviously -- moving their bodies, gauging their energy levels, orienting themselves. But shutting off your brain is essential as well; a lot of the swimmers tended to keep a tune in their heads, to maintain a rhythm and keep their minds off of other things. You can't look too far ahead, or give too much thought to what you're doing. Obsessing about the goal can be overwhelming. Feeling overwhelmed -- Holy crap, I'm in the middle of the English Channel!-- induces panic. Panic, in cold water, is death.

"The cold-water swimmer wants to be careful about thinking too much about the swim," says Dr. Acevedo. "At the same time, you're being completely absorbed with just getting through every five minutes. It's a little bit of paradox." As one of the swimmers he interviewed told him: "There are times where you switch off your mind to what your body is screaming at you."

Coping with life after the swim can be equally difficult, he adds. "[The swim] has become such a major component of your life that you don't know what to do," Acevedo says. "It takes time to regroup. It's very similar to what Olympic athletes experience that first year afterward: 'I don't know what to do this morning.' They're in a pretty significant funk. It's very important to set up another goal."

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