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.

His first swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco was on May 15, 1992. It wasn't a blockbuster; it took 90 minutes, and he had to wear a wet suit -- he was a "wet suit weenie," as the old-timers at the club would put it. He didn't tell his father that.

And then his father asked: "When are you going to do it twice?"

Ordenes' father, who died in 1994, idolized a woman named Lynne Cox. Cox, who lives in Southern California, is famous in the long-distance swimming community for a lengthy list of accomplishments, including record-breaking swims in the English Channel, the Bering Strait, Scandinavia, the Aleutian Islands, and the Strait of Magellan. Being the first person to do many major swims and the fastest at most of the others brings a lot of folks knocking on her door asking for advice. In 1998 she received a letter from Pedro Ordenes, asking for her help in swimming across the Strait of Magellan.

"It's an addiction," Ordenes says of his regular swims 
in the bay.
Anthony Pidgeon
"It's an addiction," Ordenes says of his regular swims in the bay.
Ordenes in the locker room of the South End Rowing 
Anthony Pidgeon
Ordenes in the locker room of the South End Rowing Club.

Cox sees Ordenes as one of the rare ones -- a person who takes serious joy in the accomplishment, as opposed to some swimmers who push themselves too hard and look like they're having no fun in the process. "What motivates one person won't motivate another," she says. "Some people seem to be driven to do a swim and break a time. There are other people who'll train really hard but who'll enjoy it all along the way. And there are those who feel it's an escape of the real life they go through, a place to express themselves."

It was Cox who encouraged Ordenes to pursue the Alcatraz swims to help break out of his post-Magellan funk. But she's a bit concerned about her friend's more outsize dreams to swim the Strait of Magellan, the Bering Strait, and the Beagle Channel. She's already done those swims, and perhaps the concern is that Ordenes admires her success too much. She also was there when he swam Magellan, and she saw what it did to him. She's surprised to hear that he is even considering the Bering Strait.

"We've had a discussion about him doing another cold-water swim," she says. "I told him that he should reconsider it. He could've gone into serious hypothermia.

"I'm not sure if it's a good thing to help him or not."

"Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!" Pedro Ordenes screams, howling into the salt air.

It's 7:31 a.m., and he's about to jump into the waters off the Marina's St. Francis Yacht Club. Everybody has a routine, something he says or does to prepare for the feeling of cold water. Ordenes whoops. That first minute or two in the water always comes as a shock. The cold hitting you, turning your body numb, making you wonder why you're doing this. And as soon as you wonder, you make yourself stop wondering. If you think, you panic. You panic, you sink.

He whoops again, and then turns quiet for a second. With a quickly muttered, "OK," he pushes himself off the boat. Back. Down. In.

He's nothing then, a speck in the ocean, a red-capped head bobbing as he pumps his arms forward. This swim, just hugging the shore for half an hour back to the South End Rowing Club, isn't as much fun as the original idea, which was to swim to Aquatic Cove from Angel Island, but the waters were looking awful this morning. This will have to do.

"It's depressing to find out you can't do something," says Bob Roper, who's piloting the boat this morning, keeping an eye on the five swimmers in the bay. All this was Roper's idea; he founded the Sunrisers in 1978. "We took a hell of a lot of chances in those days," he says. "One year, one swim, we almost lost a swimmer -- found him floating face down. After that, we had to tighten up the ranks on the swim."

Lynne Cox apparently had a conversation with Ordenes about this Bering Strait notion of his; he tried to explain that doing the swim isn't just a casual goal. Still, he's thinking about the "major league" swims that come first. He's gearing up for the Ironman triathlon in Kona, Hawaii, in October. He wants to tackle the Beagle Channel, even farther south than the Strait of Magellan, sometime early next year, if the authorities let him. That done, he can begin the negotiating and mental preparation for a jaunt across the Bering Strait.

Planning big swims can be messy from an administrative standpoint. For the Strait of Magellan, Ordenes had to gain the permission of the Chilean navy, which is usually loath to supervise such a thing because, Ordenes says, it has to rescue about 300 people from the icy waters each year. For the Beagle Channel, he'll have to talk with both the Argentine and the Chilean authorities and argue that a man in his mid-50s can pull it off. On top of travel costs, hiring boats and assistants will cost about $2,000. There's a fee to pay for the governments' trouble, about $400, which the navy asked him to donate to a local school after his Magellan swim. He'll have to get into similar discussions with the U.S. and Russian authorities if he is to swim 2.7 miles across the Diomedes Isles in the Bering Strait.

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