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.

People call Pedro Ordenes crazy a lot. It's an off-the-cuff sort of thing, a joke. But you wonder.

Maybe the word comes up so often because Ordenes, who is 55 years old, has swum between San Francisco and Alcatraz Island 126 times, more than anyone else in the world. Or because two years ago he swam across the treacherous Strait of Magellan -- two hours in 39-degree water without a wet suit, which plummeted his core body temperature to 92 degrees. Or because now he is contemplating swimming across the Bering Strait near the Arctic Circle.

Or maybe it's just because Ordenes gets up about 5 o'clock nearly every morning, drives his BMW (his license plate reads BAY SWIM) from his home in Corte Madera to the South End Rowing Club at San Francisco's Aquatic Park, strips down to a swimsuit, and, along with a handful of others in a swim club called the Sunrisers, plunges into the 50-some-degree waters of the bay for swims that can last up to two hours. Many of the swims are simple, shore-hugging routes, but there are riskier ones: treks to Angel Island, ventures out beyond the Golden Gate Bridge into the churning, fierce waters of the Pacific. And, just for the romance of it, Alcatraz.

"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.
Ordenes is preparing for swims in sub-40-degree 
waters. "This is not a trial-and-error kind of thing," he 
Anthony Pidgeon
Ordenes is preparing for swims in sub-40-degree waters. "This is not a trial-and-error kind of thing," he says.

It was only last June that Ordenes was pushing, hard, to reach his 100th Alcatraz swim.

It had sounded like a great idea in the sauna: Do Alcatraz a hundred times by the end of 2001. No, wait, better: Do it a hundred times by June 11, 2001, to mark the anniversary of the famous 1962 "Escape From Alcatraz," when three inmates of the then-jail dodged the searchlights and tried to swim from the Rock to Angel Island, only to vanish without a trace.

So Ordenes and his fellow Sunriser Gary Emich came up with an absurd schedule to complete the 50 or so legs they needed by the deadline -- including 12 swims in 15 days, at one point. On days when he ought to have said no -- deep fog, hard currents, brutal winds, bone-chilling water -- Ordenes said yes. Yes to getting lost on a misty morning when the pilot boat disappears on you and you can't find your companions. Yes to jumping into currents that are eagerly trying to turn you into a barnacle on the breakwater. Yes to swimming 1.3 miles every day with zero energy.

"There were many times where I was forcing myself to do the swim," he recalls. "There were a lot of times where I thought, 'I should not be here now.'"

Ordenes and Emich finished their hundredth swim on June 11, making their deadline. TV crews came out, people cheered. Emich was swimming for fun, for the sense of accomplishment, for the nice view. He still does Alcatraz swims, but he's always outpaced by Ordenes. "[Being ahead] is very dear and precious to him," Emich says. "I know that I will never, ever catch him. I'll always be a perpetual second."

Ordenes is in a bit of a war with himself. All the Alcatraz swims aren't enough. Or triathlons. Or his swim across the Strait of Magellan, a trek that scared him from the water for months afterward. The story never really stops -- there's a strange need that's going on in his head, one he's starting to think about more and more. He wants to do the Strait of Magellan again. The Beagle Channel, even farther south, so far south you might as well be in Antarctica. The Strait of Gibraltar. And then the Bering Strait, so far north you might as well be at the North Pole.

So why do it? And when do you quit?

He'll laugh good-naturedly at those questions -- he likes the way they really ask, Are you crazy? And he'll tell you about his father, his crummy desk jobs, his inability to sit still, and the searing bouts of depression that have plagued him. He'll offer a few lines that echo that old saw about climbing Mount Everest because it's there. But his need is more specific: He's on a mad dash to conquer the shores of two continents, making use of the only escape hatch he can trust.

"I live day by day with this option," he says. "The Pacific Ocean."

Apart from a few shelves of books on swimming and spirituality, Pedro Ordenes' home office in Corte Madera is a spare, unostentatious space. A clinking mass of medals hangs from a hook, and a city proclamation honors the 100th Alcatraz swim, but they don't really announce themselves. There are pictures: Ordenes standing with friends, family, and fellow swimmers at various locales. It's hard not to notice that he's usually the shortest one in the photos, given how much he likes to quip about his height. His 5-foot-6 frame makes for a relatively light load getting buffeted by the water, so he spends a lot of time studying data on tides and currents, looking for the strongest ones to bring him to shore. That attention to detail led to his nickname, the Push. "They call me the Push, because I'm always looking for the easiest current to push me," he says. "Or the Poosh, making fun of my Chilean accent."

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."

That's a way of saying that Pedro Ordenes couldn't stop. But for three months after the Strait of Magellan swim, he found himself unable to face the water. On top of suffering what he calls a "heavy-duty" depression, he would begin to shake as soon as he walked to shore. "When I'd see the water, my body would start trembling. The core of my body was at such a low temperature. The brain remembers exactly what you went through without you remembering. I was numb. I don't remember that, but my body does."

Dr. Acevedo argues that there are two types of long-distance, cold-water swimmers. There are those he calls "life-marker" swimmers, folks who just want to do a big swim once: Cross the English Channel, say you did it, be done with it. And then there are the competitive swimmers, for whom each crossing is just another accomplishment. The need never goes away, though there's a certain self-respect that comes with it. "It's as if you have money in your back pocket and you can pull it out in terms of your confidence bank," he says. "No one can ever take it, and you can't waste it."

But if swimming is wedded to confidence, then Ordenes needs to keep swimming. The hundred swims to Alcatraz made a nice goal to latch onto, and he figured that once it was done he might be finished with Alcatraz, perhaps forever. But forever lasted two months. He keeps going.

As for why, he wisecracks about psychiatry at first. "I'm not trying to prove anything to anyone," he insists. "I'm trying to prove something to myself."

He pauses for a beat.

"Maybe for my father."

Pedro Ordenes grew up with his family in Chile in the 1950s, in a family of swimmers. His grandfather Pablo was a swimmer -- he dove off a pier in Valparaiso every morning, leaping into the Pacific Ocean he called his back yard. His father, who worked for the government railroad administration, swam as well. His brother also grew up to be a competitive swimmer. And then there was Pedro, who everybody figured was too short and unathletic to swim.

"I remember asking my father how to grow," he says.

Ordenes would go to the University of Miami, smoke cigarettes, hang out with dope-smoking roommates. The longest swimming he'd do was on the school's water polo team.

One day, when Ordenes was 11, his father came home with a box full of brand-new swim gear for Pedro. The next morning Pedro walked to the shore of the coastal town of Quintaro, watched his father and his brother Carlos swim out from shore, and then followed them into the water, though far enough away that they couldn't see him. He nearly drowned before his brother rescued him. It takes Pedro half an hour to tell that story. He lingers over its details: the sound of his father's train coming with his present, the weather on the bay the next morning, the feeling of desperation in the water. "I started swimming, swimming, swimming, and all of a sudden, I just started losing it," he recalls. "Panic. I turned around -- it was one of those foggy days, I couldn't find the beach. At that age, you can get in such a panic that you don't say a word. I remember feeling shock, like, 'They're never going to find me. I'm dead here.'

"I thought: 'This is it, they're not going to let me swim anymore.'"

He was on the verge of going under, he says, until Carlos saved him -- yanked him by the hair and tugged him to shore. Pedro begged his older brother not to tell anybody about his foolish venture. And he didn't.

Carlos Ordenes died two months ago, of stomach cancer. The kid brother has been thinking about family a lot lately. It's what he thinks about in the water.

That, and an Enya song he keeps in his head to help shut his brain off.

Sitting in a pilot boat in the middle of the bay recently, Ordenes explains that his father always romanticized Alcatraz, ever since he visited San Francisco on a diplomatic trip in the '50s. "He created this monster in me," Ordenes says, one hand on the handle of the outboard motor, looking out at the swimmers he's charged with keeping an eye on. He adds, quietly, almost under his breath: "Challenge, challenge, challenge."

Ordenes would swim while living in Miami, but not with the competitive intensity he has now. After moving to San Francisco 10 years ago, he joined the Sunrisers, where he found a community that not only didn't raise its eyebrows at absurd swims, but encouraged them. "Pedro's a firm believer in the idea that if it's worth doing, it's worth overdoing," says Lee Block, one of his fellow swimmers.

On a recent swim from Alcatraz when Ordenes was manning the pilot boat, Gary Emich joked about getting one swim closer to his friend's record.

"But it doesn't matter," he said. "Soon as I catch up, he'll be out at 3 in the morning, getting one ahead again." Ordenes just laughed. He wasn't denying it.

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.

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.

It'll take a few years to get to that point. If he even comes close to Cox's swim, he'll be spending over two hours in 38-degree water (at its balmiest), and he'll have to hire pilot boats and make sure a medical staff is around, as well as during the trek keep an eye on the whales in the area and try not to think too hard about the swim -- but never forget that he's spending more time than he ever has in colder water than he's ever known.

First, though, he'll go up and take a look.

"I need to just sit there and see if it's realistic or not," he says. "From there, you start working your way up. You make the evaluation if it's even possible. My mind could be better prepared. Even when you're preparing, you have to think that the worst may happen. This is not a trial-and-error kind of thing."

The word "crazy" comes up.

"I hear it all the time," he laughs. "I only want to do it for others to do later on. All I want is for somebody to say, years from now, 'I met this crazy guy from California who did this.'"

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