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Look at these great open-water swimmers – both Chilean record-holders.

March 10, 2010

Look at these great swimmers! This is a photo of Benjamín Caceres (20) and Bárbara Hernandez (24) after one of their training sessions swimming in Magellan Strait (we’re talking the frigid waters that separate the southernmost tip of the South American continent from the island of Tierra del Fuego, water T around 7ºC or so). That’s me in the middle, with the dry hair. I didn’t swim with them here – I am just proud that they are my friends!

I’ve known Benja and his family for six years, and I’ve just been down visiting them in Punta Arenas, Chile, for a couple of weeks. Benja had already done his Strait swim before I arrived. He trained for this crossing for a year, both in the pool and in the river in Valdivia, where he is studying marine biology. The narrowest part of the strait is in the far north, starting from Punta Delgada on the mainland, about 5 km across to Bahía Azul, on the island of Tierra del Fuego.

Currents are strong throughout the Strait, but especially here at the narrows, so the timing of his crossing was very important: aiming to swim at slack current. But the Patagonia weather is wild! You can predict the tides weeks or even years in advance, but you never know what the weather is going to hand you. Fortunately, his chosen day of January 8th was relatively calm…  so he, accompanied by his trainer and family, set out. And his crossing went perfectly. As Benja explains it, before he knew it Tierra del Fuego was right in front of him. His crossing time was just over an hour (1:01:35, to be exact), a new Chilean record.

I arrived a month later, and met Benja’s friend Bárbara, who did her own crossing of the Strait while Benja and I were out at San Isidro Lighthouse (further south along the Strait) for a week. While we were there, Benja and his friend Jonas plunged into the Strait for a training swim without wetsuits, Benja staggering out of the water clutching his frozen head as soon as they were done, while Jonas lolled around in the shallows like a seal. Then Benja’s friend Carolina came out for a visit, and the two of them went out for a swim. With only one pair of goggles and one swim cap between them, Carolina had to wear a diving mask and Benja did his best to avoid the brain-freeze this time with a plastic bag and piece of cloth wrapped around his head.

Bárbara completed her swim while we were away – second Chilean woman ever to have swum the Strait. Benja and I returned to Punta Arenas to congratulate her. (Bárbara, who is a South American open-water swimming champion, had also just swum across from the mainland to the outer coastal island of Chiloé the week before). She did her Strait swim on February 13th, in a time of 1:24 (the strong current meant she actually swam an extra two km) – second Chilean woman ever to swim Magellan Strait, and the new Chilean female record holder.

Bárbara and and I had several days of overlap in Punta Arenas, staying with Benja and his family, and I sure enjoyed getting to know her. Here is a little video I shot of the two of them on one of their training swims (runs 1 minute 15s):

Later, the three of us went to the local pool together (yes, I will go swimming if the water temperature is acceptable…) They attempted to teach me flip-turns (which I did not master) and how to swim front crawl backwards (which I did master!) among other useful things (such as how to sink and crawl like a crab on the floor of the pool, and how to blow bubble rings from the bottom, two of Benja’s specialties). And, upon leaving Punta Arenas, Bárbara gave me a Chile swimming camp, which I now wear with pride, and which will always make me think of these two: inspiring swimmers and wonderful friends.

I am such a wuss in the cold water. But these cold-water addicts have really motivated me. I have a decent wetsuit, and I live just a 10-minute bike ride from Tonquin Beach. The nearest public swimming pool to do laps in is 125 km away… Of course I should train in the waters at my front door. I don’t really have any excuse, do I?

I am not saying I am going to do it. But I am seriously thinking about it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Anne permalink
    March 29, 2010 7:32 pm

    Hi Jackie

    Inspiring indeed


  2. August 14, 2010 7:03 pm

    Well, it took a heat wave here to get me to do it – but I just went for an amazing swim off Tonquin Beach, a stone’s throw from my house here in Tofino, with my training partner Jeannie.

    I actually went for one 6 weeks ago or so, and it was very hard on me – bad reaction to the cold making it hard for me to control my breathing. But I’ve been swimming in Sproat Lake (Port Alberni) the last months, so I think my body has a bit more cold tolerance now (not that that lake is cold by any means – but my body is more used to being in cool water than it was before) and I think the water here is probably a few degrees warmer now too (although still very cold – I’m guessing 10 or 11 degrees?)

    We had a great swim – late afternoon, timed with the slack high tide, and it was so beautiful, looking at the kelp and the rocks and the fish and the barnacles and the starfish and even a crab. Then lounging on the rocks in the sun in our bikinis after we were done (wetsuits drying alongside – no, we did not swim in our bikinis!)

    Anyway, I have been in touch with Benja by email a lot lately, and I have just confirmed a flight to go visit him and his family in Patagonia over Christmas (their summer). So I am inspired… if I can keep up this ocean swiming for the remainder of the summer and into the fall, maybe I can build up my cold tolerance enough to swim with him in Magellan Strait this southern summer. Yippee!!

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