A cool man

Israeli-South African sets new record in extreme cold-water Antarctic swim.

ram barkai 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ram barkai 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A former Israeli now living in Cape Town has survived life-threatening conditions and defied contemporary wisdom by undertaking the most southerly swim in the world, completing one kilometer in an Antarctic lake in sub-zero air temperatures. Previous extreme cold water swims in the area had only ventured as far south as 65º latitude. Ram Barkai, 50, undertook the swim last week in the body of water known as Long Lake, just over 70º south, near Maitri, the Indian scientific research station in Antarctica. Long Lake, which Indian researchers at the station have renamed "Lake Ram," is the farthest-south unfrozen water mass in Antarctica. It is also the farthest inland point in Antarctica in which a human being has swum. "It hurts, and I don't recommend it to someone who feels like just waking up one morning and diving in. I trained for many months, and the swim is very dangerous," Barkai, who has lived in South Africa for the past 11 years, told The Jerusalem Post by phone from Cape Town. Considered an extreme sport popular in places like Russia and the Nordic states, cold water swimming is not an idea Barkai picked up on the balmy beaches of the Kinneret, where he grew up. "I've always felt more comfortable in the water than on land, and this is an extension of that," Barkai said, adding that he was one of the main organizers of a group of extreme cold swimmers who regularly gather off the Cape's Atlantic Ocean coast. Barkai first hopped into the Atlantic coast not because he was looking for cold water, but because the Indian Ocean side was known to be home to many sharks. Barkai, the CEO of Cape-based Cadiz Financial Strategy Group, has completed scores of arduous long-distance swims - including crossing the Robben Island channel at night, swimming 20 km. across the Sea of Galilee, rounding Cape Point and completing most of the length of of the Orange River. He trekked to the Antarctic with a small support team to find an unfrozen lake in the most southerly point ever swum by a human. Barkai, who returned to South Africa a week ago, said he spent months preparing by swimming in the cold water off Clifton Beach in Cape Town every evening. In the Arctic, he faced air temperatures of minus 10º Celsius and a water temperature of 1º - conditions the Indian doctor in his support team warned could easily induce cardiac arrest and hypothermia and urged him to reconsider. The swim was delayed by 10 days because of a sudden rise in air temperature in Antarctica, which partially melted the runway at a Russian research base where Barkai's plane would have to land. Eventually Barkai and a small team arrived in the region and made their way to Long Lake. Watched closely by a mixed group of international polar explorers based in Antarctica, Barkai, wearing only a bathing suit, goggles and a swimming cap, took to the water with a rope attached to his torso to allow his support team to pull him from the icy water in case of emergency. "After I dived in, my skin went numb immediately, and then came the burning pain and piercing headache," he said. "Breathing was one of the most difficult tasks. Taking in sub-zero air under these conditions can cause panic very quickly. I also had to be careful of shards of ice, which can be extremely dangerous if you swim into them. "At the 600-meter mark, I really started to battle. My breathing was out of synch, my stroke was irregular, and I started to take strain. The cold slows you down, and the rope felt as if I was dragging a dingy. But I was determined to keep going," he said. "With 50 meters to go, my mind began to give up. I knew, though, that I was too close to give in. This is a critical time, as your body stops generating heat and your core body temperature continues to plummet rapidly." Barkai pushed on and completed the one kilometer he had set out to achieve. "When I got out, my skin burned each time someone touched me, because I was so cold and their body temperature was so high in comparison. I was extremely nauseous and couldn't drink anything; my stomach and chest were extremely tight. The recovery was not a pleasant process." Barkai said the only casualty had been his two big toes and some part of his soles, in which he had temporarily lost sensation. "The whole experience was surreal. I don't consider myself superior in any aspect. This experience proved to me that swimming in the most extreme conditions is possible with the correct preparation. Preparation is critical, and understanding your body reaction and function under these conditions is also crucial. The rest is all in your mind," said Barkai, who calls himself a proponent of "mind over matter." When asked what cold water adventure he would be seeking next, he said, "There are plenty of other challenges out there." For more pictures and articles, see Amir Mizroch's personal blog Forecast Highs