A group of six Israeli swimmers set out Tuesday to push their physical limits. Ranging in age from 40 to 65, they hoped to swim the 380 kilometers from Cyprus to Israel together and in the process set a new Guinness world record for a group swim in open water.
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“I jumped into the water during the night and didn’t know what the hell I was doing there,” recalled the youngest of the swimmers, Uri Sela. “At first, I couldn’t manage getting beyond all of my fears,” he said of the experience of swimming in the open sea.
“The most lethal scenarios race through your mind. You see flashes all the time from every direction and are sure that a shark is swimming toward you. It doesn’t pass. You don’t understand how you are going to survive this for several days,” he said. “It’s not the physical aspect, but confronting [the experience]. You’re really alone. What gave me relief in the process were thoughts like how I kiss my wife, play Star Wars with my son and dolls with my daughter.”
The joint swim was conducted as a relay race in the middle of the Mediterranean. The members of the group took turns swimming four to five kilometers. “They get you up in the early hours of the morning,” Sela says, “and tell you: ‘Get going. Jump into the water.’ One person makes tea for his teammate or heats up soup for someone, keeping an eye on one another and looking after the person in the sea all the time. After your swim, you find an empty bed in the yacht and lie down. Somehow you get used to the sleeping arrangements and manage to get five hours of interrupted sleep. Along the way you enjoy infinite vistas. There is no land. You see the clear water against the backdrop of the sunset, and it’s just hypnotic.”
On the third night of the journey, they began to feel the full force of the weather. “We knew the sea was forecast to be stormy on Friday, but we didn’t expect to already have insane waves on Thursday,” Sela recalled. “The waves were over a meter and a half high and we swam right into them. It was cold and rainy with crazy winds and jellyfish stinging us, but we knew we couldn’t stop if we wanted to qualify for the record.
“Before my turn came, I saw Ben in the water, who was perhaps our strongest swimmer,” Sela said, referring to teammate Ben Enosh. “The waves crashed over him again and again and he came up and kept on going. It’s like a surfer who gives you a friendly slap. My adrenaline was at its peak. I pounded my chest and had a feeling as if I was going to war. I liked the fact that the sea was tossing me around, but the yacht was being tossed around too, and it seemed as if it was going to hit me at any minute. Inside of me I knew that was very dangerous. I felt like I had a second to grab the ladder and get on the boat because the engines were getting closer and spinning in front of my eyes.”
To return in one piece
Sela went the full distance in the choppy seas and was then followed by his 65-year-old teammate, Udi Erel. The waves at that point were more than two meters high and by the time the turn of another member of the group, Oded Rahav, came, they were over three meters, or about 10 feet, high.
“As veteran army people, some of the swimmers said if this had been a training exercise, they wouldn’t have kept it going,” Sela recounted. “In a storm like that, you sail only if you have to. We knew that the big storm was still ahead of us. This was just the preview. The waves sent Oded flying. He really was up there doing acrobatics in the air. When it came to the swimming itself, we were totally confident, but we were afraid that the yacht would go flying all of a sudden hit whoever was in the water hard.”
Just after 1 A.M., team member Luke Shetbon jumped into the eye of the storm. While he was doing battle with the forces of nature, his five colleagues considered whether it was worth forgoing the quest for the world record in the face of the prospect of disaster.
“Everyone had swum a total of dozens of kilometers. Our bodies were wrecked. Every muscle was swollen as if it had been beaten for a whole hour,” Sela said. “When you’re exhausted, there is a reasonable risk that something is going to happen. At a certain stage, I understood that we were about to call it off and it was very hard for me. I stopped talking. I was all choked up because I knew we had to stop.”
Tears of disappointment
Around 1:40 A.M., the group signaled to Shetbon to stop swimming and return to the boat. “I’m not coming in,” he replied. “Think it through again. If I touch the boat, we won’t get the record,” he pleaded. Forget about the record, his teammates insisted. They came as a group, they told him, and they want to return home in one piece. So after collectively swimming 166 kilometers, they lifted Shetbon into the yacht.
“I had a hard time digesting it. I was wasted and started crying,” Sela acknowledged. “No one would have stopped of his own accord, because no one was thinking of himself but instead we were each thinking about everyone else. If we had known that only another few hours were left before we sighted the Israeli coast, we probably would have taken a calculated risk and kept on going. It took me time to recover and then I understood what an experience we had had, what a strong group we were.”
The team returned to Israel without a Guinness record. They have, however, already managed to raise about NIS 20,000 in support of swimming training for deprived youth. Sela is counting on additional contributions and is already letting his imagination go about the next attempt.
“I think the goal of Cyprus to Israel in 2014 is calling to us,” he said. “I don’t believe we can rest without doing it again. We will go to sea when the current is not against us. We are so capable of doing this.”