CNN // Dead Sea dip: Swimmers endure salty agony to highlight disappearing wonder

By Oren Liebermann, CNN

By Oren Liebermann, CNN

Dead Sea, Israel (CNN)The swimmers pulled themselves from the water exhausted, their lycra swimsuits stiff from all the crystallized salt. The water had stung their eyes, burned their skin, and exposed cuts they never knew they had. But after seven hours in the water, just after the shadows started growing long again in the afternoon sun, they were finished.

The group of nearly 30 swimmers had become the first people ever to swim across the Dead Sea from Jordan to Israel, a nine-mile (15-kilometer) swim that had never been accomplished before because the water is so inhospitable to marathon swimming.

    Dead Sea rapidly disappearing

    "I can't believe it. It's such an emotional moment," said record-breaking marathon swimmer Kim Chambers, wrapped in her native New Zealand flag.

    "It was teamwork at its finest. This is what happens when you get 28 crazy people together who think it's a good idea to swim across the Dead Sea."


    Is the Dead Sea dying?

    Chambers and the group of swimmers, who came from all over the world, wanted to raise awareness of the rapidly dropping sea levels.

    The world's lowest and one of the saltiest bodies of water is in danger of becoming extinct as its level drops at the rate of approximately one meter (3.3 feet) per year, according to Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East.

    "That demise of the Dead Sea is not global climate change -- it's policies of the governments here in the region," said Bromberg.

    Most of the water of the Jordan River, which feeds the Dead Sea, is diverted to other uses, Bromberg said.A rusty old dock lies atop a desert encrusted in salt. What used to be the shoreline of the Dead Sea now lies hundreds of feet from the water's edge.

    Canal plan to avert crisis

    Last year, Israel and Jordan signed a deal on a $900 million plan to build a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.

    The waterway, running approximately 124 miles between the two seas, would provide drinking water to the two countries while pumping water into the Dead Sea to stabilize its levels.


    Mysterious gown of salt crystals rises from Dead Sea

    This summer, 17 companies offered bids to build the canal, which is expected to take four to five years to complete. When finished it will pump hundreds of millions of cubic meters of water per year into the Dead Sea.

    'Acid burning your eyeballs'

    In the interim, the sea (which is actually an inland lake) is becoming saltier -- something the swimmers couldn't help but notice.

    "One drop of this water and I can tell you from experience in the last 24 hours ... It's like acid burning your eyeballs," said Chambers. "I had to take my contact lenses out so I couldn't actually see shore when we came in."

    Chambers has completed marathon swims in Japan, America, Gibraltar, and Scotland among other places but this swim posed its own unique set of challenges.

    The swimmers had to wear full face masks to protect their eyes and mouth but the masks leaked.

    "We got water in our eyes, we were in pain. We're chafed, but everyone just stuck together and kept an eye out for each other," Chambers said.

    "We all rallied around this single purpose, which was to draw attention to the Dead Sea, and it had to be something as flamboyant as this to get international attention.

    "To be able to do something like this when you get unprecedented diplomatic support from both sides, to save this sea, which is why we're all here today, it's going to take a long time to process. This is so special."

    NY TIMES // Marathon Swimmer Falls Short in Bid for a Record Off San Francisco

    Chambers, 39, was covered in zinc oxide sunscreen before her swim. CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

    Chambers, 39, was covered in zinc oxide sunscreen before her swim. CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

    SACRAMENTO — Just before noon on Friday, Kim Chambers, 39, stood on a floating dock at the Sacramento Yacht Club as Kala Sherman-Presser, a member of her support team, rubbed lanolin under Chambers’s arms and the seams of her swimsuit.

    Chambers wore a swim cap, turquoise-frame goggles and the scorch marks of an acupuncturist’s glass cups — the type Michael Phelps made famous in Rio.

    Vito Bialla, 67, a millionaire businessman and well-known Bay Area endurance athlete, watched her carefully. They had hatched this plot together over beers last year, and he had taken care of many of the costs.

    As the weekend progressed, her team would be aboard Bialla’s boat, the Sequel, and would follow her as she attempted to swim from Sacramento to Tiburon, an affluent Marin County town nestled on the western edge of the San Francisco Bay. Nobody knew for sure how long it would take, because nobody had ever completed it solo before.

    If all went well, Bialla thought, it could take as much as 44 hours of nonstop swimming to cover a distance of 93 miles.

    Chambers’s crew chief, Simon Dominguez, dug into a tub of zinc oxide sunscreen and began slathering the creamy white paste over every inch of Chambers’s exposed skin. She would soon be caked head to toe. The sun beat down, the mercury climbed, and the calm, green Sacramento River gurgled its invitation.

    In terms of diversity of terrain, temperature variation and tidal shifts, this would be one of the most intense marathon swims ever attempted, and if successful, under English Channel rules — the swimmer cannot be touched along the way; there are no breaks; and no wetsuits are allowed — it would be the longest solo, unassisted swim ever accomplished by a woman.

    In the end, Chambers couldn’t do it. Shortly after noon Saturday, after Chambers had already been in the water for 24 hours, after she had swum beneath a series of small-town drawbridges, and past people who had gathered along the shore to cheer her on, after she had logged the longest distance of her life, the decision was made to get her out of the water.

    The first leg of her journey — 16 hours in all — had gone according to plan, but as the course widened and the wind picked up, her progress slowed substantially. Over the next eight-plus hours, she would travel just 6.8 miles, the chop becoming so bad that she could barely lift her arms over the waves. And she kept getting tangled in river reeds.

    Finally, her crew called her over to the boat and told her the weather forecast showed the winds picking up, rather than relenting. It was time to concede.

    And with that, Chambers climbed aboard the Sequel, accepted Bialla’s offer of a shot of her beloved Jagermeister and quickly downed it.

    “I would have loved to have finished tomorrow,” she said in a telephone interview a short while later. “But you control what you can control, and then you get in the water and it’s up to Mother Nature and fate.

    “The good news is I lost 15 pounds and I get to have beers with the crew tonight.’’

    Chambers’s swim was a fund-raiser for Warrior Canine Connection, a nonprofit group that addresses post-traumatic stress syndrome in military veterans. The timing of her swim was no accident. Her goal was to step out of the water on Sept 11.

    Her failed effort now becomes one more entry in the challenging world of marathon swimming, a sport that is both easily relatable and totally incomprehensible. Many of us can swim; a smaller number swim seriously, but even devoted lap swimmers often shy away from long-distance, open-water swims.

    By the strictest definition, a marathon swim must be least 10 kilometers long and in an open body of water, although for most marathon swimmers, 10 kilometers is a starting point. Most swim far longer and follow the English Channel rules.

    The 10 longest swims on record are river swims. In contrast, on the open sea, currents and wind are not always cooperative, the water is frequently colder — and the swimmer is part of the food chain. Ocean crossings are also more widely celebrated. While few pay attention to river swims, nearly everyone has heard of those in the English Channel.

    Chambers has swum the Channel and other famous marathon crossings, although she came to the sport only after an accident led her to shift the direction of her life. .

    She grew up on a New Zealand sheep farm, came to the United States to attend the University of California, Berkeley, and, after landing a high-paying technology job, became, in her own words, a person spending far too much time being a socialite and shopaholic.

    The change came in 2007, when she injured her leg badly as she fell down a steep staircase that led to her apartment. Four operations followed over nine months, and when they were completed, she was still hampered by a lack of dexterity.

    Suddenly, swimming beckoned. A friend took her to the Dolphin Club, one of two swimming and rowing clubs next to San Francisco’s Hyde Street Pier. She swam just 200 yards that day, but the cold water and the freedom of movement reinvigorated her, and she was hooked.

    She was about to tap into one of the world’s most impassioned and accomplished marathon swim communities. Steven Munatones, founder of the World Open Water Swimming Association, compared what the Bay Area swim club scene could do for swimmers to what New York street-ball culture could do for basketball players.

    “These clubs have infrastructure, history and ambience,” Munatones said.

    “It’s a secret society of adventurers,” Chambers said, one populated by people of all ages and tax brackets.

    In 2010, Chambers swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco, her first crossing of any kind, and was recruited to be a part of an English Channel relay swim in 2011. While she was training for that swim, she caught the eye of Bialla and the Night Train Swimmers, a hard-core subculture within the swim-club universe. Bialla was not impressed with her form but noticed something deeper.

    “She was an awful swimmer,” he said, “but she had the eye of the tiger.” Bialla was in the midst of preparing a relay team to swim 30 miles from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge, and one of his swimmers had dropped out. He asked Chambers to step in.

    She had heard of the Farallons before. An otherworldly archipelago of jagged rock, known as the Devil’s Teeth, the Farallon Islands are a nature preserve that is home to countless seals and sea lions, which provide nutrition for a robust population of great white sharks. The swim was scheduled for May, when the water is still a chilly 53 degrees. Chambers was both terrified and intrigued. But she was in, and she became part of the first all-woman team to make the crossing.

    In the fall of 2011, she started training in the pool as never before, and in March 2012 she embarked on a 19-month odyssey to conquer other marathon swims. One by one, she checked them off.

    Still, she had never attempted anything like the challenge she confronted this weekend. The first leg would be downstream in fresh water that ranged from 68 to 70 degrees, but once she approached the hayfields and wind farms of Rio Vista, the river mouth would open and the tidal flow was likely to start toying with her.

    Munatones gave the swim a degree of difficulty of 9.8 out of 10, but Chambers prepared herself the best she could.

    She bulked up to 183 pounds to keep warm and planned a strict eating and drinking schedule for the swim, with pit stops every 30 minutes for water supercharged with electrolytes and every 60 minutes for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and salty mashed potatoes.

    And every Friday for three months, she swam through the night in Belvedere Lagoon in Tiburon. Afterward, she would return to her studio apartment for a bite and a shower and a long walk on San Francisco’s streets.

    On Friday, standing on the dock, with two minutes to go before launch, she was as prepared as she could be. Her crew counted down the seconds, and she hit the water, feet first. Within five minutes, her gentle splashes were barely visible in the distance.

    A day later, back out of the water, she was already thinking about her next quest — to swim across the Dead Sea, from Jordan to Israel, as part of an environmental awareness effort. It is a 10-to-11-mile swim designed to last about six hours and is now scheduled for November. The plan is for her to swim with about 15 others from around the world.

    One way or another, Chambers’s adventure continues.