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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.

Wednesday, Jun 12 2002
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 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.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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