For Lynne Cox it had been a productive if frustrating few months. After extensive negotiations she was in Washington, D.C., to attend meetings with representatives of the Israeli, Egyptian and Jordanian embassies. Her agenda: to discuss the logistics of her planned mid-October swim around the Gulf of 'Aqaba, a slender tongue of water that extends inland from the Red Sea and is shared uneasily by those three nations.
Cox, 37, is one of the greatest endurance swimmers in the world. Her resume is comprehensive: a 12½-hour crossing from Catalina Island to the California coast at the age of 14; an English Channel record at 15; a 20-mile swim across New Zealand's Cook Strait (which she was the first woman to achieve) at 17; a swim across the Strait of Magellan in 44° water at 19. In short, Cox has swum across some of the earth's most treacherous bodies of water.
As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, one can never step into the same river twice—its constant flux ensures that little about it remains the same. Similarly, vagaries of weather, tides and currents ensure that no two swimmers can make the same crossing, and an alltime-best open-water swim is difficult to claim. Still, one of Cox's feats stands out from others of its kind: her crossing of the Bering Strait from the U.S. to the Soviet Union in 1987. On that occasion Cox, protected by neither a wet suit nor insulating grease, swam for more than two hours in water that ranged from 38° to 44°, temperatures that few humans could survive beyond 30 minutes.
The Bering swim was remarkable for political as well as physiological reasons. The waters between Siberia and Alaska had been closed since 1948, and it took Cox 11 years of patient but persistent diplomacy to achieve her dream. Thus when, in early August 1987, Cox emerged on the Soviet shore blue-tinged and shivering and fell into the arms of a delegation of Inuit well-wishers, she could boast of being the first person to have crossed those waters—in or out of a ship—in nearly 40 years. The historic impact of this feat was recognized at the highest level when Mikhail Gorbachev, speaking at the White House in December 1987 on the occasion of the signing of the INF missile treaty, said, "It look one brave American by the name of Lynne Cox just two hours to swim from one of our countries to the other.... She proved by her courage how closely to each other our peoples live."
Though she swam competitively as a student at UC Santa Barbara, Cox had from an early age shown a decided preference for swimming in open water over churning out laps in a chlorinated pool.
"I always had this dream of swimming the English Channel," she says. "Always." That goal was accomplished in short order: In 1972, at 15, Cox made the England-to-France crossing in nine hours and 57 minutes—nearly four hours faster than the previous women's record and nearly 30 minutes faster than the men's mark. The following year she bettered her time by 20 minutes.
That behind her, Cox started looking for new waters to conquer. Her pursuit and eventual accomplishment of more-challenging goals taught her that she could achieve more than personal records by swimming and that even the most politically troubled waters can be traversed.
Two decades of aquatic diplomacy have prepped Cox for her trip to the Middle East. Still, as many heads of state have learned, diplomacy is a full-time job, and progress is slow. Final permission for the Gulf of 'Aqaba swim was not obtained from all three countries until late September, more than a month after her trip to Washington and disconcertingly close to the date of her departure for Israel.
Cox's diplomatic work is also unsalaried. All of her ventures have been run on shoestring budgets and financed by her own earnings, some corporate support and the contributions of friends. In addition to faxing and phoning the relevant embassies, navies and local sports associations, the Jordanian royal palace, Egyptian diplomatic offices and a welter of contacts in Israel, Cox has had to continue working as a private swimming instructor and part-time lecturer—and somehow find the time to train.
"I've been training all along, but the training has been mostly in the gym," she says. "Now I'm really increasing the water time, and I'll do a couple of four-hour swims in the ocean.
"I'm going into desert water," Cox adds matter-of-factly. "I've heard a variety of temperatures—between the high 70's and mid-80's. I'm planning to stop every half-hour to drink lots of fluids. And I'm going to wear a light-colored bathing suit."
I suggest a yellow one, light-colored but also highly visible. "Well, maybe," Cox replies in her lilting voice. "But the problem with yellow is that, at least off Florida, they found that sharks are most attracted to that color. Yellow is called yummy yellow."
Dangerous marine animals aside, this swim will be among Cox's most physically challenging. A battery of scientific studies done on Cox over the years has revealed some startling facts about her physiology. First, the muscle and fat in her body are so perfectly balanced that she has neutral buoyancy, meaning that she neither sinks in water nor floats. As one researcher told her, "You're at one with the water"—a critical energy-saving advantage during long-distance swims.
More remarkable, however, was the discovery that Cox's body is superbly adapted to cold temperatures. On entering cold water, a person's surface blood vessels constrict, forcing warm blood to the vital organs at the body's core. Normally, however, this is a stopgap that works for only a short time. By contrast, Cox's vital organs arc insulated by an evenly distributed layer of fat that has at times accounted for up to 33% of her body weight, so that warm blood shunted to her core remains warm dramatically longer. So effective is this "internal wet suit" that Cox's temperature actually rises during a hard swim in cold water.
In the warm water of the Gulf of 'Aqaba, then, Cox will be in danger of overheating. She will have to draw on the deep reserves of determination that have seen her through the trickiest moments of her most dangerous swims: the attentions of a shark off the Cape of Good Hope; becoming lost in fog in the Catalina Channel; the warning numbness she felt as the Soviet landfall came in sight at the end of her Bering swim.
"When I'm swimming," she says, "I think a lot about the physical realities around me: Where am I in relationship to the boat? I think about my stroke. I think about what it's taken to net to that point—that's a real motivator. A lot of times it's simply, I'm tired. But then I think, This swim was six years in the making, and look at all those people who have helped you along the way. Toward the end of the Bering crossing I was within 50 yards of land, but I was also half a mile up shore from the official landing site, where people were gathered to welcome me. The temperature had dropped from 42 to 38. Then the question was, You're now 50 yards from shore. You can land here. Do you? Or do you swim against the current to go to where they are? What made me keep going was the people on shore. I felt like this was the reach. I was reaching as far as I could, and they were reaching back. I needed to touch a person's hand."
The loneliness of long-distance swimming does have its peculiar rewards. Like an astronaut who has been afforded a glimpse of our planet from an almost divine perspective, Cox has seen and experienced things beyond the imagining of most mortals. Some open-water swims, for example, are done at night, when the tides are least strong.
"It's absolutely, unbelievably beautiful to swim through the night water," Cox says. "You see these silver contrails of water flowing off your body. Looking up, you see shooting stars, and looking down, you see the contrails of the fish like comets in the sky. And it can be so peaceful. You can hear the boat rocking beside you—all your senses are so alive. The colors are reduced. It's black and white and silver."
From Egypt to Israel; from Israel to Jordan. Cox's swim along the Gulf of 'Aqaba will cover approximately 15 miles. "Basically the idea is to celebrate the peace process that began between Egypt and Israel and has now continued between Israel and Jordan—I will literally and symbolically be tracing the route the process followed. Some borders have now been opened. By swimming from one national boundary to another, I hope to push the borders open a little further.
"It looks real easy in the atlas," she says wistfully. "Barely an inch of water...."
Caroline Alexander's nonfiction book "the Way to Xanadu" was published in July by Knopf.