BK-trained swimmers brave the Megellan Strait

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At the edge of the icy water where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans converge, two intrepid swimmers had thoughts of Brooklyn on their mind.

This is where the past two winters spent in the frigid waters off Brighton Beach and Coney Island would pay off for Rachel Golub and Cristian Vergara, two New Yorkers determined to make a rare crossing of the 2.4-mile long Strait of Magellan.

“You don’t get nervous,” said Golub, a 32-year-old violinist and freelance writer from Queens. “You train so you don’t get tired. You tell yourself, ‘I am training my body to be able to keep going, no matter what.’”

Still, some days, conditions off Coney Island were enough to test their will. “The water was below freezing and there was ice on the beach,” Golub noted. The air temperature some days was even worse, making the threat of hypothermia and frostbite very real. “These are arctic conditions. This is what it’s like on the North Pole. But we can do this right here in Brooklyn.

“Brighton Beach and Coney Island are the perfect training ground,’ added Vergara, a 50-year-old accountant from Park Slope.

The duo said the Magellan swim wouldn’t be challenging because of its distance, but rather because of its daunting conditions. The Strait is known for a meteorological condition called a williwaw, a burst of wind from the mountains to the coast, causing a turbulent sea.

An hour before the swim, the weather was terrible, the pair recalled. A massive freighter coming to shore was being tossed around like a dinghy. At its chilliest, the water temperature was 39.2 degrees.

“We were all thinking, ‘There is no way,’” Golub recalled. “We were well trained for it. But in training, we spent 20 minutes tops in that kind of temperature.”

Undaunted, perhaps emboldened with a bit of Brooklyn moxie, the two joined the choppy waters discovered by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1520.

In under two hours – 1:52 for Vergara and 1:53 for Golub – the duo completed the swim. “Toward the end of the swim, I stopped for a second because I was so disoriented,” Golub admitted.

Mark and Scott Lautman, from New Mexico and Seattle, respectively, also completed the swim.

The swimmers were escorted by Armada de Chile, the Chilean Navy, on the swim. They were also accompanied by dolphins and a rookery of penguins.

Both made the swim in standard issue bathing suits, goggles and caps, rather than better insulated wetsuits. “Part of open water swimming is to be out in the elements. If you do it with a wetsuit, it doesn’t count,” Vergara explained.

Other than accolades in the local media, the swimmers received no prize money. They paid their own way to get to the Strait; once there, the Chilean government took care of all their expenses, noted Vergara, who is originally from Chile.

Neither swam competitively in college. Golub started open water swimming in 2006, while Vergara started swimming in 2000 at a Park Slope health club. “What got me hooked was when I saw a 90-year-old man who could swim faster than he could walk,” Vergara said.

A pre-swim dinner of king crab, empanadas, and wine may have provided energy, but it was the rigors of Brooklyn that gave them strength.

“That’s the thing about training in Brooklyn. I had such a good sense of what I can do,” Golub said.

Updated 3:32 pm, October 19, 2011
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