Lynne Cox is having trouble communicating with the boat. The pounding of her heartbeat muffles the sound of the engine and the shouts of the crew. She can see their faces, though, and she knows it's not good. The Arctic water has numbed her skin; the tension in her lungs has shortened her breath. Her arms and legs, trying to propel her body through the slush, are flailing. The water was 28.8 degrees when she entered; it has since dropped to 26.6. The movement of the current is the only reason it hasn't frozen into a solid sheet of ice. She has lost track of time. No person is known to have survived falling off a boat in the Arctic Ocean near Greenland.
But Cox didn't fall off her boat. She's doing this — swimming here, in subfreezing water — on purpose, tracing the routes forged by her childhood hero, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.
A few feet away, a panicked crew of four volunteers is standing in an inflatable raft-like boat called a Zodiac. Two of the four made the trip with Cox from the United States; the others, reps from the local tourism board, she just met. They've all studied the route to the local hospital. They've discussed protocol, but they've never practiced it. The rescue lifeguard, Bill Lee, is wearing a dry suit over long underwear. With him are the boat's driver, who stands ready to drag Cox from the water, and a safety person at the bow whose role is to watch for dangers such as icebergs and killer whales — things other than the water that could bring her down. Dry, wearing parkas, wool hats, gloves and insulated boots, they watch her struggle in just a bathing suit, cap and goggles. "All I can think about is a fisherman last night who said his boat doesn't even have life jackets," Lee says. "He says it's a waste because, within a minute, anyone would be dead."
[Photo Credit: Michael Muller]