"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...."