Tribute to Coach Pedro Ordenes: The Open Water Swimming Legend Who Swam Alcatraz 1,000 Times

Tribute to Coach Pedro Ordenes: The Open Water Swimming Legend Who Swam Alcatraz 1,000 Times

It is with deep sadness that we report the passing of open water swimming legend Pedro Ordenes. Pedro was the founder of the Water World Swim, which organizes swims in San Francisco Bay, California and around the world. Pedro was an extraordinary human being who dedicated his life to promoting open water swimming. His passion, cheerful personality, and unwavering dedication to the sport inspired countless swimmers.

Pedro was a certified coach by both the American Swim Coaches Association and the World Swim Coaches Association. He had over 20 years of coaching experience in open water swimming.

Among his many open water accomplishments, Pedro swam the Strait of Magellan in 1999.

His father, who once attempted to cross the Strait of Magellan in South America, once said to him,

“I hope you swim the Straits of Magellan, you know, you come back to Chile to cross the Straits of Magellan.”

Pedro was inspired by Lynn Cox who crossed the Strait of Magellan at 16 years old. Lynn offered Pedro tips and mental preparation strategies. He trained hard with frequent swims around Alcatraz and extensive preparation for the cold and rough waters of the strait. He faced harsh conditions and a skeptical Navy who doubted a 52 year old could cross the Strait.

The water was 37.4 – 41 degrees Fahrenheit. The winds were 35 miles per hour. The swells were 3 to 5 feet high. The currents were 12 to 14 knots. At a point during the swim, when struggling against the winds and rough seas — when Pedro was on the verge of giving up — a pod of dolphins surrounded him and lifted his spirits.

He said, “I kept going, going and going and all of a sudden halfway. I said, okay, that’s enough. I’m going to raise my hand and I cannot, definitely I cannot complete this. But it was a kind of a miracle. I was ready to pass out and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, this beautiful, beautiful, pod of dolphins are swimming around me. They start swimming all around me, they start swimming under me, I could see their eyes, they were swimming with me under the water. It was so incredible, because it was like an awakening. I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming or I was already there, but I started swimming with a strong force because of those dolphins and they accompanied me all the way to the end of the swim. And then when they pulled me out of the water, they took pictures. These son of a guns, they just got all the way, they were looking that I was okay. And they continued on their way.”

For months after this swim, he would experience panic attacks and uncontrollable shivering, even at the sight of open water. Despite the difficulties, he stayed true to his love for open water swimming, returned to the Alcatraz swims again and continued to coach and inspire others.

Pedro completed a double crossing of the Beagle Channel between Chile and Argentina and two English Channel swims. He achieved legendary status at Alcatraz, having completed the swim over 1,000 times and serving as a guide for swimmers from various corners of the globe.

In addition to his open water achievements, Pedro completed more than four Ironman World Triathlons and over a dozen half Ironman triathlons. He also organized and directed long-distance swims in the San Francisco Bay and abroad for over 20 years.

Pedro started swimming in the Pacific Ocean in Chile, where he grew up near the coast. His father, brother, and uncles were accomplished open water swimmers, which inspired his early interest in swimming. It wasn’t until he was around 12-13 year’s old that his parents finally allowed him to swim with them in the ocean. In an interview, he revealed that attending the military academy in Chile and joining the swimming team, despite his small stature (5’ 6″), presented challenges for him.

Pedro moved to the United States to study at the University of Miami in Florida, where he continued swimming in warmer waters but found the Atlantic Ocean too hot. He decided to move to San Diego, California after completing his civil engineering degree, where he rediscovered his love for swimming in the Pacific Ocean through triathlons and Ironman training.

He joined the South End Rowing Club in San Francisco, eventually becoming vice president. There he founded the Alcatraz swim. Pedro became well-known for swimming without wetsuits and was sought out for advice on swimming in cold water.

In 1992, Pedro and a friend founded their own swimming group called “Water World,” inspired by the movie “Waterworld” that Pedro liked, despite its box office failure. Shortly after creating the website, Pedro received a call from someone claiming to represent actor Kevin Costner, who starred in “Waterworld,” informing him that “Water World” was a registered and protected name. Initially, Pedro thought it was a prank call from a friend, but it turned out to be genuine. In the end, they settled on the name Water World Swim.

From its humble beginnings with only a few swimmers, the organization flourished and became very popular with swimmers from Silicon Valley — so popular that the Alcatraz Invitational transformed into a monthly event.

Pedro’s favorite tip encapsulates his philosophy:

“People, land, and continents are separated by oceans, and swimmers are the only ones that can unite the continents, land, and people.”

His passing leaves a void in the world of open water swimming, but his legacy will continue to inspire and guide future generations of swimmers. His contributions to the world of open water swimming will never be forgotten. Rest in peace.

“I love open water swimming, it’s challenging, it’s beautiful, it’s an experience.”

Pedro Ordenes
WOWSA