For six years I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area - and not once did it occur to me that anyone would swim in the Bay. Literally and figuratively, I swam in a concrete box. So when I returned this past weekend for the first time in several years, a top priority was a visit to Aquatic Park.
Part of San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, Aquatic Park is the hub of open water swimming in the city, and among most historically significant swim spots in the world. The cove - bounded by horseshoe-shaped Municipal Pier, Hyde Street Pier, and the Maritime Museum beach - is closed to boats and offers a safe, protected venue for cold-water swimming.
Two outfits, the South End Rowing Club (SERC) and the Dolphin Club, organize most out-of-cove swim events in the Bay. The clubs are next-door neighbors in Aquatic Park and both buildings are open to the public.
The weekend of my visit happened to coincide with one of the longer SERC events - a 10km swim from Point Bonita (the southwestern-most edge of Marin County, 2.8 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge) to Aquatic Park.
SERC events are open only to SERC members (same for Dolphin Club events), so the original plan was for me to paddle for Cathy - a South Ender and friend from Jamie’s swim camp. However, late last week it became apparent that she would be unable to swim due to an ankle injury.
This gave rise to the semi-ridiculous idea for me to join the South End and, in my first full day as a member, do one of their longest “Nutcracker” swims. I would simply take Cathy’s place in the water, and she would take my place on the water.
I hadn’t really been doing much cold-water ocean swimming lately - an occasional 45-minute lunchtime swim at Goleta Beach - but… whatever! Santa Barbara has been 58-60F (14.5-15.5C), and this would be two hours at 54-55F (12.5C), but… whatever! I’ve found it’s not helpful to dwell on such things.
After submitting my membership application mid-day Saturday, Cathy and I hopped in the cove for a quick dip. She won’t admit this, but I suspect she wasn’t sure I knew what I was getting into; here was a face-saving opportunity to reconsider.
Wading into the “refreshingly” brisk cove waters, we ran into Suzie - another friend from Jamie’s swim camp and a very fun lady. From the South End dock, we swam out to the gap between the curved pier and the breakwater; then turned right and swam along (and outside) the breakwater to the end; then retraced our strokes back to the gap; then swam around the rest of the cove and back to the dock.
We were in the water about an hour, with a few chat breaks. I was cold at the end, but not unbearably so. A few minutes later, I discovered why hot showers are inadvisable in treating hypothermia - all the cold blood from your extremities rushes to your core and all of a sudden you’re freezing.
Beyond a door at the far end of the showers is the famous South End sauna. This, I found, was a far preferable thawing location. Alone in the wood-paneled room, I sat on the top step next to the rocks, and considered what, indeed, I had gotten myself into.
To be continued…
Swimmers in parkas milled about, organizing their nutrition and applying lube. Paddlers secured their kayaks and stuffed dry-bags. Other volunteers helped launch Zodiac boats. It was earlier than most preferred to be awake on a Sunday morning… but the tides of San Francisco Bay wait for no one.
Swimming in the Bay, the tides are king. The rising waters of the flood and the falling waters of the ebb must squeeze through the narrow Golden Gate Strait - magnifying the currents. The morning of June 3, we would be pushed through the Strait by a max 4.6-knot flood - impossible for even the fastest swimmers to fight, even briefly. Faster than any of the river currents at MIMS.
This would be my coldest swim of more than an hour in duration; it would also be my longest swim in water cooler than 61F/16C (my four-hour MIMS qualifier in September 2010 was 61F).
And it would be my sharkiest swim. Sharks aren’t common inside the Bay, but Point Bonita is almost three miles west of the Bridge - solidly in the Red Triangle. Cathy helpfully mentioned that Point Bonita is a popular breeding area for harbor seals. So, swimmers are encouraged to “swim fast” at the beginning. Good to know, I guess? 🙂
Saturday afternoon after swimming in Aquatic Park, we went for a walk at Lands End, a stunning, windswept corner of the City. Stopping at the viewpoint shown in the photo below, I looked out upon the intimidating patch of water I’d soon swim through. My thoughts right then: This is a monumentally stupid idea!
On the other hand: If I only did smart things, I’d never have jumped off a boat in the middle of the night to swim from Catalina to the mainland, or swum around Manhattan island. Many of my most memorable experiences derived from monumentally stupid ideas. Following this chain of logic, I soon concluded that this cold, choppy, foggy, sharky swim might have some potential.
If it was a good idea, everybody would do it!
Lounging on the second floor of the SERC clubhouse, I sipped coffee and chewed a banana. I was oddly calm. I didn’t worry too much about the cold. A two-hour swim is short enough to maintain a reasonably aggressive pace. For two hours, I could keep my internal furnace burning.
Nor did I worry about the unfamiliar, vaguely menacing waters between Point Bonita and the Bridge. Paddling a few feet away was someone I trusted; someone who knew these waters well. I would be safe.
Once the Zodiacs were launched and the kayaks were secured, the swimmers and their pilots were herded - like so many cattle - into the Dauntless. We motored out into the Bay and headed for the Bridge. There were about 30 of us - 15 swimmers and their paddlers.
The mood on the Dauntless was buoyant. It was a glorious, clear morning, with minimal wind and chop. A great day for a swim! The joy of open-water swimmers before an adventure is special to behold. Despite the range of abilities and experience, we shared an excitement and openness to traversing this unique patch of water in a way that few ever do.
I was an unfamiliar face, so there were some questions and curiosity. I may have engaged in a bit of gamesmanship: “Oh, I swim mostly in the pool. Yeah, my first swim in the Bay was yesterday.” That sort of thing. All of which is true - but perhaps a bit misleading.
Once past the Bridge, Point Diablo came into view, followed by Point Bonita. The southwestern tip of the Marin Headlands and the last stop before the Farallon Islands, 30 miles to the west. Within a few hundred meters of our destination, the Dauntless disengaged its motor and we launched the kayaks. Cathy paddled off in her yellow sit-on-top.
Soon only swimmers remained on the boat. The Dauntless motored closer to shore, toward a small, rocky beach. The motor disengaged again, and it was time to jump. Parkas were removed; caps, goggles, and earplugs affixed. (Prayers silently uttered?) We steeled ourselves for the bracing 54F (12.2C) ocean.
I watched as my fellow adventurers launched themselves from the Dauntless‘ starboard side. I aimed to be one of the last to arrive on the beach: less time to shiver.
Standing aboard the SERC boat Dauntless, trying to summon feelings of, well… dauntlessness… I wore one blue polyester Speedo Endurance square-leg, two caps (yellow latex on orange silicone), blue Malmsten Swedes, and earplugs. I’d never worn earplugs before, but I think they helped quite a lot in keeping the cold at bay.
The nearest ocean buoy read 54.6F; the buoy inside the Bay was about a degree warmer. After reciting DBAP a few times, I leaped off the side of the boat – about a 4-foot drop. The water felt… actually pretty nice! I swam up to Cathy and wished her a fun paddle. She should have been in water instead of me; but as Plan B’s go, this was alright.
The tide tables showed a slack current at 7:29am, max flood at 10:33am. We set off around 9:15, I think? So there was already a pretty good push - sucking us into the Bay. Swells were from the southwest, so the plan was - rather than take a straight line for the Bridge - head into the middle of the Strait until parallel to the south tower, then aim for the tower. This would minimize the chance of slower swimmers crossing under the Bridge too far north and getting swept toward Alcatraz, missing the entrance to Aquatic Park.
Cathy - my ninja paddler - complied with the first instruction. But then, once we turned east she took a slightly different line, further north. Having a bit more swim speed at my disposal than most, Cathy aimed to take advantage of the stronger currents in the middle of the Bay, knowing I could cross back quickly at the last minute.
After the start, Joel - in a full-body wetsuit - immediately took off ahead. I chased after him, and we bumped into each other a couple times, frustrating our paddlers. But soon he left me again, and after about half an hour he maintained a steady ~30m lead. Hank (not in a wetsuit) followed me by a slightly larger distance. Behind Hank, everyone else.
For the first, I’d say… 45 minutes of the swim, I felt fine. A little numbness in the toes and fingertips, perhaps, but I felt warm on the inside and was swimming efficiently, at a relaxed, comfortable pace.
As I approached the Bridge, the cold began to creep. My core was still warm, but now my hands, arms, and shoulders were beginning to feel it. My stroke got a little sloppier, less precise - though Cathy insists my tempo remained steady. I felt like the water temp dropped slightly - a few upwellings and cold spots - but who knows.
We crossed under the Bridge about halfway between the south tower and mid-span - just as Cathy intended. I flipped on my back to watch the Bridge go by - a tradition I adopted last June at MIMS.
Something else I noticed: I couldn’t see Joel anymore. I assumed he had continued to pull away and was now out of sight. Later, I found out he had been caught in a back eddy, allowing me to shoot ahead. Possibly due to the different line she took toward the Bridge, Cathy avoided the eddy - and we now led the field toward Aquatic Park.
The last half of the swim was a grind. The cold continued to creep and my stroke continued to deteriorate. I was uncomfortable; but I focused on Cathy and tried to put everything else out of mind.
At one point Cathy made a hard right turn. My earplugs prevented any communication, but I intuited what was happening: We were making a break for the opening at Aquatic Park. Her hand signals indicated this was a matter of some urgency (remember, a 4-knot flood was pushing us toward the Bay Bridge). I turned on the 6-beat kick, ramped up my tempo, and followed after her.
We made the opening - and not by much. A few others weren’t so lucky, and had to go the long way around, through the boat harbor. Possibly the other paddlers were simply following our lead, not adjusting for their swimmers’ ability to cut across the current. Clever Cathy.
I used the final stretch through the cove to the SERC beach as cool-down (no pun intended). I was surprised when an onlooker mentioned I was the first to finish. 6.5 miles (straight-line distance) in 1:54. I was even more surprised to find, once I emerged from the water, that I wasn’t particularly cold. No shivering; I felt fine.
But I didn’t waste any time chatting, and marched upstairs to the shower & sauna. Joel followed a few minutes later; Hank a few minutes after that.
Dried, dressed, and warmed, everyone gathered downstairs for breakfast. SERC is such a friendly, open group of folks; I felt immediately comfortable among them. Living 330 miles south, I won’t be using their facilities regularly - but it’s good to know I have a home in San Francisco.
Thanks to Tom the “Reptile” for a stellar race-directing job, and thanks to SERC for welcoming me on their swim on such short notice.
And Cathy… heal up soon, OK? I owe you a paddle.
100×100 may be “the most famous of all distance swimming sessions” – but I’d never actually done it… until last Friday. Mark invited me to his team’s morning practice, for reasons unspecified, and had this “special surprise” waiting for us: 100×100 (SCY), as:
Normally this would be a make-able (if challenging) set for me. Unfortunately, Friday was not a normal day. For whatever reason, my body was just not cooperating. I lifted weights on Thursday, but I don’t think that entirely accounts for it. It was just one of those days.
I have a “lead balloon” day once a month or so. I recognize it within minutes of getting in the water. Wow… I’ve got *nothing* today. On such days, I usually adjust my plans. Slow drilling, sculling, kicking… anything but a distance-overload set on tight intervals.
By the second round of 10×100 (1:20 interval), it was clear I was having “one of those days.” My body position felt off. I was having trouble hitting my stroke count (14), which on a normal day I can do with my eyes closed (literally). I was approaching the wall in-between strokes (e.g., 14 & and a half), and thus either jamming or floating my turns. It didn’t help that I was swimming in an end-lane without visual targets on the walls. One time I actually “whiffed” on a flip-turn - like, I totally missed the wall - which I can’t remember _ever _doing, even when I was 7 years old.
I was a mess.
And yet - at the end of that second round, I still had 80x100s to go! 240 flip turns. Ugh. If this were a solo workout, I’d probably try to get through an hour and call it a day. If this were Masters - probably the same. But this was different. When you swim with kids half your age, your pride is at stake. You can’t just bail a third of the way through the workout.
So, I kept swimming. I didn’t make every send-off, but I completed every lap. If you look at the “main set” of 60×100, you’ll notice every 10th repeat is on 2:10 - providing a buffer for those who missed one (or both) of the 1:05 send-offs to catch up. This buffer was my saving grace.
As much as possible, I tried not to struggle. I focused on good technique - on trying to feel smooth, even if I felt like a lead balloon. My goal was to finish 10,000 yards without hurting myself. As much as possible, I ignored the clock. Speed was a secondary consideration.
Much like a channel swim, actually. In my younger, pool-swimming focused days, I might have considered this a “bad workout.” In pool swimming, “good” and bad” is defined by speed. In a channel swim, though, the primary consideration is: Did you make it across? Did you keep swimming for as long as it took?
And in that sense, this was a useful workout. Not a “good” workout, exactly… but a useful one.
My sleepy little beach town of Santa Barbara has not just one - but two! - weekly summer evening splash n’ dash series. Reef & Run, a more recent addition to the local scene, is Thursdays at East Beach and offers the choice of a 500m, 1000m, or 1-mile swim followed (select weeks only) by a beach run.
Last week I participated in the season-opening Reef & Run, which was free to all comers. From a swimmer’s perspective, it has a lot to recommend it:
Neither series distinguish between wetsuits and skins in the results - which is an argument I may never win. In the organizers’ defense, these events are logistically complicated enough without sorting out who’s wearing a wetsuit and who isn’t, week in and week out.
Anyway, it was a glorious evening - about 24 hours before the summer solstice. Air temp in the mid-70s with lots of sun. Water was 63F with incredible visibility - close to 15 feet, which is almost unheard of close to shore in this region.
I finished 4/104 in the 1-mile swim, in 19:52. The 500m and 1000m swims attracted 79 others - a tremendous turnout.
Looking forward to next week!