Race Report: Point Bonita to Aquatic Park, San Francisco (Part 1)

Link to Part 2

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.

The Golden Gate as seen from Point Bonita. Photo by Flickr user Bob Franks.

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!

Lands End, San Francisco
Lands End. Photo by Flickr user ingrid_taylar

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.

Aboard the Dauntless. View of Point Bonita (the furthest point) from under the Golden Gate Bridge.

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.

The Golden Gate Bridge, as viewed from the Dauntless.

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.

Point Bonita, showing swim start & initial path (via Google Earth)

Read Part 2

2 thoughts on “Race Report: Point Bonita to Aquatic Park, San Francisco (Part 1)”

    1. Hey John. Yeah, the weather was great that day! It was a little choppy outside the Bridge, but really, not bad at all.

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