Swim Report: Five Coves of Death

I renewed my membership at the South End Rowing Club this year, and am determined to get my money’s worth. So far this year I’ve done two club swims, a “sunriser” swim, an Alcatraz swim, numerous casual swims in and around Aquatic Park with fellow club members, and crewed on Cathy’s epic 3 Bridges Swim. Last weekend was the infamous “Five Coves of Death” – five laps around the perimeter of Aquatic Park at 5:00pm on May 5th. 5CoD is also the qualifier for Bay to Breakers, the crown jewel of the club’s long swim program.

What exactly constitutes a lap of Aquatic Park? This is a source of some confusion and controversy.  A “tight cove” is shown in an illustration by Joe B. :5coves_butlerStarting from the South End/Dolphin Club beach, one swims:

  • To the end of the docks, making a hard left around the Dolphin Club dock.
  • Along the buoy line and around the Flag with a right shoulder.
  • Through the goal posts and then the solitary post just beyond with a right shoulder.
  • Hug Municipal Pier as closely as possible along the full length of the curve.
  • Under the end of the pier (a.k.a. “wedding cake” or “roundhouse”) being careful not to impale oneself on broken pilings.
  • Around the buoy at the Opening with a right shoulder.
  • Under the rounded end of the breakwater (a.k.a. “Jacuzzi“), being careful not to scrape oneself on the barnacle encrusted concrete supports.
  • Behind the Balclutha and Thayer (port side, right shoulder facing the boats).
  • Around the bow of the Thayer and back to the docks.
  • Rinse, repeat, etc.

A “tight cove” (per Roper) or “honest cove” (per Walker) is about 0.85 miles (1.33 km) for one lap, or 4.25 miles for five laps.

On the beach before the start. Photo by Jane K.
On the beach before the start. Photo by Jane K.

But how tight is a “tight cove”? How close must you swim to Muni Pier along its curve? It’s not defined precisely. Some advocate swimming under the pier all the way, which eliminates any ambiguity (“Reptile cove”). Some advocate swimming close enough that the fishing lines and crab pots dangling from above are actually on your right shoulder (“Delneo cove”). Others find this unnecessarily dangerous, and swim further out for a somewhat “looser” cove. No one likes getting hooked by a fisherman.

As an example of the latter, here’s the course taken by the fastest three swimmers – Jim, Darrin, and me.


This cove is not as tight as it looks. I measured it in Google Earth and we averaged 25 yards off the Muni Pier curve. According to reports, some of the men directly behind us were even further off the pier (possibly in an attempt to catch up to us). We’ll call this the “Connolly cove,” in honor of the former swim commissioner Darrin, who led us along this course.

A few minutes after the start. The lead swimmers are approaching The Flag (center-left). Photo by Kim P-H.
A few minutes after the start. The lead swimmers are approaching The Flag (center-left). Photo by Kim P-H.

currents55Anyway, it was a nice day for a swim. Water temp 54F, air temp low 60’s, winds calm. We began about 20 minutes before slack water at the Golden Gate preceding a 3.4-knot flood.

I finished the Five Coves in 1 hour, 44 minutes, 26 seconds, placing third behind Jim and Darrin. My splits per lap were: 19:40, 19:35, 21:25, 21:35, and 22:11. Note, that first split includes about 20 seconds of swimming between the beach and the end of the dock that was not included in the other four splits. The Garmin Fenix GPS watch I had under my cap credited me with 4.13 miles of swimming.

I was getting cold on my fifth lap – I could feel my stroke falling apart – but perhaps I wasn’t as bad off as I thought, because I took only a few minutes in the shower and sauna to warm up.

Next up: Bay to Breakers (Bay Bridge to Ocean Beach) on Memorial Day, May 27th. Cathy did a fun write-up on the 2010 B2B. Looking forward to it!

The last swimmer finishes. A perfect day in the Bay.
The last swimmer finishes. A perfect day in the Bay.

4 thoughts on “Swim Report: Five Coves of Death”

  1. I like this writeup. Good swim. What was the temp?

    I spent 3 months in San Jose in the 90s and fell in love with SF, (though I didn’t get to see a lot of it surprisingly given the time), the bay & the Golden Gate. I would sometimes drive up to Marin Point early on Saturday or Sunday mornings just to walk the bridge when it was quiet. But I wasn’t a swimmer back then. One of the few hopes that keeps me going these days, is that someday I’ll get a chance to return to SF as a swimmer. 5 Coves or Bay to Breakers would fall into the category of swims I would love to do, more than many better known swims.

    1. Thank you! Water temp was 54F/12.2C. SF is such a great place to be a swimmer. I hope you can join us someday.

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