Swim Report: Bay to Breakers (Part 1 of 2)

Link to Part 2

May 27, 2013. Memorial Day. Bay to Breakers Day. The day I earned my graduate degree in Open Water Swimming. It wasn’t the longest swim I’ve done, or the coldest — but rather, the most comprehensive test of open water swimming skill I’ve experienced. Speed … endurance … cold tolerance … rough-water tolerance … navigation … race tactics …  body-surfing… B2B has it all.


It should be one of the most iconic long-distance open-water swims in America — yet hardly anyone knows about it outside San Francisco. Even to most San Franciscans, “Bay to Breakers” refers to the 12km footrace from the Embarcadero to Ocean Beach. According to the website, it is the “oldest consecutively run annual footrace in the world” (since 1912).

But there’s another way to get from The Bay to The Breakers – longer, colder, and far more extreme:

bay to breakers
Bay to Breakers: The Hard Way vs. the Easy Way

Race director Bill Wygant began his pre-race email memorably:

There are times I wonder if Bob Roper fell asleep one night, had a nightmare and mistook it for an idea for a swim.  But it is now part of our program and more positively it provides a unique challenge for a group of swimmers to see if they can impose their will on the bay for a brief period of time.

Bob Roper, who founded B2B in 1987, is the originator of the marathon swimmers’ motto made famous worldwide by David Barra: “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”

bob roper
“Napa Bob” Roper, emerging from Aquatic Park, circa 1970s. Photo from boathouse wall at the South End Rowing Club, San Francisco.

10 miles: from the base of the Bay Bridge, around the Embarcadero, through the shipping channel between Alcatraz and our Aquatic Park home, past the Marina and Crissy Field, under the mighty Golden Gate Bridge, cutting across toward Lands End and Mile Rock, and then the climactic, treacherous finish around Seal Rocks and through the pounding surf and rip currents of Kelly’s Cove to the sand of Ocean Beach.

10 miles: more than three times the distance of the longest Dolphin Club swim (just sayin’).


After a 4am alarm followed by a 5am briefing, we jumped into the Bay near the alpha tower of the Bay Bridge a few minutes after 6am. The field – 22 of the South End’s strongest, hardiest swimmers – was staggered into three pods according to swimmer speed. A big ebb (max 5.9 knots @ 6:18am) would shoot us through the south shipping channel, past the Golden Gate, and hopefully get everyone past Seal Rocks before the tide turned.

Currents at Golden Gate Bridge: May 27, 2013.
Currents at Golden Gate Bridge: May 27, 2013.

B2B can be thought of as four swims in one, both psychologically and temporally:

  1. Bay Bridge to Aquatic Park
  2. Aquatic Park to Golden Gate Bridge
  3. Golden Gate Bridge to Mile Rock
  4. Mile Rock to Seal Rocks and into beach

Each section should take 30-35 minutes for the fastest swimmers, and 50 minutes for the slower swimmers – for total times ranging from two hours & change up to 3hr15min (the cutoff, at which time everyone still in the water is rounded up and brought to the beach).

Start: Bay Bridge to Aquatic Park
2.94mi, 32:31 (5.42mph)

I jumped off the stern of the Silver Fox into water that was 57F or so – warm for this time of year. I spent the first few minutes focusing on long strokes, building gradually into my “10K tempo,” and moving out into the channel and the faster currents.

b2b_1
GPS tracks: Bay Bridge to Aquatic Park

For this first part of the swim, the field compressed as the Pod 1 swimmers were overtaken by Pod 2, who in turn were overtaken by Pod 3. South End R.I.B.s patrolled the perimeter, placing themselves between the swimmers and incoming boat traffic. Though my GPS tracks seem close to the Embarcadero piers, I recall being further out than most. Even at this early hour there was moderate surface chop, which limited my vision to only the most prominent landmarks.

All the longer SERC club swims utilize one-to-one kayak coverage — the field spreads too far to effectively monitor with “zone” coverage. Yet, the logistics of a water start under the Bay Bridge in a fast current make it difficult to put 20-something swimmers and 20-something kayaks and 20-something paddlers in the water at the same time.

SERC kayakers waiting at the Creakers
SERC kayakers waiting at the Creakers

So, B2B swimmers jump at the Bay Bridge unescorted, pairing up with their paddlers 3 miles later at Aquatic Park.

Self-navigating this stretch of the course isn’t particularly complicated: Basically, sight off Alcatraz as soon as you see it; then the west end of Alcatraz; then mid-span of the Golden Gate Bridge. Let the ebb current do the rest. But certainly, a high level of open-water confidence and skill (not to mention knowledge of Bay geography) are assumed.

Half an hour into the swim, as I approached the SS Jeremiah O’Brien (the most prominent landmark east of Aquatic Park), I started breathing left every few stroke cycles, anticipating that Andrew, my kayaker and soon-to-be local hero, would join me.

Aquatic Park to Golden Gate Bridge
2.97mi, 35:22 (5.04 mph)

The J.O.B. came and went in a flash, followed by the Creakers, and then the Opening. Where is Andrew? At more than 5 mph, I traversed my familiar training ground between Muni Pier and Fort Mason in what seemed like a matter of seconds. Soon I was off Marina Green, gradually moving further into the channel, sighting halfway between the South Tower and midspan of the Golden Gate Bridge. And still unescorted!

b2b_2
GPS tracks: Aquatic Park to Golden Gate Bridge

In retrospect, I think this was the part of the swim of which I’m most proud: I kept swimming. I didn’t hesitate; didn’t break stroke; didn’t panic. I thought I would meet Andrew at the Creakers, but that didn’t happen. And it didn’t matter — I knew where I was going. So I kept swimming.

Somewhere off Yacht Harbor I noticed the Silver Fox to my right and slightly behind me. I still had no kayaker, but now at least I had some visibility to boat traffic. I kept heading toward halfway between the South Tower and midspan. I looked ahead and saw… nothing. Evidently I was now leading the field.

toward the ggb
It’s not particularly tough to navigate when your sighting landmark is the Golden Gate Bridge.

Andrew caught up to me off Crissy Field. As he told me afterward, there were so many swimmers passing the Creakers at the same time that in the mass confusion, I had passed Aquatic Park unnoticed.

It didn’t matter: Look at that GPS line.

closer still...
The South Tower

It has been said that the “real” Bay to Breakers begins at the Golden Gate Bridge. And I think there’s much truth in that statement – similar to how the real MIMS begins when you pass through Spuyten Duyvil into the Hudson River.

To be continued…

The Chas Lap

The “Chas Lap” is the longest, burliest standard training swim one can do in the Aquatic Park vicinity.

(By standard, I mean: It is readily understood by a two- or three-word phrase in the men’s and women’s saunas at the South End Rowing Club.)

The Chas Lap touches, by definition, the western and eastern boundaries of the area in which it is acceptable for South End members to swim unescorted. There are bigger, burlier swims possible elsewhere in the Bay, but – and here’s the key – if you swim across the path of potential boat traffic, you must have an escort vessel. A Chas Lap can be done unescorted, and therefore requires far less planning.

Important Safety Caveats:

  • Never swim outside the Cove alone! You could get injured or killed, and no one would know, possibly for hours.
  • Avoid swimming outside the Cove later than mid-morning. Theoretically you should be safe from boat traffic by hugging the pier or breakwater, but there are always many more boats in the afternoon. The more boats in the area, the more potential for some rogue idiot boat driver to ruin your day.
  • Don’t attempt a Chas Lap unless you can successfully complete a RTFM (Round-Trip Fort Mason) against a flood on most days (more on this below).

Click the map to enlarge:

san francisco aquatic park

To complete a Chas Lap, swim out from the South End beach to the Opening. Then turn left and swim along the outside of Muni Pier to Fort Mason. Not just Pier 1 of Fort Mason (as for an RTFM), but all the way to the end of Pier 3 – the entrance to Gashouse Cove Marina. Then, swim all the way back to the Opening and keep heading east along the Breakwater to the Creakers (entrance to Hyde Street Harbor). Then back to the Opening and into the Beach.

Or, in SERC shorthand: Beach –> Opening –> Gashouse –> Opening –> Creakers –> Opening –> Beach. Shortest straight-line distance is 1.95 miles. Let’s call it 2.

Chas D.
Chas

The Chas Lap is named after South Ender Chas D., who didn’t exactly “invent” this route, but started swimming it so often that people started calling it a “Chas Lap.”

The challenge of a Chas Lap is that you’re swimming against the current twice – not just once, as in a vanilla RTFM. And the second time is at the end of your swim, when you’re probably already exhausted.

Chas Laps are best done on a flood tide – so you swim the longer stretch of head current (Opening to Gashouse) first, and the shorter stretch of head current (Creakers to Opening) last. I do not recommend trying to get all the way back from Gashouse on a rising ebb. The currents can increase faster than you expect, and you can get tired faster than you expect. If you have to be rescued, you will bring shame upon Chas, the South End… really, just about everyone.

The cove between Muni Pier and Fort Mason. Not sure if it has a name.
The cove between Muni Pier and Fort Mason. Not sure if it has a name. Photo credit: D. Ho.

Varieties of Chas Laps

In order of difficulty:

  • Double: twice back-and-forth along the line between Gashouse and Creakers. Returning to the beach between the first and second legs is not necessary.
  • Reverse: a Chas Lap on an ebb tide. Breakwater first, then Gashouse. Not recommended.
  • Fully Outside: a standard Chas Lap. Must swim outside Muni Pier on the way out, and outside the breakwater on the final stretch.
  • Inside: Swim outside Muni Pier on the way out. Then, if the current is too strong to finish the final stretch outside the breakwater, swim back along the inside for slacker water.
  • Under/Outside: It is substantially easier to make westward progress from the Opening on a flood tide, if you swim under Muni Pier until it curves around to the north (then cut across the cove to Fort Mason). Watch out for barnacles, though! Then on the final stretch, swim outside the breakwater.
  • Under/Inside: Under the pier on the way out; inside the breakwater on the final stretch. This route will drastically reduce the effect of the currents.
The Creakers. SS Jeremiah O'Brien in background.
The Creakers. SS Jeremiah O’Brien in background.

One last thing, and I’ll try to put this gently:

Do not try this unless you know what you are doing.

If you’ve never swum in the Bay before, try going to the Flag and back. If you get tired of running head-first into triathletes along the buoy line, try swimming around the Cove once. Then twice. If you get comfortable in the Cove, try swimming against an ebb down to the Creakers. If you master that, maybe try a RTFM. If you are a fast enough swimmer to get to Fort Mason against a flood on most days, only then should you consider attempting a Chas Lap.

Don’t swim alone. Always check the tide books. Use common sense. Don’t be an idiot.