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

When we left off in Part 1, I was approaching the Golden Gate Bridge’s South Tower, on which I had been sighting for the past 40 minutes — most of that time separated from my kayaker.

Alone, tiny swimmer in a busy shipping lane, but with a confidence that surprises me still. The hubris of the front-runner?

toward mile rock
Toward Mile Rock and Lands End. Video still from Andrew B.

The ebb tide had swept me from Bridge to Bridge with astonishing swiftness — 6 miles in just under 1 hour, 8 minutes.

This was my third time swimming under the Golden Gate Bridge (Point Bonita, Kirby Cove), but my first in this direction (east to west — towards the ocean). It’s a different world “outside the Gate” – colder, windier, more exposed. More… oceanic. And crossing from the brackish sanctum of the Bay into the wild Pacific – rather than vice versa – is a profoundly different experience.

I was more than halfway to the finish, but the second half is the defining half. SERC has many swims in the bay, but only one that finishes at the breakers.

Golden Gate Bridge to Mile Rock

2.44mi, 34:00 (4.31mph)

The water was distinctly colder on the ocean side of the Gate — 55F, with even colder upwellings, compared to 57F at the Bay Bridge. The upwellings were waves of blue ice coursing through my veins. They hurt badly, and I should have taken them as a cue to adjust my line north a bit (back into the warm ebb).

But I saw Mile Rock, and my instinct was to swim towards it.



A nearby R.I.B. pilot advised Andrew that the ebb had “died,” so we should take the inside line (i.e., no advantage to staying out in the channel). And it was true, the ebb was “dead” where I currently was. Further north, the ebb wasn’t quite done, and a couple swimmers made substantial progress on me by staying further out.

It was a slog to Mile Rock… a cold slog… but Andrew was steady and confident by my side. I put my head down and let him manage the navigation.

If you’ve only seen Mile Rock from shore, it’s surprisingly enormous!

cathy mile rock
Cathy passing Mile Rock (a little too close for comfort?)

Mile Rock to Finish

Mile Rock to Seal Rocks: 1.04mi, 20:01 (3.12mph)

Seal Rocks to finish: 0.45mi, 12:10

My fitness was reasonably good for this swim, but unfortunately my cold-water acclimation was not. I was still living in Santa Barbara at the time, and this was my longest ocean swim since Santa Cruz Island the previous fall.

Me & Andrew, as viewed from Lands End. Photo by Joe Boone

After Mile Rock, my fine motor coordination was the first casualty of the creeping cold, with resulting damage to my stroke technique. I felt my arms slapping the water gracelessly, my legs flailing impotently. When I breathed left to gauge progress along the shore, I took in mouthfuls of seawater.

And the current was dead. It was only a mile to the finish, but it was an honest mile.


There are actually more than one Seal Rock (hence ‘Rocks‘). You might think, when you pass the northern & largest one — the one you’ve been watching grow, ever so gradually — that your work is done. But it is not. There’s another rock or two to pass, but here’s the kicker:

You’re now in the surf zone.

SERC transport boat waits offshore. Photo by Joe Boone.

The first wave took me by surprise — thawuuuummmp-sssshhh. 

I went vertical to get my bearings. I was offshore and just a little down from the last Seal Rock. I saw the beach, but the people onshore were mere stick figures. I still had some swimming to do. Andrew says: “There’s the beach — Go!” 

Another wave rushes past — thawuuuummmp-sssshhh. 

When I come up again Andrew is paddling away, toward the transport boat. Oftentimes the waves at Ocean Beach are too big to land kayaks safely, so a boat picks them up offshore, safely outside the breakers. The swimmers finish Bay to Breakers as they began — alone.

The next few minutes were less about swimming than about mere survival. Can you get under a wave, and then back up again in time to get enough air, before you have to go under again. The sets were coming fast & furious.

I noticed I wasn’t quite clear of the last Seal Rock. I really didn’t want to get slammed against the jagged, barnacle-encrusted monolith, so I must first swim south, before I head into shore.


In the whitewash. Photo by Joe Boone.

Stay calm. Stay patient. Let the waves carry you home.

My fingers touched bottom before I could see it. A crowd of red parkas filled my vision. Cheering red parkas.

Vertical. Photo by Joe Boone.
Photo by Joe Boone.

I came ashore after 2 hours, 2 minutes according to the official results, 14 minutes ahead of the next swimmer.

When I cleared the water a SERC volunteer poured a gallon-jug of warm water over my head, and I think at that moment it was the most pleasant sensation I’ve ever experienced.

Photo by Michelle Deasy
Photo by Joe Boone.

They cheered, hollered, and high-fived, but I couldn’t stop to chat. I was shivering within seconds of exiting the water. Swiftly escorted to the parking lot and awaiting car sauna, I was advised I might be there awhile, until we could fill the car with other swimmers.

GPS tracks from my swim.

What happened next is already SERC legend.

Minutes later, the fog descended, the wind picked up, and what had been rough but manageable conditions got much hairier. Oh, and this happened:

John Walker, on the rocks. Photo by Irene Chan.
…pun intended

Five-time Bay to Breakers finisher and soon-to-be Triple Crown marathon swimmer John Walker got so messed up in the waves that he climbed out of the water onto Seal Rocks.

One kayaker who attempted a beach finish almost decapitated a swimmer in the whitewash.

My own kayaker Andrew, a Ocean Beach surfer himself and very able waterman, went into full-on rescue-lifeguard mode as kayaks and swimmers were tossed every which-way in the surf.

Half the field was pulled from the water due to dangerous conditions in the surf zone.

Bad Ideas: Exhibit #1A. Photo by Irene Chan.
Cathy makes the beach!
Katrina L makes the beach! Photo by Irene Chan.
Lifeguard-hero Andrew. Photo by Irene Chan.

It was a dicey situation. But in the end, save for a few scratches on John Walker’s bum, SERC came away unscathed. The entire field were extremely skilled watermen and water-women — all more than capable of taking care of themselves in the rough stuff. 

Now, coming up on a year later, it’s just a fun story. Another legend in the 140-year history of the South End Rowing Club.

I’ll remember it as long as I live.

Official Results

  • Evan Morrison 2:02:07
  • Darrin Connolly 2:16:10
  • Gabor Lengyel 2:16:29
  • Kirk McKinney 2:21:48
  • Simon Dominguez 2:23:38
  • Cathy Delneo 2:29:02
  • Katrina Lundstedt 2:31:24
  • Angelo Barbieri 2:33:19
  • Craig Coombs 2:38:19
  • Jeff Everett 2:41:51
  • Rick Shunk 2:44:42

Wetsuit: Tina Voight

DNF: [9 others]

A couple amazing photo albums from the day. Check them out:

And a compilation of video clips from my kayaker Andrew:

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