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…

Improving the Swedish goggle? Testing the Nootca 5

Along with Strokemaker paddles, the original Malmsten Swedish goggle is a design that has withstood the test of time. While I’m generally eager to embrace new technologies, I’ve worn the same model of swim goggles for over 20 years now.

Swedes are stereotyped as a pool swimming goggle, but I’ve seen no compelling reason to embrace gaskets in the open water. Why mess with a good thing? Take note of my goggle choice in my four longest swims (clockwise from top-left, the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim, Santa Barbara Channel, Catalina Channel, and Manhattan Island Marathon Swim):

At the same time, I’ll concede some occasional frustration with the cheap materials in classic Swedes – the scratch-proneness of the lenses, and the ultra-short lifespan of the latex straps. So, my interest was piqued when Steven Keegan – founder of Nootca and formerly a product designer with Speedo and Nike Swim – answered my “Super Swede” challenge and offered to let me try his Swede-“inspired” Nootca 5 goggle.

[Nootca on SwimOutlet]

The Nootca 5 had ambitious claims: not only upgrading the materials over the original Swede, but also improving the “water flow, durability, and vision.” I approached these claims with all due skepticism. And I was surprised by what I found.

Nootca Unboxed (click to enlarge).

The Nootcas make a good first impression. Held securely in a recyclable cardboard box, the goggles come pre-assembled with a silicone nose piece and detailed, well-written instructions for switching to the alternative string-and-bridge nosepiece.

Also included is a microfiber cloth pouch, for that extra layer of security against scratches.

Nootca stock photo
Nootca stock photo

As for the goggles themselves: I was immediately struck by the aesthetics (one of the big draws of original Swedes compared to say, Hind Compys or, god forbid, Aquaspheres).

The lenses are sleek and polished, and, so far as I can tell in several months of use, fairly scratch-resistant (especially with conscientious use of the carrying pouch). Along with the silicone head strap, the goggles live up to Nootca’s promise of higher quality materials over the original Swede.

Nootca stock photo
Nootca stock photo

What about Nootca’s claims of improved design over the original Swede? A high bar, indeed – but again, I’d say mostly fulfilled. The lenses seem slightly “longer” on the sides than original Swedes, which improves peripheral vision while still maintaining a low profile. Note how snugly the goggles fit in my eye sockets:

IMG_20130516_181843

Now, a couple of minor quibbles:

  • I found that the included silicone nosepiece didn’t want to stay in place. When I place the goggles on my face and pull the strap behind my head, the nosepiece “slips” and becomes too wide. This may be specific to my facial structure, I don’t know for sure – but in any case, Steven mentioned there was an update to the nosepiece “in the works.”
  • After my trouble with the silicone nosepiece, I switched it out for the alternative Malmsten-style string-and-bridge. Here, I found that the bridge itself was just slightly too wide, such that it blocked me from tying the string narrow enough. Perhaps I have an unusually narrow nose bridge? In any case, my ever-so-handy girlfriend pointed out that I could fix the problem simply by snipping the end off the bridge to make it narrower.
  • And finally, I must admit, I think the thin layer of silicone in the gasket is an unfortunate concession. I actually like the hard plastic of traditional Swedes. Not just the aesthetics of it, but also because even the highest-quality silicone will eventually degrade. On the other hand, some may find the added comfort is worth the theoretical sacrifice in durability.

All considered, and in spite of these quibbles, I really like the Nootca 5’s. They retain the minimalist beauty of original Swedes (with a couple thoughtful design enhancements) while upgrading the quality of the materials. The vision in particular is quite expansive, which I appreciate in open water settings.

Nootca stock photo
Nootca stock photo

From my email correspondence with Steven Keegan, I get the impression of a thoughtful designer/entrepreneur who takes pride in his creations. Nootca is pretty much a one-man show; a goggle-only boutique competing against giant corporations like Nike and Speedo. So, I’m happy to spread the word about this product.

For an interesting interview with Steven, see here.

While I received my Nootca 5’s as a complimentary review product, I also put my money where my mouth is and bought two additional pairs with my own funds – the green/smokes and the clears, to join my browns.

Nootca goggles are available at Nootca.com as well as SwimOutlet.

If you prefer gasketed goggles, you might consider one of Nootca’s other models – the 207 or the Eleven. Steven kindly sent a pair of Elevens for my girlfriend to try. Read her review, comparing them favorably to her usual Speedo Vanquishers, on the Marathon Swimmers Forum.

Index of Swim Reports, 2010-2013

There’s an interesting story in this list, though I’m reluctant to impose a narrative on it just yet.

Major swims are indicated in bold – or at least, what I considered to be major swims at the time.

Going forward this list will be accessible on this page, accessible via the top menu (About –> My Swims), and updated as necessary.

2010

2011

2012

2013

Report: Candlestick Park to Aquatic Park support paddle

The Candlestick “Nutcracker” is the longest SERC club swim – 10.5 miles – though some consider it not as challenging as outside-the-Gate swims such as Bay-to-Breakers and Point Bonita.

If anything, the most pressing challenge for Candlestick swims is support logistics – transporting all the kayaks down to Candlestick, setting the swimmers off on time, and modeling the ebb tide accurately in a relatively unfamiliar part of the Bay.

candlestick swim
Photo by Robert Campbell, with approximate swim course shown in red.

Instead of swimming, I opted to pay back a portion of my volunteer debt and sign up for kayak support. It was my first SERC support paddle, and only my second overall, after the Semana Nautica 6-mile a couple weeks ago.

Despite the main kayak transport vehicle failing to show, we managed to arrive at Candlestick a few minutes before 6am – just 15-20 minutes behind schedule. We hurriedly launched the kayaks, and soon the first pod of (slower) swimmers entered the water at 6:06am. Then pod 2 at 6:14, and pod 3 at 6:24.

Cathy jumped in pod 2, though in reality she’s more of a pod 2/3 ‘tweener.

Nice swimming conditions: overcast, not much wind, air temp high 50s/low 60s, water temp low 60s.

After the jump, Cathy and Tina swam side-by-side for a few minutes, and then Cathy pulled ahead.

[Link to YouTube video]

The ebb was just getting started, so it was pretty slow going from Candlestick “beach,” getting out around the southern end of Hunters Point. Cathy took about 26 minutes to reach the end of J Street Pier (1.06 miles, 2.45 mph).

Incidentally, this area is an EPA Superfund site.

ptavisadero

Cathy’s plan was to feed on the half-hour, but I decided to delay her first feed a few minutes to get her further into the Bay, and hopefully into a faster current.

Once we reached the deeper water of the shipping channel and started pushing north, our progress sped up considerably. 41 minutes after passing J Street Pier, we were parallel to the Islais Creek inlet in the Potrero District (2.65 miles, 3.88 mph).

potrero

Cathy was now leading the field by a couple hundred meters – though she had a 10 minute head start on the Pod 3 swimmers. I tried to keep her out in the channel, in the faster current (but hopefully, not enough to get scolded by the race directors).

2013-08-05 14_46_08-Google Earth

We passed by some big container ships around this time, and also a small fishing boat anchored near the course path. They mentioned to the race director that they were shark fishing (possibly were they trolling us?).

[Link to YouTube video]

The ebb kept picking up, and we reached the Bay Bridge (just west of the ‘B’ tower) in 2 hours, 1 minute elapsed time (54 minutes for the 3.54-mile segment, 3.93 mph). Jim S. from Pod 3, the eventual race winner, finally caught us here.

Jim passed Cathy under the Bay Bridge
Jim passes Cathy under the Bay Bridge

yerbabuena

The final third of the swim – from the Bay Bridge to Aquatic Park – is familiar territory for most SERC swimmers. Cathy reached the “Creakers” (east end of the breakwater in front of Aquatic Park) in another 46 minutes of swimming (2.75 miles, 3.59 mph). From there, it was a slack-ish 13 minutes of swimming to the Opening and into the beach (0.47 miles, 2.17 mph). Final time of 3 hours and a few seconds.

2013-08-05 15_16_27-Google Earth

alcatrazcurrent

Darrin from Pod 3 passed Cathy at the Creakers, and another two swimmers from Pod 3 sneaked past her in the standings due to the staggered start. But she finished a solid fifth overall, and first female.

Speed (mph) plotted against distance
Speed (mph) plotted against distance

It was great fun, being out there on the little scrambler kayak, taking in the views, seeking out the best course & currents, protecting my swimmer from dangers real and imagined. Honestly, I wouldn’t have traded it for a swim.

Photo by Colin Gift
Photo by Colin Gift

Products used in the making of this post:

Paul Newsome wins MIMS: Reflections from the escort boat

– Previously: MIMS 2013, Part 1: A perfect storm

Last month I crewed for Swim Smooth founder Paul Newsome on his victorious Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. Though we had not met in person, Paul read my 2011 MIMS report and felt I could assist him in navigating the twists, turns, and tricky currents of the rivers around Manhattan.

It was a great honor and pleasure to meet and spend the weekend with Paul, his business partner Adam, his paddler Amanda, and all the rest of the Perth squad. They treated me very well, and I left New York City with a swirling headful of inspiring memories and new friendships.

I’ll defer to Paul’s story of his own swim. Instead, these are more general reflections on the experience of seeing MIMS from on the water – quite different, naturally, than being in the water.

Hannah (observer) and Evan, before the start.
Hannah (observer) and Evan, before the start. Photo by Adam Young.

“Expect the unexpected.”

A well-worn chestnut of open water swimming, of which MIMS 2013 often reminded us. The day before the race, the Daily News of Open Water Swimming reported on the apparent female domination of MIMS, proclaiming one the “overwhelming favorite.” Instead, men swept the podium, 1-2-3.

Ignore the chaos in the East River – it means nothing. Shut up and swim.

All sorts of odd stuff happens in the East River. At one point, 9th-place finisher John Hughes found a current and was actually leading the field. He ended up 50 minutes behind Paul. Typically, swimmers are in the East River somewhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours, out of a 7.5-to-10 hour race. Nobody wins MIMS in the East River – or loses it. So forget about the race and conserve your energy – both physical and mental. You’ll need it later.

Train for the worst case scenario.

The “observed qualifying swim” for MIMS 2013 was 4 hours at a water temp of 61F. Why 61F? Because historically in early June, the water in the NYC region could be in the low 60s. Are you prepared for 7-8-9 hours at 61F? The fact that two swimmers were pulled for hypothermia less than 2 hours into the race indicates that some were simply not prepared.

“A grim patch.”

Memorable words spoken by fellow boat crew Adam via marine radio to paddler Amanda, instructing her to move Paul around a certain spot in the Harlem River. Probably for naught – it was all pretty grim. Paul was sick for two weeks afterward.

The importance of good pilots.

There are meaningful differences among boat pilots, in knowledge, skill, and frankly, how much they care. If you’re trying to win MIMS, these differences matter. For the sightseers, I suppose, it matters less.

Moreover, in MIMS, there are actually two pilots. The boat pilot and the kayaker. This contrasts with a channel swim in the open ocean, where the boat can set a consistent course that the kayaker mirrors. In the crowded waterways of Manhattan, the boat is more of a roving escort and cannot always set the course. In which case, the swimmer depends on the kayaker to set the course – either based on his/her own local knowledge, or via communication from the boat.

Pay attention to the tide cycles.

When Paul was approaching Spuyten Duyvil and the Hudson River entrance, we were confronted with a choice: Cut the corner and stay close to the Manhattan shoreline, or head straight out into the river? At the time, Paul was leading Lochie Hinds by 400-500m, but this lead could vanish quickly with the wrong navigational choice.

Typically, the Hudson is fairly slack when the leaders reach it, and it’s best to stay close to shore and gradually move out toward the east stanchion of the GW Bridge. But because of the late start, we reasoned that the Hudson might already be moving, with a faster current out in the middle.

At Spuyten Duyvil, we motored ahead of Paul and Amanda to scout the currents. Indeed, there was a visible back-eddy along the shoreline, and we measured a 3+ knot current further out. We radioed back to Amanda to bring Paul straight out into the river.

His lead was preserved.

Shit happens.

No, I’m not talking about the “grim patch” in the Harlem. I’m talking about cruise ships.

A giant one pulled out into the Hudson at Midtown, right in the middle of the race. Fortunately, Paul was already past it. For a brief moment we thought our challenger (Lochie) would get stopped, effectively ending the race. But the ship took its time starting up and Lochie got past. The swimmers right behind Lochie (Ceinwen and Bill) did get stopped. I am not sure if the final order of finish was affected. It’s not fair, but that’s life in crowded urban waterways. Small swimmers and big ships.

[Cruise ship pulls into the Hudson]

In the end, MIMS is won by the fastest swimmer who is also sufficiently prepared.

There were four swimmers in the MIMS 2013 field of roughly similar pure pool-swimming speed: Paul, Lochie, and the two who got pulled for hypothermia early on. One of these four was almost certain to win. Two of them, evidently, were not sufficiently prepared. Which left Paul and Lochie. They each took nearly-identical lines around the island. So Paul beat Lochie because he was able to swim faster, for longer. Simple as that.

MIMS success has nothing to do with being female, or being Australian. Shelley Taylor-Smith won MIMS five times because she was a professional marathon swimmer competing against (for the most part) Masters swimmers. She was simply a better swimmer.

MIMS is won by the fastest swimmer who is also sufficiently prepared. On June 8th, that was Paul Newsome. A victory for “Swingers” everywhere ;)

967274_966742054022_731916168_o
Evan, Paul, Adam, drinking beer in a wine cellar.

Related Links

Related Videos

[Racing in the East River]

[Paul at the Finish]

[“Big Swim” – Channel 10 news segment]

 

Stroke Thoughts

The swimming stroke is not unlike a golf swing: a complicated, interconnected series of fine and gross muscular movements. For the few who do it well, it appears fluid, natural, unified, and effortless. For most, the movements of swimming and golf can feel unnatural, difficult to integrate, and frustratingly unamenable to brute force.

Even those who have mastered the swimming stroke/golf swing can develop subtle technique flaws, of which they may not even be aware. One must maintain constant vigilance against these creeping flaws, ideally through a combination of mindful practice, well-selected drills, coaching, and video analysis.

One method I find useful in maintaining proper form and guarding against creeping flaws is: stroke thoughts. I didn’t invent this phrase or idea, but I define it as: simple, succinct technique pointers repeated subvocally (internally) while swimming.

In practice, I use stroke thoughts most often at the beginning of a session (while warming up), or when I feel myself lapsing (mentally or physically) in the middle of a workout or race. I repeat each thought by itself for a few stroke cycles, focusing on just that single part of my stroke, before moving to the next thought. Basically, I’m “checking in” with each part of my stroke.

I use seven specific stroke thoughts, starting with the hand entry and proceeding through the catch, pull, hip drive, and kick.

1. “middle finger first”

I have a slight tendency for a thumb-first entry, especially on my right/breathing side. So, I focus on keeping my hand in a neutral position as it enters, fingertips parallel to the surface of the water, with the middle/longest finger entering first.

2. “reach”

When I get fatigued and/or cold, I have a slight tendency to shorten my stroke too much and rush the catch. So, I focus on reaching forward before I initiate the pull. Notice I did not say glide. I don’t pause at the front of my stroke, like catch-up drill. I’m simply trying to reach forward a bit more. The reaching motion comes from body rotation, which in turn comes from hip drive. (Everything is interconnected!)

3. “fingers down”

When I finish reaching forward, I tilt my wrist slightly and point my fingers toward the bottom of the pool. I try to keep them pointed toward the bottom (not angled to the side, not horizontal) all the way through my pull.

4. “elbows high”

I sometimes drop my left elbow slightly as I breathe to the right, especially with fatigue. This is not only less efficient, but can also irritate my left shoulder. So, I focus on keeping that elbow high, “grabbing” the water with my lats, all the way through the pull.

5. “pull straight back”

No “S”-stroke. Straight back. Like a big paddle.

6. “tight kick”

I sometimes do a slight scissor-kick as I breathe. This is an unconscious compensation for the slight “unbalancing” caused by my breathing motion. However, it greatly increases drag. So, I focus on keeping my kick tight, kneecaps close together and toes pointed inward. This has the follow-on benefit of forcing me to take a more efficient and balanced breathing motion. (Everything is interconnected!)

7. “drive the hips”

With fatigue, I also tend to rotate less, increasing the burden on my shoulders. Ironically, this causes me to become even more fatigued. So, I focus on driving my rotation from my hips, less from my arms and shoulders.


After I cycle through my seven stroke thoughts, I turn my brain off and focus on the overall rhythm and “feel” of my stroke. If something still doesn’t feel quite right, I cycle through the stroke thoughts again and try to identify where things are breaking down.

Notice I’ve said almost nothing about the recovery phase of the stroke (except perhaps “middle finger first” –> the very end of the recovery). I don’t think much about my recovery because frankly, it doesn’t much matter. It doesn’t contribute to either propulsion or drag reduction, because it’s happening above the water.

What matters is what happens under the water. That’s why elite swimmers display a wide variation of recovery styles, but are comparatively similar under water. Think Janet Evans vs. Sun Yang.

Important note: Stroke thoughts are intended as a temporary “check-in” or tune-up. Like with the golf swing, over-thinking can lead to paralysis. In the middle of a long swim or tough interval set, I’m mostly trying to focus on rhythm, flow, and feel.

Here’s a video of me swimming 100 yards at the recent Swim Smooth coaching clinic in Livermore. Which stroke thoughts should I be focusing on?

Swim Smooth stroke filming from Evan Morrison on Vimeo.

Dave Scott on open-water swimming technique

After his victory at MIMS, Paul Newsome and his Swim Smooth business partner Adam Young embarked on a cross-continental road trip to experience America via swimming.

Along the way, they stopped in Boulder, Colorado and met up with 6-time Ironman world champion Dave Scott. Paul did an interesting video interview with Dave on the topic of open-water swimming technique. It’s worth your time to watch all 7 minutes, 46 seconds of this video. Here’s the money quote from Dave:

“I’m not concerned about distance per stroke. I like an effective front-end of the stroke, on the catch.”