Dead Fish Swims

A “dead fish swim” is a swim that even a dead fish could finish. (Maybe not literally… but sometimes almost literally.)

This is a bit of local (SF) open-water swimming lingo that I wish would be more widely used (hence this post).


Dead fish swims require bodies of water affected by substantial currents — as fast or faster than “fast” swimmers swim. Let’s set the minimum current threshold for a dead fish swim (arbitrarily) at 2 knots.

Most of the organized swims put on by the Dolphin and South End Rowing Clubs in San Francisco Bay are dead fish swims. Coghlan Beach to Aquatic Park on a flood (the traditional route for the fall Inter-Club Triathlon) is a dead fish swim. Pier 7 to Aquatic Park (the most popular SERC “sunriser” route) on a big ebb is a dead fish swim.

Even the challenging Bay to Breakers swim is sort of a dead fish swim — until the last mile or so, when the current goes slack and you have to get around Seal Rocks and into the beach via actual swimming (and bodysurfing).

Non-dead fish swims include cross-current swims such as the traditional 1.25-mile Alcatraz-to-Aquatic Park swim; and perhaps the premier test of open-water swimming skill and navigational IQ in the Bay — the Round-Trip Alcatraz (Aquatic Park to Alcatraz, around Alcatraz, then back to Aquatic Park).

Dead fish swims are an enjoyable way to see a relatively long stretch of city skyline in a relatively short amount of time — without having to do much actual swimming. Logistically, they are an effective way to keep fast swimmers and slow swimmers closer together than they would be in slack water.

Dead fish swims may give inexperienced Bay swimmers a false sense of their skills. Ability to bob along in a ripping current does not imply ability to swim long distances.

Dead fish swims are fun. So is swimming against the current — but for different reasons.

Of course, with the Chas Lap, you get the best of both worlds.

Side note: I haven’t been blogging much lately; sorry about that. The time I’ve previously spent writing has lately been dedicated to developing MSF. Lots of interesting developments in that sphere; perhaps I’ll write about them sometime.

If you’re an email or RSS subscriber to Farther, Colder, Rougher, you might also consider subscribing to the MSF Newsletter I’ve been putting out since last August. Frequency varies from weekly to bi-weekly.


At the South End…

At the South End we are swimmers, rowers, runners, and handballers.

But even many of the rowers, runners, and handballers are swimmers too — because to us, there is no better place for it.

At the South End we swim with, against, and across the currents.

At the South End we swim outside the Cove… outside comfort zones.

At the South End we do Bay to Breakers the hard way.

At the South End we swig from growlers in the sauna.

They call us the “feral neighbors,” but all the best Open Water Swimmers are a bit feral at heart.

At the South End we ponder the swims that Can be done, rather than the ones that Can’t.

At the South End we know the quietest part of the city.

At the South End we are never alone.

“Leaving the City Behind.” Photo by Cy Lo, reprinted with permission.

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.

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.

Sub-100 Swims

Sub-100 swims: Also known as “winter” for San Francisco open-water swimmers.

A sub-100 swim is when the water and air temperatures (in degrees F) sum to less than 100. For example, 50 degree water + 50 degree air = 100 exactly.

For our metric system friends, a sub-100 day conveniently converts to a sub-20C day, precisely.

Like much of the western U.S., San Francisco has been experiencing a bit of a cold snap lately. This morning at Aquatic Park we had 51-degree (10.5C) water combined with 37-degree (2.8C) air, for a combined total of 87 – which, I think, is a new all-time low for me.


I swam with my 6:30am group for our typical 45 minutes. Tellingly, the South End men’s showers were already running lukewarm when I arrived.

The concept of a “sub-100 swim” derives (as far as I know) from fellow South Ender Gary Emich. On his way to 1,000+ Alcatraz crossings, Gary noticed that 100 degrees combined air+water was a threshold below which his morning swims with the ASSes (which often include a dripping-wet post-swim RIB ride) became rather… challenging.

I’ve suggested on the Forum that one way to quantify how cold you are after a swim is to time how long it takes to re-warm in the sauna.

I discovered another method this morning: How many attempts does it take for me to open the combo lock on my locker? I wonder, by February will I have to ask for help? 🙂

Swimming Hole: South Yuba River, California

A swimming hole in the South Yuba River, near the Old Highway 49 Bridge, a few miles outside Nevada City, Nevada County, California.

Swimming hole near Old Highway 49 Bridge, Nevada County, California

Geographical location of swimming hole:

Location of swimming hole

Swimming through a hidden tunnel:

[Link to YouTube video]

Swimming upriver:

[Link to YouTube video]

Resting on the rocks:

On the rocks

Denver Post article: Down to the old swimming hole: Dog days of California’s South Yuba River

Non-Swim Report: Tomales Bay White Shark Swimming Association Fall “Chomp”

2013-10-05 fall and spring, the channel swimmer / bubble-cap aficionado / legendary South Ender known as El Sharko (occasionally “Sir Sharko,” sometimes shortened to “Sharko,” and just “Chris” to his wife) organizes a swim & BBQ at Heart’s Desire Beach in Tomales Bay State Park, north of San Francisco.

In homage to the white sharks who breed near the mouth of Tomales Bay, this event is known as the “Tomales Bay White Shark Swimming Association (TBWSSA) Chomp” (alternatively, “Tomales Bay Dangerous ‘Swim with the White Sharks’ Chomp,” often shortened to simply “The Chomp”). Sharko’s sanguine approach to the oft-repressed fact of VW-sized predators in our local waters is encapsulated by his calling card: “I never met a shark I didn’t like.”

Photo by Jeff Brown
Special “Chomp” course buoy, handmade by El Sharko. Photo by Jeff Brown

The “Fall Chomp” of 2013 fell on what must surely go down as one of the most glorious days of the year: 80 degrees, windless clear skies all the way to the Farallons. Heart’s Desire Beach, about two-thirds of the way inland (8.5 miles) from the Bay mouth, lived up to its name.

Heart's Desire Beach, Tomales Bay State Park
Heart’s Desire Beach, Tomales Bay State Park

I’m coming off a head cold, so I opted for a patch of shade and a book instead of the admittedly inviting Bay waters. Shallow Tomales Bay usually runs a few degrees warmer than San Francisco Bay, and was mid-60s F according to reports.

The swim portion of the Chomp was low-key and non-competitive. They swam north (into the flood) along the western shore for about a mile, and then back, escorted by a few kayaks.

Swimmers heading out into the flood at Heart's Desire Beach, Tomales Bay

Swimmers sighted on the famous shark fin as they headed out from the beach.


Post-swim, an alternative meaning of the “Chomp” became clear. Hungry swimmers feasted on clam chowder, BBQ’d Tomales Bay oysters, and sundry potluck items.

Sharko feeds.
Sharko feeds. Photo by Mrs. Sharko.

The Chomp concluded with… wait for it… a poetry reading. A comedic recitation of primarily swimming-, ocean-, or South End-related verse aptly called the “Wet Poets’ Society.”

Some read canonical poems (e.g., Whitman’s “World Below the Brine“), others read original creations (one favorite, an ode to the South End men’s sauna). Cathy sang her own Sharko Song, a cappella to the tune of “Rawhide.”

Sharko kicking off the Wet Poets' Society reading.
Sharko kicking off the Wet Poets’ Society reading. Photo by Mrs. Sharko.

We made it back to the city by early afternoon, and the day ended even more spectacularly than it began. The sun set directly over the Farallon Islands, clearly visible 30 miles offshore, casting the unusually glassy Pacific in a startling glow.

As seen from my living room window.
As seen from my living room window.

My New, New Beach

[Read “My New Beach” from last year]

Not explicitly mentioned here yet, but implied between the lines, is that I’ve moved again. This time, to San Francisco.

My new beach, a six minute walk door to sand, isn’t quite as “secret” as the last one.

ocean beach
Ocean Beach, San Francisco. Panoramic photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons – click to enlarge.

The “Outside Lands” of San Francisco, with Ocean Beach along its western flank, are reputed to be foggy and windswept. In my two months here – typically the foggiest of the year – I’ve found that reputation to be vastly overstated.

The Pacific Ocean from my window. Farallon Islands at center.
The Pacific Ocean from my window. Farallon Islands at center.

And so another new adventure commences…

ocean beach
Looking north from my nearest dune.
ocean beach
Looking south from my nearest dune.

The Ocean is your Mother – let her love and caress you.

— Randy Brown