Each 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.”
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
Two days before Bay to Breakers in May (yes, it’s a belated report), an oversubscribed volunteer corps opened up a couple spots on another SERC club swim: Kirby Cove to Aquatic Park. Kirby Cove is the same beach on the Marin Headlands where Cathy finished her “Three Bridges” swim in March. Outside the Golden Gate, but not as far as Point Diablo or Point Bonita. At 4.2 miles (current-assisted), it’s one of the longer SERC club swims, so a bit odd to have on the same weekend as Bay to Breakers.
I wasn’t planning to swim that morning and showed up to help kayak or time. It turned out there were plenty of volunteers, so I figured what the hell… I paid my fee and changed, like a chubby Clark Kent, into my drag suit and parka. Game on.
We motored out to Kirby Cove on the Silver Fox, 24 swimmers and a gaggle of paddlers. The swim was scheduled to start just before slack tide at the Golden Gate (0832), building into a 4.7-knot flood (1134).
Exact water temp is unknown because the NOAA-Crissy Field buoy was out, but I’d guess it was about 57F (13.9C). Air temp was mid-50s at the start, becoming warmer and quite sunny as the morning progressed.
Once everyone had swum into shore from the boat, we set off in two “pods” – the six fastest swimmers at 8:15, preceded by everyone else at 8:11. Heading out I took too straight of a line into the channel, thinking it would get me into the current faster. This was stupid: I should have angled straight for mid-span of the Bridge (there wasn’t much current then anyway). That’s precisely what the leader did, and by the time I corrected my course, I was 25m behind.
We were not assigned paddlers on a one-to-one basis, but within a few minutes I noticed Hank and his son shadowing me in a tandem kayak. I was treating this as a self-navigated swim, but they were a comforting presence and definitely helped keep me on a straighter line with less sighting.
I reached the Golden Gate Bridge, a bit north of mid-span, in 17 minutes, 30 seconds (0.77 miles, 2.64mph). Around this time I lost track of the leader. Oh well, I thought: I’m not trying to race this anyway. Not a race!!
I saw a wooden rowboat off to my right (toward south tower), but no swimmer. Turned out he was there, but on the other side of the rowboat.
Onward I swam, angling across the shipping channel toward my destination. Meanwhile, it was turning into a glorious day! I felt the warmth of the sun on my back, and the Bay was as calm as it ever gets.
I watched the Palace of Fine Arts come and go, and soon the piers of Fort Mason came into view. Hank was motioning me to head further in, but I ignored him until around Gashouse, taking my chances on missing the Opening. I did have a bit of a scramble right at the Opening – the flood was really picking up now – but I made it safely at 1 hour, 12 minutes, 12 seconds elapsed time (54:42 for the Bridge-to-Opening segment, 3.2 miles, 3.51 mph).
Once inside the Cove, I saw no one behind me so I took a very relaxed pace toward the SERC beach. This, along with my failing to account for the effect of the flood inside the cove (pushing me too far east), caused a very close call at the finish.
As I approached the SERC pier, I finally noticed I was off course, and started crabbing back. At the same instant, I noticed Darrin suddenly almost even with me, sprinting straight in to the finish. He almost got me. I found a final burst of speed and cleared the water first.
It’s not a race, people. Not a race!
I’m sure the timekeepers were highly entertained. Final time 1:17:06.
It’s no hyperbole, just a simple statement of fact, that Jamie Patrick‘s Swim Camp last year changed the course of my life. I returned this year for the “Lake Tahoe Edition” for several reasons, most important of which was to honor the 2012 edition, and the man who organized it, for introducing me to a beautiful new friend.
This year’s swim camp was a hoot, albeit a different sort of hoot. Which was, naturally, a function of both different people and a different environment. Like last year, “swim camp” was a bit of a misnomer. “Camp for people who swim” would be more accurate.
Among this year’s highlights was a swim in Emerald Bay and around its island (the only one in Tahoe, known as Fannette). It couldn’t have been more perfect, save perhaps an earlier jump time to avoid boat traffic. Good lord, what beautiful water, as if from a dream.
The island in the middle of the bay (Fannette) has a steep drop-off on all sides, of the sort that usually terrifies me, but for whatever reason Tahoe’s vast depths don’t bother me. No resident apex predators, perhaps?
We also went for a dip in the Truckee River, of which most of the swimmable portion is only inches deep. Nonetheless, a hoot.
Tahoe is a profoundly special place, more than any freshwater lake I’ve experienced, and I can understand the protectiveness. I hope to return soon.
Thank you, Jamie, for your generosity, hospitality, good cheer… and the FINIS Agility paddles, which continue to enrich my life.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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?).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yesterday the South End Rowing Club of San Francisco and the Bondi Icebergs of Sydney officially became “sister clubs” as a delegation of visiting ‘Bergs joined us for a Tuesday morning Alcatraz swim.
In need of, I suppose, new challenges, I decided to attempt the swim using only sculling drill – both forward (hands in front) and back (hands by hips). I filmed the event with a GoPro on a head attachment.
I ended up resorting to a few strokes of backstroke (so as not to stretch out the support vessels), but for the most part I did it: Alcatraz to Aquatic Park… sculling.
Here’s 52-minute video condensed to just over two. Unfortunately the GoPro memory card reached capacity shortly after I entered the cove, so I didn’t capture the finish.
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.
“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.
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.
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
MIMS 2013 was a disappointing, even heartbreaking experience for a number of very accomplished and competent marathon swimmers. Of the 39 soloists who started from Pier A, only 11 made it around the island unassisted – compared to 100% finish rates in 2011 and 2012.
I’m not in a position to grasp all the factors that contributed to the situation on race day – I daresay none of the swimmers are, either – but my sense is that it was a perfect storm of bad luck. Perhaps some human error (as should be expected in chaotic, stressful situations), but mostly just bad luck.
– A storm (literally), producing several inches of rainfall that swelled the rivers, inhibiting the predicted flood tide and amplifying the predicted ebb.
– Unseasonably cold water temperatures (61F/16C in the East & Harlem Rivers; a couple degrees warmer in the Hudson). The qualifying swim of 4 hours in 61F is designed to weed out unacclimatized swimmers; nonetheless, some swimmers were unprepared for the cold.
– A stable of escort boats still recovering from Sandy, leaving far less leeway for no-shows.
– Inevitable no-shows among the remaining escort boats, leading to chaos and last-minute reassignments at the starting line…
– leading to a delayed start, thus missing the peak flood current in the East River…
– leading to the slower two-thirds of the field missing the tide change at Hell Gate.
There may be (and has been) a tendency to blame the event organizers for the disappointing outcome. And while I don’t mean to completely absolve the organizers of blame – again, I don’t have enough information to judge (and neither do you!) – I would caution people against this tendency. I would encourage them to think of how many things have to go right in order for an event as complicated as MIMS to go off in the first place.
What does it say that people have come to expect 100% success rates?
Nothing is “guaranteed” in marathon swimming. Shelling out $1000s doesn’t entitle you to a successful swim – unfortunately, even for those whom the $1000s are actually significant.
My experience of MIMS 2013 was different than most. I was honored to be asked by Paul Newsome (founder of Swim Smooth) to serve on his crew. Paul was not only one of the 11 finishers; he was first among them. By my analysis, the delayed start and storm-shifted tides benefited him (due to his speed – and thus his ability to beat the tide changes) in the same way that it doomed the prospects of the slower swimmers.