Swim Report: Five Coves of Death

I renewed my membership at the South End Rowing Club this year, and am determined to get my money’s worth. So far this year I’ve done two club swims, a “sunriser” swim, an Alcatraz swim, numerous casual swims in and around Aquatic Park with fellow club members, and crewed on Cathy’s epic 3 Bridges Swim. Last weekend was the infamous “Five Coves of Death” – five laps around the perimeter of Aquatic Park at 5:00pm on May 5th. 5CoD is also the qualifier for Bay to Breakers, the crown jewel of the club’s long swim program.

What exactly constitutes a lap of Aquatic Park? This is a source of some confusion and controversy.  A “tight cove” is shown in an illustration by Joe B. :5coves_butlerStarting from the South End/Dolphin Club beach, one swims:

  • To the end of the docks, making a hard left around the Dolphin Club dock.
  • Along the buoy line and around the Flag with a right shoulder.
  • Through the goal posts and then the solitary post just beyond with a right shoulder.
  • Hug Municipal Pier as closely as possible along the full length of the curve.
  • Under the end of the pier (a.k.a. “wedding cake” or “roundhouse”) being careful not to impale oneself on broken pilings.
  • Around the buoy at the Opening with a right shoulder.
  • Under the rounded end of the breakwater (a.k.a. “Jacuzzi“), being careful not to scrape oneself on the barnacle encrusted concrete supports.
  • Behind the Balclutha and Thayer (port side, right shoulder facing the boats).
  • Around the bow of the Thayer and back to the docks.
  • Rinse, repeat, etc.

A “tight cove” (per Roper) or “honest cove” (per Walker) is about 0.85 miles (1.33 km) for one lap, or 4.25 miles for five laps.

On the beach before the start. Photo by Jane K.
On the beach before the start. Photo by Jane K.

But how tight is a “tight cove”? How close must you swim to Muni Pier along its curve? It’s not defined precisely. Some advocate swimming under the pier all the way, which eliminates any ambiguity (“Reptile cove”). Some advocate swimming close enough that the fishing lines and crab pots dangling from above are actually on your right shoulder (“Delneo cove”). Others find this unnecessarily dangerous, and swim further out for a somewhat “looser” cove. No one likes getting hooked by a fisherman.

As an example of the latter, here’s the course taken by the fastest three swimmers – Jim, Darrin, and me.


This cove is not as tight as it looks. I measured it in Google Earth and we averaged 25 yards off the Muni Pier curve. According to reports, some of the men directly behind us were even further off the pier (possibly in an attempt to catch up to us). We’ll call this the “Connolly cove,” in honor of the former swim commissioner Darrin, who led us along this course.

A few minutes after the start. The lead swimmers are approaching The Flag (center-left). Photo by Kim P-H.
A few minutes after the start. The lead swimmers are approaching The Flag (center-left). Photo by Kim P-H.

currents55Anyway, it was a nice day for a swim. Water temp 54F, air temp low 60’s, winds calm. We began about 20 minutes before slack water at the Golden Gate preceding a 3.4-knot flood.

I finished the Five Coves in 1 hour, 44 minutes, 26 seconds, placing third behind Jim and Darrin. My splits per lap were: 19:40, 19:35, 21:25, 21:35, and 22:11. Note, that first split includes about 20 seconds of swimming between the beach and the end of the dock that was not included in the other four splits. The Garmin Fenix GPS watch I had under my cap credited me with 4.13 miles of swimming.

I was getting cold on my fifth lap – I could feel my stroke falling apart – but perhaps I wasn’t as bad off as I thought, because I took only a few minutes in the shower and sauna to warm up.

Next up: Bay to Breakers (Bay Bridge to Ocean Beach) on Memorial Day, May 27th. Cathy did a fun write-up on the 2010 B2B. Looking forward to it!

The last swimmer finishes. A perfect day in the Bay.
The last swimmer finishes. A perfect day in the Bay.

The Alcatraz Swimming Society

Recently I had the pleasure of joining the Alcatraz Swimming Society (ASS) for one of their weekly swims. The ASSes are a few South Enders who really, really like to swim to (and from) Alcatraz. The day I swam, it was co-founder Gary Emich‘s 985th Alcatraz crossing (!). Gary and Stevie Ray Hurwitz (also in the water) are in a heated but friendly race to 1,000 crossings.

We jumped at 6:45am from Pier 33 into slack-ish 51.1-degree water. Air temp was around 50-flat, putting the combined “open water chill factor” right at the feared 100 barrier. Heightening the thermal challenge were 10-knot winds (gusting to 15) out of the SW.

Sync-swimming with Stevie Ray.
Sync-swimming with Stevie Ray.

I entered the water last, sprinted for a couple minutes to catch up to the others (and also to warm up), and then started filming. Swim, pause, film — rinse & repeat. At one point I was even doing single-armed backstroke while holding the wrist-mounted camera steady on the other arm.

The video’s a little bumpy (but so was the ocean):

Swimming to Alcatraz in March from Evan Morrison on Vimeo.

The crossing took a bit more than 35 minutes. According to Gary and Stevie Ray, it’s usually a ~25 minute swim, but we overestimated the ebb tide and started too far east.

Unidentified swimmer arm. Downtown SF skyline in the background.
Unidentified swimmer arm. Downtown SF skyline in the background.

I’m continuing to push the boundary of my cold-water swimming ability. Two years ago, the idea that I could swim year-round in San Francisco Bay would have been unfathomable to me. All it takes is a little practice. Seriously – anyone can do this! The toughest part of this swim was actually the ride back to SERC on the zodiac boat. The wind was brutal.

GPS tracks
GPS tracks from Gary’s watch

Thanks to Gary, Stevie Ray, Dianna, and Suzanne for having me along for the ride!

Postscript: I was interviewed about this swim by Tiffany at AlcatrazFavorites.com.

Same Water, Different Worlds: A tale of two swims in San Francisco Bay

Last weekend I had the pleasure of escorting Cathy on a big, cold swim in San Francisco Bay to celebrate her birthday. We’re calling it the “Three Bridges” swim: She swam from the Third Street Bridge in McCovey Cove (the original location of the South End Rowing Club in 1873), under the Bay Bridge, and under the Golden Gate Bridge, before finishing at Kirby Cove on the Marin Headlands.


8.7 miles in 2 hours, 10 minutes (with a push from the ebb tide) in 51-degree water, without a wetsuit. It was a damn impressive, inspiring swim, and I’ve never seen Cathy swim so well. She seems totally at home in cold, rough water – and indeed she seems to thrive, the worse conditions become.

With El Sharko‘s steady hand at the tiller, I managed the feedings and aimed my GoPro:

Cathy’s “Three Bridges” SF Bay Swim: 3rd St, Bay Bridge, Golden Gate from Evan Morrison on Vimeo.

Some interesting and sad context to Cathy’s swim: It was (coincidentally) the same morning as the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon, during which one of the athletes died in the swim leg. At 2:01 in the video above, you can see the San Francisco Belle that would soon ferry the Escapees to the Rock for the start. As shown at 3:04, we passed by Alcatraz only a few minutes before the race start.

In a subsequent discussion on SlowTwitch, there was lots of hand-wringing about the frigid water temperature and choppy conditions.

Yes, it was cold and choppy out there. This is San Francisco Bay we’re talking about. Yet it’s impossible not to draw the obvious comparisons: These people were wearing wetsuits! They were in the water for maybe 40-45 minutes on average. Cathy was out there three times as long, without a wetsuit.

And she loved it! Watch Cathy’s video again (2:56) — look at the joy and confidence in her stroke as she plows through the chop. This is how she chooses to celebrate her birthday!

Now watch this video, from the Escape:

These people are in way over their heads. The guy at 0:10 can hardly swim! What the hell is he even doing out there? These two swims took place in the same water, literally minutes apart in time. Yet they might as well be from different worlds.

Here’s a semi-rhetorical question: Which event do you think was safer? The nearly-9 mile, 2+ hour swim without a wetsuit, or the 1-mile wetsuit-assisted swim?

In my view, there’s absolutely no substitute for proper training and preparation. Cathy was prepared for this swim; many of these triathletes, evidently, were not. A wetsuit is not going to keep you safe. Swimming competence will keep you safe.

While wetsuits may decrease the chances of an individual person drowning, I believe they actually increase collective risk – by giving people a false perception of safety and encouraging them to put themselves in situations they are not prepared for.

Maui Channel Relay: The Video

Last September I joined some San Francisco friends in Maui for a memorable few days of swimming and leisure (but mostly leisure). You may have seen the short video I posted a while back of my solo Maui Channel swim. Two days before the solo, I did the same swim with my friends in the annual Maui Channel Swim Relays.

So, this video has been a long time in the making. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing? Nothing beats the February doldrums like Hawaii (or at least, thinking about Hawaii).

The relay was loads of fun and mostly uneventful, with the unfortunate exception of our third swimmer getting tangled in a jellyfish (probably a box) only a few minutes into her 30-minute leg. She got on the boat and (as allowed by the rules) we turned off the engine and floated in place. At the next change-over, we put our next swimmer in the water and continued on our way.

We all got “zapped” a few times by jellies, but we made it to the finish at Kaanapali Beach without further incident. Our third swimmer was just unlucky, it seems. So it goes!

Anyway, here it is. It starts off with just photos, but there’s GoPro footage too! Click through to Vimeo for the HD version.

Maui Channel Relay 2012 from Evan Morrison on Vimeo.

We ended up 25th out of 47 teams in the overall standings, in 4 hours 34 minutes. Not bad considering the 23-odd minutes we spent sitting in place mid-channel! Even better, our divisional placing was good enough for a coveted plush Maui Channel Swim towel. It’s so nice, I still haven’t used it.

Eventually, I will put together a “director’s cut” of my solo swim – which incidentally would have placed fourth overall among the relays 🙂

Oh, one more thing. Our GPS tracks:

gpsUnfortunately, my GPS wasn’t able to get a fix until sometime near the beginning of Scott’s leg. Notice the “dogleg” that occurs in our path shortly thereafter – that’s when we turned the engine off to wait out Tara’s leg. In reality, we were drifting with the current, which was pushing due north.

Avila Polar Plunge

So, here’s what I did for New Years’:

Photo by Ed

Not pictured is the Avila Pier, from which I had just leaped.

See Rob there, already in the water, closest to me, holding a GoPro on his wrist? He’s about to take this picture:

Photo by Rob D, instagrammed by yours truly

The water was nice, about 53F. Typically I would at least wear a cap at this temperature, but I forgot it. Oops. Ice cream headache.

“Errrggmmhh.” Photo by Rob D, instagrammed by yours truly

Here’s Cathy, a somewhat more photogenic jumper:

Photo by Rob D

As it turns out, Cathy and I are experienced hands at this sort of thing. Back in September in Maui, this happened:

(NOTE: For those reading via RSS or email subscriptions, use the link at the bottom of this post to see the video.)

Anyway, the swim back to shore was about 400m. We sat on the beach for the next couple hours, re-warming and eating empanadas with our fellow outlaws.

A fine start to 2013.

Some other reports from the day:

Santa Cruz Island Swim, Part 5: The Test

In case you missed it…

Sometime between 2 and 3 in the morning, I had decided to spare everyone another (potentially) 10 hours of needless unpleasantness, and end my swim. I was just waiting for the right time; a convenient excuse. If Mark or Cathy or Rob or Dave had said at some point that night, “Evan, it’s pretty rough out here. Maybe you want to get on the boat and go home?”, I can’t say I’d have insisted on continuing.

It’s a testament to the loyalty and intestinal fortitude of my crew and observer that I never got that chance. Three hours later, I was still swimming.

Video still courtesy of Element 8 Productions

At 5:30am, we were halfway across the channel – 8.3 nautical (9.6 statute) miles to go. At 5:45, the first hint of grey appeared on the horizon: nautical twilight. And it changed everything.

As any Catalina swimmer knows: The dark thoughts, the “witches,” are inseparable from the literal darkness of the night. Even the slightest hint of light changes everything. Instead of resolving to quit, I resolved to grind it out – however long it took. Instead of feeling that the Channel was punishing me, it now seemed that the Channel was testing me.

If you want this, you’re gonna have to work for it.

Cathy in kayak. Photo by Rob D.

It was a test – and it had nothing to do with time or records. It was about confronting the darkness and vastness of the ocean, my own physical vulnerability and mental weakness – and finding a way to the other side.

When the sun rose on September 15th, I was more than halfway across the channel, and – despite all – still on pace to break Ned’s record (10 hours, 27 minutes). At that moment, I honestly couldn’t care less about the record.

Cathy replaced Mark in the kayak. It had been a stressful, physically demanding night for Mark, but he handled it like the Olympian he is. I think he felt responsible for keeping his old friend safe in a situation that often seemed anything but. He commented a few days later to Presidio Sports:

It was a humbling admission when I eventually told Evan that I needed to go rest on the boat, and it’s a true testament to his determination and conditioning that he didn’t quit along with me.

Everyone from the boat captain to Evan and definitely everyone in between hoped that the conditions would get just a little worse, so we’d have a good excuse to stop.  Unfortunately, the conditions were just barely good enough for us to keep trudging along.

Mark takes a well deserved nap. Photo by Rob D.

After the sun rose, the filming kicked into gear again. I occasionally noticed Ben – decked out in full Frogman attire – cruise past me underwater with his GoPro. It was startling at first, but actually kind of fun. I can’t wait to see the footage. A preview frame:

Video still courtesy of Element 8 Productions

Cathy paddled for the next three hours, until around 9am. A more patient, nurturing presence… and a comforting change of pace from Mark’s more verbal, taskmaster style (he is, after all, a swim coach – and a very good one).

At 9am I had about 2.5 nautical miles remaining – less than an hour and a half of swimming at my current pace. Cathy sensed I had hit another rough patch, and she was right. My shoulders throbbed painfully, and I was resorting to increasingly long stretches of backstroke. It was clear now I would finish the swim, but the record was in the balance.

Cathy and Rob made the call to wake up Mark and put him back in the kayak. His Olympian strength, his ability to motivate, was now needed.

“We can see the beach.” Mark back in kayak. Photo by Rob D.

Evan, we’re less than three miles out. You’re still under record pace, but there’s a good chance, if you pick it up, that you can break 10 hours. The choice is yours.

Those were Mark’s words shortly after he re-joined me. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

Almost simultaneously, the wind shifted… the chop settled down… and the swells were at my back. For the first time on this swim, the ocean let me find a rhythm. There was nothing left in my shoulders… but at the same time, there was nothing left to lose. I could see the beach.

In the breakers. Photo by Rob D.

9 hours, 47 minutes, 39 seconds after pushing off a vaguely menacing rock near San Pedro Point, my feet found dry sand on the shores of Oxnard.

I collapsed. Not because I lost consciousness, but because the weight of the past 10 hours was just a little too much to bear standing up.

The sun was high in a cloudless sky. A nice day at the beach.

What just happened. 

I still am not quite sure.

Video still courtesy of Element 8 Productions

News clippings:

Santa Cruz Island Swim, Part 4: The Data

In case you missed it:

The shortest-line distance from Santa Cruz Island to the mainland is 16.4 nautical miles (18.9 statute) – starting at San Pedro Point, finishing at the southern end of Hollywood Beach, north of the entrance to Channel Islands Harbor. Capt. Forrest actually plugged in a slightly more distant waypoint – the resort at Mandalay Beach – which made it a 16.6-nautical mile swim. I don’t know why, but that’s what he did.

To break Ned’s record, I had to average 1.59 knots (2:02 per 100m, 2945m per hour) across the channel. To break 10 hours, I had to average 1.66 knots (1:57 per 100m, 3074m per hour). My neutral-condition (i.e., pool) pace for a swim of this distance, at my current fitness level, would be approximately 2.3 knots initially, fading gradually to ~2.05 knots.

My progress for the first five hours (corresponding to the nighttime portion of the swim) was as follows:

  • Hour 1 — 1.4 nautical miles
  • Hour 2 — 1.8 nmi
  • Hour 3 — 2.0 nmi
  • Hour 4 — 1.8 nmi
  • Hour 5 — 1.5 nmi

Given my average progress over hours 1-5 (1.69 knots), the conditions may have been as much as a 20-25% “tax” on my swim speed. These conditions included a consistent Force 4 blow out of the West, only abating near the end. There were some currents, too, especially in the first couple hours. Here’s the SCCOOS model for that morning (click to enlarge):

1:00am (0:20 elapsed)

4:00am (3:20 elapsed)

7:00am (6:20 elapsed)

10:00am (9:20 elapsed)

After a slow “witching hour” (4-5 am, only 1.5 nautical miles), I made better progress after sunrise:

  • Hour 6 — 1.6 nautical miles
  • Hour 7 — 1.7 nmi
  • Hour 8 — 1.7 nmi
  • Hour 9 — 1.7 nmi
  • Hour 10 — 1.8 nmi (pro-rated)

Here’s a chart of my “rolling” speed, averaged over six consecutive 10-minute SPOT tracker intervals:

My stroke rate was my typical 64, with patches of 60. Nothing exciting there.

And here’s the Story of the SPOT:

Not a bad line.

Stay tuned for the series finale!