Granted, there are currently only 11 BuoyCams worldwide, most in locations people have never swum (and probably will never swim), but still: Potentially an interesting resource for marathon swimmers, if this program expands.
Just imagine: How cool would it be to have a camera on Sandettie Lightship? (n.b., that’s a UK Met Office buoy, not NOAA)
There is (almost*) no such thing as a “world record” in open water swimming.
The term “world record” implies that the activity being measured is comparable across different contexts (hence “world”). A 200m Butterfly swum at The Nat in Indianapolis can be compared to a 200m Butterfly swum at the beautiful new facility at Belmont Plaza, because both pools have been measured at 50m. A 200 Fly is a 200 Fly is a 200 Fly.
Open water swimming is, in most cases, not comparable across different contexts. And isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that, at some level, why most of us are drawn to OWS in the first place?
A swim from Santa Rosa Island to my hometown of Goleta is not meaningfully comparable to the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, despite both swims being 28 miles.
What about “world records” for specific swims? Obviously a Catalina Channel swim is incomparable to a Maui Channel swim, but surely a Catalina Channel swim is comparable to a Catalina Channel swim? Excluding weather and conditions, surely we can say that Penny Lee Dean swam the fastest crossing of the Catalina Channel (7 hours, 15 minutes, 55 seconds in 1976)?
Yes, I agree: Penny Lee Dean is the fastest solo swimmer across the Catalina Channel. But that is a course record, or “Catalina Channel record.” Not a “world record.” Is it possible to swim the Catalina Channel in… Ireland? Or Mozambique? No? Then it’s not a world record.
There is no “world record” for the Boston Marathon. There is no “world record” for Ironman Hawaii. But there are Boston Marathon course records, and Ironman Hawaii course records.
There’s a reason FINA hires surveyors to measure pools for international-level swim meets. There’s a reason there are wind-speed gauges at big track meets: So the courses are comparable, regardless of the location. So world records can be authenticated.
I have learned about thousands of new swims, new swimmers and new bodies of water around the world. I literally have thousands of swims that I have yet to input in the WOWSA database. Every one of these swims and swimmers should be recognized and, frankly, I think calling the swimmers a World Record Holder is cool and uplifting. They often take that recognition and share it with their family, friends, coach, co-workers and local media.
The recognition not only helps educate non-swimmers about the swimmer, but also about our sport.
Many will argue that such swims should not even be called a record (national or course). I can understand their opinion, but I would rather elevate the swimmer and their efforts to something more grand and publicly eye-catching.
For the publicity. For the attention.
Now, remember I said almost*. I can think of two possible “world records” in open water swimming. But only two.
Speed records, controlled course. Speed over a standard distance (5km, 10km, 25km), in a controlled environment (like a rowing basin) on a precisely measured course. Buoys measured by civilian GPS are probably not precise enough. A 10K in a rowing basin is a 10K in a rowing basin is a 10K in a rowing basin.
Distance records, non-current-assisted. In my opinion, the distance records claimed over the years, e.g., Martin Strel’s river swims and Diana Nyad’s Bimini-to-Florida swim, are almost meaningless. Cool, impressive swims, but not meaningful as quantifiable “records.” Anyone can float down a river. So a distance record needs to be non-current-assisted. Or at most minimally current-assisted (similar to wind thresholds in track meets). If Jamie Patrick swims 77+ miles in Lake Michigan this summer, then I’d have no problem with him calling it a “world distance record.” Because distance is a comparable metric across different contexts.
What’s the toughest marathon swim in the world? Some would say the North Channel.
For pure distance, there’s the 72-mile Kaieiewaho Channel between Kauai and Oahu (one relay, zero solo swimmers), the 61 miles from San Nicolas Island (never attempted) to Southern California, and the Straits of Florida (no unassisted swims).
But for sheer overall toughness – distance, water temp, and… intangibles… – I’d choose the Farallon Islands – some 30 miles out to sea from the Golden Gate Bridge (20 miles from Bolinas, 27 miles from Point Bonita).
Before last week, there had been two successful solo crossings, both in 1967. Dolphin Club member Lt. Col. Stewart Evans completed the first on August 28, finishing near Bolinas in 13 hours, 44 minutes. A few weeks later on September 17, my friend and fellow Promontory Point swimmer Ted Erikson swam all the way to the Bridge in 14 hours, 38 minutes.
Last week I was the observer on the third successful Farallon solo swim (the first in 47 years). Craig Lenning finished at Muir Beach in 15 hours, 47 minutes, adding yet another notch on a belt that already includes five of the Oceans Seven channels, a 46-mile Lake Tahoe double-crossing, and an ice mile.
Why is the Farallons swim so tough? Basically, a swimmer planning a Farallon attempt faces a three-way trade-off, with no good options. The three trade-offs are: water temperature, weather, and sharks.
It’s cold out there. Colder than the Bay. High 40s to low 50s through most of the year. Cold enough that every degree matters for a swim that could last 14 hours even for a fast swimmer. By early fall, the water might start creeping into the high-50s — somewhat more fathomable. But the “warm” water season happens to coincide precisely with… shark season (see below).
Northern California ocean is a different beast than Southern California ocean. It’s bigger, rougher, colder, more volatile. Whereas in the Catalina Channel, most days are reasonably swimmable, and many days are quite good for swimming, in the Gulf of the Farallones, many days are unswimmable, and exceedingly few could be described as “good for swimming.” Finding a window of good weather is more than just a luxury in planning a NorCal swim — it’s essential.
There are only a few good days for swimming in the Gulf of the Farallones, and they tend to cluster in early spring and fall. In summer, relentless northwesterlies roil the seas into angry froth. Fall is shark season (see below). Which leaves… just a few choice days in early spring.
Here are some typical summer conditions, as seen on the all-women’s Farallon Relay in June 2011 (which included Cathy and my friend Lynn Kubasek). Skip to 6:10 for the good stuff:
So, pretty much unswimmable for a solo swimmer… and it was just barely swimmable for a 6-person relay of very strong open water swimmers.
Basically, according to FISF weather guru Dave Holscher, there are maybe four days each year when a solo swimmer could make a reasonable attempt on the Farallons – assuming the swimmer was otherwise qualified for the distance and water temperature.
In fall the Farallons host an unusually dense population of great white sharks, who migrate from Hawaii and the White Shark Cafe to prey on local elephant seals. And these aren’t “juvies” like the ones swimming around off Manhattan Beach. These are big boys & girls, car-sized fish averaging 4-6m long and over 1000kg.
Assuming you get one of those rare nice-weather days (minimal wind, minimal swell); assuming you get water “warm” enough to swim in sustainably for 14-16-18 hours; assuming you’re able to swim away from the islands without being noticed by an apex predator…. thenyou still have to contend with the tides of San Francisco Bay.
And here’s where it starts to seem almost unfair. You could swim 27 miles from the islands to Point Bonita – the entrance to the Bay – only to be utterly stopped in your tracks by the ebb tide, 3 miles short of the Bridge.
The effect of the water flowing into and out of the Bay extends into the Gulf for some distance – somewhere between 6 and 10 miles out, depending on the tide. You have to hit the right spot at precisely the right time to catch the incoming tide. If you don’t, you’re S.O.L. and good luck getting to the Bridge against the ebb. Which is basically what happened on Craig’s swim.
Ted Erikson’s achievement remains the longest and toughest version of a Farallons swim, with the iconic imagery of finishing under the most beautiful bridge in the world. But it is, in some ways, an “unfair” swim, with a swimmer’s probability of success depending, to an unsettling extent, on hitting the tides just so. Even Ted is the first to admit he swam on a freak day – a red tide with water temps above 60F. Recalling Point Bonita “whizzing by” on his final feeding, Ted cracked, “Even if I died… my body would still make it!”
Previously, the FISF has recognized only one standard course – to or from the Bridge, with Ted as the only solo success. But a finish on land is a finish on land – and by any standard definition of channel swimming, a success.
Craig’s swim has possibly highlighted the need for a re-thinking of this policy. At the very least, I think there should be two standard courses for a Farallon swim:
One course finishing on land, anywhere on land — the Evans course. This could be Bolinas (20 miles), Muir Beach (25.7 miles), or Point Bonita (27 miles). More of a standard channel swim — still monumentally difficult for many reasons, but less subject to tidal vicissitudes.
And one course finishing under the Bridge — the Erikson course. A gamble with the tides – a roll of the dice. Will you hit the big payoff (the flood), or lose your shirt (to the ebb)?
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.”
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.
B2B can be thought of as four swims in one, both psychologically and temporally:
Bay Bridge to Aquatic Park
Aquatic Park to Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge to Mile Rock
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.