Pt Bonita to Aquatic Park on the Dreaded 9th of February

The 9th of February is, by South End legend more than meteorological reality, the coldest day of the year in San Francisco Bay. So of course some loon decided it would be a good idea to hold a long swim every year on the 9th of February. The Dreaded Ninth.

By tradition, the Dreaded Ninth swim is directed by Loon-in-Chief, Bob Roper.

The route varies each year, but is typically chosen from among the other annual “Nutcracker” swims. This year it was Pt Bonita to Aquatic Park – a gorgeous 6-mile (current assisted) swim from the furthest southwestern tip of the Marin Headlands, passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, and finishing at our club beach in Aquatic Park.

pt bonita route
Pt Bonita, Marin Headlands to Aquatic Park, San Francisco

February 9, 2016 was pretty much the opposite of Dreaded: a classic “summer in winter” San Francisco day – bright and mild, water temp 55F (12.8C). A touch warmer, even, than my last Pt Bonita swim, in June 2012. The field of 20 included more than a few accomplished marathoners: Darrin, Steve Walker, Cameron B, Cathy, Lisa S, Bucko, Amy G, Robin R, Randy B.

I rode out to Pt Bonita in the sailing vessel Dewey, enjoying the conversation with Cathy, Dusty, Bobby, Steve, and Kim.

riding to pt bonita
Riding out to Pt Bonita: Cathy, me, Bobby, Steve. Photo credit: Dusty

We start from a rocky beach just inside Pt Bonita and protected from the sizeable swells breaking on the point. The slower swimmers jump first, followed 10 minutes later by the usual suspects. We had been instructed to head straight out into the shipping channel, sighting on Fort Point; later aiming for the gap between midspan and the South Tower.

There’s a bit of wind blowing, maybe 12-15 knots, making for some choppy conditions in the first hour. Jeff Brown joins me on his kayak shortly after the start, and is a steady paddling presence off my starboard. I lead from the start and don’t really see any other swimmers until I start passing Pod 1.

pt bonita chop
Choppy conditions outside the Gate. Photo credit: El Sharko

The wind dies suddenly on the final approach to the Bridge, which seems to amplify the eddies swirling off the South Tower. I flip on my back and watch US-101 pass by 220 feet above. Only a 2.6-knot flood according to the tide books, the speed of the water still astonishes.

A few minutes later I pass the Pod 1 leaders (Cathy and Amy) and their kayak. Jeff falls back and is replaced by Brent and the Hyperfish, who I know from Joe Locke’s Farallon swim two years ago. The calmer conditions allow me to breathe bilaterally without inhaling seawater. Before the jump I had left my Perpetuem bottle with one of the zodiac pilots. At this point it’s too much trouble to call it in over the radio. This swim is borderline for going without feeding, but I figure I’ll be OK if I can finish under 2 hours.

… and then I look up and I’m right off the Fort Mason piers. Possibly even a little too far off. I angle to the right, across the current. I really don’t want to miss the Opening! But I notice Brent doesn’t seem too concerned, and he has a better view.

Then I’m in the Opening, past the Jacuzzi, the Balclutha, and between the docks. There’s Jefferson with his stopwatch and clipboard.

1 hour, 49 minutes. Not so dreadful, really.

Visualizing the tides of San Francisco Bay

Just for fun, here is every high and low tide for San Francisco Bay in 2016. Red dots are the high tides; blue dots are the low tides. (click to enlarge)

sf high and low tides
data source

I found it interesting that the highest low tide of the year is lower than the lowest high tide of the year. There’s a certain narrow range of water levels — about 3.1-3.4 feet — which sees neither high tides nor low tides. Perhaps there’s some obvious reason for this, known to oceanographers, but it was news to me! I’m also curious if the non-overlap of high and low tides is true everywhere?

Any tide gurus out there?

Round Trip Angel Island: Observer Log

Report by Cathy Delneo on my Round-Trip Angel Island swim this past Sunday. Cathy is a Manhattan Island soloist, an IISA Ice Miler, a member of the first women’s Farallon Island relay, and the 5th person (and first woman) to complete a solo Round-Trip Angel Island.

Round Trip Angel Island Swim

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Swimmer: Evan Morrison

Pilot: Paul Saab

Observer: Cathy Delneo

Boat: South End Rowing Club inflatable Miller Time (a.k.a. “Big Red”)

Course: South End Rowing Club beach, San Francisco past the west end of Alcatraz Island, toward the west end of Angel Island, into Raccoon Straits on the north side of Angel Island, then back to San Francisco on the east sides of Angel Island and Alcatraz Island, finishing on the SERC beach.

Rules: MSF Standard

Jump: 4:49 am


We were aware that 3 vessels were scheduled to come through the Golden Gate, with the first scheduled to be in the incoming channel (between Alcatraz and SF city front) around 5:30 am. This led to a slightly earlier jump than planned.

4:49 am – Swimmer walked into smooth and calm water at the SERC beach

5:08 am – 64 strokes per minute

5:20 am – 1st feed, about ½ green bottle

Swimmer breathes right, so pilot positioned boat on the swimmer’s right. Stayed parallel to the swimmer as he crossed from the opening of Aquatic Park in SF to the west side of Alcatraz. Swimmer made good progress, very little communication was needed.

Sighted on red and green buoys marking the opening of Raccoon Straight, left of Angel Island.

Inbound vessel passed behind us in incoming channel.

5:35 am – 64 strokes per minute

Wind from the west, slight texture on the water. Big dark cloud over Sausalito.

Outbound vessels (Northern Practise and another) headed for deep water channel (between Alcatraz and Angel Island). Vessel Traffic (VT) said they were likely to turn near our anticipated location south-west of Angel Island as they headed for the GG Bridge. Adjustment to course might be necessary.

5:40 am – Swimmer’s goggle straps came loose, he stopped briefly to adjust them

5:45 am – 2nd feed, remaining ½ of green bottle

VT indicated that Northern Practise outbound at the Delta-Echo span of the Bay Bridge. Paul called VT on radio to find out their course. Learned we would likely be in the vessel’s path. Tried to reach Northern Practise repeatedly with no luck.

Told swimmer to head in toward Angel Island rather than to keep westerly course as planned. Intended to get swimmer out of shipping channel despite likely addition to time in water. Told swimmer to pick up the pace, needed to clear deep water channel.

5:57 am – 66 strokes per minute

6:06 am – Northern Practise visible and pointed at our zodiac, though about 10 minutes east of our location. Paul tried again to raise captain on the radio, with success. Told captain of our location, that we would pull swimmer if necessary. Northern Practise turned its course slightly, passed behind us at a safe distance.

6:07 am – Paul spotted a jumping dolphin/porpoise.

6:14 am – Slight chop

6:15 am – 3rd Feed: blue bottle, drank about ½

Pilot instructed swimmer to sight on the white building to the left of Harding Rock

6:20 am – 62 strokes/minute

6:28 am – Positioned boat to left of swimmer. Communicated need for change due to high number of fishing boats in the Raccoon Straits.

6:32 am – Pilot put boat in neutral to check current speed. GPS app on iPad indicated the boat was moving 2.4 mph in neutral in Raccoon Straits.

6:45 am – 4th Feed: ½ pink bottle

6:47 am – A honey bee landed on swimmer’s parka. Pilot freaked out. I refused to hurt the honey bee. Blew gently on its wings, it flew away. Moving 1.4 mph in neutral at that point.

6:54 am – sea lion friend poked up head in front of swimmer, then in back of swimmer

6:58 am – 62 strokes per minute

Water conditions calm with tiny ripples

Boat still making forward progress in neutral, but slower now, just about .3 mph

7:03 am – Talked with VT and checked in a little before Pt. Simpton

7:06 am – VT said inbound tug Pacific was going in the deep water channel.

7:07 am – boat moving .00-.03 mph in neutral

7:15 am – 5th Feed: protein drink (entire bottle) and 2 Advil

Swimmer asked for dark pair of goggles, made switch.

Found thermometer in dry bag: 63 degrees F on east side of Angel Island

Water texture: smooth in the lee of Angel Island with tiny ripples

7:42 am – 6th Feed: pink bottle, about ½ of it (it had been refilled) just before Pt. Blunt

Vessel (Yasa Golden Phosphorus) passed Pt. Blunt in the deep water channel as swimmer fed

7:51 am – encountered chop as soon as we left the lee of the island.

Sighting on the west side of Alcatraz to get to the east side

7:55 am – chop lessened after a few minutes, seemed like it had been caused by currents meeting on two sides of Angel Island.

7:55 & 7:58 am – Dolphin/porpoise spotted

8:05 am – Realized we were being pushed east far harder than we had realized. Sighted on Palace of Fine Arts to get back on course

8:10 am – seal floated by, seemed to be playing with a fish as he ate it

8:15 am – 7th Feed: 1/3 green bottle

8:18 am – 60 strokes per minute

Wind was strong and was pushing the zodiac toward the swimmer, so the boat fell back slightly from the swimmer, still able to be seen easily when he breathed.

8:34 am – Tiny white caps, west wind. Pilot and observer added coats and blankets to keep warm.

8:39 am – 8th Feed: 1/3 green bottle

Small chop

8:47 am – 60 strokes per minute

9:00 am – 9th Feed: ½ bottle

Water temperature: 61 degrees F

9:07 am – 58 strokes per minute

9:10 am – Sea lion spotted behind swimmer

Due to the strong Flood current, the swimmer was carried further east each time he stopped (to feed or discuss course) after leaving the shadow of Angel Island. Pilot noted that to keep a straight line course as originally planned, the swimmer and pilot would likely have needed to sight on the north tower of the GG Bridge or even Sausalito. (The pilot noted that previous day’s flood had also been very strong, he had piloted a SERC club Alcatraz swim that day.) Planned to encourage the swimmer to swim straight at the island when parallel with the sign to take advantage of the decreased current in that spot, which is protected from the current in a floor tide.

9:16 am – Evan stopped to ask a question about the course and sighting points and quickly lost ground. Humor still high, jokingly asked, “Are we there yet?” as he began swimming again.

9:19 am

Ferry approaching island, swimmer pointed straight at Alcatraz.

9:22 am – .4 miles from Alcatraz island (per google maps)

The swimmer was making steady but slow progress toward Alcatraz during this time.

Only when the swimmer got into the lee of Alcatraz Island (almost parallel with the Ferry dock) did he begin to make good progress toward the island.

9:30 – 10th Feed: 1/3 bottle

Abeam sign, sighting on Palace of Fine Arts.

Water temperature 62 degrees F.

9:43 am – 56 strokes per minute

Paul called the Spicer, another SERC club zodiac, on the radio to find out about the current along the shore. Barry Maguire, piloting Bobby O’Malley Daley and Jeff Everett in a 6 hour qualifying swim, indicated that he couldn’t talk because he was busy, “I have to feed the animals.”

9:47 am – Barry called Paul on the radio from the Bravo tower of the Bay Bridge, reported strong flooding there. No end to the flood in sight.

10:01 am – 11th Feed and the well has nearly run dry. Combining dregs of bottles to make up next feed, and supplementing swimmer’s feed with observer’s favorite flavor of Gatorade, Lemon Ice. Great sacrifices were made.

Pilot and observer noticed a giant shadow on the water and became concerned. Soon realized it was a Geico banner being dragged by a tiny plane, which had been inaudible initially. Danger averted.

10:05 am – Swimmer now heading straight for shore with intention to crab along the waterfront, where the current should be less strong. Abeam Pier 39.

10:06 am – Barry called from Spicer to say that there was an ebb on shore close to the Ferry Building, west of our location. Encouraged swimmer to head in directly.

10:07 am – 58 strokes per minute

10:22 am – Swimmer close to the USS Pampanito submarine, which is parked between Pier 39 and the USS Jeremiah O’Brien (J.O.B.)

10:25 am – Final Feed at the bow of the J.O.B.

Wind strong in our faces

10:28 am – Swimmer at the stern of the J.O.B. heading across to the creakers (east end of Aquatic Park Breakwater)

10:30 am – Swimmer at the creakers

Water temp 62 degrees F.

Swimmer at Opening: total time elapsed in swim 5 hours 51 minutes

56 strokes per minute abeam the Balclutha

Swimmer on the beach – 5: 57’44”70 stood on beach, cleared water

Swim complete.

Round-Trip Angel Island: A Devil of a Swim

If I had to nominate a single, definitive marathon swim of San Francisco Bay, it would be the Round-Trip Angel Island.

Start at Aquatic Park’s “swimmers’ beach” between the South End and Dolphin clubs, swim out into the Bay, past Alcatraz to Angel Island (3.5 miles), around the island (3 miles), and then back to Aquatic Park (3.5 miles). Ten “honest” miles by shortest route, mostly perpendicular to the tidal flow.

Round-Trip Angel Island route
Round-Trip Angel Island route

Angel Island is the second largest island inside the Bay (behind Alameda), and has functioned at various times through history as a military fort, an immigration station (like a west coast Ellis Island), and currently as a California State Park.

angel island
Angel Island from the air. Yerba Buena and Treasure Islands, Bay Bridge, San Francisco city skyline, and Alcatraz visible in background.

The Round-Trip Angel Island (RTAI) is like the Round-Trip Alcatraz (RTA)…squared — almost literally, by distance. The 3.2-mile Round-Trip Alcatraz is an annual South End club swim — and Water World Swim organizes a popular public version called the “Swim Around the Rock.” A RTAI swim involves many of the same features and challenges as a RTA: scenic views, iconic landmarks, complicated currents, and busy shipping channels — requiring skill from both the pilot and swimmer. But the RTAI is three times the distance – a true marathon swim by any measure.

According to the best word-of-mouth history I could obtain, the Round-Trip Angel Island swim was pioneered by South End member Rick Barthels (first American to complete the Triple Crown) in August 1995. The swim has been replicated by only five swimmers since: Tom Linthicum (July 2009), Mike Tzortzis (August 2009), Hendrik Meerman (August 2011), Cathy Delneo (August 2013), and Delia Salomon (May 2015).

I compiled the following list of successful Round-Trip Angel Island solo swims, understood to have been completed nonstop, without being re-positioned, and according to traditional marathon swimming rules. Details included as available.

If anyone reading this is aware of other successful, nonstop, non-repositioned, traditional-rules RTAI swims, please contact me via this form.

1. Rick Barthels

August 8, 1995. 6 hours, 39 minutes.

[via personal communication]

Date Aug. 8, 1995, jump 4:08 am, finish 10:47 am., elapsed time 6hr 39min +/-. Conditions starting out were flat, no wind, course was clockwise from the club to the west end of Angel Island, passing Alcatraz to the west, visibility incredibly clear, water very comfortable at around 62 degrees, feedings consisted of Cytomax every 15-20 minutes. Pilots were Andy Field on kayak, Bob Roper and Mike Laramie in the avon. Somewhere approaching Pt. Blunt on Angel Island course was set toward Treasure Island/Bay Bridge to compensate for an ebb. Spent about 45 minutes swimming in place between Angel Island and the east end of Alcatraz, not sure why but I finally broke loose and headed toward the Ferry Building and caught the increasing ebb tide.

Tom Linthicum (first attempt, DNF)

June 18, 2009.

[via South End mailing list]

This morning I met the Sunrisers who were going to swim to Fort Mason. I felt low as I saw them get into the water and thought how come I could not be a normal swimmer? I was getting ready to swim a Club to club Round Trip Angel Island Swim! Bill James was my pilot. Tina and Susan greeted me just before I jumped and help get my Reptile Brain in gear as I went in backwards (7:12 AM) like I did in Tahoe.

Roper and Paddy Payton helped my plan the tide. Roper said I would have to fight the flood all the way to Angel Island then hopefully get a push to the north tip of the island near Ayala Cove (11:22 AM). It took me an hour to get past Alcatraz that was on my right side for a long time. Then I made it to the green Buoy (8:12 am). Then I was pushed east and Alcatraz was on my left for a long time finally we seemed to be making progress to Angel Island. It took a long time to make it past the first point on Angel Island. The water was warm 61 degrees! At times I was not real happy then I discovered if you close one eye 1/2 of the brain does not even know you are swimming. Then I started randomly counting strokes up to 1000. The water smoothed out and the Sun was warm as I rounded Ayala Cove. I put headed away from the island to be ready for the ebb as I headed South. It is really fun to look at Angel Island as you swim by!

Bill was amazing! I told him I had a leg cramp and he said I can’t do anything about that! LOL. I think I did too much running this week so my legs were not really swim ready! I got into a good zone as I progressed South. I hung up near Point Blunt and because of the fog could not really see where we were going. The wind picked up and white caps were all around me! I could see the North tower and eventually we slipped into the rough water farther South. It felt like a Water Massage. I was drinking a lot of Bay water!

At my last feeding at about 6 hours into the swim Bill said its getting too rough. Do you want to quit? I said no! About 15 min later Bill came over and said I’m calling the swim its over get in the Boat. I did not argue because I could see he was having trouble keeping the boat on course so I really was not sure where to go. I could only see the East Bay hills and the North Tower. I felt pretty good and was keeping in a good mental zone and I thing the waves were helping my sore muscles. Bill did a great call and if he had not pulled me I think I would still be out there!

Thanks Bill, Paddy, Roper, Susan, Tina and everyone else who sent me good energy during the swim! Jon Meyer was about to send out a rescue because he could see how rough it was getting!

Rick Barthels is the only one who has ever been able to complete this swim!

2. Tom Linthicum

July 14, 2009. 10 hours, 2 minutes.

[via South End mailing list]

From the desk of Bob Roper: “Proof the reptile mind exists!”

The reptile really came out of its shell this morning: coming back from South Lake Tahoe, Tom swam a ROUND TRIP ANGEL ISLAND, in the phenomenal time of 10 hours, 2 minutes!

Starting out at 3AM at the shores of the South End Rowing Club, Tom (piloted by Bob Roper and Warren Wilson, in Warren’s “Tricaps”) swam to the east end of Alcatraz, and there to the west end of Angel Island. There he encountered the start of the ebb tide: he battled for almost two hours to get around the northeast of the island. He shot past Pt. Blount, and then encountered 3-to-4 foot waves! He made it 3/4 of the way to Alcatraz before getting caught in the back eddy off Alcatraz. But, by his sheer tenacity and NUTCRACKER upbringing he defeated Mother Nature and broke loose from Father Neptune’s grasp. After turning the corner at the east end of Alcatraz, he experienced the start of the flood: with the wind and the tide, Reptile was pushed down to Pier 41! (I was sure then that Tommy would throw in the towel!) He battled the increasing winds and tides and swam into the into the breakwater to the South End beach! Surely into the arms of 72 virgins!

At the end of the swim I asked Warren what he thought of tom’s Herculean effort, Warren just shook his head and said “F—g insanity!”

Tom will go down in Bay swimming infamy as the 2nd person ever to do this swim (his after a brave Tahoe attempt!): truly an exceptional feat! After he completed the swim, Tom passed up a shower and sauna and laid back in his viper car to regenerate his reptile brain! This goes to prove forever that there truly is a reptile mind!

3. Mike Tzortzis

August 29, 2009. 6 hours, 49 minutes.

[via South End mailing list]

It was a great swim under really perfect conditions, except maybe the windswept, mean choppy, final crossing from Alcatraz to the Club (“it’s just an Alcatraz…” I had to keep telling myself).  Rick Russel, a friend of mine did a great job of piloting in in his trusty little Zodiac, negotiating our way across the various shipping channels with constant contact with VTS and the captains. Tides were right and a shout out to Paul Saab  in Europe for pointing me to this date on tide calendar.

4. Hendrik Meerman

August 23, 2011. 4 hours, 46 minutes.

Report from pilot BJ James [via South End mailing list]

Hendrik Meerman started swimming from SERC at 4:00 AM to swim around Angel Island and back to Aquatic Park.  He finished at the club at 8:46 AM.  Mike Tzortzis expertly guided him from a Kayak and Irene Chan ensured that he was given timely feedings so that he could continue swimming at an amazing pace.  The winds were very light.  The biggest concern was the fog.  We had to navigate by compass from Pt Blunt to Alcatraz.  It was a great adventure.

meerman angel island
GPS track of Hendrik Meerman’s Round Trip Angel Island swim

5. Cathy Delneo

August 30, 2013. 6 hours, 10 minutes.

Piloted by Paul Saab in the inflatable “Big Red.” Observed by Evan Morrison.

Cathy entered the water from the South End beach at 4:10am, just after slack at the Golden Gate. It was quite dark, with patchy fog obscuring what little illumination the quarter-moon offered. Paul deftly piloted us past Alcatraz and toward Pt Stuart. Cathy made good progress with little resistance from the building flood, and we reached the mouth of the Raccoon Strait in 2 hours, 10 minutes. The flood swept us through the Strait and we reached the top of the island at 6:50am.

Swimming down the east side of the island in the lee of the wind, the Bay waters were breathtakingly glassy, reflecting the glow of the pre-sunrise. We passed Pt Blunt at 8:10am and were immediately pushed east by the flood. We crabbed back toward Alcatraz as the sun rose on a gorgeous San Francisco morning.

The wind picked up a little as we passed Alcatraz, and we remained watchful for approaching boat traffic. Cathy continued making good progress despite the wind chop. The current seemed to switch about halfway across the south shipping channel, sweeping us back toward Aquatic Park just in time to deposit Cathy along the breakwater. She turned the corner into the cove, and cleared the water at 10:20am as the first woman to complete the RTAI.

delneo rt angel island
GPS track of Cathy Delneo’s Round-Trip Angel Island swim.


6. Delia Salomon

May 22, 2015.

Awaiting details – check back soon.

[Updated 7/12/2015]

7. Evan Morrison

July 12, 2015.

5 hours, 57 minutes. Report forthcoming.

* The clever title is courtesy of Tom “Reptile” Linthicum.


The warmest winter on record in San Francisco Bay

Here in San Francisco, the common sauna wisdom is that we just experienced one of the warmest winters in recent memory. The Dolphin Club’s Polar Bear Challenge was hardly challenging, and the South End’s “Dreaded 9th” of February swim was hardly dreaded.

Just how warm was it, though? I crunched the numbers from the NDBC, because, well, why not.

Here we see the last 15+ months of data from the Crissy Field station (FTPC1) inside San Francisco Bay, plotted in solid black. The dashed green, red, and blue lines show the long-term average, maxima, and minima for each day of the year, summarized over the eight years of available data from that station.

san francisco bay water temp

From July 2014 until just the past few days (early April 2015), Bay waters have been hovering 2-3 degrees (F) above the all-time highs (going back to 2006), and about 5 degrees above the long-term averages.

Eight years isn’t much data, unfortunately. Can we do better?

A bit: Lightstation 46026 – about two-thirds of the way out to the Farallones – has data going back to 1982. Almost 33 years of data! This is colder, hairier water than inside the Bay, but it’s as close as we’re going to get.

Here’s a similar chart for this much longer-term data set. Unfortunately, the water temp sensor at Station 46026 was out of commission for the first eight months of 2014, so we can compare “recent data” starting from late August.

san francisco bay water temp

The story is similar, though: This was one of the warmest winters on record. Through most of December, we were ~4 degrees above the all-time highs going back over 30 years.

Indeed, when I took the average sea temps for each full winter season (December 1 through February 28), I found the following five warmest winters since 1982-83:

  • 2014-15     57.3 (F)
  • 2004-05     55.0
  • 2002-03     54.7
  • 1982-83     54.6
  • 1983-84     54.3

Only time will tell if the recent drop in Bay temps is a momentary aberration, or a longer-term regression to the mean.

No doubt, this summer’s Farallon swimmers will be watching this closely. 2014 saw the first two Farallon solos since 1967 — Craig Lenning and Joe Locke. And from a water temp perspective, 2014 was probably the best year to swim the Farallons in over a generation. We won’t always be so fortunate.

Data crunched with R and plotted with ggplot2.

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.


Swimming out of the Devil’s Teeth: Observing history at the Farallons

By fortuitous circumstance, I’ve been fortunate to observe two out of the four successful solo swims in recorded history between the Farallon Islands and the California mainland.

In April, Craig Lenning stunned the marathon swimming world with the first successful Farallons solo in nearly 50 years (read observer report). And then 12 days ago, Joe Locke claimed Ted Erikson’s record on the longer, trickier course to the Golden Gate Bridge.


I recently completed the observer report for Joe’s swim

Craig and Joe are two of the toughest swimmers I’ve ever seen, and I was honored to accompany them on their respective journeys.

The Farallons, a grim rocky outcropping at the edge of the continental shelf, are similar in land mass to Anacapa Island but more than twice as far out, across far angrier seas. They’re often visible on a clear day from San Francisco, especially from elevation, but I think most San Franciscans hardly notice them. Living in the Outer Sunset (which my girlfriend, a Farallon relay swimmer herself, jokingly calls the “Inner Farallons”), I can see them from my living room, and I watch them every chance I get. Because why not? It breaks up the horizon. Nothing else between here and Japan.

2013-10-06 18.48.09

Having been out there twice now, I’ll just say: It’s an otherworldly place — creepy, but also vibrantly alive, with some of the world’s densest colonies of seabirds, seals, rodents, and most notoriously, large white sharks in Autumn. And hardly any humans to be found, with the exception of a few research scientists occupying a spartan building on southwest-facing flats.

One would never expect the Farallons to be as loud as the loudest parts of human-occupied San Francisco, especially in the middle of the night, but it is. So loud it was nearly impossible to sleep amid the ruckus while we waited for Joe to begin his swim:

I’ll always remember Craig Lenning, following his successful swim to Muir Beach, remarking on the “magic” he sensed before jumping in the water at the Farallons… “but it’s a dark magic.”

Ted Erikson was one of my first friends in marathon swimming, a fellow Promontory Point swimmer, and I was glad to be there for the passing of that particular torch. Because speed records in marathon swimming are destined to be broken. I would think Joe has earned it, after seven (often gruesome) attempts.

Ted will always be the first (to the Golden Gate), and Stew will always be the first to the mainland. Hats off to the pioneers, and to the two men who carried this swim into the 21st century.

An appendix of sorts:

An interesting San Francisco public radio (KQED) report on the Farallons:


Susan Casey’s book: The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks


Lynn Kubasek’s video of the women’s Farallon relay:


Vito Bialla’s video of the same relay: