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.

Swim Report: Candlestick Point to Aquatic Park

The following events took place in May 2015; clearly I’m faster at swimming than writing.

Candlestick to Aquatic Park is the longest swim offered on the South End Rowing Club‘s calendar, coming in just a hair under 10 miles by the shortest swimmable route. Due to the current assist, it swims more like a 10K for faster swimmers, or ~8K for slower swimmers.

(Assistive currents benefit slower swimmers more than faster swimmers — consider the relatively narrow range of finish times for, e.g., the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, compared to, e.g., an English Channel swim).

I’ve written about this swim before, from the perspective of a support kayaker.

After a several months-long period of swim-shiftlessness, I scrawled my name on the sign-up sheet, inspiring a two-week burst of training. Proving once again that nothing happens without goals!

Anyway, the Candlestick Swim.

5-minute intervals
5 minutes per trackpoint

Starting from a sandy beach in front of the old stadium site (as I recall, this swim took place in the midst of the demolition), you enter the water gingerly, hoping not to disturb the biohazardous sludge on the bottom. Swim about a mile east through slack water until you find the current. On left breaths there’s a large crane on Hunters Point that seems never to move, but be patient — it will soon enough.

Once past the long piers off the end of Hunters Point, angle north. You can’t see the Bay Bridge quite yet, but when you do, aim for the midpoint between the alpha and beta towers. You’re an hour, hour-and-a-half past slack now, the ebb is growing, growing. As the shoreline bows in toward the Dogpatch, you may think you’re moving further into the middle of the Bay, but you’re not really. Just keep calm and head toward that midpoint.

Some big ships may pass by on your right.

The current meanwhile is carrying you with magnificent swiftness. Why even bother swimming? To keep warm, mostly. (The water was 56F on May 23, 2015).

When you finally reach the Bay Bridge, do a little backstroke. Because the whole point of backstroke is to look at bridges. Relax a little bit — you’re almost home. Just another 3 miles or so, 45 minutes or so.

under bay bridge
With Cathy, under the Bay Bridge. Photo by Fran H.

Now you’re in familiar territory. Watch as the Ferry Building, Pier 7, Pier 39 roll by on the left. And straight ahead, the glorious J.O.B.

The ebb is abating, as it inevitably does, and you may actually have to swim the last bit — along the breakwater, into the Opening, and through the Cove.

To the sauna, then! You’ve earned it.

9.9 miles in 2 hours, 42 minutes.

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.


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.


Swim Report: Bay to Breakers (Part 2 of 2)

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
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!

cathy mile rock
Cathy passing Mile Rock (a little too close for comfort?)

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.

Me & Andrew, as viewed from Lands End. Photo by Joe Boone

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.

SERC transport boat waits offshore. Photo by Joe Boone.

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.


In the whitewash. Photo by Joe Boone.

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.

Vertical. Photo by Joe Boone.
Photo by Joe Boone.

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.

Photo by Michelle Deasy
Photo by Joe Boone.

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.

GPS tracks from my swim.

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:

John Walker, on the rocks. Photo by Irene Chan.
…pun intended

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.

Bad Ideas: Exhibit #1A. Photo by Irene Chan.
Cathy makes the beach!
Katrina L makes the beach! Photo by Irene Chan.
Lifeguard-hero Andrew. Photo by Irene Chan.

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.

Official Results

  • 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:

And a compilation of video clips from my kayaker Andrew:

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.

Swim Report: Bay to Breakers (Part 1 of 2)

Link to Part 2

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:

bay to breakers
Bay to Breakers: The Hard Way vs. the Easy Way

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.”

bob roper
“Napa Bob” Roper, emerging from Aquatic Park, circa 1970s. Photo from boathouse wall at the South End Rowing Club, San Francisco.

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.

Currents at Golden Gate Bridge: May 27, 2013.
Currents at Golden Gate Bridge: May 27, 2013.

B2B can be thought of as four swims in one, both psychologically and temporally:

  1. Bay Bridge to Aquatic Park
  2. Aquatic Park to Golden Gate Bridge
  3. Golden Gate Bridge to Mile Rock
  4. 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.

GPS tracks: Bay Bridge to Aquatic Park

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.

SERC kayakers waiting at the Creakers
SERC kayakers waiting at the Creakers

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!

GPS tracks: Aquatic Park to Golden Gate Bridge

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.

toward the ggb
It’s not particularly tough to navigate when your sighting landmark is the Golden Gate Bridge.

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.

closer still...
The South Tower

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.

To be continued…