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.

10463827_10100282926400032_2895214078909719257_o

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:

 

 

Farallones: The toughest marathon swim in the world?

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).

For cold water, there’s the Straits of Magellan and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

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.

Read my official observer report here.

farallons_aerial


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.

Water Temperature

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).

Weather

Northern California ocean is a different beast than Southern California ocean. It’s bigger, rougher, colder, more volatile. Whereas in the Catalina Channelmost 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.

Sharks

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.

Thanks, but no thanks.


It’s a devil’s trade-off fitting for the “devil’s teeth.”

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…. then you 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)?

farallon islands swim
Three Farallon swims, three courses (top to bottom): Bolinas, Muir Beach, Golden Gate Bridge

 

That’s my humble suggestion, anyway.

Who’s up next?

Promontory Point: A marathon swimming landmark

Where are the sacred waters of American marathon swimming – the most historically significant swim spots? Aquatic Park (San Francisco), Brighton Beach (New York City), and La Jolla Cove come to mind.

But there’s another location – arguably as significant as those three – that remains remarkably below the radar. Promontory Point in Chicago. The Point was the primary training location of four Marathon Swimming Hall of Famers, including two Mount Rushmore-types:

  • Ted Erikson – First person to swim across Lake Michigan (1961). One of only two to swim from the Farallon Islands to San Francisco (and record-holder since 1967). Former record-holder for two-way English Channel swim (1965-1975).
  • Jon Erikson – First three-way English Channel swim (1981). Former record-holder for two-way English Channel (1975-1987) and youngest one-way (14 years old in 1969). 31 professional marathon swim races.
  • Dennis Matuch – one of whose swim exploits I described here.
  • Conrad Wennerberg – coach and training partner of the above three, and author of Wind, Waves, and Sunburn.

More recently, I trained at the Point for my big 2011 season – often with Amanda, a two-time MIMSer.

Promontory Point

The Point was constructed from landfill and opened as a public park in 1937. With Hyde Park and the University of Chicago nearby, it soon became a popular swim spot. Marathon swimmers have trained there at least since the early 1960s. As Ted Erikson explains (via personal communication):

In prepping for the 1961 Lake Michigan Swim to Michigan City, I began swimming off the rocks from Jackson Park Harbor entrance to 67th St. Beach (1/2 mile course) late fall and early 1961.

Conrad Wennerberg, who I met at 67th, suggested the Point, where I occasionally swam to from 67th. The Point seemed more social.  So, I started off and on in 1961 and continuously from 1962 to present.

Similar to today, the Point Swimmers of the ’60s swam “laps” between the southeast edge of the Point and the 59th Street Pier (a 1-mile round-trip). Ted recalls:

Dennis and I would push each other for 1-10 mile training swims.  Most interesting were 1-milers with slow swimmers starting early and fast swimmers starting late such that ALL would reach the final buoy about 100 yards from finish at the same time. This made a nice race to finish for all which included Connie, Bill Tregay, Tom Lisco, Mike Paesler, Jon, and others, some who “handicapped their time” obviously beat us because of “saving” themselves for the sprint.

Was great fun, competition, and good training. Once Dennis found a foot at the finish, and holding it up, breathing heavily from the sprint, said “Who lost their foot ?”… (foot was from a passenger on a United Airlines plane that crashed off the Point a week so before).

Despite this rich history, the Point keeps a low profile even in Chicago – and even among swimmers. The city’s enthusiastic triathlete population primarily trains downtown at Ohio Street Beach, the site of Big Shoulders. (One might argue, this is a good thing.)

One reason is the Point’s relative isolation, 7 miles south of downtown. Another reason: Until recently it was technically illegal to swim off the Point. A few swimmers, including Ted, were even arrested in the late 1980s. But Ted and others held their ground and, through the power of community organizing (a Hyde Park specialty), pressured the Chicago Park District to create a designated “long distance swimming area” offshore from 57th Street Beach.

The politics of the Point makes for fascinating reading. For more, see this 2001 article from the Tribune.

And finally, like its peers in San Francisco, New York, and La Jolla, swimming at the Point is a year-round activity. Point swimmer and journalist Elizabeth Brackett recently filed this story:

Related Links

Letters from Connie: There Is No Perfect Stroke

Conrad Wennerberg is Chairman Emeritus of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame and author of the authoritative history of marathon swimming: Wind, Waves, and Sunburn. Originally published in 1974, the book was re-printed in 1999, and is now out of print once again. (Used copies are available through Amazon.)

Wind, Waves, and Sunburn

Conrad (or “Connie,” as he’s known to friends) is a familiar face at Promontory Point in Chicago, my preferred training location in 2010-11. Now in his 80s, Connie still takes his noontime dip in Lake Michigan, May through October. Connie is also responsible for rescuing a treasured thermos of mine, which his friend Frank the Klepto had stolen during a late-season training swim. True story.

I’m just now getting around to reading Wind, Waves, and Sunburn, and it’s delightful. More than anything else I’ve read, it captures the spirit of marathon swimming – and this power is undimmed by the passing of 37 years. For some perspective: in 1974, the records for the fastest crossings of the English and Catalina Channels were both held by Lynne Cox.

1962 Lake Michigan marathon swimIn an early chapter, Connie recounts the classic “36 3/4 to 50 mile” Lake Michigan race in 1962. This race was actually two races in one. First, a 36 3/4-mile swim from Chicago to Waukegan, Illinois – an attempt to break Ted Erikson’s record of 35 hours for the same distance the previous year (Chicago to Michigan City, Indiana). The first swimmer to reach Waukegan could choose to exit the water and collect $4,000. Or, swimmers could choose to keep going past Waukegan, all the way to Kenosha, Wisconsin – a distance of 50 miles and a new world record for distance. The first swimmer to reach Kenosha would win $10,000.

Of the 20 or so swimmers who dove into Lake Michigan that day, only three would finish: Ted Erikson, Greta Andersen, and Dennis Matuch. All three would subsequently be enshrined in the marathon swimming hall of fame. In Connie’s eyes, the story of their epic race is more than a story: It’s an allegory. He describes their respective stroke techniques:

Ted Erikson was “poetry in motion”–the classic stroke with hardly a millimeter variation between either arm as it entered the water. His legs beat in a steady, even throb that impressed the observer. His powerful arms carried him through the water at a speed of close to two miles per hour. Here was the man to watch. His forty-eight strokes per minute would prevent his burning out.

Moving on to Dennis Matuch, a local lifeguard with a decidedly different approach to swimming:

His arms worked in what seemed like frenzied action. Eighty-five strokes per minute…. Extremely short, his high stroke rate prevented any smooth entry of his hands and arms into the water. Consequently there was a splash upon entry into the water and corresponding flurry of water upon recovery. The average spectator would also have been amazed at the total non-use of his legs. They simply dragged along behind him…. Spectators scratched their heads and said, “This man will drown shortly.”

And finally, Greta Andersen, the greatest female marathon swimmer of her era:

What one would have observed would have been an extremely uneven stroke. As Greta turned her head to the right to breathe, her left arm reached only a little more than half the distance ahead as the right arm. One would have been tempted to say, “What a cock-eyed stroke.” It was very uneven and looked quite uncomfortable to the swimmer.

Based on these observations, Connie concludes:

Ted Erikson would win this race. Greta Andersen, if she were lucky, would go half way. Dennis Matuch would drown in about another ten minutes. Self-satisfied, the general observer would sit back and await the “sure” and inevitable outcome.

Conrad Wennerberg
Conrad Wennerberg at Promontory Point

So, what actually happened?

  • Dennis Matuch swam 36 3/4 miles to Waukegan in 21 hours, earning a new world record and $4,000.
  • Greta Andersen, five minutes behind Matuch, continued on to Kenosha, finishing in 31 hours — a new world record for distance, earning the top prize of $10,000.
  • Ted Erikson, three hours behind Andersen at Waukegan, also kept going. By the time he reached Kenosha he was five hours behind. In reward for 36 hours of swimming, he received nothing but a metaphorical pat on the back.

The chapter concludes with a statement as true today as it was in 1974:

The moral to be learned from the above is that one should never stress the importance of “evenness” and proportion that characterizes the classic swimming stroke. The individual variations in human anatomy and physiology preclude warping an individual’s personal adaptation to the water into the closed channel of “water ballet” perfectionism.

Hear, hear!

And Connie, if you read this, please give my regards to Frank the Klepto.

Marathon Swimming Nutrition: Osmolality and why it matters

On a sunny late morning in Chicago last summer, I told Ted Erikson about the nutrition plan I’d recently used for Tampa and MIMS. Ted EriksonMy plan called for an hourly cycle of two Maxim feeds and one Perpetuem feed. Ted sort of chuckled, and then said something I’ll never forget: “You know, Evan… all you really need is glucose.”

And he’s right: Glucose is the basic unit of energy. Whether you feed on Gatorade or Maxim, it all ends up as glucose anyway. I mention this story because it’s worth remembering as you read what follows. When I said in the previous post that “some carbs are better than others,” I don’t mean that maltodextrin is the be-all-end-all, magical elixir of marathon swimming. It’s not. Many swimmers – including some of the best – have used “simple sugars” to fuel a marathon swim. You can, too!

However, it’s my view (based on both research and experience) that the basic recommendation to an aspiring marathon swimmer – in the absence of strong preferences otherwise – should be a maltodextrin-based fuel. 

One reason is taste – simple sugars are much sweeter than maltodextrin. The neutral-to-slightly sweet flavor of maltodextrin provides much greater control over the final taste of your beverage. However, this is (quite literally) “a matter of taste” and not generalizable. 

Another reason is a bit more obscure. It has to do with how carbohydrates are metabolized in your gut. One important difference between maltodextrin-based sports drinks and sucrose/HFCS-based drinks is their osmolality. I could attempt to explain what this means, but I thought it’d be more fun to get someone who actually knows what he’s talking about.

Brandon SullivanSo, allow me to introduce Brandon Sullivan. Sully is a former teammate of mine on the Columbus Sharks Masters. He is also a certified marathon swimmer, having completed the 2010 USMS 10K Championship in Noblesville. More relevantly, he has a PhD in Biochemistry from (the) Ohio State University!

Sully has generously agreed to explain what osmolality is, and why it matters to endurance athletes. Thanks dude!

* For the record, Ted Erikson’s nutrition plan for his legendary 1967 Farallon Islands swim consisted of “glucose plus anything to flavor and pour, e.g. peaches, pea soup, etc.”

Continue reading “Marathon Swimming Nutrition: Osmolality and why it matters”