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 Gulf of the Farallones, the 30-mile stretch of ocean between the Farallon Islands and the California mainland.
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.
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 th Catalina Channel, most days are swimmable, 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 swim here - 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.
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 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)?