Part 1: Anticipation
Swimmers in parkas milled about, organizing their nutrition and applying lube. Paddlers secured their kayaks and stuffed dry-bags. Other volunteers helped launch Zodiac boats. It was earlier than most preferred to be awake on a Sunday morning… but the tides of San Francisco Bay wait for no one.
Swimming in the Bay, the tides are king. The rising waters of the flood and the falling waters of the ebb must squeeze through the narrow Golden Gate Strait - magnifying the currents. The morning of June 3, we would be pushed through the Strait by a max 4.6-knot flood - impossible for even the fastest swimmers to fight, even briefly.
The would be my first swim with the South End Rowing Club (I joined the day before), and my first swim longer than an hour in sub-60F water. Saturday afternoon after submitting my new member forms and a brief swim in Aquatic Park, Cathy and I went for a walk at Lands End, the northwest corner of the city. Stopping at the viewpoint shown below, I looked out upon the intimidating patch of water I’d soon swim through. My thoughts right then: This is a monumentally stupid idea!
Yet many of my most memorable swim experiences have derived from monumentally stupid ideas. If it was a good idea, everybody would do it!
Part 2: Dauntless
Lounging on the second floor of the SERC clubhouse, I sipped coffee and chewed a banana. I was oddly calm - a two-hour swim is short enough to maintain a reasonably aggressive pace, and keep my internal furnace burning.
Nor did I worry about the unfamiliar, vaguely menacing waters between Point Bonita and the Bridge. Paddling a few feet away was someone I trusted; someone who knew these waters well. I would be safe.
Once the Zodiacs were launched and the kayaks were secured, the swimmers and their pilots were herded into the Dauntless. We motored into the Bay and headed for the Bridge. There were about 30 of us - 15 swimmers and their paddlers.
The mood on the Dauntless was buoyant. It was a glorious, clear morning, with minimal wind and chop. The joy of open-water swimmers before an adventure is special to behold. Despite the range of abilities and experience, we shared an excitement and openness to traversing this patch of water.
I was an unfamiliar face, so there were some questions and curiosity. I answered truthfully: “Oh, I swim mostly in the pool. Yeah, my first swim in the Bay was yesterday.”
Once past the Bridge, Point Diablo came into view, followed by Point Bonita. The southwestern tip of the Marin Headlands and the last stop before the Farallon Islands. Within a few hundred meters of our destination, the Dauntless disengaged its motor and we launched the kayaks. Cathy paddled off in her yellow sit-on-top.
Soon only swimmers remained on the boat. The Dauntless motored closer to shore, toward a small, rocky beach. The motor disengaged again, and it was time to jump. Parkas were shed; caps, goggles, and earplugs affixed. (Prayers silently uttered?) We steeled ourselves for the bracing 54F (12C) ocean.
I watched as my fellow adventurers launched themselves from the Dauntless starboard. I aimed to be one of the last to arrive on the beach: less time to shiver.
Part 3: The Flood
Standing aboard the SERC boat Dauntless, trying to summon feelings of, dauntlessness, I wore one blue polyester Speedo Endurance square-leg, a yellow latex SERC cap over orange silicone, blue Malmsten Swedes, and earplugs. I’d never worn earplugs before, but I think they helped quite a lot in keeping the cold at bay.
The nearest ocean buoy read 54.6F; the buoy inside the Bay was about a degree warmer. After reciting DBAP a few times, I leaped off the side of the boat – about a 4-foot drop. The water felt… actually pretty nice! I swam up to Cathy and wished her a fun paddle. She should have been in water instead of me; but as Plan B’s go, this was alright.
The tide tables showed a slack current at 7:29am, max flood at 10:33am. We set off around 9:15, I think? So there was already a pretty good push - sucking us into the Bay. Swells were from the southwest, so the plan was - rather than take a straight line for the Bridge - head into the middle of the Strait until parallel to the south tower, then aim for the tower. This would minimize the chance of slower swimmers crossing under the Bridge too far north and getting swept toward Alcatraz, missing the entrance to Aquatic Park.
After the start, Joel - in a full-body wetsuit - immediately took off ahead. I chased after him, and we bumped into each other a couple times, frustrating our paddlers. But soon he left me again, and after about half an hour he maintained a steady ~30m lead. Hank (not in a wetsuit) followed me by a slightly larger distance. Behind Hank, everyone else.
For the first 45 minutes of the swim, I felt fine. A little numbness in the toes and fingertips, perhaps, but I felt warm on the inside and was swimming efficiently, at a relaxed, comfortable pace.
As I approached the Bridge, the cold began to creep. My core was still warm, but now my hands, arms, and shoulders were beginning to feel it. My stroke got a little sloppier, less precise - though Cathy insists my tempo remained steady. I felt like the water temp dropped slightly near the Bridge - a few upwellings and cold spots - but who knows.
We crossed under the Bridge about halfway between the south tower and mid-span - just as Cathy intended. I flipped on my back to watch the Bridge go by.
Something else I noticed: I couldn’t see Joel anymore. I assumed he had continued to pull away and was now out of sight. Later, I found out he had been caught in a back eddy, allowing me to shoot ahead. Possibly due to the different line she took toward the Bridge, Cathy avoided the eddy - and we now led the field toward Aquatic Park.
Part 4: The Home Stretch
The last third of the swim was a grind. The cold continued to creep and my stroke continued to deteriorate. I was uncomfortable; but I focused on Cathy and tried to put everything else out of mind.
At one point Cathy made a hard right turn. My earplugs prevented any communication, but I intuited what was happening: We were making a break for the opening at Aquatic Park. Her hand signals indicated this was a matter of some urgency (remember, a 4-knot flood was pushing us toward the Bay Bridge). I turned on the 6-beat kick, ramped up my tempo, and followed after her.
We made the opening - and not by much. A few others weren’t so lucky, and had to go the long way around, through the boat harbor.
I used the final stretch through the cove to the SERC beach as cool-down (no pun intended). I was surprised when an onlooker mentioned I was the first to finish. 6.5 miles (straight-line distance) in 1:54. I was even more surprised to find, once I emerged from the water, that I wasn’t particularly cold. No shivering; I felt fine.
But I didn’t waste any time chatting, and marched upstairs to the shower & sauna. Joel followed a few minutes later; Hank a few minutes after that.
Dried, dressed, and warmed, everyone gathered downstairs for breakfast. SERC is such a friendly, open group of folks; I felt immediately comfortable among them. Living 330 miles south, I won’t be using their facilities regularly - but I’m happy with my new home-away-from-home in San Francisco.
Thanks to Tom the “Reptile” for a stellar race-directing job, and thanks to SERC for welcoming me on their swim on such short notice.