Farallones: The toughest marathon swim in the world?

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). …

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Giulietta Carrelli: Artisanal Food-Craze Originator, and Open Water Swimmer

Giulietta Carrelli: Artisanal Food-Craze Originator, and Open Water Swimmer

One morning on my first visit to San Francisco to see Cathy, we got coffee in the neighborhood, at Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club. It’s an eccentric little place, with studiously quirky interior details and a parklet outside, handcrafted from local driftwood.

My preferred parklet seat, outside Trouble.

The coffee was excellent: a smooth, full-bodied medium-dark roast. Rounding out the eclectic yet focused menu were toast (hefty buttered slabs, sprinkled liberally with cinnamon), coconuts, and… grapefruit juice.

But the reason Cathy took me to this specific craft coffee shop in a city full of them, was to meet her friend Giulietta – the owner of Trouble, and an open water swimmer. Cathy knows Giulietta through China Beach, the main alternative to Aquatic Park for OWS in San Francisco.

It’s been nearly two years since my first taste of Trouble. In the interim, Giulietta has become something of a local celebrity, as “artisanal toast” has begun popping up on hipster-food menus throughout the city. Trouble is widely credited as the originator of this trend.

But this story goes far deeper than mere toast, and that’s why Giulietta recently became the first open water swimmer (as far as I know) to be featured on This American Life.…

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

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.…

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At the South End…

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.


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

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

(A belated report on — not the longest, not the coldest — but the most comprehensive test of my open-water swimming skills I’ve experienced…)

May 27, 2013. Memorial Day. Bay to Breakers Day.

The day I earned my graduate degree in Open Water Swimming.


Bay to Breakers (B2B) is the most epic event on the South End Rowing Club swim calendar. 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.  



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The Chas Lap

The Chas Lap

The “Chas Lap” is the longest, burliest standard training swim one can do in the Aquatic Park vicinity.

(By standard, I mean: It is readily understood by a two- or three-word phrase in the men’s and women’s saunas at the South End Rowing Club.)

The Chas Lap touches, by definition, the western and eastern boundaries of the area in which it is acceptable for South End members to swim unescorted. There are bigger, burlier swims possible elsewhere in the Bay, but – and here’s the key – if you swim across the path of potential boat traffic, you must have an escort vessel. A Chas Lap can be done unescorted, and therefore requires far less planning.

Important Safety Caveats:

  • Never swim outside the Cove alone! You could get injured or killed, and no one would know, possibly for hours.
  • Avoid swimming outside the Cove later than mid-morning. Theoretically you should be safe from boat traffic by hugging the pier or breakwater, but there are always many more boats in the afternoon. The more boats in the area, the more potential for some rogue idiot boat driver to ruin your day.


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I hate winter swimming; I love winter swimming.

I hate winter swimming; I love winter swimming.

In life it’s often necessary to convince oneself to do something one doesn’t want to do, in order to realize future rewards (physical, financial, emotional).

I experience this life truth in microcosm, every morning I swim in San Francisco Bay in the winter. I hate getting up early (I’m a night-owl — always have been). I hate it even more when it’s dark outside; even more when it’s cold outside. And most of all, when the reason for doing so is swimming, nearly naked, in 49-degree water.

Yet it must be done. Because no one ever says, “I really regret swimming today.” Even when the water’s 49 degrees. Perhaps especially when it’s 49 degrees.

Immersion is painful. There’s no avoiding it, even with repetition. Yet nothing makes me feel more aliveAnd there’s a reason for that: Pain is my body’s evolved, automatic response to encountering an environment that cannot sustain human life. “GTFO,” my body says at first.

When I refuse, the pain fades after a few minutes, and in its place arises a powerful warmth, which keeps the forces of death at bay (for a while).…

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Sub-100 Swims

Sub-100 Swims

Sub-100 swims: Also known as “winter” for San Francisco open-water swimmers.

A sub-100 swim is when the water and air temperatures (in degrees F) sum to less than 100. For example, 50 degree water + 50 degree air = 100 exactly.

For our metric system friends, a sub-100 day conveniently converts to a sub-20C day, precisely.

Like much of the western U.S., San Francisco has been experiencing a bit of a cold snap lately. This morning at Aquatic Park we had 51-degree (10.5C) water combined with 37-degree (2.8C) air, for a combined total of 87 – which, I think, is a new all-time low for me.

wundermap

I swam with my 6:30am group for our typical 45 minutes. Tellingly, the South End men’s showers were already running lukewarm when I arrived.

The concept of a “sub-100 swim” derives (as far as I know) from fellow South Ender Gary Emich. On his way to 1,000+ Alcatraz crossings, Gary noticed that 100 degrees combined air+water was a threshold below which his morning swims with the ASSes (which often include a dripping-wet post-swim RIB ride) became rather… challenging.…

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Swim Report: Kirby Cove to Aquatic Park

Swim Report: Kirby Cove to Aquatic Park

Two days before Bay to Breakers in May (yes, it’s a belated report), an oversubscribed volunteer corps opened up a couple spots on another SERC club swim: Kirby Cove to Aquatic Park. Kirby Cove is the same beach on the Marin Headlands where Cathy finished her “Three Bridges” swim in March. Outside the Golden Gate, but not as far as Point Diablo or Point Bonita. At 4.2 miles (current-assisted), it’s one of the longer SERC club swims, so a bit odd to have on the same weekend as Bay to Breakers.

I wasn’t planning to swim that morning and showed up to help kayak or time. It turned out there were plenty of volunteers, so I figured what the hell… I paid my fee and changed, like a chubby Clark Kent, into my drag suit and parka. Game on.

I noticed “D,” one of the faster SERC swimmers, was also entered, but I hoped to not get “baited” into racing him. Better to take it easy and gear up for the more important swim two days later: Bay to Breakers (in which, incidentally, “D” was also entered).…

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My New, New Beach

My New, New Beach

[Read "My New Beach" from last year]

Not explicitly mentioned here yet, but implied between the lines, is that I’ve moved again. This time, to San Francisco.

My new beach, a six minute walk door to sand, isn’t quite as “secret” as the last one.

ocean beach
Ocean Beach, San Francisco. Panoramic photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons – click to enlarge.

The “Outside Lands” of San Francisco, with Ocean Beach along its western flank, are reputed to be foggy and windswept. In my two months here – typically the foggiest of the year – I’ve found that reputation to be vastly overstated.

The Pacific Ocean from my window. Farallon Islands at center.
The Pacific Ocean from my window. Farallon Islands at center.

And so another new adventure commences…

ocean beach
Looking north from my nearest dune.
ocean beach
Looking south from my nearest dune.

The Ocean is your Mother – let her love and caress you.

– Randy Brown…

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