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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Suit, cap, goggles: That’s all you really need.

Suit, cap, goggles: That’s all you really need.

My swim cap is tighter-fitting; my goggles are lighter-weight; and my swimsuit is constructed of chlorine-resistant polyester.

But aside from that, not much has changed from fifty years ago, when South End Rowing Club members waded into Aquatic Park cove wearing this:

Swim costume, circa 1960s. South End Rowing Club, San Francisco.
Swim costume, circa 1960s. South End Rowing Club, San Francisco.

I’d argue that the only truly essential item is the goggles… but this is a family-friendly site.

Close-up of goggles from the same display.
Close-up of goggles from the same display.

Marathon swimming resists technology more than most sports, thanks to strict guidelines on swimwear enforced in the English Channel (our Everest) – guidelines which are widely emulated around the world. Indeed it’s a point of pride among many marathon swimmers, who value the connection with our sport’s pioneers. A level playing field across decades.

I’d even call it an aestheticSuit, cap, goggles. That’s all we really need. Man, woman, and the sea. There is equipment that would make it easier, but we actively reject it. Our sport is tough, and we like it that way. 

inscription
Close-up of inscription on above display case.


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Non-Swim Report: Tomales Bay White Shark Swimming Association Fall “Chomp”

Non-Swim Report: Tomales Bay White Shark Swimming Association Fall “Chomp”

2013-10-05 16_07_39-www.parks.ca.gov_pages_470_files_TomalesBaySPWebLayout2013.pdfEach fall and spring, the channel swimmer / bubble-cap aficionado / legendary South Ender known as El Sharko (occasionally “Sir Sharko,” sometimes shortened to “Sharko,” and just “Chris” to his wife) organizes a swim & BBQ at Heart’s Desire Beach in Tomales Bay State Park, north of San Francisco.

In homage to the white sharks who breed near the mouth of Tomales Bay, this event is known as the “Tomales Bay White Shark Swimming Association (TBWSSA) Chomp” (alternatively, “Tomales Bay Dangerous ‘Swim with the White Sharks’ Chomp,” often shortened to simply “The Chomp”). Sharko’s sanguine approach to the oft-repressed fact of VW-sized predators in our local waters is encapsulated by his calling card: “I never met a shark I didn’t like.”

Photo by Jeff Brown
Special “Chomp” course buoy, handmade by El Sharko. Photo by Jeff Brown

The “Fall Chomp” of 2013 fell on what must surely go down as one of the most glorious days of the year: 80 degrees, windless clear skies all the way to the Farallons. Heart’s Desire Beach, about two-thirds of the way inland (8.5 miles) from the Bay mouth, lived up to its name.…

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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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Sharks Live in the Ocean, Part 2

Sharks Live in the Ocean, Part 2

[Read Part 1]

When we swim in the ocean we share the water with an abundance of other life, some of it larger and toothier than we are. Just because we don’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there. And just because they’re there doesn’t mean they care about us, or want anything to do with us.

Members of the South End Rowing Club and Dolphin Club, who share a beach on Aquatic Park, San Francisco, were recently reminded of these truths when a three-foot juvenile salmon shark swam into the cove and spent a few minutes cruising around near our docks. Salmon sharks sport a distinctive white underbelly and are sometimes mistaken for juvenile Great Whites. Though adults can grow to 10 feet long, they’re generally not considered a threat to humans.

Some footage taken by South Ender Gary Emich:

[Link to YouTube video]

The shark is behaving oddly and appears disoriented. According to the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, this shark may be suffering from a carnobacterium infection and resulting blindness.…

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