Dead Fish Swims

Dead Fish Swims

A “dead fish swim” is a swim that even a dead fish could finish. (Maybe not literally… but sometimes almost literally.)

This is a bit of local (SF) open-water swimming lingo that I wish would be more widely used (hence this post).

dead-fish

Dead fish swims require bodies of water affected by substantial currents — as fast or faster than “fast” swimmers swim. Let’s set the minimum current threshold for a dead fish swim (arbitrarily) at 2 knots.

Most of the organized swims put on by the Dolphin and South End Rowing Clubs in San Francisco Bay are dead fish swims. Coghlan Beach to Aquatic Park on a flood (the traditional route for the fall Inter-Club Triathlon) is a dead fish swim. Pier 7 to Aquatic Park (the most popular SERC “sunriser” route) on a big ebb is a dead fish swim.

Even the challenging Bay to Breakers swim is sort of a dead fish swim — until the last mile or so, when the current goes slack and you have to get around Seal Rocks and into the beach via actual swimming (and bodysurfing).…

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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. SERC has many swims in the bay, but only one that finishes at the breakers.…

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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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