May 27, 2013. Memorial Day. Bay to Breakers Day. The day I earned my graduate degree in Open Water Swimming. It wasn’t the longest swim I’ve done, or the coldest - but rather, the most comprehensive test of open water swimming skill I’ve experienced. Speed … endurance … cold tolerance … rough-water … navigation … race tactics … body-surfing… B2B has it all.
Part 1: Anything Worth Doing is Worth Overdoing
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:
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. But it is now part of our program and more positively it provides a unique challenge for a group of swimmers to see if they can impose their will on the bay for a brief period of time.
Bob Roper, who first organized B2B as a SERC “Nutcracker” swim in 1987, is the originator of the marathon swimmers’ motto made famous worldwide by David Barra: “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” (It should also be noted that Suzanne Heim swam B2B solo five years earlier, in 1982.)
10 miles: from the base of the Bay Bridge, around the Embarcadero, through the shipping channel between Alcatraz and our Aquatic Park home, past the Marina and Crissy Field, under the mighty Golden Gate Bridge, cutting across toward Lands End and Mile Rock, and then the climactic, treacherous finish around Seal Rocks and through the pounding surf and rip currents of Kelly’s Cove to the sand of Ocean Beach.
10 miles: more than three times the distance of the longest Dolphin Club swim (just sayin’).
Part 2: Alpha Tower
After a 4am alarm followed by a 5am briefing, we jumped into the Bay near the alpha tower of the Bay Bridge a few minutes after 6am. The field - 22 of the South End’s strongest, hardiest swimmers - was staggered into three pods according to swimmer speed. A big ebb (max 5.9 knots @ 6:18am) would shoot us through the south shipping channel, past the Golden Gate, and hopefully get everyone past Seal Rocks before the tide turned.
B2B can be thought of as four swims in one, both psychologically and temporally:
- Bay Bridge to Aquatic Park
- Aquatic Park to Golden Gate Bridge
- Golden Gate Bridge to Mile Rock
- Mile Rock to Seal Rocks and into beach
Each section should take 30-35 minutes for the fastest swimmers, and 50 minutes for the slower swimmers - for total times ranging from two hours & change up to 3hr15min (the cutoff, at which time everyone still in the water is rounded up and brought to the beach).
Start: Bay Bridge to Aquatic Park. 2.94mi, 32:31 (5.42mph)
I jumped off the stern of the Silver Fox into water that was 57F or so - warm for this time of year. I spent the first few minutes focusing on long strokes, building gradually into my “10K tempo,” and moving out into the channel and the faster currents.
For this first part of the swim, the field compressed as the Pod 1 swimmers were overtaken by Pod 2, who in turn were overtaken by Pod 3. South End R.I.B.s patrolled the perimeter, placing themselves between the swimmers and incoming boat traffic. Though my GPS tracks seem close to the Embarcadero piers, I recall being further out than most. Even at this early hour there was moderate surface chop, which limited my vision to only the most prominent landmarks.
All the longer SERC club swims utilize one-to-one kayak coverage - the field spreads too far to effectively monitor with “zone” coverage. Yet, the logistics of a water start under the Bay Bridge in a fast current make it difficult to put 20-something swimmers and 20-something kayaks and 20-something paddlers in the water at the same time.
So, B2B swimmers jump at the Bay Bridge unescorted, pairing up with their paddlers 3 miles later at Aquatic Park.
Part 3: Unescorted
Self-navigating this stretch of the course isn’t particularly complicated: Basically, sight off Alcatraz as soon as you see it; then the west end of Alcatraz; then mid-span of the Golden Gate Bridge. Let the ebb current do the rest. But certainly, a high level of open-water confidence and skill (not to mention knowledge of Bay geography) are assumed.
Half an hour into the swim, as I approached the SS Jeremiah O’Brien (the most prominent landmark east of Aquatic Park), I started breathing left every few stroke cycles, anticipating that Andrew, my kayaker and soon-to-be local hero, would join me.
Aquatic Park to Golden Gate Bridge. 2.97mi, 35:22 (5.04 mph)
The J.O.B. came and went in a flash, followed by the Creakers, and then the Opening. Where is Andrew? At more than 5 mph, I traversed my familiar training ground between Muni Pier and Fort Mason in what seemed like a matter of seconds. Soon I was off Marina Green, gradually moving further into the channel, sighting halfway between the South Tower and midspan of the Golden Gate Bridge. And still unescorted!
In retrospect, I think this was the part of the swim of which I’m most proud: I kept swimming. I didn’t hesitate; didn’t break stroke; didn’t panic. I thought I would meet Andrew at the Creakers, but that didn’t happen. And it didn’t matter - I knew where I was going. So I kept swimming.
Somewhere off Yacht Harbor I noticed the Silver Fox to my right and slightly behind me. I still had no kayaker, but now at least I had some visibility to boat traffic. I kept heading toward halfway between the South Tower and midspan. I looked ahead and saw… nothing. Evidently I was now leading the field.
Andrew caught up to me off Crissy Field. As he told me afterward, there were so many swimmers passing the Creakers at the same time that in the mass confusion, I had passed Aquatic Park unnoticed.
It didn’t matter: Look at that GPS line.
It has been said that the “real” Bay to Breakers begins at the Golden Gate Bridge. And I think there’s much truth in that statement - similar to how the real MIMS begins when you pass through Spuyten Duyvil into the Hudson River.
Part 4: Outside the Gate
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 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 (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. Crossing from the brackish sanctum of the Bay into the wild Pacific.
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.
Golden Gate Bridge to Mile Rock. 2.44mi, 34:00 (4.31mph)
The water was distinctly colder on the ocean side of the Gate - 55F, with even colder upwellings, compared to 57F at the Bay Bridge. The upwellings were waves of blue ice coursing through my veins. They hurt badly, and I should have taken them as a cue to adjust my line north a bit (back into the warm ebb).
But I saw Mile Rock, and my instinct was to swim towards it.
A nearby R.I.B. pilot advised Andrew that the ebb had “died,” so we should take the inside line (i.e., no advantage to staying out in the channel). And it was true, the ebb was “dead” where I currently was. Further north, the ebb wasn’t quite done, and a couple swimmers made substantial progress on me by staying further out.
It was a slog to Mile Rock… a cold slog… but Andrew was steady and confident by my side. I put my head down and let him manage the navigation.
If you’ve only seen Mile Rock from shore, it’s surprisingly enormous!
Mile Rock to Seal Rocks: 1.04mi, 20:01 (3.12mph)
Seal Rocks to finish: 0.45mi, 12:10
My fitness was reasonably good for this swim, but unfortunately my cold-water acclimation was not. I was still living in Santa Barbara at the time, and this was my longest ocean swim since Santa Cruz Island.
After Mile Rock, my fine motor coordination was the first casualty of the creeping cold, with resulting damage to my stroke technique. I felt my arms slapping the water gracelessly, my legs flailing impotently. When I breathed left to gauge progress along the shore, I took in mouthfuls of seawater.
And the current was dead. It was only a mile to the finish, but it was an honest mile.
Part 5: The Rocks
There are actually more than one Seal Rock (hence ‘Rocks‘). You might think, when you pass the northern & largest one - the one you’ve been watching grow, ever so gradually - that your work is done. But it is not. There’s another rock or two to pass, but here’s the kicker:
You’re now in the surf zone.
The first wave took me by surprise - thawuuuummmp-sssshhh.
I went vertical to get my bearings. I was offshore and just a little down from the last Seal Rock. I saw the beach, but the people onshore were mere stick figures. I still had some swimming to do. Andrew says: “There’s the beach - Go!”
Another wave rushes past - thawuuuummmp-sssshhh.
When I come up again Andrew is paddling away, toward the transport boat. Oftentimes the waves at Ocean Beach are too big to land kayaks safely, so a boat picks them up offshore, safely outside the breakers. The swimmers finish Bay to Breakers as they began - alone.
The next few minutes were less about swimming than about mere survival. Can you get under a wave, and then back up again in time to get enough air, before you have to go under again. The sets were coming fast & furious.
I noticed I wasn’t quite clear of the last Seal Rock. I really didn’t want to get slammed against the jagged, barnacle-encrusted monolith, so I must first swim south, before I head into shore.
Stay calm. Stay patient. Let the waves carry you home.
My fingers touched bottom before I could see it. A crowd of red parkas filled my vision. Cheering red parkas.
I came ashore after 2 hours, 2 minutes according to the official results, 14 minutes ahead of the next swimmer.
When I cleared the water a SERC volunteer poured a gallon-jug of warm water over my head, and I think at that moment it was the most pleasant sensation I’ve ever experienced.
They cheered, hollered, and high-fived, but I couldn’t stop to chat. I was shivering within seconds of exiting the water. Swiftly escorted to the parking lot and awaiting car sauna, I was advised I might be there awhile, until we could fill the car with other swimmers.
What happened next is already SERC legend.
Minutes later, the fog descended, the wind picked up, and what had been rough but manageable conditions got much hairier. Oh, and this happened:
Five-time Bay to Breakers finisher and soon-to-be Triple Crown marathon swimmer John Walker got so messed up in the waves that he climbed out of the water onto Seal Rocks.
One kayaker who attempted a beach finish almost decapitated a swimmer in the whitewash.
My own kayaker Andrew, a Ocean Beach surfer himself and very able waterman, went into full-on rescue-lifeguard mode as kayaks and swimmers were tossed every which-way in the surf.
Half the field was pulled from the water due to dangerous conditions in the surf zone.
It was a dicey situation. But in the end, save for a few scratches on John Walker’s bum, SERC came away unscathed. The entire field were extremely skilled watermen and water-women - all more than capable of taking care of themselves in the rough stuff.
Now, coming up on a year later, it’s just a fun story. Another legend in the 140-year history of the South End Rowing Club.
- Evan Morrison 2:02:07
- Darrin Connolly 2:16:10
- Gabor Lengyel 2:16:29
- Kirk McKinney 2:21:48
- Simon Dominguez 2:23:38
- Cathy Delneo 2:29:02
- Katrina Lundstedt 2:31:24
- Angelo Barbieri 2:33:19
- Craig Coombs 2:38:19
- Jeff Everett 2:41:51
- Rick Shunk 2:44:42
Wetsuit: Tina Voight
DNF: [9 others]
And a compilation of video clips from my kayaker Andrew: