Race Report: Point Bonita to Aquatic Park, San Francisco

by Evan Morrison. 12 June 2012.

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.

The Golden Gate as seen from Point Bonita. Photo by Flickr user Bob Franks.

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. Faster than any of the river currents at MIMS.

This would be my coldest swim of more than an hour in duration; it would also be my longest swim in water cooler than 61F/16C (my four-hour MIMS qualifier in September 2010 was 61F).

And it would be my sharkiest swim. Sharks aren’t common inside the Bay, but Point Bonita is almost three miles west of the Bridge - solidly in the Red Triangle. Cathy helpfully mentioned that Point Bonita is a popular breeding area for harbor seals. So, swimmers are encouraged to “swim fast” at the beginning. Good to know, I guess? 🙂

Saturday afternoon after swimming in Aquatic Park, we went for a walk at Lands End, a stunning, windswept corner of the City. Stopping at the viewpoint shown in the photo 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!

Lands End, San Francisco

Lands End. Photo by Flickr user ingrid_taylar

On the other hand: If I only did smart things, I’d never have jumped off a boat in the middle of the night to swim from Catalina to the mainland, or swum around Manhattan island. Many of my most memorable experiences derived from monumentally stupid ideas. Following this chain of logic, I soon concluded that this cold, choppy, foggy, sharky swim might have some potential.

If it was a good idea, everybody would do it!

Part 2: The Dauntless

Lounging on the second floor of the SERC clubhouse, I sipped coffee and chewed a banana. I was oddly calm. I didn’t worry too much about the cold. A two-hour swim is short enough to maintain a reasonably aggressive pace. For two hours, I could 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 - like so many cattle - into the Dauntless. We motored out into the Bay and headed for the Bridge. There were about 30 of us - 15 swimmers and their paddlers.

Aboard the Dauntless. View of Point Bonita (the furthest point) from under the Golden Gate Bridge.

The mood on the Dauntless was buoyant. It was a glorious, clear morning, with minimal wind and chop. A great day for a swim! 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 unique patch of water in a way that few ever do.

I was an unfamiliar face, so there were some questions and curiosity. I may have engaged in a bit of gamesmanship: “Oh, I swim mostly in the pool. Yeah, my first swim in the Bay was yesterday.” That sort of thing. All of which is true - but perhaps a bit misleading.

The Golden Gate Bridge, as viewed from the Dauntless.

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, 30 miles to the west. 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 removed; caps, goggles, and earplugs affixed. (Prayers silently uttered?) We steeled ourselves for the bracing 54F (12.2C) ocean.

I watched as my fellow adventurers launched themselves from the Dauntless‘ starboard side. I aimed to be one of the last to arrive on the beach: less time to shiver.

Point Bonita, showing swim start & initial path (via Google Earth)

Part 2: Into the Flood

Standing aboard the SERC boat Dauntless, trying to summon feelings of, well… dauntlessness… I wore one blue polyester Speedo Endurance square-leg, two caps (yellow latex on 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.

At the start. Photo by Lee Bruno

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.

Swim course: funner, 3-D Google Earth version

Cathy - my ninja paddler - complied with the first instruction. But then, once we turned east she took a slightly different line, further north. Having a bit more swim speed at my disposal than most, Cathy aimed to take advantage of the stronger currents in the middle of the Bay, knowing I could cross back quickly at the last minute.

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, I’d say… 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 - a few upwellings and cold spots - but who knows.

Photo by Flickr user rstutton

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 - a tradition I adopted last June at MIMS.

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 3: Home Stretch

The last half 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.

Swimming under the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo by Cathy

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. Possibly the other paddlers were simply following our lead, not adjusting for their swimmers’ ability to cut across the current. Clever Cathy.

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.

All the bacon you can eat.

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 it’s good to know I have a 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.

And Cathy… heal up soon, OK? I owe you a paddle.

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Posted in: swim reports Tags: Cathy , San Francisco , SERC