San Francisco Bay is home to some of the craziest tidal currents you will encounter anywhere, and generally increases the difficulty in both planning and executing swims in the Bay. Any cross current swims (e.g. Alcatraz to Aquatic Park) have to be carefully timed to prevent the swimmers swept out the gate or further into the bay. Even with favourable tides most swimmers will have to traverse anywhere from an extra 1/4 to 1/2 mile on an Alcatraz Swim.
For some swims though the tidal currents (when properly planned for) can be a boon to the swimmers, and make a very ordinary swimmer feel like Phelps or Thorpe as you rocket along assisted by the flow of the tide.
The Bay Bridge to Aquatic Park swim is one of those swims, and one of the most fun swims on the SERC calendar (in my opinion). The actual swim distance is around 3.25 miles, but the time taken for most swimmers is only a little longer than an Alcatraz crossing, and you get to sightsee along the San Francisco water front for the entire swim.
In Alcatraz crossing it is very easy to hit Aquatic Park down current of the opening if you are not careful (i.e. you should always aim up current of the opening) which can lead to either hard swimming or needing to be “re-positioned” by a zodiac depending on the current and the ability of the swimmer. For this swim, as long as you head in towards aquatic park pretty much as soon as you can see it you are going to make the opening which makes it overall a less technical swim, and contributes to the fun aspect of it.
I rocked up to the club at 5:20am on Sunday, got changed into my swim gear and parka (one of the best investments I made on joining the club was buying a SERC swim parka- invaluable when waiting around for the actual swim to start) and grabbed more coffee waiting for the briefing. As mentioned the swim is one of the less technical ones, so the briefing is relatively simple; probably the biggest logistical challenge is finding car transport for all the swimmers down to the Bay Bridge, though a large van and a minivan seemed to make that easier this year.
While getting ready at the jump site I had small disaster when my yellow swim cap broke as I was putting it on. In a SERC swim all swimmers must wear a yellow swim cap, this serves two purposes, firstly it increases visibility of the swimmers for both the pilots and anyone else who might be on the water, secondly it serves to distinguish the SERC swimmers from any other swims that might be going on. Luckily another member, Jay, had a spare swim cap, which while not technically yellow, was close enough that the swim director Darrin allowed me to swim. Straight after the swim I put a spare cap into my parka to prevent a repeat, and probably should put a spare set of goggles in as well.
The first year I did the swim our jump point was some fairly slippery and barnacle covered steps on which I managed to gash myself on (though I only found that out after I completed the swim and was bleeding in the shower). This year we had the pleasure of jumping off one of the SFFD boats that are moored down by the Bay Bridge. The front of the boat is actually a good height off the water, making the jump somewhat imposing (a few folk elected for the easier jump off the side at the rear), but I figured I was in for the whole experience and went for the leap of doom off the prow (suppressing a explicative as I did) not long after the 6:15am start.
The water in the Bay has been fantastically warm lately (i.e. 61-63F), so no real cold shock jumping in, but still cool enough to shake away whatever cobwebs I still had from the early morning. We’d been instructed to head away from shore initially to get into the current, so I headed out and then turned to parallel the shore.
Inevitably in a mass swim, the swimmers spread out according to their speeds, so the pilots and kayakers have a heck of a job keeping everyone in sight. Swimmers are encouraged to ‘pod up’ i.e. swim in a group of similar swim speeds (SERC swims are rarely about racing), but in the past I’d never really figured out who was around my speed and always ended up pretty much on own.
Early on in this swim I connected with Craig and Steve who seemed to have a compatible speed (Craig was probably a touch faster but would switch to back stroke every now and again allowing Steve and I to keep up), so ended up in pod of three for most of the swim and allowed us to have a dedicated kayaker (the amazing Rainie who did an a great job shepherding us).
Around half way we came up on large yellow buoy, which Craig and Steve climbed on, I’d not realized that was on the cards and had to do a few seconds of hard swimming to get back to clamber on myself. It was incredible to see the water just streaming past the buoy, a very visible reminder of the current we were enjoying.
I ended up the 6th finisher, however many of the faster swimmers in the club were not participating, so I am not reading too much into that, but nice little ego boost nonetheless. Total swim distance ended up being 3.25 miles in 56m:30s, a lovely average pace of 17 minutes/mile, which is nearly double my normal open water pace. A very fun swim and one I look forward to doing next year!