Every year in San Francisco there is a running event from downtown to Ocean Beach, called the Bay To Breakers, as races go it is known more for the crazy costumes and revelry than serious athletic endeavor, but it is one of the major events on the San Francisco calendar. I’ve never run the Bay to Breakers in the 15+ years I have lived here, but when I joined the South End Rowing Club back in 2010 I discovered their own version of the event, a swim from the Bay Bridge to Ocean Beach, and I knew I wanted to do that one day.
In the intervening years the barrier to accomplishing that goal has always been lack of confidence in my ability to handle the cold water of San Francisco Bay for the required amount of time. My longest Bay swims to date had been ~2 hours, but due to the unseasonably warm water we had in 2014 they were at around 60F or warmer. In contrast a Bay To Breakers swim was more likely to be in the mid 50’s and also closer to 3 hours.
As the Bay to Breakers swim is one of the toughest swims on the South End swim calendar, it has a qualifying swim, the hyperbolically named “5 Coves of Death” that is traditionally swum at 5pm on May 5th. This is a great way to test out your capabilities as in the Cove you are never that far from shore, and during the actual 5 Coves event there are support kayakers available.
I’d always managed to miss out on swimming the 5 coves, either through being definitely unprepared or work commitments. This year was slated to be no different, but through a chance conversation with another club member I found out that a number of folk were doing an early (May 3rd) 5 Coves qualifier (as is allowed) due to similar constraints in making the “official” Tuesday date.
Despite not having done a lot of cold water prep I figured this was a great opportunity (worst case I could just get out short of the 5 coves), I am always more motivated for group swims, and I’d felt pretty good on the few swims I had managed to get in this year.
On the day due to some disorganization (briefly lost my goggles and got distracted trying to setup a feed I never used) on my part at the start I ended in the water about 30 seconds behind everyone else, which caused me to go out fast to catch up, which honestly is a bit silly in a 2+ hour swim, but worked to get me in a higher gear than I normally am for a cove swim.
I’m not entirely sure but I think that extra pace and effort helped keep me from feeling cold over the swim, and I managed to complete the whole thing in 2h17m, which is fast by my standards, even on a single cove basis.
Having completed the 5 coves I had not actually resolved to sign up for the Bay to Breakers, but then my friend and Masters swimmer lane mate, Kristin, offered to kayak for me so I figured I pretty much had to 🙂
In an impressive even for me feat of disorganization I managed to mix the date of the swim up, and ended up having to do some rapid re-booking of tickets to get back up to SF from Los Angeles on the Friday before, and then back down again on the Saturday after the swim. Apparently Calendars are a good idea.
For the relatively small number of swimmers involved (24) there are some fairly complicated logistics with every swimmer having a kayaker, and the swimmers being grouped into three pods each with two RIBs (aka Zodiacs) for support and some additional support craft. All this adds up to an obscenely early morning for an early briefing and an early start to the swim. Let me just say that I am not a fan of getting up at 3am.
After the briefing the swimmers were loaded up on the Hyperfish, and taken out to the Bay Bridge. Each pod of swimmers would jump on 20 minute intervals, with the slower swimmers first, and the fastest swimmers last and the middle of the road swimmer’s like myself second. The staggered start worked really well to group all the swimmers up outside the Golden Gate where the pilot coverage would be most needed, I was really impressed with just how clustered everyone was at the actual finish.
The start of the swim was similar to a Bay Bridge swim back to the club (one I have done a couple of times), except that the line we took (following the lead RIB) was much further out into the current since we did not need to deal with getting back to the club. I tried to replicate the 5 Coves swim and went out fairly hard at the start to see if that would help with keeping warm.
For the bridge to club part of the swim each pod was escorted by a pair of RIB’s (a lead RIB to sight off and a sweeper RIB to keep folk on track). I’d not had a lot of experience sighting off a lead boat (as opposed to one alongside) but it worked out decently.
We picked up our individual kayakers at the club, roughly 35 minutes into the swim. My normal feed schedule on a long swim is to start feeding at 60 minutes and then every 30 minutes afterwards, but for a swim that I was thinking was going to be in the 2-3 hour range I was prepared to wing it somewhat, so hadn’t really set anything up with my kayaker. As it was I ended up swimming into another kayaker (who was feeding their swimmer) just before the Golden Gate Bridge around 75 minutes in, and took the opportunity at that point to take what turned out to be my only feed for the swim.
The next 30 minutes of swimming were an interesting exercise in dodging the three container ships that were coming through the Golden Gate. The current had a tendency to keep us closer to the shipping lane than was comfortable for the safety craft, so I was exhorted multiple times by Kristin to head south and away from the shipping lane (“You need to head south NOW! They are pulling swimmers!”). The excellent coverage from the RIB’s kept all swimmers safe, and thanks to the direction from Kristin I managed to avoid being run over or re-positioned.
The next land mark on the swim is Mile Rock, which has the remnants of an old lighthouse on it, so looks like a decrepit concrete cylinder. It is big enough to be easily seen even while swimming, which is both good (easy to sight off) and bad, in that it doesn’t appear to get closer until you are right on it.
After we passed the Golden Gate Bridge I was definitely starting to feel a bit cold, and had developed the “Claw” in both hands (i.e. could not keep my fingers together so my stroke was more raking the water). This was my personal unknown territory, I had no good past benchmarks on how long I could swim like this before getting hypothermic (or even if I was in any danger of getting hypothermic).
This stage of the swim was tough, the swell and waves made breathing cleanly (i.e. not swallowing a mouthful of Pacific Ocean each time) difficult and it was hard to get a good rhythm going which would allow me to zone out. The rapidly not approaching Mile Rock was also not conducive to happy thoughts.
At this point the goal did just become “get to Mile Rock”, as I was fairly confident that if I made it there I would be good to the finish no matter what. Thankfully that goal was eventually achieved and we rounded the corner with Ocean Beach in view.
There was still some tough swimming in that last leg but with the end in sight I was highly motivated and even stopped feeling quite as cold as before (proving that mental state is definitely critical on these sorts of swims). I did unfortunately tip Kristin over in that last bit when she closed with me to warn me to stay further out from Seal Rock because of the swell, but thankfully she was a good sport about it 🙂
A few weeks before the swim the club held some practice sessions about performing beach landings in the surf, and while I have some surf experience (I did grow up in Australia after all) it was useful practise and definitely gave me more confidence coming in after a long swim; that said, the surf was pretty mild and it was mostly a matter of just swimming in and not a lot of need to duck under any big waves, so I arrived safely on the beach in just under 3 hours after I jumped off the Hyperfish, with water temperatures estimated to be in the 54-56F range.
Swims like these don’t happen without an army of volunteers, and apart from all the kayakers and RIB pilots and other boats keeping us safe on the water there was also a large group on the beach including folk in wetsuits and flippers to assist swimmers in, and greeters with gallon jugs of hot water to pour over you (which is the most glorious feeling in the world after 3 hours in cold water).
The club had also parked a truck on the beach with heaters running to function as a makeshift sauna. From past experience on Golden Gate bridge swims I tend to get a pretty brutal “afterdrop” when I don’t have immediate access to a hot shower, sure enough I was shaking uncontrollably within minutes of exiting the water and was thankfully bundled into the truck sauna where I was able to get it together enough to get dressed and come back to some semblance of warmth, and then eventually get shuttled back to the club (clutching one of the remaining gallons of hot water) for a successful completion of the whole event.
While I have done longer swims in the past, the Bay To Breakers was a definite challenge because of the conditions and cold. It was great to push myself from the perspective of a long cold water swim, and if the Boston Light Swim this year turns out to be as cold as it was threatened last year then I think I will be ready.
I am very glad to belong to the South End and be privileged to have the opportunity to crazy swims like this 🙂