Training Update

Wednesday 12/23/09

I have around 25,000 yards of catch-up drill under my TYR now. Coach Val was absolutely right. This drill makes it impossible to backslide to my old “boogie woogie” stroke. The new style is almost starting to feel ingrained and the sense of sleek propulsion is just delightful. It’s difficult to judge whether I’m faster but in the Dolphin Club NYD Alcatraz qualifier last Saturday, I did finish ahead of people who normally beat me. More importantly, my finish earned me a shower without waiting in a long, cold, shivering line. I also nabbed a seat on the top bench of the sauna. That was a surprising treat given how many men showed up for the swim, many of them quite fast.

Coach has been assigning me all-drill workouts that start with something like ten, three hundred yard stretches punctuated by twenty second breaks between. Then, he’ll have me swim declining intervals of 500 yards, followed by 400, followed by 300, followed by 200, followed by 100. Then he’ll make a video of my stroke for a few lengths of the pool. Last week, we reviewed the first video recording together. It was painful for me to watch, but he was quite pleased. He said rather gleefully, “Your Dolphin friends ask me what I do to you. They say your stroke completely different.” Then he intoned, “This your new stroke. With this stroke, you can swim English Channel. With old stroke ….” At this he pursed his lips, looked down, and shook his head gravely as if contemplating a ship foundering on a leeward shore in a strong gale.

On Tuesday, he had me swim catch-up drills for about an hour and a half. Then he said, “You ready for next step.” He again showed me the “real freestyle” stroke which looks like “almost catch-up.” One hand stays pointed at the end of the swim lane while the other completes a full pull-through and returns forward to just past the head. Slightly before getting touched, the gliding hand begins its pull-through as the other one assumes the glide position and points toward the end of the lane. With this slight adjustment, the stroke generates all the power and glide provided by the catch-up drill while maintaining the maximum possible momentum.

Some time ago, a friend of mine taught me a phrase borrowed from his European friends, “Strong like ox—smart like tractor.” He would illustrate by flexing his biceps and then pointing fingers to each side of his head. A vivid picture of my friend runs through my head as I ply the pool lanes. The catch-up drill is “strong like ox.” The nearly catch-up is the “smart like tractor” part.

Just before I left the pool, Coach showed me a faster turn. My custom has been to grab hold of the pool gutter at the end of the lane and leverage my body around 180 degrees. Coach Val demonstrated a maneuver where the lead hand pushes vigorously against the wall, reversing the upper torso direction while the legs bend at the knees and continue sliding forward. The trailing hand remains pointing at the opposite end and is joined in a diver’s clasp by the one that pushed off the wall. The legs are naturally coiled in a position to immediately jet away from the wall. When executed properly, in one continuous and flowing motion, the swimmer maintains a streamlined profile and reverses course like a darting fish. Coach pointed out that this new turn technique provides a much shorter rest period between changes of direction and provides a better approximation of open water swimming.

He also took me through a brief equipment checklist. “What goggles you use in Channel?” I pointed to the ones on my head. “No allergy?” he asked. I shook my head. “No fogging?” I shook my head. “No leaking?” I shook my head. He said, “Good. Now swimsuit. What you use in Channel?” I pointed to what I was wearing. He asked about chafing or other discomfort. Getting no complaints, he cautioned, “Make sure not too tight. Then can’t pee. And not too loose. Then will cause drag.” The next topic was food. “What you eat?” I told him about Carbo-Pro and the brief testing I’d done. He strongly cautioned me to try it on longer swims in the Bay to ensure no adverse reaction. He also advised me to take along a backup food in case of a sudden change of metabolism mid-Channel. He was happy to hear that Lindsay was going to be the crew chief on the boat, taking charge of feeding and video documentation. He said, “Make sure you work out signals so she knows what you want—water, food, whatever.” I told him that was one of the things we planned to practice on the longer Bay training swims. He smiled and said, “I think you make it. No problem.”

Leaving Koret, I went to the Dolphin Club and swam a big cove putting another four squares up for the Polar Bear. It was a rough and windy day, but my new stroke slid forcefully through the chop. As I sliced through the waves I kept repeating to myself in a Texas two-step rhythm, “Strong like ox—smart like tractor.”

The Polar Bear Challenge

Monday 12/21/09

As it has every year since 1974, the Polar Bear swim started today. Many cities boast “polar bear” swims. In Chicago and Boston, bathers wade into Lake Michigan and the Atlantic on New Year’s Day and stay for several seconds. In the arctic countries, people regularly cut holes in the ice and frolic as many as two minutes. The Dolphin Club Polar Bear lasts all winter. It runs from the Winter Solstice on December 21 until it ends on March 21 with the arrival of the Spring Equinox. Members keep track of their distance in quarter-mile increments on large, quadrilled charts mounted at the entrance to the club. Logically, swimmers often refer to the distance they’ve covered in a day in terms of squares. “We did four squares today—at least a mile.” Since 1984, earning a polar bear requires swimming forty miles (or 160 squares) in the San Francisco Bay or equivalent cold, open water. An official notice on the sign-up sheet some few years ago proclaimed that “the use of wetsuits and/or swim aids is viewed with scorn and contempt.”

This swim was the inspiration of Bill Powning. The original Polar Bear began in 1974 when the requirement was set at twelve miles. In those days, Bay swimming was pretty much confined to the relatively warmer summers. For both clubs at the time, handball was the predominant winter sport. It vied only with holiday bacchanalia for popularity. Mr. Powning wanted to swim in the winter, though, and he wanted company. Cleverly, he titled the event “The Polar Bear Challenge” knowing what would spur maximum participation from the all-male membership at the time. It worked. Over the years, the mileage bar rose to eighteen, then twenty, then thirty, until it reached its current mark at forty miles. In the early 1990’s some members, perhaps facetiously, agitated for a fifty mile Polar Bear. They met with stalwart resistance and the topic was soon dropped.

Since its inception, earning a “polar bear” has meant being recognized with the gift of a three-quarter inch block of white marble. For virgin recipients, these awards are mounted with a small replica of a polar bear. Perversely, this trinket is not distributed until the November awards dinner. The memento provides a timely reminder to participants of their previous winter accomplishment and tacitly encourages them to go for one more.

For many, these marble blocks stray into drawers and closets and other hidden corners; perhaps serving as a paperweight here or a doorstop there. Not so for Mr. Powning. He glued his blocks together, creating a towering trophy reflecting the glory of his consecutive string of successful polar bears. By the time he stopped swimming, Mr. Powning held the undisputed record. The current consecutive polar bear record belongs to Vincent Huang whose first polar bear dates to the 1978-1979 season. Emulating the Polar Bear Challenge founder, Mr. Huang's stack of thirty-one glued marble blocks is only a few short years from reaching a full yard long. Mimi Osborne holds the women’s record. She started swimming the polar bear in 1980, shortly after women were admitted to the Dolphin Club. Her consecutive string stands at twenty-nine.

It wasn’t until the 1984-1985 season that the custom emerged of crowning a polar bear champion. The occasion for this was the first polar bear of more than one hundred miles. Elmer Tosta swam 101.5 miles that winter. His name was the first to grace the perpetual trophy plaque that hangs in the Staib Room of the Dolphin Club today. Since then, nine people have swum 200 miles or more during the Polar Bear Challenge. Among these is Joe Illick, a four-time winner who snagged his first championship at the age of 69. George Kebbe set a record many believed unsurpassable when he swam 255 miles one winter. A few winters later, though, Suzie Dods swam 256 miles. The next year, Mr. Kebbe returned to swim 356 miles, a mark that would surely stand forever. And it did until Ralph Wenzel tied the record with his own 356 mile polar bear in 2007.

A new wrinkle in the Polar Bear Challenge is recognition for the “first to forty.” The year of its inception, the competition was over before the New Year began. Then Peter Perez extended the idea of “double-dipping.” Most modern Polar Bear Challenge winners swim twice a day. It’s simply too cold to swim four miles in one effort. However, a “triple dip” would inevitably evoke remark. Mr. Perez had a theory, though. He hypothesized that a person could repeatedly swim a distance to the point of becoming only slightly uncomfortable; warm up; and immediately return to the water. He considered sleep deprivation the only barrier to doing this indefinitely. Putting his theory to the initial test in 2006, he successfully swam all forty miles in slightly more than four days. Copying his method, faster swimmers have shaved that record to about three and a half days.

Mr. Perez’ goal this year is to swim forty miles in less than two days. He started his first dip at 12:01a this morning. By 9:00a, he was working on his eighth mile. He is scheduled to attempt the English Channel in August, 2010 and believes that this effort is good physical and mental preparation. Although the swimming itself is interrupted, it has many of the same elements of discipline, pain, and constant exertion over a long period.

I’m sorry that Bill Powning can’t bear witness to these extraordinary endeavors. He was a wonderful sauna companion and would surely have some entertaining remarks regarding the evolution of his original notion.

The Mendoza Line

Wednesday 12/16/09

Lou Marcelli is the grizzled eminence grise of the Dolphin Club. Actor, chef, and club commodore, Mr. Marcelli maintains a disciplined year-round swimming schedule. As an avid baseball fan and keen observer of Bay water temperatures, he was the first to appropriate the phrase “Mendoza Line.”

Shortstop Mario Mendoza has long been known for setting the major league standard for beggarly batting average. Baseball players who strike the ball successfully one out of three times enjoy outsize acclaim and riches. A lifetime batting average of .333 is among the performance statistics that will trigger candidacy for the Baseball Hall of Fame. In fact, anything at or near the .300 mark qualifies as a remarkable hitting career.

George Brett, with a lifetime batting average of .305, is apocryphally credited with saddling Mr. Mendoza with his unfortunate distinction. The term applies to a player who fails to safely strike the ball in two out of ten plate appearances. As such, anyone failing to hit at least .200 is “below the Mendoza Line.” As with other colloquial phrases the origins of this one are in some dispute. Some historians theorize that years ago, when the Sunday papers didn’t report all batting averages, Mario Mendoza provided the demarcation below which this statistic was absent. Others suggest that this is a reference to failing to “hit your weight,” when a ballplayer’s batting average is less than his body weight in pounds. In this case, the Mendoza line fluctuates.

As it relates to the Bay, the Mendoza line doesn’t fluctuate. When the water chills to below 50 degrees, the line is breached. For Dolphins who are aware of this boundary, it takes a spectral form. As the temperature nears 50, Mendoza is sighted descending from Mt. Tamalpais. At 50, Mendoza is knocking on the door. When the temperature cracks the south side of 50, Mendoza takes up residence at the Oprah buoy. When the temperature remains below 50 for several days or weeks, Mendoza and his extended family are camped in a freezing caravan at the Oprah, toasting marshmallows, and singing “Let it Snow.”

Most Dolphins will agree to four general categories of Bay water temperature. Above 60 degrees is “balmy.” Between 55 and 60 is “brisk.” Between 50 and 55 is “cold.” Below the Mendoza line, it’s “f***ing freezing.”

Regarding the latter category, the betting usually revolves around whether Mendoza will arrive in time for the New Year’s Day Alcatraz swim. This year, the plunging thermometer has the smart money riding on his appearance before the Polar Bear starts on December 21st. Odds are currently at 5:1 and my money’s on Mendoza.

South End Qualifier

Saturday 12/12/09

Both Bay swimming clubs conduct numerous organized swims each year. Of the pure swim events, though, the New Year’s Day Alcatraz is hard to beat. It is easily the most adrenaline-fueled swim of the year. On one end of the scale, the greyhounds of both clubs show up in force. The vibe that emanates from Olympic class and near-Olympic class athletes is palpable. And this isn’t just sitting in the stands, admiring phenomenal performances. This is checking in, riding the boat to the island, and jumping in the water shoulder to shoulder with swimmers among the top two percent of the world. This is total immersion in a bath of fast-twitch fibers.

On the other end of the scale are the folks for whom finishing is an uncertain goal. The water temperature is often below fifty degrees as it will be this year. At close to one and a half miles, the swim is longish for slower swimmers. The currents on New Year’s Day are typically quite strong. Anxiety adds spice to the competitive pheromones circulating in the air, creating an intoxicating mixture.

Gaiety is the third contribution to this emotional soup. For a large portion of the swimmers and pilots, this is not a race; it’s a celebration and a lark. What better way to start the New Year? What fun it is to bob around in the icy Bay in the early morning while most other people are sleeping off their New Year’s Eve excesses. Silly hats, costumes, and body paint contribute to the celebratory atmosphere. If CNN or other news agencies show up, all the more giddiness.

The South End is the annual host for this dual-club extravaganza. Volunteers plan the jump time, arrange for swimmer transportation to the rock, conduct the briefing, provide timing and recording, and ensure adequate pilot coverage. The South End swim commissioner is responsible for making the final determination to start the swim or not. Dense fog or lightning can jeopardize the safety of all.

Among other safety measures in place is the requirement for participants to complete a qualifying swim. Qualifying swims approximate the chill and distance that will be encountered on NYD and provide a reliable indication of a candidate’s ability to finish. Each club operates its own qualifier and Saturday was the occasion for the South End.

Chris Blakeslee, usually referred to by his nickname, El Sharko, successfully swam the Channel in 2004. He piloted the South End qualifier and took pictures. One of my favorites is his close-up of the digital thermometer at the Kebbe showing 50.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

The South End course was an “inside/outside.” This is code for swimming to the east end of the breakwater on the shore side, or “inside.” The next leg consists of turning around and swimming back to the Opening on the Bay side, or “outside” the breakwater. From the Opening, we closely hugged Muni Pier (no shortcuts under the Roundhouse), looped around the Goal Posts and the Flag, and ended at the club beach. It was a blast! I’m eagerly anticipating the big day.

Stroke Breakthrough

Thursday 12/10/09

Coach Val has been giving me stroke advice and correction. He teaches the same way that Clint Eastwood reportedly directs movies—simple, direct, and succinct. Last week, at the end of two hours, he stood at the end of my lane and said, “Larry!” Once he had my attention, he said, “Stroke getting better.” Then he held his arms over his head with his hands about three feet apart and said, “Was like this.” Then he moved his hands two feet apart and said, “Now like this.” Then he moved his hands six inches apart and said, “Make like this.” Then he walked away.

Tuesday, I did another two hour swim at Koret. Coach started me off with a 500 yard freestyle warm-up. Then he had me do eight iterations of 800 yard intervals with a 50 second rest between each. He ended this with kicking four short lengths. This workout put me well ahead of schedule for two hour swims. It was still early morning when I got back to my office. I updated the planning calendar with a more aggressive schedule, including a five hour swim in the pool in March. Writing these numbers on the laminate immediately boosted my confidence for meeting or exceeding my Bay goals when the water starts warming up in April.

During one of the rest periods between the 800’s, Coach said, “Stroke is better. Keep practicing.” I was thrilled. I like to think of myself as a quick study and have been disappointed that I can’t seem to immediately implement the stroke guidance he’s been volunteering. This morsel of praise was delectable.

At the end of the session, though, Coach said, “Larry! Listen to me—very important. When you get tired, you go back old way swimming. It will take you 14 or 15 hours to swim Channel. Concentrate when tired. Practice all the time—at home—in Bay.” Discouraging as it was to hear, the criticism goaded me to redouble my attention to stroke mechanics.

Back in the pool on Thursday, Coach started me with 250 yards of freestyle in a lane by myself. He came over after a few laps; smiled; and said, “Very good. Making progress.” It was fortunate that I was wearing only a standard swimming costume as my swelling chest encountered no buttons to bust.

Then he had me do 2,500 yards of catch-up drill. “You know catch-up?” he asked. He pantomimed a freestyle stroke where both hands are raised straight above the head and touching one another. Then the left starts its downward motion, tracing as much of the centerline of the body as it can reach. All the while, the right hand stays extended high above the head until the left catches up and plays “tag, you’re it.” Triggered by this touch, the right hand begins its own downward descent and dissection of the body’s centerline until it returns high above the head to greet the patiently waiting left. He repeated this motion a couple of cycles and then grinned wolfishly at me. “Will make it impossible to do this.” At which point he rotated both arms wildly away from his body in a frenzied imitation of the stroke I’d originally brought to his pool.

Executing the first couple of hundred of yards of this drill, my stroke rate was about half of normal. In order to get adequate air, I had to breathe on every stroke. This led to the exhilarating discovery that breathing on the left didn’t feel nearly as awkward doing the catch-up stroke. My entire body was rotating a full 180 degrees with each stroke, making getting a breath on either side more natural. I then concentrated on increasing my stroke rate to near-normal while diligently touching each hand to the other. It felt like I was jetting forward at the end of each stroke, much like the feeling of a jet turn on snow skis in hip-deep powder. And the improved bi-lateral breathing comfort came with no additional charge.

Coach cruised by from time to time with a huge smile on his face, giving me two enthusiastic thumbs up. At one point he stopped and showed me a dry land version of front-quadrant swimming. He demonstrated a stroke that was “nearly catch-up.” The hands never actually touched, but both arms were well above shoulder level before the stroke was initiated. As his arms swung gracefully over his head, he began to bounce his torso up and down in rhythm, giving a dry land illustration of the jetting effect. Then he started chanting, “one … two … one … two” and stepping lightly from side to side as if doing the Texas two-step. With a big grin he said, “This is real freestyle.”

I was in the pool for less than an hour and a half, but was becoming absolutely pooped. In order to rest, I’d periodically slow my rotation rate back down to half-normal and still focus on touching one hand to the other and cleaving the body’s centerline with each stroke. As I tired, I felt an increasing urge to jettison the straightjacket of the graceful, balletic style and return to my wanton, boogie-woogie roots. This was plenty for one day as far as I was concerned.

Coach asked me to bring a video recorder to the next session. He said, “You’re ready for next step.” I was too tired to ask what the next step might be. There was a single predominant thought coursing through my brain. I probably needed another 50,000 yards of catch-up drill if I'm going to build the requisite “real freestyle” muscles and permanently excise the last vestige of the boogie-woogie stroke from my mind. After all, it’s a long way across that ditch.

Virgin Sunriser (Almost)

Wednesday 12/09/09

Ralph Wenzel and I are getting into a flow of Monday and Wednesday morning swims in the Bay. It’s just delightful to have a steady swim companion. Besides the camaraderie, there’s the spur to extra effort. Now that the water temperature is around 52 degrees and dropping, it’s reassuring to have the company of a fellow frigid soul. There’s also the added creativity regarding course selection.

Ralph taught me the “Maylander” course on Monday. We did a clockwise Cove, looping around the Flag and Goal Posts, hugging Muni Pier, under the Roundhouse and out to the Bad Becky. Then we reversed course and unwound the previous route in the counter-clockwise direction until we reached the Oprah. Then we swam under the Hyde Street Pier, up the fairway on the other side, around the Bad Becky and over to the Kebbe to check the thermometer there. From the Kebbe, it’s a short sprint back to the beach and hot showers and sauna. I’m not sure who Maylander is, but the swim was exhilarating. I’ll have to remember to ask Ralph about the course architect next Monday.

Ralph and I planned to swim with the Sunrisers this morning. They have been advertising a Pier 7 swim on the SERC chat group and that’s right up my alley for training purposes. It’s about a two mile swim, but should only take about forty-five minutes with the strong anticipated ebb at seven a.m. That’s a little shorter than what I’ve been doing lately, but it’s not as sheltered as Aquatic Park and has more than a modicum of “open ocean” ambience.

South End customs and common courtesy require the swimmers to help put the pilot boats away after the swim. I’m more nervous about that than I am about the swim itself. These Sunrisers are decidedly much tougher than I. The water’s cold. The air is colder. When a swim is completed, I’m ready to hightail it to the sauna. Nevertheless, I had brought my swim coat and was determined to do my part.

Ralph and I showed up at six a.m. We were there in plenty of time to help prepare and launch the “Zods,” the inflatable, motorized craft the Sunrisers use for piloting and transportation to the start. In the process, I overheard someone say that they were calling “an Alcatraz audible.” Pricking up my ears, I heard one swimmer ask if perhaps the building ebb might be a deterrent to making it to the Aquatic Park opening from Alcatraz. The reply was, “Oh, we’ll probably end up at Coughlan Beach or Fort Mason.” Well, that put a new twist on things.

I was worried before about postponing a hot shower and sauna to help pull boats. Now, I was facing scrambling into a Zodiac in the forty degree air after the swim, possibly waiting for slower swimmers, and then whizzing through the chilling breeze for another ten or fifteen minutes to get to the dock where I could help pull the boats. These Sunrisers are WAY tougher than I!

Ralph asked someone what happened to the Pier 7 plan. The answer involved a second Sunriser group (who knew there was more than one?) that swims from Alcatraz every Wednesday. The decision was to combine the two swims and increase the merriment.

I was really looking forward to getting to know these people a little better. I’d been following some of them on the SERC and Channel chat groups and knew they were on the wild and crazy side. That held more than a little appeal. This turn of events, however, shorted my circuits. Suddenly a nice, boring, two mile swim in the Cove wasn’t looking so bad. Ralph and I consulted briefly. He was still willing to go for it, but he said, “I’ve done this before. Getting into the Zodiac after a really cold swim is just miserable!” Getting to know the members of the other club was just going to have to wait.

I scratched our names off the sign-up list and we made our adieus. A few minutes later, we were on the club beach in our standard swim costumes and sporting our blinking lights. The Sunrisers were piling into the Zodiacs at the end of the dark dock and heading out for their jump at Alcatraz.

Ralph suggested we swim the Kebbe course today. I was still muddled from the hectic scene next door, so I needed to ask what that was. “Oprah, Flag, Oprah, Flag, Oprah, Flag, Oprah, Flag, Oprah.” Of course. Mr. Kebbe is still famous for his undeviating route to a 356 mile Polar Bear. We wound up doing a Modified Kebbe with a Maylander Flourish. That’s a mile and a half of back and forth followed by a trip under Hyde Street Pier, around the end, and back. We had a blast.

Standing under a hot shower afterwards, we agreed that we’d made the right choice. It’s still a long time until September and I’ll have plenty of chances to become more familiar with the folks next door. Today was a fascinating introduction, though.

My Blog Made Me Do It

Sunday 12/06/09

Holy Mackerel! A torrent of response to this blog has burst forth in the last couple of days. Nancy Friedman, Chief Wordworker at, publicized the blog in a couple of places and my email in-basket swelled with well-wishes. Responding to this outpouring causes me to realize a couple of things.

One discovery is that I very much enjoy writing about this mission ... quest ... thing. The writing compliments and inspires the physical training. Among the ideas that drift through my head during a long training swim are potential topics for a new blog entry. I’ll write and rewrite a sentence in my head for a half mile or more until a phrase erupts that makes me chuckle. Susan Sward, a professional writer of renown and member of the Dophin Club recently told me she believed that writing about the doing is mutually reinforcing. That's certainly been my experience.

The second thought that emerges is, “I can’t quit now.” It has gotten to the point that I feel I would be letting a lot of people down not to pursue this project to its logical denouement. What is perhaps more compelling is that I, too, want to find out what happens next and how the story ends. This evokes the image of a Hollywood script with plenty of room left for the actors’ improvisations. It’s a road trip, quest, and buddy story all rolled into one and chock full of drama, comedy, and mystery. Sometimes I feel as if I’m merely the chronicler.

I also like learning this new stuff. Researching various topics for blog entries gratifies my dormant inner student. Sharks in the English Channel. Nuances of tidal diamond interpretation. Hypothermia treatment protocols. All of these topics provide opportunities to put the vast resources of the internet to use. I intend to visit the library for the first time in thirty-five years to gain access to expensive scientific journals not available for free on the internet. This will give me source material for an informed essay on topics such as brown fat vs. white fat and swim-specific weight training. I hope not to find reason to research topics such as injuries to the shoulder due to repetitive use.

Anne Lamott penned a hysterically funny book about writing called, “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” The humor embodies an ardent love letter to truth and beauty and the writing process. Lindsay gave me this book many years ago. Reading it kindled a desire to wrestle with words, paint pictures for the mind, and tell stories. In Ms. Lamott's book, she relentlessly advises the aspiring writer to simply sit down and write. Come to think of it, that’s a whole lot like the admonition to just shut up and swim. The writing and the doing are truly fraternal twins.

How's the Training Going?

Tuesday 12/01/09

I finally bit the bullet and joined the USF Masters Swim Team. Channel swimmer, Duke Dahlin, took me under his wing and ushered me through the somewhat intimidating process of applying, registering, and orientation. Mr. Dahlin introduced me to Coach Valeriy Boreyko who kindly admitted me to the program. Coach Val excused several of my Masters shortcomings. 1: I’m hopeless at any stroke but freestyle. 2: I’m not competent at flip turns. 3: I’m not very interested in pool competition. Ignoring these deficiencies, Coach has agreed to concoct a personalized program to help improve my chances for a successful crossing. My pool goals are to get in some additional mileage during the winter, work on stroke technique, and increase my sprint capacity with interval training.

In the Bay, I’m swimming a little over two miles five days a week. The temperature is closing in on 53 degrees and I’m uncomfortably cold after an hour. Ralph Wenzel and I have begun swimming together and he graciously adjusts his pace to mine. It’s simply terrific having a companion in the cove and Ralph has impeccable credentials. From December 21, 2006 through March 21, 2007, he swam 365 miles in San Francisco Bay. In those 90 days of winter, he went to work, swam two miles in the morning, went back to work, and then swam two more miles that evening. It was not a warm winter and he took nearly no days off. He’s quite an inspiration.

Lindsay found a laminated yearly planner for me online. The calendar is two feet by three feet and occupies a prominent place on my office wall. I’ve made several entries with dry-erase markers. The start and end of my Channel window are in red. Our airline travel days are in green. For the long Bay swims, I’ve used big blue numbers to indicate my intended hours in the water. During the winter, I’ve marked long pool swims with black numbers. A laminated surface and dry-erase markers were a good idea. We’ve already made multiple modifications of our own. When I told Coach that I intended to do a ten or twelve hour swim a month before my window, he pursed his lips and shook his head and said, “I don’t think that’s enough recovery time. I will check.”

Lindsay bought me a green swim cap that says, “Eat, Swim, Sleep.” That pretty much sums up the current phase of preparation. Gazing at the planner on the wall, more swimming looms.

Don't You Get Cold?

Sunday 11/22/09

The water temperature has begun to descend on its annual glide path to a landing somewhere in the low 50’s or high 40’s Fahrenheit. There are a couple of signs the temperature is dropping aside from the wall gauge at the Dolphin Club and the digital thermometer at the Kebbe buoy. As the water becomes more frigid, the chirping increases. Some of the swimmers have thermometers on their watches. A common refrain arises as one individual encounters another known to carry this equipment. “What did you get on your watch today?” Each winter, members from both clubs interpolate these assorted measures to establish a consensus calibration.

Another sure sign of increasing cold is the disappearance of people who swim in wetsuits. During the summer months, as many as two hundred neoprene-encased swimmers ply up and down the buoy line of Aquatic Park. They often form groups of fifty or more to engage in jogs on the beach and sand-based calisthenics before venturing into the brine. Come Thanksgiving, perhaps half a dozen wetsuit wearers remain. By January, there will be more swimmers wearing birthday suits than wetsuits.

The body’s mewling provides a reliable scale of cold for most winter swimmers. Lindsay Casablanca says, “I know it’s getting colder. I can feel it in my hips. I can feel it in my knees.” When the water is at or below fifty degrees, most people complain that walking on the sand after a swim feels like shuffling through a bed of hot coals. In the water, fingers splay open and on the beach, mouths refuse to elicit even simple words of greeting.

Of course, tolerance to the cold varies widely. Mike Rollieri was renowned for his imperviousness. A slow swimmer, he needed an hour and fifty minutes to finish a New Years Day Alcatraz swim. A dark-room thermometer recorded the temperature at 49.3 that day. When Mike finished his swim, he calmly retrieved the stick noting his last place finish and then strolled down the dock in his dripping swimsuit to help pull the heavy wooden pilot boats out of the water. Scott Haskins, another English Channel crosser regularly stays in the sauna for less than ten minutes even after long swims on the coldest days. I suspect that he is actually seeking the warmth of camaraderie rather than the warmth of the heated enclosure.

The severest case of hypothermia of which I am aware happened in 1987. The water was below fifty and the cove was turbulent with a winter tempest. Susan Cobb-Frederick and Bill Horgos were swimming to the Flag when they spotted what they thought was an orange buoy broken loose from its ground tackle. Getting closer, they recognized a friend of theirs from the South End bobbing face down in the heaving water. Susan and Bill flipped him over and towed him to the nearest shore in front of the Maritime Museum building. His mouth frothed with pulses of air bubbles. Susan jogged down the beach to summon help from the Dolphin Club.

A party of four or five men snared the closest available sedan and drove down the road in front of the Maritime Museum to meet Bill. The unconscious gentleman was locked in rigid attention as if in a state of rigor mortis or perfect military bearing. The men had to carry him like a plank board to the waiting car and slide him into the back seat with his legs sticking out the side. One man jogged beside the rescue vehicle, holding the door to keep it from smacking into the limbs of the victim. They shuttled the stiff carcass up the stairs to the relatively closer and more commodious Dolphin Club sauna.

Apparently, the stricken swimmer had jumped with the Sunrisers that morning from pier 41 ½ to ride the strong ebb back to Aquatic Park. Overcome by hypothermia and overlooked by his companions, he was drifting in a state of mammalian diving reflex. A paramedic squad arrived shortly and began ministrations. Some while later, the swimmer regained consciousness. An ambulance took him to the hospital where he fully recovered. At the hospital, the medical staff dried out his lungs and advised him that, while not always fatal, nearly drowning was something to avoid. Undeterred, he has continued to swim in the ocean for many years.

Another person that survived dampened lungs was an aspirant to swim the English Channel. She was training for her first attempt. She was swimming around the Bay accompanied by a motor craft. In the fifth hour of her eight hour practice swim, she was near Angel Island in fifty-three degree water. The attendant crew were feeding her on thirty minute intervals and checking regularly on her well-being. Although she didn’t reply to repeated questions at feeding time, she was notorious for being remarkably taciturn. A pace swimmer leaped into the water to provide tempo and shortly had to stop saying, “I can’t swim this slow. I’m getting cold.”

Since both swimmers were quite fast and nearly equal speed, this prompted intense, renewed scrutiny. Closer inspection of the channel aspirant revealed grey skin, slowed stroke rate, and a sunken profile in the water. Saltwater inhalation had severely damaged her swimming ability, but she was still stroking away like a metronome. The crew pulled the swimmer into the watercraft and rushed her to shore. Alerted by radio, emergency medical technicians were waiting to administer to the nearly drowned swimmer and ferry her to the hospital. She also recovered completely from her escapade and successfully swam the English Channel the following year.

The coldest person I ever saw was first discovered in difficulty at the shoreline between the piers of the Dolphin and South End clubs. Unable to speak and unable to swim, two men dragged him from the bay. With a man at each elbow, they steered him up the twenty-four stairs of the Dolphin club in a Frankenstein-like lurch. By the time they reached the sauna, the sufferer had become as rigid as one of the Chinese terracotta warriors. His supporters had to rock and twist him from side to side like a piece of plywood to march him into the heated room.

He seized onto the upper sauna bench and became rooted. His assistants couldn’t persuade him to sit or move and physical attempts to help him bend his extremities met with a low ghoulish howl. His mouth was frozen in a rictus grin and his eyes were wide and unblinking like those of a linebacker in mid play. Drool dangled from his chin, swinging slimily from side to side as various people jostled to administer aid.

By now, a half dozen people were engaged in a chaotic discussion as to the best course of action. There are as many theories regarding hypothermia treatment as there have been hypothermia victims at the club. Some recommend a lukewarm shower. Some recommend a hot shower. Some recommend hot sauna and no shower. Some recommend a seat on the lower bench of the sauna. Some recommend hot packs placed under the arms and at the femoral artery sites. Some recommend hot or warm drinks. A comparative consensus involves wrapping the patient in blankets. One person took the practical course of wiping the drool away.

The paramedic team arrived, strapped the still-not-lucid man into a gurney, and carted him to a waiting ambulance. He hadn’t swum a remarkable distance and the fifty-three degree water was not exceptionally cold. As a year-round Bay swimmer for over twenty years, he had never had a problem with hypothermia. The culprit turned out to be a faulty mitral valve in his heart. The valve had been steadily deteriorating and leaking away his circulatory supply of oxygen. The condition eroded so gradually that he was unaware of the adverse effect on his swimming. As the water chilled that year, trouble finally made its surprise attack. With a surgically repaired mitral valve, he now braves the waters as he did before.

My most hypothermic moment happened in 1999. I was competing to become the Polar Bear champion that year and had become somewhat obsessive. At the end of that winter, I had begun swimming three miles in the morning and two miles in the evening on Saturday and Sunday. Monday through Friday, I would swim two miles in the morning and one mile in the evening. The water temperature had been below fifty all but three days during that Polar Bear season and that particular Saturday, it was forty-seven degrees.

A friend convinced me to swim with him on the east side of the Hyde street pier, which added a quarter mile to the first large loop around the Park. My companions went back to the club as I continued on to complete my two additional loops. I was wearing two caps which ameliorate the cold considerably. Still, as I plowed under the Roundhouse the third time, I was getting a bit nervous and had another quarter mile back to the beach. I knew that hypothermia sneaks up on a person much like bleeding to death. Just before the onset of catalepsy, a warm sense of well-being envelopes the swimmer.

I was certainly not having a warm sense of well-being. I was uncomfortably cold and having supreme difficulty touching my thumb to my little finger, a simple test for hypothermia. I made a concentrated effort to maintain an even stroke rate and tried to do simple arithmetic puzzles in my head. Arithmetic has always been a needs-improvement area for me and no one was around to check my results but it did keep me occupied.

I rounded the Bad Becky, scooted down the side of the Balclutha and behind the Eppleton Hall, and skirted past the Oprah to complete the last hundred yards. It had taken me an hour and forty minutes to swim the three and a quarter miles. Reaching shore, I locked attention onto the stairs at the foot of the back deck. Seizing hold of the grab bar, I carefully dipped my feet into the foot bath to wash off the sand. From there, I lurched to the handrail at the bottom of the staircase leading to the men’s locker room. I stumped my way up and made a beeline for the closest showerhead.

Standing under the hot water I was shaking uncontrollably, but this was not uncommon. This winter had been the coldest in recent club memory and everyone shook from time to time. Also, everyone knew my Polar Bear aspiration and was accustomed to seeing me in a violent shiver.

As the shower sluiced off the back of my neck and shoulders, I concentrated on maintaining focus, knowing that a delicate stage of hypothermia comes with the after-drop. After-drop occurs when the cold blood from the limbs is forced back into the body, further lowering the core temperature. This is the reason many people eschew hot showers for those afflicted with hypothermia, but I’ve found it the most comfortable way to get back to normal.

While I was under the shower, a young, fit man whom I hadn’t seen before strolled into the foyer between the showers and the sauna and promptly fainted dead away. He toppled like a Douglas fir to the tile floor and bounced twice on his back before lying inert. His posture was so perfect that his back and shoulders absorbed the fall, protecting his head from the hard tile floor.

When short-term attempts to reanimate him failed, someone called 911. Within a couple of minutes, though, the young man revived on his own and bounced up, seemingly none the worse for wear. Apparently, his prospective father-in-law had challenged him to a swim in the icy Bay. They only swam a couple of hundred yards, but they decided to chase the chills away with some manly portions of brandy. Thus, the sudden syncope and equally sudden recovery.

About ten minutes later, I was sitting on the top bench of the sauna shaking and bouncing like a ball bearing in the back of a pickup truck on a bumpy road. The son-in-law and his new relative were devising strategy for dealing with the rescue squad. The city of San Francisco assesses a hefty fee for delivery of pre-hospital emergency medical care. The in-law's strict admonishment was to refuse all medical assistance.

Still shaking violently, I was worried that the paramedics’ attention might center on me. When they burst into the sauna asking, “Who’s hypothermic?” I immediately pointed a convulsing arm toward the young man and exclaimed, “Hee-hee-hee HE IS!” The medical technicians focused on him and never gave me another glance.

The politics of liability generated a lively debate between the rescue team and the potential family of the recently fainted. Eventually, the EMT’s asked the young man to sign a waiver, acknowledging his refusal of care. When he demurred, the squad leader was summoned to act as a third party witness. As she arrived, the technicians advised us to cover up. My motor coordination was still absent enough that I fumbled clumsily to reposition my towel from my butt to my lap.

It took about forty-five minutes from the time I left the water to return to normal. It was a distinctly disagreeable experience. Although I still get hypothermic from time to time, I’ve managed to not approach this intensity since.

How Far Is It?

Wednesday 11/18/09

For someone with sufficient curiosity, the best English Channel visual aid available is the “Dover Straits Western” Admiralty chart number 1892. The chart provides a mariner’s view of what the French call Le Manche or “the sleeve.” It’s absolutely packed with maritime information including the location of firing practice areas. With some difficulty, Lindsay ordered a copy and we now have it mounted to a cork board in our dining room. We use different colored pins to mark significant spots. This gives us a handy way to familiarize ourselves with the challenge and train mentally for the undertaking.

The shortest distance between England and Europe is across the Dover Strait. This is a narrow band of water that forms an hourglass pinch in the English Channel. The bulk of cross-channel swims start at Shakespeare beach, just southwest of Dover Harbor. The most favorable landfall would then be at Cap Gris Nez in France, a rocky promontory south of Calais, which pokes its grey nose towards England. A straight line from Shakespeare Beach to Cap Gris Nez is 18.15 nautical miles. As with most measures, international standards bodies have been tweaking the various definitions but, as of 1929, a nautical mile is the equivalent of 1.15 statute miles, making it 20.89 miles or 33,123.75 meters across for us landlubbers.

Captain Matthew Webb was the first English Channel swimmer. He succeeded using breaststroke in 1875 with a time of twenty-one hours and forty-five minutes. The fastest verified swim crossing is just under seven hours in 2007, a record held by a Bulgarian, Petar Stoychev. Michael Phelps set a world record in the 200 meter freestyle at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 with a time of slightly less than one minute and forty-three seconds. If Mr. Phelps could string one hundred sixty-six of these performances together in open water, he could cross the English Channel in about four and three-quarter hours.

In addition to a swimmer’s speed, wind and tide contribute considerably to the crossing time. Le Manche is subject to semidiurnal tide flows. As in San Francisco Bay, there are two high tides and two low tides each day. This produces an oscillating current known as a tidal stream. Each day, the current flows north on the two flood tides and south on the two ebb tides. Since the swim is west to east (starts in France no longer being sanctioned), the tidal current is mostly perpendicular to the swimmer. If all goes well, the current will push the swimmer one direction for about half the swim. Then, the current changes direction and pushes the swimmer the other direction for half the swim, resulting in a safe landing at the closest point, Cap Gris Nez. The land recedes east on either side of the cape and with the complicating factor of tides, a swimmer missing the preferred landfall may take some extra hours to complete the journey. This is why it is so critical for the pilot to have a reliable account of the swimmer’s speed in order to calculate the proper jump time.

In addition to twice daily variations, the average amplitude of the tides also modulates roughly twice a month. When the moon and the sun are on opposite sides of the earth, the full moon appears in its entire splendor. With the sun tugging on one side of the earth and the moon tugging on the other, the Channel and San Francisco Bay experience the highest high tides and the lowest low tides. The phenomenon repeats itself when the moon and the sun occupy the same side of the earth and tug in unison. From the earth’s perspective, the moon is at its “new” or “dark” stage. Mariners call the extra large swings during these two phases of the moon spring tides. In between the full and new moons are the two half moons. The relatively smaller swings during this period are the neap tides. Most swims are launched during the neap tide windows in order to minimize the potential for miscalculation or mishap. However, strong (or desperate) swimmers and experienced pilots will happily tackle a spring tide crossing.

Viewed from above, a swimmer’s track across the face of the earth will be more or less serpentine depending on the strength of the tide and the speed of the swimmer. As witnessed from a global positioning satellite, this course is the “ground track.” The ground track may cover far more than the strict twenty-one statute miles across the ditch. That doesn’t mean that the swimmer is swimming any farther, though.

Imagine a river one mile wide with perfectly straight sides running exactly north and south. If the river is completely still and a swimmer crosses on a due east trajectory, the “water track” will be precisely one mile and the “ground track” will be identical to the water track. With a strong current flowing south, the swimmer will still swim one mile through the water by maintaining a 90 degree angle to the current. The difference is that the landing will happen farther south, making the ground track and water track diverge. If the swimmer completes a mile in thirty minutes, the crossing will take thirty minutes regardless of whether a current is flowing or not. If the current happened to flow the same speed south for fifteen minutes and then suddenly reverse and flow north at the opposite speed for fifteen minutes, the swimmer would wind up on the shore at the same place as if there were no current. In this case, the water track would be straight and the ground track would be convex or peaked.

Based on this trigonometry, pilot’s will generally try to “T the tide,” keeping the swimmer perpendicular to the current. This is not a simple matter of maintaining an east-west heading. Undersea ridges such as Le Colbart and The Varne will subtly alter the current direction. Also, depending on the time before or after high water, the current will shift as it fills or exits bays and rounds promontories. Mike Oram has posted a brilliant introductory exposition of the vagaries that shape a pilot’s decisions throughout the crossing in the Channel Swimmers Google group. He is especially lucid on the topic of tidal diamonds.

Wind is arguably the most important dynamic in a successful swim. It affects water movement and can make the surface rough and choppy. It takes some practice to maintain a smooth and powerful stroke when the water is bouncing around like a wash load set to “agitate.” Wind is also whimsical and capricious. As anyone who follows the local weather report knows, experts can often fail in their predictions.

Knowing these few details doesn’t alter the fundamental admonition to the aspiring channel crosser to “shut up and swim.” Even with the array of electronic navigation equipment available, it is the pilot’s instinct and experience that provide the reckoning to meld the myriad ingredients. Mr. Oram shrewdly suggests that the swimmer concentrate on being the engine that the pilot is steering to success.

Back on Track

Thursday 11/12/09

If a successful English Channel crossing were an incredibly complex and sophisticated bank vault time lock, then several tumblers have clicked into place for me in the last week. Swim window set? Click. Pilot booked? Click. Registered with CSA? Click. Air travel booked? Click. Joined South End Club? Click. Stroke clinic? Click. Sample crossing food? Click. Just another hundred or so tumblers need to click into place and next autumn I’ll be standing on the western side of the English Channel in goggles, one standard swimming cap, and one standard swimming costume. The vault doors will swing open and the time will have arrived to shut up and swim.

Even with work-related travel interruptions, I’m managing to swim more each week than I have in ten years. I still worry about the gargantuan difference between a three mile swim and a twenty mile swim, but I’m betting that adhering to a disciplined training program will address that hurdle.

I profited from stroke instruction last week at the Golden Gateway Tennis and Swim Club. This counts as my fourth lesson since Moose Lodge fifty-two years ago. It was yet another humbling experience in what promises to be a staggering series of exercises in humility. The instructor has successfully swum the English Channel and she had incisive suggestions. It feels like my stroke is generating more power and leverage than before. It’s also making me sore in new places.

Swimming in open water that is influenced by large tidal swings, it’s pretty difficult to gauge improvements in speed. At some point, it’ll be helpful to develop an accurate determination of how fast I actually swim. That will be crucial information to allow my pilot to do the best job possible to guide me to a successful crossing. I’m sure that experienced pilots can judge a swimmer’s speed precisely within the first thousand meters. Having a reliable indicator ahead of time, though, might allow the pilot to take advantage of an alternative starting point or capitalize on great weather outside of a neap tide window.

My swim window is set for September 28 through October 9. We are scheduled to leave for England on September 21 and return October 6. As with so many of the choices presented in this quest, Lindsay and I discussed the options at length. Many of these discussions are critically assisted with the medicinal use of martini.

One of the considerations for this schedule was the availability of award travel. We have accumulated a pile of points and miles in various programs and this is an excellent way to defray the not inconsiderable expense of the expedition. Another consideration was the amount of time I could reasonably spare from work. The window falls at the end of a calendar quarter which already presents a quandary in the business world. A pivotal consideration was the time required to recover from jet lag.

I have easily flown over a million miles. This includes many flights across the Atlantic (usually by way of the Arctic). Many years ago, I even flew red eye flights as common occurrence. That was then. Now, I feel like hammered dog effluvium after a cross-country trip. With this schedule, I should be fully recovered and raring to go by the 28th. It was a little unnerving to book a return before the end of the swim window. In this matter, we’re relying on the charm of the 1-slot. If the gods laugh at our plans and I haven’t swum by October 5th, we’ll just have to adapt, adjust, and overcome. This is nominally an infantry incantation while I’ll be swimming, not marching–but the sentiment seems apt.

Nutrition Cornucopia

Tuesday 11/10/09

I ran on the high school cross-country team in Midland, Texas in 1968. I was the fifth person on a four-man team. That was probably because there was no sixth person in the school interested in running cross-country. Nutrition consisted of a half-pound bottle of 500 mg salt tablets (assuming someone remembered to bring the bottle from the locker room to the track). Temperatures regularly reached the triple digits in Fahrenheit. Common wisdom dictated that with all the resultant sweat, our body salt could use some reinforcement. We also had some belief that water was a good idea, too. The coach propped a five gallon water jug on a football blocking sled. If the salt bottle was there, we had the complete hydration and electrolyte recovery system for anyone who felt the need. There was plenty of adolescent discussion regarding the performance-enhancement properties of salt tablets. Were three enough? Was one too many? A sports performance researcher might describe it as an early clinical study without a control group.

Like Rip van Winkle, it’s been forty years since I paid attention to evolutions in the sports nutrition field. Unlike the awakened Rip, I did have some clue that changes were taking place. In the 1970’s, playing hours of freestyle Frisbee in the brutally hot and humid summers in College Station, Texas, we gulped many jars of newly introduced Gatorade. When I swam from Sausalito to San Francisco with Pat M, we ate GU every thirty minutes chased with water. Since we misjudged our tide and wound up swimming three and a half hours to reach the opposite shore, we had plenty of time to get into a GU rhythm. On our English Channel relay, Cliff Bars kindly donated product for our crossing. However, nothing really prepared me for the state of the modern nutrition marketplace.

Lindsay and I visited the Sports Basement store in the Presidio on Saturday. They had set aside what was probably twelve hundred square feet for sports nutrition products. There were bars, chews, gels, and powders. There were multiple products in each category from vendors such as Crank Sports, Amino Vital, LaraBar, Pacific Health Laboratories, Sharkies, Hammer, Nuun-Active, Jelly Belly, and 18 Rabbits. And, of course, there were flavors—chocolate, vanilla bean, banana, strawberry, raspberry, espresso, mocha. I didn’t check closely for every choice, but there may have been a kumquat flavor as well. The only brands that were familiar were Cliff, Cytomax, Gu, and Carbo-Pro. Surprisingly, with this myriad of options, they didn’t carry Maxim. We discovered later that Maxim is marketed almost exclusively in Europe.

But wait! There’s more! With this many nutrition choices, it’s only logical that there should be myriad choices for delivery vehicle. There were a staggering number of water bottles from which to choose and these were the simple kind not counting the Fuel Belts, CamelBaks and handhelds. They had various lids, logos, and labels. Some had handy built-in rings to attach a line so that the bottle can be flung to the swimmer from the boat with confidence of retrieval. I was even able to determine how to open some of them. One thing they all had in common is that they were guaranteed to be TOTALLY FREE of BPA! I checked with WIKI later and discovered that Bisphenol A is abbreviated to BPA and is something a prudent person should well avoid.

We left with a small bucket of Carbo-Pro powder and a BPA-free, flip-top bottle. This choice was driven more by desperation than by discernment. I wanted to try a powder since gels tend to stick in my mouth and I knew that Si Bunting had used Carbo-Pro successfully. Lindsay also recommended alternating feedings with Ensure as a protein boost to complement the pure-carbohydrate product. Given the geriatric character of the aspirant, this is probably appropriate.

What About Sharks?

Friday 11/6/09

Sharks do cruise in San Francisco Bay. A couple of times, in moments of stark irony, I’ve seen a sea lion slinging a three and a half foot leopard shark from side to side like a dog with a rag toy. They would flip the shark in the air, catch it back in their mouths, and continue to shake vigorously. Once, on a Gas House Cove swim, a fisherman at the Roundhouse on Muni Pier hauled a small shark directly over the head of the swimmer I was piloting. The shark disappeared quickly over the concrete railing and no one other than the fisherman and I (and the shark) saw what happened. There are at least eleven species of shark in the Bay, but none are hazardous to humans.

At least, that was the popular theory until recently. In the San Francisco Chronicle this week, Peter Fimrite reports on a study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The study is purported to be the most detailed analysis to date of the great white sharks of North America. The researchers recorded multiple visits within the confines of the Bay. Apparently, due to migratory habits, these visits typically happen between August and December. According to Barbara Block, a professor of Marine Sciences at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station and co-author of the study, "What we see on our acoustic monitoring devices is that the sharks stay pretty close to pinnipeds.” Whoops!

Most swimmers don’t worry about sharks in the English Channel. The NYC Swim web site offers answers to frequently asked questions regarding a swim across the “ditch.” They emphatically state, “There are no self-respecting sharks in the English Channel. It’s too far north and too cold.” This sentiment is echoed on other sites. On the other hand, Philip Vas from the South-East Fisheries Center, Miami Laboratory, reports in the Environmental Biology of Fishes journal that the shark catch of 1978 in the western English Channel included 118 blue sharks from the fishery at Looe in Cornwall, UK. In fact, the website for Looe proudly proclaims the town is, “the headquarters for British shark fishing.”

According to Wiki, “blue sharks are considered dangerous and have attacked humans. While they are one of the 20 or so species of shark considered dangerous, they rate on the low end of that spectrum.” Wiki then drily remarks that a citation is needed. They do have a citation for the claim that, “As of 2008, there are only four records of blue shark related human fatalities.”

Sharks don’t rate high on my list of concerns. I’m much more concerned about jellyfish, weather, shipping traffic, training schedule, feeding regimen, and jet lag. If I can get these things right (and have luck with the jellyfish, weather and shipping traffic), I’ll take my chances with the sharks.

The Thrill is Gone

Wednesday 11/4/09

It is another strong flood today and the critters are really out in force. Packs of four and five young sea lions roam through the water snout-to-snout like a gang of adolescent boys. Pelicans are more numerous than any of us can remember. A pack of sea lions enveloped a swimmer at the Goal Posts. They didn’t harass him, but they certainly gave him a start. Until the last couple of years, no one paid much attention to the Bay pinnipeds. After all, we’re the interlopers on their turf. For many years, the sea lions congregated at Pier 39 and cruised through Aquatic Park only infrequently. Now, there are an increasing number that seem to have made the cove their stomping ground. In the last couple of years, people have been bumped and even bitten from time to time. One woman required 14 stitches for multiple bites and a comprehensive antibiotic regimen. Other than a seal, hopefully playful, nudging my feet insistently ten years ago, I’ve been pretty much left alone and hope to keep it that way.

The temperature is dropping a little each day, now. It’s around 56 degrees and should be about 53 by Thanksgiving. I’ve been swimming two miles a day since Sunday with a day off on Monday. What a slog! The second mile seemed interminable and I had mild, stage-one hypothermia when I got out of the water. I’m definitely going to have to start pulling my swim hat down over my ears.

The initial buzz has worn off and fourteen or so hours of swimming is looking quite daunting. In the beginning, the sheer excitement of committing to the swim provided ample exhilaration. Then there was the drama of booking a pilot and procuring a slot and the warmth and encouragement of fellow Dolphins. Starting a blog and a web site for the first time contributed to the euphoria of new conquests with periodic adrenaline bursts. Now, the prospect of almost eleven months of training stretches before me like one of those endless, straight, desert roads we traveled on vacation in Nevada.

Katherine Briggs and Isabel Myers developed a psychological testing instrument known as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). It measures the behavior preferences of individuals along four dichotomies. One of the dichotomies is a person’s preference for “closure” or for “process.” A person who prefers closure is most comfortable when a decision is taken, when a milestone is achieved, when a journey is completed. A person who prefers process loves having options and keeping them open. This psychometric questionnaire is very popular in the business world. I’ve taken the test three times in the last fifteen years and, every time, the results have shown me to be decidedly closure-oriented. The whole Channel attempt is an opportunity for me to practice embracing process.

I saw Peter Perez in the sauna today. Peter’s training for a Channel attempt in August and he had a delightful helpful hint for embracing process. He said that while he is swimming, he is working on thinking, “there’s nowhere I’d rather be than right here.” Face down in the cool, clear, salty water; completely isolated from phone calls and worldly demands; this is the best place in the world.

Being closure-oriented, I know I’ll feel much better once I’ve made a training schedule. In the meantime, I’ll just keep swimming two and three miles most days, get a stroke consultation, and see about doing some interval training in the pool. This is starting to seem like quite a process.

Back from Las Vegas

Friday 10/30/09

I returned from Las Vegas yesterday having swum zero strokes. The Mandalay Bay, where I stayed, boasts an eleven-acre beach and pool area, but it’s only open from 9a until 6p. It simply wasn’t possible to slip away from the conference and snatch a swim. A fifty mile-per-hour windstorm crashing down from Alaska shut down the swimming complex for two days anyway.

The worldwide recession is hitting Las Vegas hard. The cabbie who picked me up at the airport immediately asked if the terminal was busy. Not visiting Vegas that often, I couldn’t offer any real comparison other than to say, “It seemed pretty busy to me.” All of the taxi drivers were quite eager to discuss the local economy. “Unemployment is already 13.9% and, with City Center due for completion soon, another 10,000 construction workers will be coming off payroll.” "We had 500,000 fewer vistors than last month." "See that unfinished skyscraper over there? It’s was supposed to be the Fontainebleau casino. A guy blew through 2.9 billion dollars of his dad’s inheritance and went bankrupt when he couldn’t get a loan to finish it. Now they’re going to use it for international firefighting training.” “I was the banquet finance manager for MGM Grand for sixteen years. Now I’m driving this cab and feel lucky to have a job at all.”

I finally got back in the water at 7a on Friday morning. Apparently, the windstorm that hit Las Vegas came tearing through San Francisco earlier in the week and churned the waters. Today was another picture postcard day, though. I did a single large clockwise tour of all the permanent landmarks, my favorite route. It wasn’t a strenuous distance or pace, but my elbow began to express a sharp, intermittent pain. Yet again, I began wondering if the Channel was a realistic goal. I slept fitfully, wondering whether this was something debilitating or something to disregard. I’m planning to swim three miles tomorrow. That should give a good indication.

Saturday 10/31/09

Duke D is in the Staib Room of the Dolphin Club. He’s another English Channel swimmer and renowned for his monstrous training regimens. I asked him about the elbow pain and he immediately and sagely intoned, “bad stroke mechanics.” He suggested a coaching session and interval training. He’s not been the first to mention both.

At the beach, I met Suzie and Melissa K for a group swim. Suzie agreed that stroke mechanics were the probable culprit of the elbow pain and also suggested that someone take a look at my form in the pool. We made the familiar clockwise loop and I focused on finding a groove for my left arm that avoided the pain. After the loop, I continued to the Opening, the Flag, the Bad Becky, and the Clubs’ Beach. Not seeing anyone there to swim with, I went on to the Flag, the Opening, the Goal Posts and back.

I was a little spent, but concentrating on stroke kept the pain to a twinge. The dream is still alive! I’ll make an appointment to get my form analyzed.

Lindsay and I went to Rose Pistola for brunch. It is one of our three favorite places to eat in San Francisco other than home and it’s a short ride from the Club down Columbus Avenue to the heart of North Beach. It’s actually brunch and theater. We sit at the counter and watch the line cooks work their culinary sorcery. At one end of the line is a huge mesquite-fired grill where they flame savory octopus and hand-toast house-made bread. The crackling, blazing mesquite coals proffer a toasty welcome to chilled swimmers, especially in the winter. The chefs are continually chopping, slicing, or peeling something and it’s quite an education to have the opportunity to observe their technique closely. Persimmon, orange, radish, jalapeño, beets, as well as the perfectly minced onion, are among the delights that succumb to their master cutlery.

We started with a glass of Billecart-Salmon champagne and shared the bruschetta with grilled pear, crescenza, prosciutto, and truffle oil. Lindsay had the wild mushroom scramble with arugula & stracchino. I had the egg pizza from the wood-fired oven with wild mushrooms, pancetta, thyme, and truffle oil. The egg is served sunny-side up in the middle of the pizza and spreads over the hot center, cooking to perfection as it disperses. The best ham and eggs breakfast in the City! I think I'll put a couple in the food processor and use it as a Channel food instead of Maxim.

This meal will last us until dinner and the third game of the World Series. In the last eighteen years, the volume of Halloween urchins has dwindled from torrent to trickle. We will answer the door if an errant trick-or-treater cares to climb the stairs, but we won’t be mounting our annual costumed production and sitting on the front landing. Between brunch and World Series, though, I may need a nap.

Aquatic Park Geography

Thursday 10/29/09

Like any geographic boundary that humans share, Aquatic Park Cove has named landmarks. (Clicking on the picture of Aquatic Park in the sidebar of this blog will link to a larger map). Of course, depending on the humans consulted, the names vary. In particular, a South Ender will give different names for buoys than will a Dolphin. Different Dolphins will give different names depending on when they joined the club and what time of day they swim. The main reason for having names at all is to allow two or more swimmers to quickly chart a course around the cove without pointing, squinting, confusion and repetition. Having shared names doesn’t necessarily cut down on the repetition, but it does quell the pointing, squinting and confusion.

One landmark that almost everyone knows by the same name is the Flag. It rests near the shoreline at the Van Ness end of Aquatic Park. The Flag is the artistic creation of Colin Gift. It has been in the cove for more than twenty years and, conveniently, has a swiveling fiberglass flag on top of a quadrilateral, fiberglass-coated piece of marine Styrofoam. The flag itself was once a vibrant red and yellow replica of the international maritime signal flag representing the letter “O” and indicates, in solitude, “Man Overboard”. This is the flag that both clubs use on pilot craft during an out-of-cove swim to warn ship traffic away from the swimmers in the water. The color has faded, but not the iconography of the buoy. When, as happens around every five years, the Flag breaks loose from its ground tackle, both clubs raise the hue and cry.

It is just a little less than four hundred yards from the clubs’ beach to the Flag. In the colder parts of the winter, some swimmers count this as a quarter mile. The more competitive and obsessive will insist that it is closer to a quarter mile from the Oprah to the Flag.

The Oprah is the buoy that keeps the bow of the sailing ship Thayer from banging into the Hyde Street Pier. The Oprah got its name from the eponymous talk-show host when she was filming a segment in San Francisco and pointed toward the buoy to make some theatrical point. Not many people call it the Oprah any more, but most of the people I swim with do and I like it that there’s a story and a short name for, “the buoy at the bow of the Thayer”.

Driving to the extreme north of Van Ness brings one to the San Francisco Municipal Pier which curves around and defines Aquatic Park. Only emergency vehicles drive on the pier now and it bears the trauma of age and ocean. Where the pier attaches to land at the foot of Van Ness, three creosote poles stick out of the water up to twelve feet depending on the tide. Because they resemble American football field goal posts, they are cleverly known as the Goal Posts. It is definitely more than a quarter mile from the Oprah to the Goal Posts.

The Muni Pier has been structurally reinforced a number of times. One of the larger repairs is easily spotted from the water about three quarters of the way around. My friends call this the Repair and, while it doesn’t currently have a buoy marking, it is still a common swimming destination. Because it doesn’t have a buoy, people of various swimming speeds can go to the Repair and arrive at the same time. For those that are afraid to swim close to the pier and the fishing and crabbing lines, the Repair is more of a notion than an exact spot.

Muni Pier ends in a bulbous plaza that we call the Roundhouse. It is possible to swim under the Roundhouse. There are broken, barnacle-encrusted pilings to negotiate at the perimeter, but it’s not terribly difficult. When it’s very dark and the water is clear, a swim stroke produces a sparkling luminescence that is beautiful and magical. The quality of light under the Roundhouse is also remarkable at dawn and dusk.

A cigarette buoy resides just beyond the confines of the Roundhouse. It sits between the Muni Pier and the Breakwater. In the 1980’s, a string of used tires provided scant protection for the cove. Storm surge and wakes from passing ships rolled freely into Aquatic Park making it a much wilder place to swim than it is today. With the construction of the concrete breakwater extending from Hyde Street Pier to Pier 41, our swimming hole experienced a major upgrade. The cigarette buoy marks the Opening. The Opening, like the Flag, is common terminology among all swimmers.

At the Hyde Street end of the Breakwater is a structure with concrete piers radiating from a circular capstone. When the current is flowing strongly in San Francisco Bay, this area is subject to incredibly forceful swirls of moving water. Owing to the water jet effect, many swimmers refer to this structure as the Jacuzzi. As it turns out, the capstone of the Jacuzzi is flat on top but has a pronounced recess underneath. When the highest tides bring sufficient water to seal off the outside of the capstone, 2 to 2 ½ feet of air remain trapped in the underside nook.

In order to enter this space and breathe the trapped air, the swimmer must dive beneath the surrounding capstone and surface in the center chamber. The radiating cement piers create a bit of an obstacle course so the prudent aqua-spelunker will feel around under the capstone for an opening before diving. Since this part of the structure is very rarely in contact with the ocean, it’s completely free of barnacles, starfish or other abrasive critters. The concrete is still quite hard, though, so a more experienced and chastened diver will advise a hands-first-not-head-first approach.

East of the Jacuzzi is a large red buoy to which the hay scow, the Alma, is moored. This buoy was a favorite target for one of the faster Dolphins, Becky F. When she was training for her Channel swim, she cruised around this landmark many times. Another Dolphin was concerned about the propriety of this and alerted the local authorities to the potential of an unauthorized “out-of-cove” swim. Since then, the National Park Service has installed a cigarette buoy slightly beyond the mooring buoy, clearly designating this as protected swimming area. Nevertheless, the buoy is today known as the Bad Becky. The origin of this name has faded into history and many people now wonder what it was that Becky did here that was so bad.

Moored at the north end of Hyde Street Pier is the Balclutha. It is a steel-hulled, three-masted sailing ship built in 1886 and had a starring role in the film “Mutiny on the Bounty.” At her stern is a mooring buoy called the Kebbe. Mr. Kebbe is one of two people to have swum 356 miles during a Polar Bear. This amounts to almost four miles every day for 90 days. When Peter Drino was crafting a series of fifty courses around the cove for a Polar Bear challenge event, he needed names for buoys that had none. He decided to honor Kebbe for his Polar Bear achievements.

The mooring buoy at the bow of the Balclutha has many names among Dolphins. Some people call it the S’more because its rusted white crust makes it look like the camper’s toasted marshmallow treat. Peter D called it the Luigi in honor of the Dolphin Club commodore. Lately, a number of people have begun calling it the Wenzel in honor of the second person to swim 356 miles during the Polar Bear. I’ve been going with the Wenzel lately as most people have forgotten Peter’s naming system and I don’t think Luigi will mind.

The next boat south from the Balclutha is the Eppleton Hall, a 1914 steam-powered, paddlewheel tugboat. It is moored end-on to Hyde Street Pier, so it’s possible to swim behind it. It’s not so easy to swim behind the Balclutha or the Thayer as they have numerous pipes and cables snaking through the water to the pier. Also, debris tends to collect in these back eddies, so it’s rare to venture there. Behind the Eppleton Hall, however, is relatively unencumbered and adds a modicum of distance to help round out a full mile around the cove.

Just south of the bow of the Eppleton Hall is a buoy mooring the stern of the Thayer. Peter D named this buoy the Moon in honor of a long-time Dolphin who devoted extraordinary hours to maintaining the club. Very few people remember this appellation and I’m trying to keep the commemoration alive.

That brings us back to the Oprah. All of these landmarks encompass about one mile. It takes a different amount of time to swim this course depending on the current. At the end of an ebb, there can be a “spin cycle” effect where the current is moving west at the shore and east at the Opening, helping a clockwise swimmer along. Other times, there is nothing but resistance the entire way.

There are other transient landmarks in the cove, but this describes the more permanent ones. Taken together, they populate one of the best swimming holes in the world.

Birthdays and birthday suits

Sunday 10/25/09

The South Enders swam in this morning from Alcatraz in the nude. It is a custom at the South End Rowing Club to swim on your birthday in your birthday suit and about a dozen people of both genders honored the custom. The South End and Dolphin clubs share a large, partitioned building at the foot of Hyde Street and their respective piers create a semi-private beach from which both club members launch their cove swims. Given the shared quarters, the shared beach, and the shared aquatic inclinations, it’s easy to think that the clubs would be indistinguishable.

That thinking would be wrong. Most people agree that the South End membership is more freewheeling than the Dolphin membership. Swimming naked is one example. Dolphins are not inclined to do that. The South Enders also have a club-within-a-club known as the Sunrisers. The Sunrisers hike to nearby starting points around San Francisco, depending on the direction of the tide, and swim back to Aquatic Park at the crack of most dawns. Sometimes they wear swimsuits and sometimes they have pilots. The Dolphin Club requires strict adherence to a set of rules that govern a safe swim outside the confines of Aquatic Park Cove and absolutely forbids use of Club facilities after an activity of the Sunriser sort. It’s pretty funny how different the two clubs can be and still be the same. Like wildly different siblings in a close nuclear family, they are a curious mixture of intimacy and distance; compassion and competition.

Wearing a swimsuit, I started my Sunday swim. The weather was straight out of a tourist postcard for San Francisco--bright skies, clear water, and nearly glassy calm. It was a pretty strong ebb tide, so the critters were quiet as well. It should have been a great day for a swim.

For some reason, it was a big struggle instead. I went to the Bad Becky, the Flag, the Wenzel, the Goal Posts, the Opening, the Flag, the Kebbe, and in behind the Eppleton Hall and around the Oprah. It felt like I was swimming uphill for the last mile. It was probably the culmination of a strenuous business trip and trying to keep pace with Suzie the day before. At any rate, it was a little more than an hour of huffing and puffing.

The literature mentions a number of times that there is a “wall” for marathon swimmers at six hours. This is much like the runners “wall” at about twenty miles. Once an athlete has consumed the body’s stored glycogen, he starts burning fat for energy. This is reportedly a painful and fatiguing experience. I don’t know if that is what was happening for me, but the second mile was a real slog. I decided to pretend that this was what it might feel like in the Channel after several hours and gritted it out. The problem was that I hadn't been swimming for several hours in the Channel and I was still gritting it out. Oh well, put those thoughts aside and see how it goes. There’s still a lot of time before September.

I’m off to Las Vegas, so will be out of the water until Friday. This isn’t the way I had hoped to build a foundation.

Training resumes

Saturday 10/24/09

The business trip was reasonably successful, but grueling. The flight to St. Louis was as good as air travel can be given today's realities. However, it started raining steadily on Thursday morning, delayed our flight that evening, and dealt us a downpour on arrival in Chicago Thursday night. The meeting in Chicago went well, but the surrounding political theatrics were emotionally fraught. By the time we got back to O'Hare, I was damp, muggy, and fried. Then came the ride home on Friday night.

I had choices. The flight on which I was confirmed was scheduled to arrive at SFO at 9:15p. The equipment was at the gate early. The gate agent said that the crew was already on-site and ready to go. Weather had delayed earlier flights, but air traffic control was saying this flight was good-to-go on schedule. What else could there be? I chose to skip waiting standby for the earlier flight to San Francisco that had been delayed. It was completely packed and I would have had to take a center seat to arrive only 30 minutes earlier. I stayed with my confirmed flight.

We boarded on time. We settled in. We waited. And waited. Eventually, the captain came on the PA system to announce that we were waiting for passengers to arrive from connecting flights that had been delayed by weather. Since this was the last flight to SF that night and many people were going on to international destinations, the decision was to wait. An hour and a half after scheduled departure time, the delayed folks had embarked and we were wheels up.

At this point, I was determined to make my 8a date with Suzie to do a longish swim Saturday morning. Not only has she completed the English Channel multiple times as a solo and a relay swimmer, she has an impressive resume of many marathon swims. By email, she is organizing a group to make an extended tour of The Parky. I don't want to miss out and figure I'll just nap on the plane.

As the metamorphosed Yiddish proverb states, "Man plans and the gods laugh". The woman directly behind me sinks into a state of catatonia while her husband fusses about her with escalating urgency. One of the flight attendants notices the commotion and remarks on the woman's "weak state". The call goes out for someone on-board who is an M.D. to provide assistance and half a dozen people cascade down the aisle of the aircraft. Several of them congregate at my aisle seat and press forward, all trying to render advice.

There happens to be an opthalmology conference in San Francisco and the plane is packed with people who know a great deal about eyes. The first opthalmologist on the scene is a perky woman who takes over the hands-on tasks of taking blood pressure and pulse. As more M.D.s arrive there starts a negotiation as to who is most qualified to be the primary care physician. "I'm an anesthesiologist, but I'm not licensed to practice in the U.S." "Well, anesthesiology trumps opthalmology, regardless of the license in this case."

Meanwhile, the perky opthalmologist has taken the 1-slot and is making the most of the window. By now, she has determined that the stricken woman's pulse is thready and the initial blood pressure reading is 90 over 60. After some consultation, the loosely constructed physician team determines that orange juice is ok and caffeine is not. A second blood pressure reading comes out 120 over 70. Seeking a second opinion, another opthalmologist checks again and concurs. 120 over 70 it is. At this point, consensus reigns that the woman is stabilized. The throng diminishes, but does not disperse. So much for a nap.

The captain has arranged for a paramedic team to meet the plane at the gate. Deplaning is delayed as the emergency medical technicians administer to the patient, put her in a wheelchair, and remove her from the plane. Thirty minutes later, I pass by the paramedics as they are advising the woman and her husband that catching the connecting plane for Taipei in her condition is inadvisable given that it is a fourteen hour flight and the Taipei authorities are quite qualmish regarding medical matters.

I was in bed by midnight.

I did manage to make it to the Aquatic Park beach at the appointed time. Suzie was there along with another swimmer and we decided to swim a mile and a half. We charted the first part of our course as Opening, Flag, Oprah. From there, we swam to the Goalposts, Bad Becky and back to the Oprah. Suzie went in to prepare for another mile and a half swim. I went on to the Kebbe, Flag, and in. That was about an hour and ten minutes for me. Certainly over two miles--probably not quite two and a half. It felt great! I was glad to have been able to put the business and travel turmoil aside and just swim. It seemed like more practice for the "shut up and swim" requirements of the Channel.

Jon Ennis was coming down the stairs as I headed for the showers. I asked him what he ate in the Channel. He said he took GU and Maxim. Later on, he advised against foods with electrolytes such as Cytomax. This coincided with the admonition by Mike Read in his wonderful article, "Nutrition: Don't Swallow the Seawater". Mike's basic point is that the inadvertent swallowing of salt water on the crossing provides all the necessary electrolytes and then some. Jon's most emphatic advice was to try not to get sick as "that will slow you down".

Jon was yet another successful Channel swimmer to offer encouragement and assistance. My most galvanic response occurred when he commented that simply deciding to swim the Channel "expands your whole world". That struck home.

Peter Perez was in the shower. He's has a 2-slot with Allison Streeter in August. We compared notes and agreed to coordinate some of our training efforts. As we talked about our ambitions, I experienced another burst of ebullience in connecting with a kindred soul. This undertaking has indeed expanded my world already.


Friday 9/18/09

Lindsay Casablanca, my wife, and I are having our kitchen countertop replaced and the sink is disconnected. Lindsay is a great cook and we rarely eat out, so we decide to take advantage of the situation and go to Foreign Cinema, a terrific San Francisco restaurant cooking in the California style with a touch of middle-eastern influence and spice. We are celebrating and start with a glass of Billecart-Salmon brut rosé, a rare treat for us. Perhaps this contributed to the flights of fancy that followed.

By coincidence it’s the twelfth anniversary of our English Channel swim as members of a relay team. In a relay crossing, six people take turns swimming one hour apiece until they either give up or reach France. Lindsay was an alternate swimmer in case of a dropout and didn’t get to swim, but she filmed the event and contributed tirelessly to the logistics and coordination.

The Channel relay was a memorable event for both of us and, as the evening wore on, it took on almost mythical proportions. In the ensuing frivolity, Lindsay proposed again that I tackle a solo crossing. For the first time, I didn’t automatically reject the notion. We talked frankly about the year-long obsession required to train for a successful swim. As long-time members of the San Francisco Dolphin Swimming Club, we both knew close to twenty people who had completed the event and we were exceptionally aware of how staggering the commitment was.

For whatever reason—age, circumstances, or possibly champagne—I agreed to seriously consider the possibility. I had been swimming one mile in the San Francisco bay four or five times a week to prepare for the coming New Year’s Day Alcatraz swim. I decided to increase my weekly mileage significantly and try to wrap my mind around a heretofore unimaginable potential.

Friday 10/2/09

Lindsay and I talked about the Channel again tonight during cocktail hour. I had done another one and a half mile swim that morning and was really starting to consider the idea of a solo swim. She once again provided encouragement for the project and offered to take the lead in organizing the swim. She told me about a friend of hers who, upon learning what we were contemplating said, “Why in the world would he want to do that?” Lindsay told her about the epic nature of the English Channel as the pinnacle of open water swimming. She told her friend that she would absolutely attempt it herself if she felt she was fast enough. In fact, Lindsay had started taking swim lessons when we got back from the Channel relay in 1998 in order to try and build the requisite speed. I thought about how I would reply to her friend and decided that I would probably cleave to the trope of “building memories.”

At any rate, we agreed that it was already late to be booking a pilot for the coming year. We also agreed that the amount of economic and work flexibility I currently enjoyed was not destined to last. And, of course, there was the ticking biological clock. Between the giddiness of sharing a wildly exhilarating project and the fear of having the opportunity pass us by, we committed to the attempt and toasted our endeavor.

Saturday 10/3/09

By sheer coincidence, we threw a party at our home Saturday night. We had planned to have a party a year earlier to celebrate the installation of about four tons of Arizona river rock in our back yard. We had replaced a side fence and the subsequent destruction of plants and vegetation had left the back yard looking like a brand-new suburban tract development—just a stark wooden fence and a few forlorn survivors. With two fifty-five pound hunting dogs eager to do “puppy wheelies” in the bare dirt, we despaired of having any new planting that could weather the canine onslaught. Placing the thirty to sixty-pound rocks throughout the garden and leaving space for plants, we were able to guard against the thundering horde.

When we originally scheduled the party for 2008, we planned to invite all the Dolphins we could. Unfortunately, we picked a day that coincided with a big Dolphin swim event (maybe Golden Gate) and so we had to cancel. We just happened to reschedule for the day after our momentous Channel decision and that was incredibly serendipitous.

Sixty or seventy Dolphins attended the party and they were heartwarmingly supportive. This was the perfect antidote to the “what have I done” reverberation as the scale of the task began sinking in the following day. Many, many people offered pilot help, swim help, and information on their own successful crossings. The sense of community was as invigorating as a warm, enveloping hug. Someone said a few days later that the Dolphin club and San Francisco Bay are almost tailor-made to train for a solo English Channel swim. This is in part due to the environmental factors. In equal measure, it’s due to the emotional and logistical support of so many people.

Monday, 10/5/09

I spent a few sleepless moments thinking about a course around the cove for the morning, but the key idea in my brain was an early start. I was in the water around 6:30a and started the route designed between dreams the night before. Oprah, Goal Posts, Bad Becky, Flag, Opening, Oprah, Goal Posts, Opening, In. {Dark start, calm, clear water, early sunrise, lighted cruise ship, no critters that I saw, unbelievable morning} It took a little over an hour in a full moon-charged flood tide. I felt good. It was the second stage early crowd and there was no channel talk in the sauna, but we did solve a couple of the world's problems.

At the party, Laura Z told us that an important contributor to a successful crossing was procuring a "1-slot". Huh? Laura patiently explained that for each neap-tide crossing window, a pilot will book as many as five potential attempts. The first in line occupies the 1-slot. The first time that conditions are suitable during the window, off goes the 1-slot holder. For the 5-slot holder, it can mean days and days of waiting in the gastronomically-challenged environs of Dover while the earlier swimmers seize the favorable conditions. It is possible for people to miss swimming at all if a fourth (or even second) set of favorable conditions fails to materialize during their neap-tide window. On top of this, the 1-slot holder has much greater potential to swim early and then enjoy some vaction time in Merry Olde England. Laura added ominously that we had "waited awfully late to book" but should at least try for a 3-slot.

Lindsay started the search for pilots yesterday. She sent out emails to all the pilots she could find on the CSA and CS&PF websites. She started getting email replies this morning and the initial reports were a little dismal. “You’ve waited a long time to schedule”. “We only have a 5-slot in July or a 4-slot in September”. Lindsay came upstairs to my office to let me know the status. I was disappointed, but I did have thoughts of getting off the hook at an early date.

Later that morning, Lindsay called Reg Brickell. He and his wife had recently changed their internet provider and her emails had not gone through. Reg had come extremely highly recommended by Suzie D and Laura. When Reg’s wife answered the phone, she said that he was sitting at dinner. It was 7pm in England. Lindsay offered profuse apologies, but it turned out that the Brickells were as sweet and good-natured as their admirers had portrayed. Of course, Reg was booked solidly through the season.

At this point, Lindsay had determined from her research that there was a neap tide at the end of September 2010 that wasn’t on the 2009 pilot lists. She asked if they were booked for 9/28 and Reg said, “I hadn’t thought of that. Let me check.” Once he realized there was another slot available at the end of the season, he let us have the 1-slot for that date. Since the tide calendars for then had not been released yet, he said he’d have to get back to us with the exact window. GAME ON!

Tuesday, 10/06/09

No swimming today. The major excuse was an 8a business conference call. From a training point of view, I’ve been swimming increasing distances from 1 mile to 2 miles every day for the last month. I’m getting a little tired. Also, Laura Z just offered some incredibly hard-earned Channel swimming advice last night and that included, “days off can be good!”

So, I lifted weights instead and found myself wanting to be in the water. The “zoning out” that the longer distances produce is becoming a little bit both obsessive and alluring. The business meeting was unsatisfactory and my “swim now!” gene started kicking in. Resisting that urge, I’m looking forward to a nice long “post taper” swim tomorrow. The plan is three miles.

Wednesday, 10/7/09

I did the three miles and probably a little more. Twice around the cove clockwise, including the Bad Becky makes a healthy two. Then from the Oprah to the Goal Posts to the Bad Becky to the Flag and in is probably more than one. I was in the water about an hour and a half. I got in just after sunrise and the weather was glorious once again. The water was very calm and both the sky and sea were clear. It was a little strange watching the sun move from the horizon near Coit Tower and climb in the south. I thought about how it might be in the English Channel, moving through a complete arc before I finished. Once again, this is a sobering thought.

Ralph Wenzel very kindly volunteered to swim with me. He’s much faster than I, but I’d love to have his company. He proposed next Monday morning, but we’ll be on vacation, so he gave me his email address and we agreed to try and do it some other time.

We’re packing up the RV to go through the deserts in Nevada to southeastern Utah. There won’t be much water there. I will get a chance to swim in Lake Tahoe on the way back. Then, I’ll be travelling for business for the two weeks after we get back.

I’m nervous about being out of the water that long. When we get back, I’m sure I’ll have to start wearing a swim hat. It was already below 60 degrees this morning and I was a little hypothermic climbing the stairs to the shower and sauna. The morning crowd is starting to chirp about the coming plunge in temperature. I’m thinking that getting in two or three miles each day through the winter will lay a good foundation for starting longer swims in March.

Until I talk some more with Laura and Suzie and the others, my tentative plan is do a progression of longer swims starting in March: Two hours in March, three hours in April, four hours in May, six hours in June, eight hours in July, and ten hours in August.

Thursday, 10/8/09

The sky was overcast this morning, so the cove was pretty dark just before sunrise. The water temperature is continuing its slow, but inexorable decline into the high 50’s. I swam two big loops around Aquatic Park, including the Bad Becky. I will have to get some light sticks for the dark mornings. This will make it easier to avoid other swimmers and rowing craft, especially the racing shells that go zipping through the swimming zone.

I finally saw critters on this swim. A pelican made its spectacular splash dive nearby and a sea lion breached completely out of the water (probably chasing a fish) about 10 yards from me when I was out at the repair. A rower was practicing in one of the wooden boats about another 10 yards on the other side of the breaching sea lion. Both the rower and I were pretty amazed. The sea lion never bothered me, but I was happy to have the coincidence of the presence of the Whitehall in case I needed protection. In the end, it was just another “shut up and swim” moment.

Si Bunting and John Ottersberg were in the sauna this morning shortly after I finished my swim. What a delightful circumstance! Margaret K had told John on Tuesday that I was making the Channel attempt. Both John and Si have successfully swum the English Channel and were very supportive, encouraging and, of course, wildly informative. The first order of business was the training schedule. I told them my idea of 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and they both nodded sagely and blessed the notion as good and proper.

Si offered what was a bit of a revelation for me when he said that he had swum the Trans Tahoe race as a solo for one of his longer swims. I had done the Trans Tahoe as a relay a couple of times, but had completely dismissed the idea of an 11.5 mile swim as a solo effort. Well, shazam! That’s barely a six hour swim for me, probably less. Si noted that training for the Channel gives you a whole different perspective on what constitutes a reasonable distance.

He and John told me about the course they took around the Bay for their 10 hour preparatory swim. Of course, they rattled it off and I forgot the particulars, but I’m sure they made mention of Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito, Angel Island, Oakland, and the Bay Bridge. They also recommended training in the pool to build speed. Si said that Candace K tortured him in the pool on a regular basis and that he thought it was very helpful for the cause.

We talked about food. Si used CarboPro after the manufacturer for his first choice went out of business. John used Maxim. The solo swimmer from Croatia making the crossing at the same time as John used chocolate all the way. Si’s team threw his food and water to him at the end of a line. John’s team used a pole. They both said that the training swims were the time to find out what worked best for each individual.

Si is naturally a bilateral breather and proclaimed that an important factor in his successful crossing. John said he had to work at it to develop the skill and that he thought it might have made the difference between reaching France or not. He agreed with me that it’s an awkward skill to develop, but suggested that I would have plenty of time to work on it. He expressed confidence that I could put this tool in my bag.

Lindsay and I leave tomorrow for our vacation in the desert, so there will probably be no entries until the 18th when we get to Lake Tahoe. I’m getting a little addicted to these longer distances and will certainly miss it. I’m also a bit nervous about coming back and having the water temperature in the low to mid 50’s. Still, I feel pretty good about having laid the beginning of a foundation and it’s impossible to express how vital the support from everyone has been.

Monday, 10/19/09

We got back from Utah and Nevada yesterday. We were blown away! We had been to Monument Valley, but had no idea how extensive and varied the landscape became as it stretched from there to south and central Utah. We visited parks and monuments including Cedar Breaks, Kodachrome, Bryce Canyon, Natural Bridges, Petrified Forest, Capitol Reef, Arches, Dead Horse, Great Basin, Cave Lake, and the ever popular Ichthyosaur State Park.

We had swims that amounted to little more than dips in the 40 degree water at Panguitch and Cave Lakes. I brought a couple of ten-pound weights for shoulder exercises and hiking at the 7,000 feet elevations provided aerobic exercise. At Arches, the signs were confusingly marked and an apparent two-mile hike turned into almost eight miles of climbing and scrambling that came within hailing distance of technical. This offered a chance to imagine the seemingly endless swim as the French shore starts to be snatched away by a relentless tide.

I had to start work early to catch up from the vacation, so swimming must wait until Tuesday.

Tuesday, 10/20/09

This is the first day back in the water since vacation. Keith W says the water is probably down to 56 degrees, so I wear a hat for the first time since July. It’s my old, old water polo hat that I got shortly after I joined the Dolphin Club when it was the veritable standard. I know from experience that it’ll have to go into retirement for the coming training because it starts to chafe after a couple of miles. Lindsay has agreed to get me a few modern swim hats to try out. The Channel Swimming Association allows for “goggles, one swim cap, and one swim costume.” I’ll need to find a swim hat that is comfortable for hours on end and, surprisingly enough, all swim hats are not made alike. I’m happy with my goggles for now, but want to make sure that I’m not part way across the Channel with a debilitating, equipment-induced migraine.

It’s just before sunrise and the critters are out in force. Even in the dark, it’s easy to see tens of pelicans dive-bombing the bay and the violent surface disturbance from the many sea lions. They’re all over the Cove, but tend to concentrate in the middle and out by the Balclutha on strong flood tides, so I decide to swim mostly in the western part of Aquatic Park. I start my normal clockwise trip to Flag, Goalposts, and Opening. Then I return to the flag, back to the opening, back to the flag and back to the club by a somewhat circuitous route.

When I’m out near the Repair, I feel what seems like a rogue wave jostling me around. Glancing up, I see a roiling effervescence directly ahead and swim through something akin to a tide race. I peek to my left and the person fishing on the pier seems stoically entranced, but that’s not unusual. I figure that a large sea lion must have breached while chasing a fish a few feet in front of me. I keep swimming and no creature pesters me further. I’m reminded of when Suzanne Heim-Bowen was intentionally t-boned by a sea lion while she was swimming a leg of the relay from Sacramento to Aquatic Park. She said she wasn’t scared—just pissed that something was interfering with her mission. Suzanne is a multiple time English Channel crosser and her attitude strikes me as a good attitude for swimming the English Channel and I try to employ it as an object lesson.