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.


  1. Thank you very much for a very informative, well-written description of the most famous open water swimming spot on the West Coast. Good luck with your attempt and we look forward to hearing about your successful English Channel swim.

  2. What an pretty amusing stuff!
    Now I have realized the great of this matter, I think I need to research some more about it in order to enhance my knowledge

  3. Wow, what a great blog entry. As a DC member, I found it very informative. Thanks!