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.

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