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.
8 months ago