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.

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