At six o’clock on Friday morning, the sky is still pitch black. Cloudy overcast obliterates any feeble starlight or moonlight. In the South End boat house, harsh electric lights illuminate only the main corridor. The corners remain in inky shadow. The conversation is muted as befits a group not yet quite awake. Most people exhibit hair bearing traumatic evidence of a messy divorce with the pillow. Half of the group grasp steaming mugs of coffee or tea. The bustle of organized chaos reflects in echoes off the dark walls. The Sunrisers are preparing for a Pier 7 swim.
The equipment layout bespeaks a practiced efficiency. Three or four people slide an inflatable boat out of its specially constructed rack and position it onto a small, wheeled trolley. The Zodiacs roll into their place in the assembly area just outside the boat house. The heavy outboard motors have their own specialized hand cart. These carts wheel out to the assembly area where two people wrestle an engine onto the stern of a boat while another person keeps the bow tilted down. With the outboard locked into place and pitched forward, the stern is allowed to settle. Someone retrieves a gas tank from its locker outside the boathouse, checks the fuel level, connects it to the motor, opens the vent, and primes the hose. The appropriate number of personal flotation devices and blankets begin to fill the boat bottoms. “Man Overboard” signal flags, bailers, and marine radios find their way into their constructed slots. In slightly more than fifteen minutes, the fully equipped Zodiacs stand like sentinels in a row. The entire activity has the feel of a Special Operations mission (minus the weapons, of course).
Leadership is ad hoc. Individuals who know the drill perform the necessary tasks and direct any bewildered bystanders.
“We need some help pulling this Zod’ out of the rack.”
“Would you hold that bow down while we mount this motor?”
“Get six life vests and toss them in the bottom of each Zod’.”
“Let’s do a radio check on channel 69.”
“How many swimmers do we have so far?”
“Has everyone signed the sign-out sheet?”
"OK. Let's do a final swimmer count."
The calculus of pilot coverage begins with the swimmer count. A brief negotiation ensues and one swimmer may give up a slot in order to pilot and provide the appropriate balance. By 6:30 am, we are trundling the Zodiacs down the boat ramp in a cacophony of wooden clatter. Once in the water, the pilots give sharp tugs on the starter ropes, assign seats to distribute the weight, and carefully pull away from the dock.
Several cove swimmers are plying their way around Aquatic Park and not all wear lights, requiring pilot and passengers to keep a sharp lookout. We edge cautiously to the Bad Becky where the passengers hunker down in an amiable pile amid swim coats and surprisingly warm and snuggly blankets. The pilot accelerates and we cruise past the breakwater.
A fresh breeze from the west is in combat with the east-flowing ebb current. The battle generates a steep high chop and we begin bouncing along at our top dry speed of 10 knots. As we approach the corner at Pier 39, a blue-gray glow begins to puncture portions of the cloud cover in the east. The dim celestial light provides an incandescent backdrop for Yerba Buena Island and the Bay Bridge. Fifteen minutes after leaving the dock, we are coasting to a stop at our rendezvous point off Pier 7. The city has not quite come awake and the urban symphony has yet to commence. The chugging of the engine ceases and we soak in the early morning stillness.
We wait a brief spell to give the ebb a chance to build. One of the pilots contacts Vessel Traffic Service. He gives them our location, destination, number of swimmers, and number of the marine channel we will be using for boat-to-boat communication. VTS responds with a laconic acknowledgement. Two minutes later, the swimmers roll backwards into the 51 degree water. The shock of the cold water erases the last traces of sleepiness. Breaking dawn shoots shafts of light sideways into the translucent green water. With the tangy taste of brine in our mouths, we strike for home.
The agitated sea demands concentration to maintain a smooth, even stroke. The pilot craft disappear behind the taller waves. Occasionally, a recovery stroke greets nothing but air until the body drops off a watery precipice. Other times, the Bay snatches an arm in mid-return and slams it back, forcing a one-arm stroke drill. Coach Val’s instruction is paying dividends though, and the steady glide of the Texas two-step builds confidence for the Channel.
This is not a race and swimmers bear partial responsibility for pilot coverage. The faster swimmers reverse course a couple of times to return to the group and tighten the spread. Sunrisers call this behavior “podding up.” It adds to the sense of camaraderie.
By the time we turn the corner again at Pier 39, the ebb has gained strength and we are streaking back to Aquatic Park. Within an hour of getting wet, we curl around the breakwater and stroke for the beach.
At the beach, the swimmers make their way back down the boat ramp to meet the pilots. Together, they retrieve and stow the Zodiacs. After-drop and hypothermic tremors take a toll among the swimmer helpers. One by one, they make their way to the warm sauna. By the time they are dressed, the equipment is re-stowed and ready for the next mission.
The Sunrisers conduct perhaps three hundred swims a year. It’s small wonder that they operate with such quiet competence. For me, it was a treat to be liberated from the strict confines of the Cove. The hour seemed to fly by. The rough water was just an added training bonus. This experience and the anticipation of the ones to follow make me glad to have established a dual membership with the South End and the Dolphin Clubs.
2 months ago