Another Slice of Heaven

Sunday 02/07/10

Starting just east of Aquatic Park, the piers of San Francisco radiate out of the city front like irregular sprockets. The point of reference for all pier numbers is the Ferry Building. First opened in 1898, the Ferry Building and Plaza mark the picturesque terminus of Market Street. In the early 1900’s, it was the second busiest transit terminal in the world. It continues to offer ferry docking and still serves as the starting point for numbering other San Francisco piers. Going north from the Ferry Plaza the piers bear odd numbers. Going south, the piers carry even numbers.

Odd-numbered Pier 7 juts into the Bay three blocks north of the Ferry Building. After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, the pier was condemned. Multiple city, state, and national authorities pooled together almost $7,000,000 in funding to create a truly beautiful public access pier with wrought iron railings, timber decking, and ornamental lighting. It is a favorite starting point for Sunriser swims. The ground track from Pier 7 to Aquatic Park is roughly two and a half miles, making it a longish swim in 53 degree water and suitable for winter training for the English Channel. The Sunrisers had planned a Pier 7 for Friday the 5th, and I was eager to go along.

Determined to arrive early enough to help prepare and launch the pilot craft, I crossed the dark beach between the Dolphin and South End clubs at six a.m. The tide was just beginning to ebb from a height of 6.1 feet and the beach was awash. Reaching the South End dock with sea-slick flip-flops, I gingerly climbed up the inky, slippery steps to confront a lightless, barren tableau. The last time I was here, light poured out of the big, open bay door to illuminate a pre-dawn scene of bustle and purpose. Now, it was just a cold, damp expanse of gloomy concrete with one or two cove swimmers milling about. I wandered around the warren-like building searching for a familiar face. Befitting the club-within-a club nature of the Sunrisers, I met nobody knowledgeable of the Sunriser schedule or the potential for a Pier 7 swim. I was disappointed. The thought of once again crisscrossing the cove several times was not very appealing.

On my last circuit through the various club nooks and crannies, I came across Joe Butler in the men’s locker room. He said, “Yep. Today’s Pier 7, another trip to heaven. Go sign up and I’ll meet you downstairs.” Hot dang! We were in business! An attack of olds-timers had caused me to forget the Sunriser’s weekday schedule. 6:30 a.m. is check-in. 7 a.m. is jump time. I’d just been a half hour early.

When I got downstairs, the bustle had still failed to materialize. Only one other swimmer had checked in. We introduced ourselves and chatted a bit while we waited. I saw that a Zodiac was stowed in the inflatable boat rack in a quick-launch fashion with the outboard already attached. When Mr. Butler came, I asked if he wanted me to retrieve a fuel tank from the outside storage locker. He gave me the combination and we two swimmers went to fumble with the lightless lock. Next time, I’ll have to remember to bring reading glasses.

By the time we secured the fuel tank, Mr. Butler had wheeled the Zodiac out of the boat barn. He then sent us for the radios. Without glasses, we again fumbled with the lock on the radio shack, but did return with two working radios—one for boat-to-boat communication and one to speak with the Vessel Traffic Service. By the time we got back, Mr. Butler had wheeled the Zod down the ramp and had it in the water with the engine idling. He secured the radios, asked me to untie the leader and we were off. The sun was still below the horizon and we kept a sharp lookout for swimmers in the black water.

Just as we turned the corner at Pier 45, the eastern sky was starting to glow, splashing the lengths of stratocumulus clouds with blue and orange tinges. The water was almost glassy calm and heaved slowly in a ponderous swell that made it feel like the Bay was breathing deeply in a heavy slumber.

As we passed the odd-numbered piers, Mr. B pointed out the normally active ones, teaching us the potential piloting hazards of various tugs, cruise ships, and work ferries as they might leave or enter their homes. He never once expressed the slightest disappointment at the prospect of piloting only two swimmers. We were all three enjoying the wilderness experience in an urban setting and the beauty of the breaking dawn.

We glided to a stop south of Pier 7 just before 7 a.m. and paused to check the strength of the ebb tide. It was clearly strong and building. This was going to be a good ride. Mr. Butler contacted VTS and gave our location and intention. VTS responded with an admonition about shipping traffic. Mr. B assured them that the two swimmers would stay together and pilot coverage would be close. They responded positively and we two swimmers rolled backward off the pontoons and splashed into the water. Once again, the icy shock of the dark water provided an adrenaline bump that lasted well after we began stroking for mid-channel to catch more current.

About the time that we reached Pier 27, the supply ship for Alcatraz, the Solitary, was heading out on its daily 7a run. This ferry has the exclusive contract for bringing water, food, and equipment to the island. It also carries back waste and discards. By radio, the pilot told Mr. B that it intended to stick to its normal course and the swimmers would have to let it pass. As a result, we were well north of the city front by the time we were able to turn west. At this point, though, the more prudent course was to head due south back to land. As it was, we wound up sprinting perpendicularly to the massive ebb current to regain the city front before being swept past the Aquatic Park opening. We safely joined the fisherman's wharf breakwater partway down its length and zoomed into the opening accompanied by other South Enders who had been swimming laps outside the cement wall.

We helped pull the zodiac onto its trolley and trundle it into the preparation area where Mr. Butler shooed the swimmers into the saunas. All of us wore huge grins in commemoration of the spectacular and rare occurrence of flat water and blue skies. Another Pier 7. Another slice of heaven.

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