Two Hour Bay Swim

Saturday 03/13/10

Fate played a dirty trick this week. When I left for Chicago on Tuesday, the Bay temperature was over 55 degrees Fahrenheit and seemingly headed higher. When Ralph Wenzel and I waded into the water four days later on Saturday, the temperature hadn’t climbed. Instead, it had dropped to 54 degrees. For people who don’t swim in cold water, it’s not easy to understand that 1.5 degrees can make such a big difference. To warm-water swimmers, anything under 70 can seem prohibitively cold. My experience, though, is that the “state of cold” is not linear. The difference between 60 and 62 is hardly noticeable to an acclimated cold-water swimmer. However, the difference between 54 and 55.5 is quite noticeable and hypothermia is a distinct possibility. The impending prospect of a two hour dip made Ralph and I both a little nervous.

In addition, we were swimming in the afternoon and the wind was piping. A Force 5 fresh breeze blasted across the water from the west. It collided head-on with the outgoing ebb current and churned up a steep, high chop. In other words, conditions were excellent for an English Channel training swim.

Doug J operated the Zodiac pilot craft and carried a crew of Darcy W and Lindsay C. By 3pm, we had loaded and launched the boat. Ralph and I waded into the water at the Dolphin Club beach and swam out to the Aquatic Park Cove opening. By the time we approached the Jacuzzi, our pilots had tested the current and found it was still ebbing strongly, so we headed east toward Pier 39. We stayed inside the breakwater which offered some protection from the howling wind and sloppy sea. At the east end of the breakwater, a gargantuan bull sea lion charged directly at Ralph and me and dove a few feet in front of us. At the time, I felt a brush down my left arm and thought it might be Ralph. It wasn’t until afterwards that the crew told us what had happened. They decided that information was best kept compartmentalized at the time. It wouldn’t have mattered. Ralph and I were shutting up and swimming.

As we cruised by Pier 39, I could see a throng of people lining the wooden railing. The sea lions have not returned in their previous numbers, so Ralph and I provided the most entertaining aquatic spectacle available at that moment. People took pictures and gestured and shouted. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but Lindsay C said later that it was mostly a mixture of questions about the water temperature and speculation on our sanity. One woman asked the crew to try and get the swimmers to smile for the camera.

At the end of the Pier 39 breakwater, we turned around and headed back west, giving the tourists on Pier 39 another photo opportunity. The waves were irregular and choppy and the afternoon boat traffic flung forceful wakes across our path. Thanks to Coach Val, my stroke felt smooth and strong, though, and we sliced through the turbulent and turbid saltwater at a decent pace.

We once again swam inside the Hyde Street breakwater to get a little respite from the waves. We threaded our way through the gap at the Jacuzzi, out the opening, and kept going west to Gas House Cove where we turned around and headed back to the barn. Oddly, we began making very, very slow progress. The pier at Fort Mason seemed to creep by. The tide chart said that the flood was scheduled to kick in at Golden Gate 4:11p. Here it was 5:00p and the ebbing current still flowed at about a knot right into our teeth. This presented a decision to either keep slogging for another thirty minutes to finish at the beach or determine that we’d accomplished our objective and climb into the Zod. As we treaded water and discussed it, the current pushed us farther west, even against the roaring wind.

Ralph was game for continuing, but I was planning to swim 5 hours in the pool the next Thursday and opted for declaring victory and withdrawing. Ralph accepted my proposal with his usual gentlemanly grace and slid smoothly over the side into the boat.

The shower and sauna offered a delightful reward for our efforts. We were both exhilirated from our adventure and looked forward to the next Bay training milestone—a three hour swim.

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