Four Hour Bay Swim

Sunday 04/11/10

Launching the Arias is a complicated operation. It involves ropes, chains and multiple people executing a choreographed dance at the brink of the Dolphin Club dock. The Arias is a 16 foot inflatable craft with a hard, V-shaped bottom that slices through the waves rather than bouncing over them. It sports an overhead transom metal rack complete with flashing lights and siren. The pilot commands from the center of the boat with a steering wheel, throttle and pitch control. The 75 horsepower outboard can propel the craft at speeds suitable for Special Forces operations. When the crew wear wetsuits, orange personal flotation devices, and dark baseball caps, it looks like Homeland Security personnel is patrolling the San Francisco Bay for saboteurs. Several years ago, Lindsay and I drove the Arias to assist Park Service personnel in posting signage on the Aquatic Park breakwater and one employee enviously offered to trade his craft straight up for the Arias. It’s a really cool boat.

Besides the cool factor, the extra effort required to launch the Arias pays off in passenger comfort. The crew and pilot sit on a padded center bench facing forward rather than twisted around on the side of a slippery tube. The V-shaped bottom spares the spine-jarring impact associated with the smaller, flat-bottomed Zodiacs. Nature breaks are much less tortuous, public or error-prone on the Arias, even for women. Since Ralph Wenzel and I are planning to complete a four hour swim today, the Arias is a perfect choice for pilot craft.

Paul Brady has earned lifetime status as a Dolphin. He is among the most experienced Arias drivers in the club and he will pilot today. He leads Lindsay, Ralph, and I through the launch process and makes it look simple. Shortly after 7:00a, Ralph and I are once again wading into the water and following a pilot boat out to the cove opening. In spite of daylight savings time, the sun is already beginning to chase the darkness away.

Ralph and I have euphemistically labeled this an excellent opportunity for a training swim. Like the previous three hour swim we have another, stronger flood accompanied with another gale-force wind from the west. It will definitely be bumpy. And cold. With snow melt and reservoir water release, the water is around 54 degrees. This will equal Ralph’s longest Bay swim and set a new personal best for me. Our plan is to head west again, staying close to the shoreline for protection from the current. We hope to make it to the Golden Gate Bridge this time before turning around and heading back.

Lindsay is handling crew and feeding duties for the first two hours. In spite of the improved circumstances for biological relief, we plan to nudge the Arias into the Crissy Field beach after two hours, drop off Lindsay, and pick up Jackie M to continue crew duty. Ms. M will be on the boat in Folkestone with Lindsay and Darcy W for the Channel attempt. This will be her first chance to practice with us.

When Ralph and I turn the corner at the opening, the waves begin to break over our heads and we sneak a glance at one another. We’re both thinking the same thing. “This is going to be tough.” We strike in closer to shore to seek the skimpy shelter from the flood and chop offered by the Fort Mason pier. When we swing out around Fort Mason, our progress over ground slows to a crawl. We barely reach Gas House Cove before it’s time for the first feeding.

Mr. Brady has been out farther in the channel to check current and has found it just as strong away from shore, so we continue on our path to the Wave Organ, hoping to benefit from the protection that jut of land might provide. We are barely even with the St. Francis Yacht Club when it’s time for the second feeding. We’ve been in the water for an hour and haven’t made it as far as we did for the three hour swim. It’s an odd sensation. We’re simply training and the goal is based on time, not distance. An unemotional, intellectual analysis would say that this should be little different from swimming in a salty, cold, and bumpy endless pool. Still, the creeping pace gnaws at the psyche.

At two hours, we’re even with the easternmost beach of Crissy Field. The pounding swell makes it impossible to make the planned personnel transfer. Ms. M waves from the shore, wishes us well and then heads back to the club, having devoted her morning to a fruitless wait. Ralph and I keep swimming.

Some Channel swimmer posted an entry on the channel swimmers chat site last fall when I was just beginning this quest. I haven’t been able to find it in the archives and mourn the loss of the person’s name and exact words. The sentiment has stayed with me, though. I’m pretty sure the writer was a man and he said that his experience of marathon swimming was punctuated with many dark moments. He said it was like searching for himself in a cold, dark, intimidating tunnel until he came to a blockage that he couldn’t navigate. He’d have to forcefully make up his mind to clear the blockage. He’d reach in and grab the rocks and rubble, the rocking chairs and boat anchors, the cardboard boxes and filing cabinets. He’d fling this debris aside until he found the trap door. Forcing the door open, he’d have discovered another part of himself and keep on swimming.

I have a couple of these moments on this training swim. It was odd. It was like gearing a car down from two-wheel drive to four-wheel drive. Not that my stroke rate changed. Lindsay said she kept track and I maintained a metronomic pace of 47 strokes per minute regardless of circumstance. I need to remember to tell Coach about that. He’s been drilling me on consistency and I think he’d be proud.

After three hours, Ralph and I are only slightly west of the point we reached at the two hour mark on the previous swim. We’re a bit past the Warming Hut where we have another feeding and turn around. Once again, the ride home is a whole ‘nother matter.

We re-enter Aquatic Park and the world changes. The wind and turbulence decrease dramatically. It seems like we could keep going, but I’m agenda-bound. This is a four hour swim. When we climb out of the water, Ralph and I shake hands as is our custom and grin at our accomplishment. We are both hunched and shaking, holding our hands like claws in front of us. It reminds me of Kevin Costner’s portrayal in The Guardian of a Coast Guard rescue swimmer instructor when he was teaching his class about hypothermia. We both check our ability to touch our thumb to little finger and laugh out loud that we can pass this simple hypothermia test.

We warm quickly. By the time we get back downstairs, Mr. Brady and Lindsay have recovered and stowed the Arias. We invite Mr. Brady to lunch at Capurro’s next door. I may not do that again. It seems like a nice gesture and decent tradition, but we were all so knackered that I think any one of us would have opted for a nice nap instead. I’m glad we made the effort, though. It was good to share a meal and our perspectives of the swim before scattering to our separate lives.

One thing, though. I’m going to keep searching the chat site archives to find that entry about the tunnel. I’m pretty sure that I’ll need to reference it again.

How Much Does It Cost?

Sunday 04/04/10

The English Channel is often cited as one of the busiest shipping straits in the world. A quick glance at the website depicting live English Channel Ship Movements easily confirms that a west-east crossing will encounter many moving obstacles. And these moving obstacles can be quite large—sometimes reaching the equivalent of three American football fields. A multitude of these football fields steam north and south at up to thirty-five miles an hour and can take miles to turn or stop. In short, just as they do in San Francisco Bay, the big boys have the right of way.

Often, these floating behemoths carry hazardous materials making collision avoidance a high priority. To keep order, the International Maritime Organization has established a Traffic Separation Scheme. A set of buoys delineate an aquatic superhighway in the Channel with northbound traffic staying to the east and southbound traffic staying to the west. A daily dose of ferry and drayage traffic runs east and west across the grain of shipping creating a veritable enforcement headache for the authorities.

Since the superhighway straddles international boundaries, the traffic cops are multi-national as well. And the fines can be steep. In October, 2000, the Dover Coastguard cited a sailboat captain for violating the rules resulting in ₤15,000 in fines. On the French side of Le Manche, the marine sheriff is the Centre RĂ©gional OpĂ©rational de Surveillance et de Sauvetage Gris Nez. CROSS Gris Nez is the more manageable appellation for the French Coastguard.

The Maritime and Coastguard agency of England publishes a handy guide to “unconventional crossings of the Dover Strait in unorthodox craft.” The guide points out that the Maritime Prefect of the Channel and North Sea has issued an order number 14/93 which expressly forbids swimming in the French side of the traffic separation scheme. The order allows for two exceptions: events organized and approved by either the Channel Swimming Association (CSA) or Channel Swimming and Pilots Federation (CS&PF). Thus, searching for someone to pilot a swim across the English Channel is fairly easy. Just visit the two websites and look up the contact information.

About 16 pilots are registered with either the CSA or the CS&PF. Each pilot provides evidence of qualifications, insurance, boat certification and inspections to satisfy the necessary organization standards. While pilot fees vary, a solo crossing attempt will cost in the neighborhood of ₤2,100 pounds. Most pilots require a ₤1,000 payment in advance which is non-refundable under normal circumstances. This fee covers what amounts to a twenty-four hour workday for the pilot and crew on the day of the swim. First, the swim itself will take from eight to twenty hours. Then, loading and preparing the boat; motoring to the starting location; retrieving the swimmer on the other end; motoring back to England; and unloading, refueling, and securing the boat adds a surprising amount of time. This doesn’t count the time the pilot and crew spend on standby waiting for the weather window to clear or shuffling paperwork and dealing with cancellations and other swimmer interactions.

The fees for boat surveys and inspections, commercial certifications, examinations, insurance, fuel and repairs are the owner’s responsibility. The wages for the one or two crew members also come out of the ₤2,100. Most of the boats come equipped with sophisticated electronic equipment suitable for the open ocean including radar, Loran, GPS navigation, depth finder, and communication devices. As any boat owner will testify, all of these gadgets tend to break giving rise to the definition of a water craft as “a hole in the water into which you throw money.”

While the pilot fee is the largest direct outlay, both swimming associations assess their own, separate charges. For the Channel Swimming Association, these break down as follows:

Associate membership     ₤21
Swim registration fee         39
Administration fee           170
Ratification fee                160
Total                            ₤390

The ratification fee covers the cost for an official observer who rides in the boat, keeps a log, and verifies that the swimmer follows the general rules governing a certified crossing. The observer will make sure that the swim gear, any medications used, the start, the crossing, and the finish all adhere to the requirements. The observer will also keep the official crossing time. CS&PF fees are slightly less.

Indirect costs include a physical examination with an electrocardiogram (ECG). The attending physician must complete a medical certificate testifying to the fitness of the individual to undertake a Channel swim. Travel and lodging are big ticket items for aspirants who don’t live in England. Swim food and lights add a few dollars.

Lindsay and I budgeted substantially more for this adventure than we would for a normal vacation. On the other hand, when we decided to undertake this challenge, we agreed that it represented a potential lifetime achievement. So far, it’s already paying dividends in education, relationships, entertainment, and raw personal growth and satisfaction. And anyway, it’s cheaper than climbing Mt. Everest.