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.


  1. Nicely done Larry and Ralph!

  2. Re your search for 'the dark moments in marathon swimming', is this what your looking for:

    Cliff Golding wrote it, 'Tips and Bits and Pieces for Your Channel Swim'.