The forecast calls for rain. Dark streaks of charcoal smear the western end of an already grey and gloomy sky giving credence to the forecast. We can actually see the sky because it’s 9am and well past daylight. In a departure from routine, we’re not planning to start swimming until 10am. Oddly, a winter that was warmer than usual has been followed by a spring that’s colder than usual. Lately, the water’s been pretty danged chilly in the early morning. We hope to encounter slightly warmer conditions in the middle of the day. Regardless, it promises to be a cold five hour swim in the Bay.
The plan is to use the end of the Dolphin Club dock as a base of operations. Ralph Wenzel and I will swim “mostly coves” and return periodically to the dock for feedings. This way, we avoid the logistics associated with a motorized pilot craft. We also gain the advantage of being able to easily warm the water in the club kitchen for the feedings. Perhaps as important, we’ll be able to involve the entire crew scheduled to assist on the boat in the English Channel.
Lindsay C, Darcy W, and Jackie M will take turns providing kayak pilot coverage for us. That will afford everyone the opportunity to become familiar with the progression of my swim stroke over time. Each crew member will also get a chance to prepare the feedings. Popular conception portrays crossing the English Channel as a long and lonely venture--the isolated swimmer struggling against the dynamic sea. It may be true for some. It’s not true for me. I am fortunate to have a committed and supportive team.
As Ralph and I are undressing in the locker room, we get a report that the water temperature this morning was 51.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The report does nothing to calm our nerves. This swim is the longest either of us has ever attempted. All of us, swimmers and crew, are plagued with various levels of performance anxiety. Forefront in my mind is my failure to complete five “coves of death” a week and a half earlier. I’m tucking the sting of that defeat into my psychological tool bag. Having it there doesn’t relieve the anxiety, however.
Jackie M launches the Sweet Lorraine, the kayak we’ll be using for pilot coverage. She paddles toward the Opening. Ralph and I shake hands, wish one another luck, and wade into the water to follow Ms. M. Our first leg is a trip to Fort Mason and back. The water has warmed slightly from the early morning. Still, the temperature varies between 52 and 54 degrees, depending on current flows and upwellings.
By the time we reach the Opening, we’ve settled into a steady rhythm. When we reach the second pier at Fort Mason, we take a wide turn and head back with the building flood current. With almost six feet of visibility, the water is quite clear. The wind is negligible and the surface is reasonably calm. We’re feeling good. We’ve been swimming for forty-five minutes when we stop at the dock for our first feeding.
Using warm water to mix with the maltodextrin powder is a definite improvement. It doesn’t exactly warm me, but it also doesn’t send an inner chill coursing through my body. In another modification, Lindsay has added a small dose of apple juice to the mix. It cuts the gumminess of the plain mixture and offers a small fructose boost. I try to keep the feeding time to twenty seconds or less and chug down 300 ml with some leaking out the sides of my mouth.
For the second leg, we swim a large, clockwise cove. Stopping again at the dock, we refuel and head back for a counter-clockwise tour of Aquatic Park. As we stroke for the Oprah, Ralph shouts a suggestion that we swim on the east side of Hyde Street Pier. I agree and we thread our way through the piers. Lindsay C is taking her turn in the kayak and sees us disappear behind the Thayer. She didn’t hear our agreement to alter course and spends a few frantic minutes searching for us until she realizes where we went. She meets us at the Alma and escorts us the rest of the way around the cove.
At the next feeding, I’m feeling cold and uncomfortable. With the extra curlicues, we’ve been in the water for almost two hours—longer than my abbreviated swim the fifth of May. I was worried that coming back to the dock regularly would exacerbate the desire to cut the swim short. I was right to be worried about that. For the first time today, I trot out the “la muerta pequeña” tool. It works. I glug down another feeding and we set off for an “outside-inside.”
By now, the flood current is really piping down the side of the breakwater. It’s noticeably rougher water and we shoot east. At the “creakers,” we spin around to face the flood and creep back along the inside of the concrete wall. When we reach the dock again, we’ve been swimming two hours and forty-five minutes. Ralph shouts out loudly, “Over the hill, Larry! We’re over the hill!” The crew members on the pier laugh at the unintentional double entendre as it relates to our progress in this swim and our ages. The best response that I can muster is a bland nod of the head and a widening of the mouth that looks more like a grimace than a smile. I concentrate on feeding as fast as possible and striking out again.
We set out on another clockwise loop around the cove. Just past the Flag, I pull out the “tunnel tool.” The cold has permeated my body and the achy, odious physical sensation is flooding my consciousness. I again imagine looking for the trap door in a dark, icy tunnel. I sling the pile of debris that’s blocking the door out of the way until I break through to a second wind. This is not the first time I’ve used that tool today, but it comes at a fortuitous time.
Darcy W is taking her turn in the kayak. Just past the Goal Posts, she begins screaming. Ralph is also screaming. I don’t realize that the shrieks are coming from my friends. I see what I think are children on the Muni Pier and I think they are warning me away from their fishing lines. It’s not until I see a massive white turbulence three feet in front of me that I realize the alarm signals a swarm of sea lions. They are stealing bait from the fishers on the pier and at one point they have me boxed in a thicket of swarming pinniped flesh. I have just geared down into “tunnel mode” and ignore them. The part of my mind that can still think rational thoughts decides, “What can be done anyway? They’re ten times faster than you. Just keep swimming.”
The sea lions are only interested in the bait, not me. Ralph saw them early enough that he veered into the middle of the cove to avoid them. We rejoin at the Repair and continue stroking. Back at the dock, we feed quickly. In honor of our marine mammal friends, we decide to abandon the counter-clockwise cove in favor of another outside-inside.
After two more loops around the breakwater, we’ve been in the water for slightly more than four and a half hours. Ralph exclaims, “This is it, Larry! Just one more!” I don’t need a tunnel tool. I don’t need a “la muerta pequeña” tool. I can smell the barn and it smells good. We finish with a Flag, Bad Becky, Flag and back to the beach. We shuffle onto the sand after five hours and five minutes.
We spend a long time in the shower. We’re so cold that we’re not really shivering. In the sauna, we compare notes and agree that we’re both hurting. My skin quickly feels seared even though I’m not warm on the inside. I move to a lower bench and that helps some. After dressing, we congratulate one another and make plans to swim again the next Monday.
The rest of the day, I feel out of touch with my body. Lindsay insists that I eat some dinner and I find that I’m hungry and didn’t know it. I nurse part of a single, small martini and look at the Giants on the television. The game barely registers and I go to bed early.
It takes me a little over a week to fully recover. For the six hour swim, we’re absolutely going to find warmer water. That will make a six hour swim seem much easier than what we’ve just endured. The Central Bay is four or five degrees warmer. We’ll probably start at the San Mateo Bridge, swim past AT&T Park, around Treasure Island and back to the Dolphin Club. This will mark the completion of prerequisites for attempting a solo English Channel crossing with the CSA. Given the outcome of this most recent milestone, I’m as confident as I’ve ever been that I’ll be prepared.
4 months ago