Eight Hour Bay Swim

Tuesday 07/20/10

The tide book is predicting that relatively little water will move in and out of San Francisco Bay today. Less than 4 feet will rise on the flood and only 1.3 feet will recede on the subsequent ebb. This raises the possibility of attempting a swim that has long tickled my fancy. Several years ago, Laura B told me about one of her Channel training swims. She nonchalantly mentioned swimming to Oakland and then around Treasure Island and various other landmarks. I was stupefied at the time. However, today seems like a good time to undertake a similar swimming tour of the Bay.

A maximum flood current of 2.8 knots is supposed to flow at the Golden Gate Bridge at 7:25am. If we jump at 6:30am, we can ride the end of the flood maybe as far as AT&T Park and then loop around Yerba Buena and Treasure Islands. Depending on the conditions, we may even be able to circle Angel Island and have the weak ebb current help us back to Aquatic Park.

Reuben Hechanova is the Dolphin Club boat captain and he will be piloting the Arias for the first four hours. Ralph Wenzel will be swimming with me. Lindsay and Ralph’s nephew, Ben Sathis, will crew for the whole time. In what is now an almost practiced manner, we help Reuben load and launch the pilot boat. Ralph and I wade into the water and once again stroke for the Opening.

The Arias catches up with us part way down the breakwater and I chuckle to hear the crackling radio announcing our “marine event.” The flood current is still flowing and Ralph and I swim in tandem past Pier 39. Reuben takes us out to mid-channel to catch the maximum possible current. The soaring San Francisco skyline slides by on our right and we stroke under the west section of the Bay Bridge at mid-span. By the time we reach the end of the South Beach Harbour breakwater, we’re on our fourth feeding and encounter the early stirring of a weak ebb.

We turn east and curve toward the eastern span of the Bay Bridge. Construction is active on the replacement bridge and the engineers ask us to swim further east to avoid falling debris. None of us are wearing hard hats so it seems like good advice. The new bridge is actually starting to look like something. It’s easy to imagine the graceful, soaring towers eventually dressed in a geometric array of suspension cables. This memory is definitely one for the archives.

In spite of the surrounding beauty, I’m starting to feel pretty crummy. I’m cold. My hands and feet have been hurting for a while, now. My belly feels like I’ve swallowed a slowing inflating balloon. The liquid ibuprofen burns my throat, scores my stomach, and leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Various body parts are whining. My brain is starting to question the wisdom of this whole project.

Jens Voigt is a professional cyclist. He is one of the best rouleur (all-round) riders on the tour and has won two stages in the Tour de France. He provides a living example of determination and fortitude. In this year’s race through France, he crashed repeatedly. Once, with his own bike smashed beyond repair, he borrowed a child’s bicycle to avoid being picked up by the “broom wagon.” He eventually caught up to the grupetto and retrieved one of his spare bikes to finish the race and earn the right to continue to Paris. When a reporter asked him about the pain he replied, “Sometimes you can hear like your body start talking to you. It goes, ‘Ohhh! I can’t do it anymore, I can’t do it anymore.’ And then your mind goes, ‘Shut up body and do what I tell you to do!” Later, another reporter asked him, “Jens, one more time. What do you tell your legs?” Voigt turned from signing an autograph, grinned and declaimed, “Shut up legs!”

Just after four and a half hours in the water, Barry Christian arrives in a zodiac to change places with Reuben. He brings a crew change.  Jackie Merovich replaces her boyfriend, Larry.  From my torture chamber in the water, I barely notice.  I summon an image of Jens Voigt and his dry, sarcastic sense of humour to force myself to keep going. The six hour swim was so much easier. Eight hours is starting to seem an unreachable goal. Ten hours looms as impossible. The English Channel menaces like an insane and ludicrous nightmare. I begin to imagine scenarios where I just abandon the whole quest. I rehearse my excuses to friends and family. I calculate the forfeited expenditures. I tally the financial commitments the crew has made and how much it will cost to compensate them. And then it’s time for the next feeding. Saved by the air horn! I remind myself to just swim from feed to feed.

We’re now officially in “the Slot.” On a typical summer afternoon, the sun pounds down on the baked East Bay hills and creates an outdoor furnace. As the hot air rises it generates suction, dragging cooler air from the San Francisco Bay. The headlands that frame the Golden Gate Bridge form a natural Bernoulli funnel, accelerating a cold air mass toward Berkeley and beyond. The turbo-charged wind and the unchecked fetch from the open ocean typically create a lumpy, chaotic mess in the Slot. This afternoon is no exception. The wind is blowing 25 to 30 knots and the waves are four to six feet high at a six second interval. And, of course, the waves have breaking tops. The wind-generated current completely erases the small ebb and Ralph and I creep slowly up the Slot past Angel Island to Pt. Blunt.

Life on the pilot boat is a sodden, spine-pounding scramble. Lindsay stops recording and stashes the video camera in a water-proof pouch. The crew pump vigorously on the bailer. The sea is pummelling boat and swimmer alike. A couple of times, I reach out for a stroke and a breaking wave spins me completely around my axis. This is actually good news. Concentrating on timing my stroke to the breaking waves and avoiding swallowing the salt water distracts me. The other pains don’t exactly diminish but they blur into a tattered miasma.

Eventually … blessedly … the final horn sounds. We’re part way back to Alcatraz and the Bay is in an uproar. Ralph and I struggle over the pontoon sides and into the heaving craft. We wedge ourselves into the bow to distribute the weight and endure a jarring, icy trip back to Aquatic Park. Barry is threading his way expertly at no more than ten miles an hour, but the periodic, precipitous drops from the top of a wave into the trough of an oncoming successor are unavoidable and drenching. With each slamming impact, I barely suppress another grunting “unhhhh.”

On the drive home from the Dolphin Club, I slouch uncomfortably in the passenger seat.  Halfway there, I implore Lindsay to pull over to the side of the road where I spew three loads of projectile vomit into the gutter. Charming. Someone sagely advised checking your dignity at the door when you attempt the English Channel. That evening, I’m reminded of the aftermath of the five hour swim. Lethargic and demoralized, I barely touch my dinner or my dinner cocktail. Franklin Roosevelt reportedly described drinking a well-made martini as “sipping a cold cloud.” Tonight, it just tastes like frozen medicine to me.

A week and a half later, I’m almost fully recovered. The specifics of the anguish are now hazy, but I’m wary of the remaining trauma. On the other hand, Lindsay and I have a grand time sticking pins in the San Francisco Bay chart to mark our latest trek. We amuse one another all week with our horror stories during cocktail hour and the gin once again mimics Mr. Roosevelt’s “cold cloud.” We’re planning the last long training swim for ten hours on August 22nd. And this time, we will not be anywhere near the Slot.

Six Hour Bay Swim

Wednesday 06/23/10

I’ve been sick. I haven’t swum since last Thursday when my throat first started feeling scratchy. Since then, I’ve been napping heavily and chugging Nyquil at night to keep the wracking cough and congestion at bay. Someone trying to cheer me up suggested that I think of this time as “an enforced taper.” Very funny.

Ralph Wenzel and I were scheduled to swim in the Bay for six hours on Tuesday, but Lindsay convinced me to put it off a day. That was good advice. The extra day makes me feel better, but I’m quite jittery about suddenly attempting a long swim. On the other hand, delay would jeopardize the remaining Channel training schedule. Feeling so rotten has tapped a pessimistic vein and once more in this long preparation process I wrestle with the demons of doubt. Suzie D, a multiple Channel crosser, calls these moments a crise de coeur.  Finally, I decide to just shut up and swim. The temperature will be four or five degrees warmer than it was for our five hour swim. That alone should compensate for whatever physical infirmity the illness has meted.

At 7:30a, Ralph and I join Darcy and Lindsay on the dock to help Paul Brady load and launch the Arias. The women then clamber into the inflatable with Paul at the helm.  For this excursion, Lindsay and I have premixed the maltodextrin powder with hot water in our old, blue, two-gallon water cooler. The new system allows the crew to simply push a button and squirt a dose of feed into the BPA-free bottle each half hour. This eliminates the necessity to juggle half a dozen bottles; makes it possible to supply a warm feed; and avoids a messy mixing and measuring process. The remaining feeding task is to mingle additives such as apple juice, liquid ibuprofen, and whey protein at the designated times. We use a large ice chest to hold the crew lunch and drinks, the spare water bottles, and alternative feeding material. We found it much easier to quickly grab the necessary item out of a hard-sided container than rummaging around in a soft sack on a pitching watercraft. Any suspicion we might have harboured that this project was not a learning process has long dissipated. We are thoroughly convinced that repeated rehearsals in all facets of the campaign are valuable.

Shortly after 8a, Ralph and I leave the beach at the Dolphin Club and crab into the flood tide to reach the opening at Aquatic Park. We turn the corner and shoot down the side of the breakwater. The volume on the Arias’ radio is cranked up and the speaker crackles loudly. San Francisco Bay Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) is communicating with a commercial tug. “Roger, Yankee Hotel. Your deviation request to proceed westbound in the eastbound traffic lane south of Alcatraz has been granted ... And there’s a marine event: Two swimmers in the water from Aquatic Park to Candlestick Point accompanied by the Dolphin Club Arias. They’re monitoring 14 and working channel 71.” For the rest of the swim, pilot Paul Brady keeps VTS informed of our progress. When we reach the Russian guided missile cruiser docked at Pier 17, the VTS controller warns us to remain at least 100 yards clear. The Japanese training vessel, Kashima, has no such qualms. It actually cruises by us and the cadets lining the side smile and wave.

The temperature is about 55 degrees Fahrenheit, markedly warmer than our last long swim. It’s still a little chilly, but balmy in comparison. When we turn the corner at Pier 39, it warms up yet another couple of degrees. By the time we pass under the Bay Bridge on our southbound leg, the temperature has climbed to 58 or 59. I shake and shiver some at the second feeding. Shortly after that, I completely forget about the cold. This is a walk in the park compared to our five hour freezing ordeal.

Opposite Hunters Point, we turn around and head back. We have reached slack tide and the natural back-eddy filling India Basin grips us in its maw for a half hour. Eventually, we escape and the building ebb current sweeps us back north. Three and a half hours into the swim, my upper thighs start aching. At one point, the pain is bad enough that I start dragging my legs through the water without kicking. I can’t do this for very long since my lower half rapidly sinks. I resume kicking just hard enough to stay level in the water. At the four hour feed, Lindsay spikes my mixture with a little whey protein to provide some fat and adds 600 milligrams of liquid ibuprofen. Shortly afterwards, the pain in my thighs disappears.

At Pier 19, we pass another security zone—this time for an American military ship. The zone extends 100 yards off shore and I am at least 20 yards beyond that. However, as we pass, burly men dressed in dark colors begin to bristle and posture until we slide by.

At the six hour mark, we’re opposite Pier 27 again. The ebb has strengthened and Ralph and I both feel fine. We know it would be satisfying to finish back at the club beach, so we agree to keep going. A Hornblower ferry is carting a horde of tourists to Alcatraz. On some unheard cue from the captain, the throng on the upper deck give us a cheer and wave excitedly as they motor onward to visit the prison.

Having achieved our goal, I am starting to emerge from that long-distance meditative swimming zone. I stop concentrating on stroke mechanics and begin to think of non-aquatic obligations. These thoughts whirl for about fifteen minutes until I stop swimming and suggest that we pack it in. There are a couple of things I’d like to get done before 5p. Later, I learn that Ralph has an appointment with his insurance agent at 3:30p.

Back in the shower and sauna, Ralph and I are feeling mighty good. We marvel at how much better we feel than we did after the five hour swim. I’m excited to think that Lindsay and I have the feeding sorted out. One measure of Ralph’s outlook is that he readily agrees to accompany me on the next swim for eight hours.

This open water swim represents the final “t” that I have to cross in order to be officially qualified to attempt to swim the English Channel. The Channel Swimming Association requires an affidavit signed by two witnesses attesting to an aspirant’s swim of six hours in water 60 degrees or colder. Adherence to this mandate is based on the honour system.

Last April, Jacques Frederik started a firestorm when he published an entry on the Channel Swimmers Google Group. He freely and very publically confessed, “I, for instance, didn’t do the 6 hour swim and got a personal friend at a national swimming body to sign the document. Instead, I wanted to focus on the Channel swim and build it up mentally and physically mainly in the pool.” When the inevitable admonishment sprang forth, he went even further and demanded that people “spare me your moral issues and patronising.” This expression of petulance predictably fanned the flames. Mike Oram had probably the most vituperative response. He wrote, “It’s not the moral issues and patronising you should be spared from. You are a liar - and a self-centred, vain, conceited cheat with little or no morals.”

For my part, I can’t imagine faking the six hour swim. In order to feel that I have done everything I can to be prepared, I’m planning an eight and a ten hour swim in the next two months. In fact, just a few years ago, the CSA demanded a ten hour qualifying swim. My perception is that Monsieur Frederik not only cheated the system—he cheated himself. It doesn’t sound like he tried to enjoy the process of preparation and celebrate the journey. In fact, he admits “after my Channel swim, I was so sick of swimming that I stopped for some time.” Regardless of whether I ultimately stand on France or not, I don’t expect that to be my reaction. Rather, embracing the odyssey has been unbelievably fulfilling. It has also made me care more about swimming than I would have ever thought possible.