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.

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