Ten Hour Bay Swim

Sunday 08/22/10

The Mr. Magoo is knifing straight towards me. Racing on a broad reach under its trademark green spinnaker, the J105 sailboat is making nearly seven knots. Its favoured path to the next racing mark is directly between the two pilot boats guiding my ten hour swim. The driver of Mr. Magoo seems intent on teaching us a well-deserved lesson in the “rules of the road.” In general, boats under power must give way to boats under sail and the racing vessel is standing on to plough through the middle of my two pilot boats, presumably rehearsing a few well-chosen epithets to shout our way as it rips past and crushes me in the process.

Like the pseudonymous cartoon character, the crew of Mr. Magoo may have comically impaired eyesight. The orange and yellow signal flag, OSCAR, is flying from both pilot boats. It telegraphs that a person is in the water and vessel manoeuvrability is limited. Admittedly, the signal flying from the spreaders of our sailboat is small and easily mistaken for a yacht club insignia. However, the large flag streaming in the 15 knot wind from the stern of the Arias is clearly visible.

On the other hand, marine signalling is not a subject of widespread knowledge. While the seamanship of racing sailors includes areas of extreme competence, my experience is that signal knowledge is not necessarily one of these areas. The silver lining in this potential collision cloud is that the Mr. Magoo crew is uniformly decked out in foul weather gear costing well over $1,000 apiece. The suit of sails is costly and the boat itself is expensive. A used J105 goes for $135,000. Deep pockets are in abundant evidence and Lindsay should be compensated quite well in a wrongful death settlement.

At this point, we are a little more than seven hours into the swim. I started from the Dolphin Club beach at 6:40a with Reuben Hechanova piloting in the Arias. Swimming west on the dying ebb, we met Gary Ehrsam at Gas House Cove. He was driving his Hunter 30, the Catana, and was carrying Darcy W and Lindsay as crew. They were delighted to finally be travelling on a pilot vessel boasting a fully functional head. With both radios crackling, we continued west to the Wave Organ and then turned around and headed back east.

Reuben kept me in mid-channel all the way around the city front. As a right-side breather, the various landmarks of the San Francisco skyline glided past: Coit Tower, Transamerica building, Bank of America building, the Ferry building, the new Rincon Hill residential skyscraper. After two and a half hours of swimming, I cruised south under the Bay Bridge yet again. For some reason, the sense of mystery and majesty this crossing evokes had not abated.

Ralph Wenzel is sitting this one out, so I was swimming by myself for the first time during a long training swim. The sense of solitude was new and gave me confidence that this was a terrific dress rehearsal for the English Channel. As we passed by AT&T Park, the sun was well up in a cloudless sky and the wind had yet to make its entrance. I remained nervous about completing the entire ten hours, but so far no body parts had revolted.

Four hours into the swim, we’re over a mile offshore from Hunter’s Point. Lindsay gave me a small dose of whey with my feeding. We tried administering ibuprofen in tablet form this time. I shook the pills out of a feeding bottle and two of them bounced out of my hand and into the bay. At the next feeding, the pills stuck inside the wet bottle and refused to come out at all. We’ll just have to stick with the noxious liquid stuff.

At the five hour mark, Reuben guided me around the green and red markers that stand sentinel at the entrance to the South Bay Channel. We were a little south of Candlestick Park and the wind had picked up, churning the water into a brown, lumpy froth. My stomach was feeling bloated and various body parts were starting to squeak. Peter Perez taught me to relieve hip flexor pain by bending a leg slightly and dragging it through the water for a few strokes. Of course, this slows the swimmer down, but the relief is instantaneous and lasts for a while.

At the six hour feeding, I bent my right knee up to 90 degrees and immediately, my hamstring seized in an excruciating cramp. It felt like I’d been shot through the back of the thigh with a high-powered rifle. This felt serious. I was terrified that this would end the swim. The panic-induced paranoia rapidly extrapolated to forecast a failed English Channel attempt. I immediately straightened my leg, hoping to clear the cramp. I chuggged down less than half my feeding in order to get swimming again right away. After a few minutes, the pain went away and I was left with the uncomfortable but endurable ache of hip flexor distress. I could deal with that the Jens Voigt way. I told my body to shut up and do what I wanted it to do.

Shortly after the seven hour feeding, the Mr. Magoo makes its appearance, maintaining a constant bearing straight at me. As it closes to within 100 meters, Gary Ehrsam snatches the air horn and gives five short, urgent blasts. The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea specify, “When vessels in sight of one another are approaching each other and from any cause either vessel fails to understand the intentions or actions of the other, or is in doubt whether sufficient action is being taken by the other to avoid collision, the vessel in doubt shall immediately indicate such doubt by giving at least five short and rapid blasts.” This signal is often heard around San Francisco Bay. It’s usually issued by a large container ship encountering some pleasure vessel in mid-channel. In contrast to the politely formal language of the International Regulations, the clear and unvarnished interpretation is, “get the hell out my way or I’ll smush you like roadkill!”

The signal works. Mr. Magoo luffs up and sweeps past closely on the port side of the Catana. Half of the crew is giving us the stank-eye. The other half is gesticulating in shock and amazement at the swimmer in the water. For now, Lindsay will just have to make do with a live husband in lieu of a large settlement.

Eventually, we round the corner at Pier 39 and head west. At the Jeremiah O’Brien, the horn sounds for the last time. I’ve been swimming for ten hours and five minutes. What a sweet sound! I hurt all over. Worst of all, my stomach feels grossly bloated and distended. The crew ask if I want to keep swimming to the club beach. It’s only about twenty minutes away, but I’m ready to stop the torture and find I’m really eager to see the doggies. I struggle into the Arias behind Reuben and we chug back to the club dock.

I don’t feel quite as bad as I did after the eight hour swim, but it’s a close call. Some kind soul brings me a mug of hot, sweetened tea to drink in the sauna. It tastes good, but kicks the nausea over the precipice. I race to the bathroom to puke. Whey solids are in clear evidence and it’s obvious that the lactose sealed off the digestion process as effectively as a cork in a bottle. No way is the whey going to make the trip to England.

Back home that evening, Lindsay makes some plain white rice with a little salt, pepper, and grated Reggiano parmesan. It really hits the spot. Once again, the martini tastes as medicinal as the liquid ibuprofen. I go to bed early, but can’t easily get to sleep. My whole body is sore and my stomach is queasy. I’m still lying awake at nine o’clock and thinking about Suzie D’s recent swim across the Catalina channel. It took her 18 hours and 36 minutes. I lay there realizing that I’d still be swimming. In fact, I’d still be swimming until one o’clock in the morning! This thought gives me a perverse feeling of comparative comfort and I drift into a light slumber.

Two weeks later and I’m finally recovered. The stomach pretty much recovered overnight and the muscle soreness was gone in a couple of days. But several days passed before I felt like lifting weights again. Emotional stability took even longer. I have a fairly mercurial temperament anyway, but this was freakish and reminded me of teenage. One day lethargy. Another day exuberance. Least charming were the splenetic periods. I suppose Jens Voigt would say something like, “Shut up, hormones, and do what I tell you to do!”

The last long training swim is behind me, though. I’m back to swimming regularly in the old swimming hole for relatively short distances and enjoying the experience immensely. I’m anxious about completing the Big Swim, but feel I’m well-prepared. More than anything, I’m absolutely determined that the next long swim I undertake will end on land.

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