The swim was from Point Bonita to Aquatic Park. This would be my first time swimming outside the Golden Gate Bridge … intentionally. There was that one time crossing under the span of the bridge that the current swept me west rather rapidly. I was picked up by the pilot boat as I was drifting out to sea. This time being west of the bridge would be a part of the plan.
The preparation for the event was half the challenge. Our club swim commissioner was doing a wonderful job coordinating and making sure the event would be as safe as it could be. This included putting off the swim for the slower swimmers until June to keep the spread of speeds tight. As a slower swimmer, I figured I would have to wait until June to take on this new challenge.
Each swimmer was required to have their own pilot either in a kayak or a row boat. I wrote to the commissioner to offer my services as a pilot for my friend, Les. I was pleasantly surprised when she wrote back that there was one more slot left and that I could have it if I thought I was the same speed as my friends, Tina & Les. Normally I’m slower than them, but I knew I could keep up if I wore fins. I had a choice to make, do the swim now with my friends and fins or wait until June to do it without fins. You know how the saying goes, “Why put off until tomorrow what you can do today?” Especially if this meant I could swim with my Tina & Les.
Tina, however was not yet approved for the swim. She had to demonstrate that she could swim for 2 hours. She and I set out to do a two hours swim 6 days before the event, me with my fins to also demonstrate that I could keep up with her. We started with the Water World Swim group on their regular Sunday workout and kept going after the workout ended in 50 minutes. We swam twice around the break water wall and 3 ½ times around the parameter.
So we were both qualified. The next challenge was finding a pilot. While the swim commissioner was busy trying to find one for each of us ultimately it was our responsibility. So the emails started flying! I emailed everyone I knew that might be available and experienced enough. Slowly they were returned … busy with something else or already piloting for someone else. I knew it would all work out, but I had exhausted all of my resources. Then I received an email from the commissioner that she had me covered. Tina & Les were still not so we kept searching. To make a long story short we went from not having enough pilots to having too many. The pilot that was assigned to me changed twice in a game we started to call “musical pilots.” Finally it all settled down and along came the day of the event.
My nerves started to build Friday night, but I was able to sleep well. I woke up feeling refreshed before the alarm clock. A text message came in from Tina to let me know she was awake and on her way. I always worry a little. It’s just funner when she is around.
I drove to the club and got the last parking spot in the front. Tina’s car was already there. We were amongst the first to arrive. I marked with number 2, Tina with number 3. As more people arrived and things started happening, boats prepared and people getting ready, the thing that struck me the most was all the smiles. There were about 50 of us gathered together on this morning about to create some magic swimming 16 people six or so miles from Point Bonita back to our “home” at Aquatic Park.
After everyone was ready and we had our briefing we marched down to the boat that would take us out to Point Bonita. Already some miscommunications and mishaps occurred. One of the pilots got lost paddling her kayak to the boat. She never made it until ½ way through the swim. I guess she paddled her way against the current to meet us.
The boat ride out to a swim always seems so long. Thoughts go through my mind, “And I’m going to swim all this way back?” We made it out to Point Bonita where the 4 zodiacs awaited us. We unloaded all the kayaks and the pilots into the water. I did not see my pilot. He was in a row boat and was rowing out to the start. I did not see him on the way out and I did not see him there. I would not see him throughout entire event until I was back on dry land!
After the kayaks and pilots were in the water we started getting ready. I was very nervous and had all the doubt that I should be doing this. That’s typical before a new challenge. I knew that I had the ability to complete this, but that doubt does tend to creep in. Just as we were about to go, we got the word from the Coast Guard that they wanted us to move the start of our swim to Mile Rock, two miles across the mouth of the bay on the other side. I was a little relieved that I could procrastinate getting in the water a little longer, yet I was also a little worried. We were already jumping a little late to catch the flood current and this would delay that a little longer.
It was easy for us to get across the opening in the boat, but the kayakers had their work cut out for them crossing 2 miles in the choppy water fighting the current. A few got behind and were picked up in the zodiacs. One tipped over and another almost sunk as it took on water.
We decided to jumped before they all arrived. They would be able to catch up and the zodiacs would cover us until then. I did not have a pilot. I was planning to swim with Tina & Les so just agreed to share their pilots. 2 pilots for the 3 of us … it could work?
Finally the inevitable time came to get in the water and the cold shock. I always hate it, but once I’m in and swimming it is the greatest feeling. Tina so graciously motioned for me to jump first. I guess “lady’s first” does not always apply. I jumped. Immediately I felt something was wrong. There was an imbalance with my feet. One of my fins was gone. I saw Tina and Les swim on by. I had to go back to look for my fin. I started to have visions of swimming with only one. Perhaps I would swim in one big circle? The answer to that question would be left for another time as I saw the blue fin bobbing in the water. I grabbed it and struggled to put it on as the choppy water kept engulfing me. The task was complete. Adrenaline was rushing through my body as I spotted Tina & Les starting to get away. They were waiting, but the current was carrying them. I swam as fast as I could to catch them. It wasn’t just that I wanted to swim with them, but that if I didn’t I would not have pilot coverage.
Once I caught them we started our way through the choppy water. I was not having fun. I was still on adrenaline and the rough water was difficult. The three of us were in the center and the 2 kayaks on either side.
We had to navigate our way out into the channel to make it mid span of the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge was approaching fast with the current was carrying us towards it. With each breath to the right I could spy the south bridge tower and could tell from the angle once we finally got past it. We were instructed by the pilots at that point to swim towards it rather than try to go under the bridge mid span. This was to get out of the shipping lane as huge tankers were scheduled to come in. The Coast Guard was keeping in communication with our chief pilot helping to guide us. It takes a lot of people to pull off a swim like this!
That was when I lost them. I do not know what happened. At one point I could see the gray kayak that was covering Tina and the next thing I knew it was gone. There were lots of swimmers and kayaks converging on that point and in the confusion I started following another one. The current was still carrying me towards the center of the bridge. I took a little time to roll over on my back as I went under it to see the view of this towering structure of steel spanning way above my head. It is quite a sight! Then the water was sweet on the other side. Smooth as glass the chop was gone. I was just cruising, finally relaxed!
I have done the swim from the Golden Gate Bridge to Aquatic Park many times. I know the drill: swim out in the middle for about 15 minutes and then start to cut in towards the shore. If I cut in too soon I can get caught in the back eddies near Fort Point and Crissy Field. Today was different, however, because of the tankers scheduled to come in shortly.
Still the current seemed to want to keep me out there. At this point I had lost the other kayak that I was with and I was all alone. I could see the zodiacs zipping around and there was the police boat out as well keeping an eye on things. I did not feel unsafe. I was getting a little thirsty, however and thought of my water bottle and energy drink in a row boat, who knows where, somewhere in the bay. I could see off in the distance, closer to the shore Tina’s gray kayak. I decided to try to make it over. About that time one of the zodiac stopped near me and instructed me to get in closer to the shore. That was exactly what I wanted to do. They gave me some water and assure me they were keeping an eye on me. I started heading in perpendicular to the shore.
Even as I was swimming perpendicular to the shore and parallel to the bridge I could see the bridge growing distant with each breath as the current carried me away from it. I was visited by two more of the four zodiacs asking where my pilot was. The last zodiac had the swim commissioner in it, “Where is your pilot?” She said. “I don’t have one.” I replied, “Get in the boat,” she commanded. We have this rule that as a swimmer you do whatever you are told by the pilots. No arguing. So I started to climb in the boat. As I hung there half way in the boat she could see that I was doing OK. I pointed out Tina and Les and explained that I was going to hook up with them. At this point I was in line with them, but about 500 yards ahead of them. Because I was out in the center of the bay longer, I had a stronger current that had carried me that far ahead of them. She said I could get back in the water, but not to wait for them. I would get too cold. “Swim to them,” she said. So there I was swimming against the current back towards the bridge and my friends.
It did not take long for them to catch up. Tina looked at me but then kept swimming. I just followed. Eventually I lost sight of her, but kept behind the gray kayak. She was either on the other side or in front of it, but try as I might I could not see her. As we closed in on Fort Mason, close to Aquatic Park I finally asked, “Where’s Tina.” “Oh she is ahead with some other boat,” her pilot said. Even with my fins she was swimming faster than I. He elected to stay back with me “the slower swimmer,” he said. I swam on a little disappointed she got ahead of me, even with my fins.
And so I made my way into the park, slowly past all the landmarks as I was starting to feel fatigued. I do not know how long I had been swimming at that point. I know it was over two hours, and could have been closer to three. I swam past Fort Mason Center … the first building, then the second and that third. Then past the wall of Muni Pier and into the opening and slowly past the center buoy and the end of the Jacuzzi. Past the red hull of the Balclutha and past the green tug, inching closer and closer to the beach. I lined myself up between the two piers. As I passed the end of the dock I could see people pulling the zodiacs out of the water. The swim was nearly over. The people on the beach were getting closer and closer. I could hear cheers as I could feel the sand hit my fingertips. I always remember what my triathlon coach said, “touch the sand 3 times before you stand up.” While I this is not a triathlon and I no longer do them, I always remember this, one, two three and then up. People cheered. I looked at my defunct GPS unit, which would not pick up the satellite signal to mark my path through the water. It was now reduced to a mere stop watch. 2 hours and 23 minutes. I headed up to the showers and sauna getting a little emotional along the way.
After I was warmed up I went down stairs to share in story telling. I found out what happened to my pilot. He rowed out to Point Bonita. We were not there. I don’t know if he got there before us or we had already moved on to Mile Rock. He did not see us at all. He had issues fighting the wind and the current and had to call for help. Eventually he made it back to the club in time for the end of the swim. My water bottles were sitting there on the bench. I was finally able to drink and feast on the food that all the swimmers brought for potluck breakfast.
While I did not get a GPS trail this is about what the swim turned out to be.
So what is next? This is the 5th time I’ve swam for 2 ½ hours. I want to swim for 3 hours or more. I think I’m strong enough. There is a Bay to Breakers swim in a few months. This is the same start and finish as the foot race, just the water route. It would be essentially what we did in reverse, but starting about 3 miles west from where we finished today, going on past Mile Rock and wrapping around Seal Rock to Ocean Beach, about 9 miles. Even with a fast current it would probably take me past my 3 hour goal. Tina is into it and with her to swim with me the training will be that much more fun. Onto the next adventure.
(Thank you Cathy Bump and Mary Leigh Burk for the photos)