San Francisco from the water
by, March 27th, 2014 at 06:54 PM (1996 Views)
I enjoyed a wonderful weekend of swimming in San Francisco. Things got off to a bit of a hectic start last Saturday, with some rental car drama as we were returning from Sonoma to the city. Luckily, the car’s problems (it ultimately decided that first was its only gear) occurred very near the airport—I was dropping my husband off for his return flight to NYC before driving up to the swim’s start. I was able drop him at curbside, limp the car over to the return lot, and get a cab up to the swim start in time. Whew!
On the ride to the meet-up near Fisherman’s Wharf, as it became clear that I would make it in time, my fluster and annoyance gave way to feelings of relief and gratitude that things hadn’t been worse. As the sky lightened I caught glimpses of the Bay Bridge and the water I started to feel excited about the coming swim. As far as I could see, the bay seemed flat and calm, and very beautiful.
By 7:30 I had found Leslie from Swim Art and fellow swimmer Matthew. Leslie went over the course and procedures with us, and introduced us to our kayakers as they arrived. Everything was very calm and low-key, and I enjoyed getting to know everyone a bit as we prepared to head out. Both Leslie and Barry, my kayaker, encouraged me to sightsee as much as I wanted and enjoy the swim, which was exactly my plan.
We walked down to the dock, where we met our captain, Brent. We all hopped aboard his inflatable, which took us to the swim start on the far (south) side of the Bay Bridge. The morning was sunny, with air temps in the 50s, and the water was flat and glassy. We saw swimmers heading into Aquatic Park as we were leaving—I learned the next day they were South Enders coming in from a swim from Fort Mason.
As the kayakers were getting into the water, I got undressed (I’d been wearing my suit since we headed out at 4:30 that morning), lubed up, put in my earplugs (water temp was around 57), and got ready to go. Since it was an informal swim, we each splashed as soon as we got ready. I had been feeling a little nervous about my acclimation—I haven’t been swimming outdoors here since December, and the water temps during my time down in Florida were mostly in the 60s—but as soon as I hit the water I knew I would be fine. It felt nice and cool in a friendly way. I stroked and let the bay water wash all the morning’s worries away from me.
I got to do freestyle for a minute or so to the bridge before swimming backstroke under it. I stopped briefly directly underneath and appreciated its curving span and its sheer massiveness before continuing on. Barry turned out to be a great kayaker and a wonderful tour guide. Every time I stopped to look around, he would tell me something interesting about the part of the city we were looking at. It was a very conversational and informative swim, and I had a ball just stroking along and seeing new sights and learning new things. We paused for a photo op and synchro moment near the Ferry Building.
The water was very easy to swim in. We had a strong ebb current with us, with very little wind, and I enjoyed watching the reflective water surface on each breath. There was so much to look at—the San Francisco skyline, the bridge behind me (I turned over to do backstroke every now and again to see how much smaller it had gotten), Alcatraz up ahead (we were more or less heading directly towards it until we rounded the corner near Pier 39). During the briefing Leslie had told us that they were keeping track of a huge tanker that was scheduled to come into the Bay during our swim, about halfway through it passed close by us. Not scary-close, but cool-I-can-see-this-big-ship-up-close-close. We stopped and watched it float by. I waved to whomever was on board, and Barry remarked that this was as near as you ever wanted to be to such a huge ship. I noted its name—“Florida Voyager”—and looked it up after. It’s 600 feet long.
(I also learned a bit about how such big ships are brought into the Bay. Navigating through the Golden Gate is quite tricky, and there are local pilots—bar pilots—who board the vessels in the open sea, 11 miles out, and pilot them into the bay. The boats from which they board--pilot boats--accompany the larger boats through the channel, and once huge craft is safely through, the bar pilot gets back on the pilot boat to go back out and drive another ship in. There are only around 60 bar pilots, and it’s a demanding and lucrative profession—they earn about half a million a year.)
Barry was spotting lots of seals and sea lions around us—a juvenile seal apparently followed me closely for a while. I only caught a glimpse or two of their heads above the water, once when he pointed a nearby one out, and another time on a random breath. I was thrilled—seals! I’ve always wanted to swim with one, and out here there were lots.
As we rounded the corner the Golden Gate Bridge came into view, majestic and orange. We passed Aquatic Park, and Barry pointed out its landmarks, as well as the Marina ahead. There were lots of sailboats out, with some larger ones just beginning a race to the Farallones and back. As I got nearer I could see just how big these larger boats were, and it was thrilling to be swimming parallel to them. They weren’t going very fast, as there was almost no wind—Barry remarked that they were simply riding the same ebb current we were towards the bridge.
Very soon we were near the Presidio, the huge park from which the GG Bridge sprouts. Alcatraz was behind us, Sausalito and the Marin headlands were up to the right, San Francisco on the left, the bridge ahead and approaching quickly. I found myself doing 1-stroke breathing and sighting frequently, trying to look in every direction and take it all in. We were getting closer to the large sailboats—they were apparently sending them off at intervals with gunshots, although with my earplugs I hadn’t heard the firing. I stopped and looked around, and just delighted in being out in the water amidst it all.
My route under the bridge seemed to take us among the sailboats, and I just thought to myself how amazing this all was—swimming under the Golden Gate, through a sailboat race, on such a glorious sunny day. I felt very small, and surrounded by awesomely big things. But there’s room for us all in the bay! Right as we went under the bridge the water seemed to develop a little more movement to it, and looking ahead I could see some small swells forming. I think on many swims this part of the bay can be a whirlpool of chop, but on this day it was all easy swimming, and I enjoyed doing backstroke and looking up at the huge bridge above as I finished up. Before I got out I looked longingly at the sailboats that were continuing on out to sea, then climbed up the ladder of the inflatable to head back to land.
(The sailboats might have been as fascinated with me as I was with them. As I was getting ready to post this entry, I looked online for something about the yacht race to link to. I found a race report, and as I scrolled down it, I found . . . a picture of me, just after I’d swum under the Golden Gate! Apparently someone was up on the bridge photographing the boats, and they included the picture of a swimmer in the final article, without comment. You can see how well supported I was during the finish here, with the kayak on my right and the rib to my left.)
Several times during the swim my kayaker remarked that this was the calmest he’d ever seen the bay—I really lucked out with both the weather and water temperature, which was higher than normal for this time of year. As a result, this swim was simply easy and pleasant the whole way—nothing felt like a stretch, and I was glad to begin my season with an all-fun-all-the-time outing. Challenging swims bring their own joys, but there’s definitely something to be said for simply relishing a really delightful outing in the water. A big shout-out to Leslie, Barry, and boat captain Brent for their seamless support out in the water.
The swim was also a great way to start off my stay. I’d only visited the city once before this trip (for a polo tournament in Oakland that left little time for sight-seeing) and didn’t know much about it. I knew the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges were iconic and that it would be beautiful to swim under them, but I didn’t realize to what extent they really bracketed the heart of the city. All during the rest of my (too short!) stay, whatever sight I went to see, I found myself remembering seeing it from the water, and recalling the tidbits Barry had told me it.
The rest of my stay in San Francisco also featured plenty of time in the water. On Sunday I enjoyed a swim at China Beach, on the ocean side of the city. It’s an absolutely gorgeous beach, with postcard views of the Golden Gate to the north. Locals know various dolphins and porpoises there by name. After a thrilling motorcycle ride out, I had a wonderfully chatty swim with Zina and Jim, then snacked on the communal spread while I met other members of the delightful pod of OW swimmers who congregate there. Zina had described this group to me as being more into the spiritual side of swimming, and I found that description apt. It was a sweet and relaxing way to spend a lazy sunny afternoon.
After the beach Jim took me to the South End Rowing Club and gave me a tour of the place, along with a quick peek at the Dolphin Club next door. SERC is an amazing facility, and I loved hearing about the club’s various swims and other activities, looking at the historic photos on the wall and appreciating how long people have been passionate about swimming in the Bay’s waters.
The next morning I went back to SERC for a swim in Aquatic Park. The cove was surprisingly well populated with swimmers for a weekday morning. The previous day I had heard a small boy trying to convince his parents to let him go swim in the ocean: “It’s not cold! There are twenty-seven people out there. It can’t be cold!” It was too foggy to count swimmers on the morning I swam, but I saw plenty of others out enjoying the 50-something water, both in wetsuits and not, and met lots of friendly people in the locker room. What a great city for open-water swimming, and what a great community of welcoming swimmers I got to spend time with, both in and out of the water! I hope to go back again soon.