It’s Spring, since yesterday, and I’m swimming again. The familiar soreness of the arm and shoulder muscles, the cup of the middle ear sometimes retaining water until midmorning, the occasional feelings of wavelike or boatlike “floating” when I’m at my desk, working, hours after emerging from the water — all remind me that I’m back at it.
I’ve been back in the water for about two weeks now. I’m not yet committing to a serious training plan, not fully, but I have a couple of ambitious long swims in mind. My “pre-training” plan is to spend four or five weeks getting used to the water again, and building up to a decent base of weekly training miles, before making a decision about whether to carry out a more serious plan. For me, that base is about 7 miles and 5.5 hours a week of swimming. Because my mileage often includes open-water swims that are assisted by (or hampered by) tidal currents, the time is more significant than the mileage. But in general, with a mix of pool workouts and Bay swims, that’s the near-term, pre-training goal. It breaks down roughly like this:
Monday – 1.5 miles, 1.25 hours in the pool
Tuesday – 1 mile, 0.75 hour in the Bay
Wednesday – 1.5 miles, 1.25 hours in the pool
Thursday or Friday – 1.5 miles, 1 hour in the Bay
Saturday or Sunday – a longer swim in the bay, 1.5 or more miles and over an hour
That feels to me like the minimum I need to begin considering a long swim. A serious training plan would add mileage, intensity, and distance to this base, with longer pool workouts, a pool workout replacing one of the more relaxed weekday Bay swims, and progressively longer distance swims on the weekend, eventually building up to several hours at a time in cold water and waves.
The rule of thumb for long-distance swims seems to be this: Train for about as many miles per week as the swim you plan on doing. So for a 12-mile swim, like a Tahoe crossing, 12 miles a week. For a 22.5-mile English Channel crossing, 22.5 miles a week.
If you do the math, you realize that channel swimmers are putting in an enormous amount of time in the water before they ever start their crossings. Just finding a way to fit all that training into a busy week is a challenge. This is why the decision to plan for a long swim isn’t mine alone: I have to make it together with KJ, and the kids. If I do embark on a longer swim, the training means I’ll be waking up earlier, going to bed earlier, missing large parts of the weekend, and being tired and distracted more than usual. It’s not a decision I can make on my own. It’s not something I can undertake lightly.
In the meantime, however, I’m simply blissed to be back in the water. Swimming nearly every day brings me joy and settles my brain. It makes me feel — to use a word that seems out of place when talking about an activity that involves floating in water — grounded.
I have loved the San Francisco waterfront since I first saw it. For years, my commutes have taken me along the Peninsula coastline via Caltrain, and then along the Embarcadero on my bike. I’ve got a folder full of photos of the waterfront. I never tire of looking at the Bay Bridge, alongside it, under it, the fireboats next to it, the Claes Oldenberg sculpture of a bow-and-arrow embedded in the grass nearby. When I go to events at Fort Mason I almost always sneak out and walk to the end of a pier so I can look at the water and wonder what the fishermen are catching. I watch people strolling the Embarcadero as I bike along. The water is ever changing, the weather almost as constantly in flux. Weird and wonderful things come and go, like a massive silver rocket ship that stood on the waterfront for several years, or a congregation of cormorants and pelicans clustering on the water for half an hour in pursuit of a tasty school of fish just under the surface.
On Sunday I got to see that waterfront from a seal’s point of view. At 9:50am I got in the water at the Golden Gate Bridge, and at about 12:05 I got out at McCovey Cove, about 6.5 miles east and south.
I say “I got in the water” and “I got out,” and while it’s true that I did all the swimming by myself, I was also supported by a pilot boat, helmed by Capt. A (who wishes to remain anonymous), encouraged by my wife Karen, and protected by a flotilla of volunteers in Zodiacs and kayaks. Baykeeper organized the swim, and it’s thanks to them and all the volunteers who pitched in that I was even able to attempt this swim. Also, there were about 4 other solo swimmers and a dozen or so relay teams doing the swim at the same time.
My, or our, swim on Sunday took me along a huge part of San Francisco’s Bay frontage, and it made me realize again how varied and beautiful it is. I tend to be a bit of a tourist when I swim: I’m not that fast to begin with, and I frequently stop to look around when I see an interesting sight, or a bird, or a change in the pattern of waves in the water. It’s because of this that I say my most critical piece of swimming equipment is my goggles. Vision-correcting goggles have been life changers for me: I doubt I would be interested in or comfortable doing open-water swimming if all I could see at a distance were the blurry shapes my naked eyes render to my brain, but with the goggles everything is, apart from drops of water or occasional problems with fogging, crystal clear even at a distance.
The fundamental rhythm of being a swimming sightseer is slow, rhythmic, repetitive: A scene glimpsed to the left, then the green of the water below as you breath out; a scene glimpsed to the right, then the green of the water again. These scenes, left and right—assuming you’re a bilateral breather—change slowly. You get important, reassuring information that you’re actually making progress by noticing how the relative positions of distant and more-distant objects change in parallax. The view in front of you, as you lift your head to sight forward, tends to change even more slowly, and you glimpse it even less often, making it a more fragmentary, tactical series of views. But the views to the side stitch themselves into a long panorama, the long scroll of the shoreline unfurling in slow motion alongside you.
Just before the swim began we spotted humpback whales to our north, breaching near the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. I was excited about this because I feel a special bond with humpbacks: I enjoy their playful and peaceful personalities and I see them as a triumph of the environmental movement. Once near extinction, the “save the whales” movement, though easy to mock, was incredibly successful and has protected the humpbacks long enough that their populations, in most parts of the world where they are found, have rebounded remarkably. These whales continued their display as I started my swim, and though I didn’t see them from the water Karen captured one photo where you can see a whale in the background and me in the foreground.
For the first hour or so my concern was to make a good start and cover some distance, so I swam hard. Fort Point, the Presidio, and Chrissy Field to my right, with their furry, green hills, slowly gave way to the area around the Palace of Fine Arts, its golden dome shining brightly under the overcast sky. That dome was my companion for a long time, it seemed, as the Marin headlands to my left fell away and I aimed for Alcatraz in front of me.
At some point Capt. A moved the boat from my right rear quarter over to my left side. Its large bulk obscured the view to the left for a long time, but in return I got to see the encouraging sight of Karen and Capt. A watching me, cheering me on, and taking photos.
And then, a bit less than an hour along, we were abreast of Fort Mason’s bright cream-colored buildings and then Aquatic Park, less visible than I’d thought it would be from the distance we were, but with the Ghirardelli sign showing clearly out above it. Capt. A threw my Odwalla bottle to me, tied to a long string, and as I took a few sips I noticed Alcatraz peeking out on the other side of the boat, alongside me and enormous instead of ahead of me and smallish. At that point I knew I’d made good progress and I started enjoying the swim more.
For the next hour we went along the waterfront I know well: the Jeremiah O’Brien’s battleship-grey bulk, Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, the Embarcadero’s many piers leading up to the broad low profile of the Ferry Building with its clock tower standing up in the middle. Behind the clock tower were the rising hills of skyscrapers downtown, bracketed by the old 1970s Transamerica Pyramid on the right, and the new, rounded, not-yet-complete blunt pickle shape of the Salesforce Tower on the left.
Eventually we were alongside Cupid’s Span, clearly visible in front of the brick buildings of the old working waterfront, former warehouses exemplified by the Hills Bros. coffee building, its long-obsolete sign still standing as a reminder of the city’s long-gone working-class past. The sun was coming out and the quality of the light and the water changed dramatically as I approached the Bay Bridge. Instead of cold grey-green water I was now swimming in a warm bright yellowish-green, and the sunlight glinted on the surface of the waves and cast shadows underneath the Bay Bridge. I swam directly under the bridge, paused to whoop and holler and float on my back for a moment, gazing up at its underside: I knew I had come a long way, in less than two hours, and the hardest part was done. And there I was, looking up at the bridge I had spent years admiring and looking up at, only this time I was in the water and I had swum to it, all the way from that other bridge, the Golden Gate, which I’d been looking up at just a couple hours before.
After passing the Bay Bridge the water was getting noticeably warmer, but also it seemed I wasn’t making nearly as much progress—the current had slackened a bit. Also, perhaps, in my mind I was assuming I was close to the end, but I had underestimated the remaining distance. As I swam along the grey warehouses and parking piers of the SoMa waterfront I kept wondering: How much further to AT&T Park? Why aren’t I there yet? Where is it?
After twenty minutes or so, though, the long, low breakwater that shelters the marina adjacent to the ballpark came into view. It was about this time that I encountered the Bay Parade proper, a fleet of colorful kayakers and paddle boarders coming the other way. I swam through a group of them, and they shouted encouragement to me as they went by in the opposite direction.
I asked Capt. A where I was supposed to be swimming, and he pointed out two red buoys on the water. I could barely see them but there was a speck of red, so I aimed for that. It took a frustratingly long time, it seemed, in water that was growing warmer and more resistant to progress, before the red speck resolved and became clearly visible as a pyramidal buoy. In fact the current was still pushing me along a little bit, I’m sure, only less than before. I was so used to the feeling of rocketing along on a major flood by that time that having to provide most of my own forward momentum felt like resistance—like normal swimming.
At any rate, I eventually came within shouting distance of the buoy on the right, and I swam hard until I was sure that I had cleared the imaginary line between it and the buoy on the left. I was done! As Capt A’s boat pulled up alongside me, I could see Karen on the deck shouting and me and taking pictures. I whooped, raised both fists in the air, and my head immediately submerged under water. I tried again, kicking a bit harder this time: The victory pose is a little tricky in the water.
I climbed aboard the boat and stood soaking up the sun and the accomplishment for half an hour, and then the Bay Parade returned and it was time for the finale alongside AT&T Park. I put on my unicorn-horn swim cap and jumped back into the water, this time as a magical narwhal, for an easy swim back and forth with a group of other swimmers. We were all happy, paddling slowly, a little confused from the effects of cold water, but enjoying the moment. Aboard the Baykeeper sailboat Freda the band SeaForager’s Fishwives was playing a squeezebox and singing sea chanties; I joined in for a few lines of “Blow the Man Down.” And then we swam into the harbor and exited the water.
Someone was taking video of the parade and showed it on the Jumbotron inside the ballpark, where the Giants vs. Marlins game was just about to start. As for me, I was enjoying a warm shower in a portable shower truck provided by Baykeeper, and then I went and celebrated with the other swimmers and parade participants in a party on the other side of McCovey Cove.
I was not the fastest swimmer, by far. The winning swimmer completed the swim in 1:35, while it took me 2:15 or 2:20. But I don’t care. Five years ago I could barely swim 100 yards without having to stop and catch my breath. Sunday I covered the distance almost nonstop, with a lot of help and encouragement and support from Capt. A and Karen, and from the many supporting pilots and kayakers on the water from the Dolphin Club and the South End Rowing Club. I got to see the waterfront I love so much, from a reverse angle, and I gained a new appreciation for its variety and the way it all fits together.
And, I am happy to say, my supporters completely blew me away. You guys collectively donated almost $2,400 to Baykeeper, helping to fund the organization’s important mission of researching and defending the health of the Bay. I know Baykeeper is grateful. And I am so appreciative. I felt your support the entire length of the swim.
If you’re into this sort of thing, you might enjoy this album of photos Karen took during the swim:
Pelicans stood on the breakwater, gravely watching us as we swam by. I’ve come to think of the shorebirds as different kinds of people, a sort of audience for my swims: The cormorant people, the gull people. It’s clear they’re looking at us as much as we are looking at them. And indeed, I noticed at least one of the pelicans swiveled his or her head, slow and smooth, to follow me as I went by. Nothing escaped that one.
The pelicans have a rather different look when they are staring at you. They seem grave, and unperturbed, and much more dignified than they appear when they’re splashing into the water or tipping their heads back to choke down a fish caught in that absurd pouch of theirs. The fact that they can stare at you with both eyes reminds you that they are predators.
I swam in the Bay for three hours and five minutes on Saturday, for a total distance of about 4.6 miles. Two hours of that was with Zina, who has been with me on several training swims so far, and whose adventurousness and good nature make these mini-journeys a lot easier.
That’s the longest I’ve been in the cold water so far, and the furthest distance I’ve ever swum in any kind of water. It’s probably more time than I’ll use on my big swim July 9, too, because even though that swim is a greater distance by about two miles, I’ll have the advantage of a flood current pushing me along. After last weekend’s training swim, several people told me I was over-preparing. That’s a good place to be. I feel confident and strong.
We crossed back and forth between the end of the breakwater that protects Fisherman’s Wharf and the far end of Fort Mason, at the edge of Gas House Cove. Two full circuits of that (Chas Laps in the lingo of the South End) took us about two hours, and then I circled around the cove twice. It felt like a kind of breakthrough.
Another breakthrough with this swim is an absurdly ordinary one. I realized a couple hours into the swim that I was getting very uncomfortable because I really had to pee—all the water and liquid food I was taking in was catching up to me. “Just go,” Zina said. “That’s your prerogative as an open-water swimmer.” And yet it’s not so easy: A lifetime of self control leads one to feel substantially repressed about pissing one’s pants, even if those pants are already completely immersed in liquid. Maybe there is also something about the water that physically inhibits this function, at least for me—though to judge from studies of swimming pool chemistry, many people don’t have the same problem I do. At any rate, I had never succeeded at this neglected skill, and I realized that it might limit my ability to stay in the water and complete a long swim, since the discomfort was great enough to make me really doubt my willingness to continue.
So after Zina paddled in to the beach, I just hung out for a bit by the opening of the cove, looking out at Alcatraz, treading water and trying to relax. Eventually, you’ll be happy to hear, I was able to pee in the water. I did another hour in the water much more comfortably after that.
Just as I was realizing this small personal breakthrough, though, another swimmer hailed me from a a few dozen feet away. “Hey Dylan! Great day, isn’t it!” She, too, was on a long training swim and had been in the water as long as I had. We chatted traded notes on what kind of feeds we were taking, and then we continued on our swims.
Finally, this week there came a third breakthrough that I have nothing to do with: My supporters have contributed over $2,000 to Baykeeper, exceeding the fundraising goal I set when I committed to do this swim. Baykeeper does terrific work as a data collector, analyst, and legal advocate for the health of SF Bay as a natural, recreational, and economic resource for everyone. Its Bay Parade on Sunday will be a colorful, costumed, on-the-water celebration of all that the SF Bay represents to the people who live around it. And it will be the culmination of my swim training and fundraising. There’s still time to contribute your support, and if you do, I will be incredibly grateful—and Baykeeper will as well.
Last weekend I entered the water much better prepared than the week before, and managed to swim for two and a half hours. The water temperature varied from 59F-60F, and the morning was fairly calm, overcast giving way to sunny sky. The biggest challenge was the current: We found a significant flood challenging our attempts to swim westward out of the cove, so we gave in and rode the current back east, along the outside of the breakwater, and then came back inside. But even with the shelter from the breakwater, and later inside the cove, the flood was still strong enough that it wreaked havoc with any notion of speed or time. I had to fight my way out to the opening of the cove, but later I had to fight my way in the opposite direction, from the opening back along the ships. Behind the ships the water was sucking me up against the hulls, to the right, but as soon as I emerged from behind a ship the full force of the flood knocked me hard to the left, and I had to swim diagonally to make any headway at all. In all I think I covered about 3.5 miles, which is not much for the time, but plenty given the currents. I felt very good about the swim—it was confidence-boosting.
In my last post I wrote about how changeable the water is, and this weekend was no exception to the rule. But there was one factor I didn’t mention, and that’s human influence.
Humans have been changing water flows in the Bay for a century: Dredging shipping channels, putting in bridge piers that create vortices and outright whirlpools during strong floods and ebbs, filling in parts of the bay and eliminating many of the marshy margins that used to absorb the excess rains or river flows and act as a buffer to the incoming tides. Compared to many estuaries, the SF Bay is still remarkably functional as an ecosystem; it hasn’t been paved or channelized or contained too drastically. There are notable victories: The environmental movement got its start in the 1960s and 1970s here, spearheaded in large part by Berkeley wives, and the organization those women founded, Save the Bay, helped bring about a massive reduction of pollution and trash in the Bay and a huge increase in the amount of publicly-accessible shoreline around the Bay. Peninsula environmentalists helped create a 20,000-acre wildlife refuge in the 1980s. Former salt-drying ponds operated by Cargill are being converted back into marshland, bringing back endangered species.
But there’s one way humans exert massive control over the entire Bay ecosystem, and that’s through the rivers that flow into it. Nearly every river going into the Bay has been dammed at some point upstream, giving the State of California a huge amount of control over how much water makes it down to SF. Much of this water is already diverted to agricultural uses in the Central Valley, or to reservoirs in the East Bay that store water for drinking, for flushing toilets, and for watering lawns. Now, a new proposal championed by the Governor would divert even more water, through underground tunnels, to Southern California.
Called WaterFix, the $17-billion-dollar project’s most prominent feature is the creation of the Delta Tunnels, a pair of long underground tunnels, 30-40 feet in diameter and up to 150 feet underground, that will suck water out of the Sacramento River between Courtland and Clarksburg, and take it 35 miles south, under the entire Delta, to deposit that water in the Clifton Court Forebay, a part of the California Water system that lies between Walnut Creek and Tracy. The water would then flow south through the California aqueduct system, through the Central Valley and potentially as far south as Los Angeles.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service recently reviewed the plan and gave it a green light, particularly after the inclusion of some habitat restoration in the project. Also, it may be that WaterFix will be better for fish than the current Delta water-capture system, which draws water out of the southern Delta only, sucking up so much water that rivers flow backwards and fish die en masse. The new system will avoid these reverse flows and kill fewer fish, planners say.
But SF Baykeeper has also reviewed the plan and has found a lot of reasons to be concerned. The one that sticks out, to me, is the fact that the Delta is not in good shape to begin with. Algal blooms, the near-extinction of the Delta smelt and the decline of many other native species, and the fact that fresh-water inflows into the Bay have been very low through the drought years are causes for concern. The salmon-fishing season has seen a lot of trouble for the past several years due to low numbers of mature salmon, for instance. Crab seasons in the SF area have also been sharply curtailed or cut off completely in recent years as well.
In that context, sucking even more water out of the rivers that feed the Bay doesn’t seem like a step in the right direction. As Baykeeper’s brief puts it, “The consequences of removing flows from the Sacramento River include ecosystem-scale effects.” (emphasis mine) Even with the habitat restoration and the steps to prevent fish kills, less fresh water in the Bay could lead to long-term changes throughout the entire Bay system: More species declines, increased salinity, more stagnant water, less oxygen-generating phytoplankton.
One of the reasons I am swimming 6.5 miles in Baykeeper’s Bay Parade on July 9 is because I value exactly this kind of work: Careful, systematic, scientific analysis of the ecological consequences of human actions on the SF Bay. The Baykeeper paper is a thoughtful, balanced study — and it recognizes that, while the Bay and Delta ecosystem need help, there’s no easy fix. It also acknowledges the need for Southern California water users to have access to water, and that it’s impossible to return the Delta to some kind of pristine, pre-human-development condition. Instead, Baykeeper proposes a range of specific alternatives to WaterFix: better watershed management, habitat restoration projects, modernization of the delta levee system, better groundwater storage, more conservation, and perhaps a smaller, single-tunnel project instead of the current double tunnel proposal.
Yesterday I swam around Aquatic Park on a sunny, windy afternoon with shreds of fog whipping themselves away from the Golden Gate and across the blue sky.
The wind on the cove gave different textures to water in every part of the cove: Just off the dock and along the buoy line I was swimming into the chop, punching through each wave and gliding just beneath the jade-green roughness of the surface. Alongside the pier, sheltered from the wind, the water took on a darker, smoother quality, with long, easy hills swelling up and down. Beside the opening of the cove, waves rose up to a foot or more in height, and I looked out at the whitecaps in the open bay and decided I didn’t need to be there at all. I swam back through the lively little waves pushed up against the breakwater and what we call the Jacuzzi, a round cement structure at the end of the breakwater, but felt a bit like I was in a foamy, bubbly jacuzzi myself. Around the other side of the breakwater, in its lee, the water was glassy calm, flat, and pale green. Then I swam back out, alongside the sailing ships and encountered bouncy, playful, tumbly waves the color of an overcast sky, which rolled and rocked me back into the dock, laughing and grinning.
Water in the San Francisco Bay is highly changeable, even within the half-mile circle of Aquatic Park, which after all is just a tiny sample jar pulling a bit of water out of an enormous ecosystem. Sometimes the water is murky and brown, sometimes translucently green, sometimes (rarely) completely clear. It can be as salty as the aftertaste of an over-salted salt bagel, or as mild as lake water on the lips.
The Bay is, in a phrase that John McPhee rightly calls haunting, a “drowned river mouth.” Legends of the people who lived here first suggest that the Bay may not have existed at all as recently as a thousand years ago, or maybe a few hundred—the first Spanish explorers apparently sailed right past it without noticing it, which is surprising for explorers in search of good harbors but perhaps not entirely impossible. The underwater topography of the Bay still preserves what was there before: a river canyon, flowing to the sea around a large hill and then between two even higher hills, the sentinels on either side of what we call the Gate. But at some point it sank, or the sea rose, and though the rivers still flow into it their water now mixes early with the inflowing sea tides, swirling around the northern and southern lobes of the bay and creating thousands of microclimates in and around the water.
The water is green because it’s rich with phytoplankton, the tiny algae that convert sunlight and CO2 into oxygen and serve as the foundation of a whole web of life. It’s opaque brown or translucent green-brown because of suspended sediments of silt, brought down from the Sierras along with the snowmelt. Its fish have elevated levels of mercury because mercury was used, 150 years ago, in gold-mining operations in the foothills hundreds of miles away, and the excess mercury ran down into the Bay and sat there for a century, only now starting to diminish in its effects as the silt covers it up. Because of the mercury you shouldn’t eat certain fish more than once a month, although some of the fishermen along the pier, who are fishing for their dinners, for their families, probably eat more than that. It’s saline because of the ocean and fresh because of the rivers. It’s cold, and the more ocean water pours in the mouth of the Gate the colder it gets, but in the southern and northern, shallower parts of the Bay, the water warms up to bathlike temperatures.
And its currents are maddeningly complex. Tides alone have their own rhythmic predictability, so as mysterious as they may seem while you’re standing on the beach, they’re orderly and rational enough that a simple algorithm in an app can calculate the high and low tides at any time of day anyplace in the world. But the inward flood of water leading to the high tide, and the outward ebb on the way to low tide, are truly hard to grasp. Fluid dynamics at large scales are not easy to understand intuitively, the rivers add another complication, and the involuted, lobed shape of the Bay makes everything cockeyed.
Everyone who swims at Aquatic Park has their own rule of thumb for guessing the currents. Some who have guessed badly, or are not prepared for the currents, have been trapped, terrifyingly, against the pier, pinned down by a current they couldn’t fight. My principle is to listen to people, watch the water, and make my own decisions. I pay close attention to what the water’s doing, how it feels, how it tastes, whether there’s a seam between a patch of ruffled water and a patch of smooth. I watch the shoreline to see how I’m drifting, and time myself between landmarks I know to see if the current is speeding me up or slowing me down. I don’t go outside the cove alone. But those are my rules, and I only know a little about the Bay. I’ve only been swimming here a few years. I still have much to learn.
I swam for an hour and 25 minutes on Saturday, with my swimming buddy Zina, and it was good. The sun was shining, the water was calm, there were no currents to speak of, and we explored a new-to-us route that took us from the far end of the breakwater guarding Fisherman’s wharf to the far end of the Fort Mason complex and back, for a total distance of about two miles.
It was less than I’d hoped for, though: I was going for 2:30 or 2:40. At least, that’s what my swim plan told me to do. But I got out after an hour and a half to get some warm water (mixed with carbohydrate powder) on the dock, where I’d left it in an insulated cup, and then I looked back at the water and … I just didn’t want to go back in.
There was nothing particularly wrong with me. I felt reasonably strong, my stroke was in good shape, I wasn’t too cold, and I’ve done a swim of 2:40 before, in water that was about the same temperature as it was Saturday (56 degrees F or about 13 C). Of course I wasn’t wearing a wetsuit, but that goes without saying in this series I’m writing.
The fact is, the human body has a remarkable ability to acclimate to cold water. People ask me about this, mentioning Coast Guard statistics saying you can’t possibly stay conscious longer than an hour or two in 50-60 degree water. But that’s for non-acclimated, non-swimming humans in emergency situations. English Channel swimmers spend ten, 12, sometimes 18+ hours in water at 14-18 C (57-64F), wearing nothing more than an ordinary swimsuit, a silicone swim cap, and goggles. But before they jump into the Channel, they need to train in cold water — in fact, you can’t even attempt the Channel without doing a qualifying swim of six hours in cold water (60 F or less).
While my swim July 9 will be much shorter (more like 3 hours, I expect), I need to go through a similar kind of training. And much of my training is about building up my body’s ability to handle the cold for that time.
It’s an odd ability, because you’d think that the second law of thermodynamics would reign supreme here: A small warm body surrounded by more or less infinite amounts of cold water is eventually going to lose heat to the water. In other words, it’s far more likely that your body will wind up being the temperature of the water than the reverse. In fact, that’s a given.
Or is it? The human body has a couple of defenses against the cold. One, it’s a mammalian body, which means it generates its own heat. This is particularly true if the body is in motion, because using your muscles generates heat, which means in addition to moving you forward, your muscles are also heating your blood.
Second, there’s a whole mechanism, the vasoconstrictive system, which can slow down the flow of blood to the skin and the extremities. This effectively sets up a heat exchanger on your circulatory system. Your forearms, hands, fingertips, lower legs, toes, the tip of your nose, and the surface of your skin become cold; your core remains warm; the blood flowing between the two regions passes slowly enough that the arterial blood (going out toward the surface) gets cooled down while the venous blood (coming back in to the core) gets warmed up.
As Scott Carney details in his fascinating and fun book What Doesn’t Kill Us, most of us have atrophied vasoconstrictive systems thanks to central heating and air conditioning. We like to hang out in comfortable temperatures, between 65 F and 75 F, so we design our homes and HVAC systems accordingly. But that’s not how humans, or really any mammals, evolved. Our bodies are made to adapt quickly and effectively to a wide range of environmental temperatures. Carney describes in some detail how methods invented by Dutch cold-water and breath-holding enthusiast Wim Hof (aka “The Iceman) can help augment those capabilities, and his book discusses his own experiments with doing extreme sports (a tough obstacle course, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro) shirtless, wearing nothing but shorts and shoes, even in quite cold temperatures.
In fact, exposure to cold temperatures exercises the vasoconstrictive system, and there are some signs that this has real health benefits. Roger Deakin, in his book Waterlog, describes the results of a clinical experiment involving people who took a twelve-week course of daily cold baths, starting with five minutes at a time and working up to twenty. The study found, Deakin writes, that cold-water exposure reduced blood pressure and cholesterol levels, led to weight loss, decreased blood viscosity, increased anticoagulants and white blood cell counts, increased the oxygen capacity of the blood, increased the heart muscle thickness, lowered the pulse rate, increased production of plasmin (which can dissolve blood clots), and enhanced production of testosterone in men, and estrogen and progesterone in women, increasing fertility and libido.
The prolific blogger at LoneSwimmer has an enormous amount of experience in cold water and has studied and written about the topic far more than I have. He differentiates between habituation (getting used to the feeling of the cold, which is primarily psychological) and acclimation (the body’s ability to adapt to the cold physiologically). It’s a useful thing to keep in mind. The initial shock of the cold never quite goes away completely. Nor does the feeling of chilliness that you occasionally feel in your extremities. But if you get used to that shock, and hang in there for a few minutes, your body rapidly adjusts. And your ability to stay in cold water increases the longer you do it.
Now, if you want to try this yourself, don’t go alone. Learn the signs of mild and moderate hypothermia, because while mild hypothermia is a fact of life for cold water swimmers, moderate to severe hypothermia is a real risk, even for experienced swimmers. Without experience, you can become badly hypothermic far faster than you expect, and one of the particularly nasty effects of hypothermia is that it impairs your ability to make good decisions.
But if you want to try this, get yourself a buddy, and find a body of cold water to jump into. Get yourself ready by wading in up to your knees. Reach down into the water, get your wrists wet, and swirl your hands around in it — “like you were reaching into a cooler for a cold beer,” as someone once advised my friend Kate. Splash some water on your face, especially on your upper lip, below your nose (this helps cue your vagus nerve that cold water is coming, and that can help reduce the shock experience when you do plunge in.)
When you’re ready, plunge in with your whole body, immersing your head, and start swimming immediately. Breaststroke, crawl, doggy paddle, it doesn’t matter. You’ll find that initially, the water is painfully, shockingly cold—beyond cold even, into a different realm more accurately labeled “pain” or “WTF.” It will take your breath away at first, send your heart racing, and put you into a bit of a panic. The best thing to do here is to keep stroking and breathing rhythmically. Within a few seconds to a couple minutes your heart should start to slow down. Keep swimming and concentrate on breathing regularly. If you find yourself hyperventilating, stick your head out of the water for a minute and breathe more slowly.
Once you’ve caught your breath, you’ll notice that you’re no longer panicking—you’re just cold. Now is the time to start really swimming. Focus on doing your strokes well, the way you’ve practiced them, or however you’re comfortable swimming. But swim.
The first time you do this you probably won’t want to be in the water more than five or 10 minutes. That’s fine. Get out and warm up. Take off your wet swimsuit (as it will keep you cold far more than you think it will) and change into something warm. Keep in mind that your core temperature will continue to drop for 10 to 20 minutes after you get out, as your vasoconstrictive system relaxes and all that cold surface blood starts circulating back into the core of your body — this is known as the “after drop” and it’s a real, and often surprising, effect. Shivering is normal at this point, so don’t panic. Don’t jump right into a hot shower, at it can warm you up too fast and make you lightheaded or even make you pass out. A lukewarm shower, or a sauna, or sitting in your car with the heater on full blast, is far safer and more effective. Drink warm water, hot coffee, or tea. And bundle up. In half an hour or so, you should be feeling much more warm.
If you do this two or three times a week, you’ll find that you can gradually increase your time in the water. Within a few weeks you should be able to handle 20 or 30 minutes in fifty-ish water with no problem. You’ll be amazed at how quickly your body adapts.
And you might start noticing some of the benefits of the cold immersion: Fewer colds. Slower heart rate. Higher libido. And a general sense of wellbeing and freshness to the world. Also, your friends will start saying you must be crazy.
As for me, I’m going to continue with my training plan, with plenty of pool time and some shorter Bay swims planned for this week. A few things may have interfered with my ability to swim a long time last weekend: I didn’t have quite enough breakfast that morning. It was too easy to get out and stay out when my friend Zina got out. And I’d had a few beers the night before. Next Saturday, I’ll be aiming for two and a half hours or more, and this time, I’ll be better prepared.
I’m writing one or two posts a week about my journey towards a 6.5-mile swim in SF Bay on July 9. Would you like to follow along? Just give me your email address here: ↓ ↓
I wore my swirly purple Speedo for a two-hour swim in the Bay on Saturday.
It was the morning of a joint Pride celebration with my club, the South End, and the Dolphin Club next door. Fifty or sixty of us were going to swim from a bayside beach about a mile away, back to the beach between our two clubs, where rainbow flags had been strung over the water between the docks. It would be a quick swim, on a building flood current, and most people would finish in half an hour or less.
But for me, it was also a training day, when I was planning to do the first of a series of increasingly long weekly swims designed to increase my swimming endurance and cold tolerance in preparation for a 6.5-mile Bay swim July 9. So I hit on the idea of swimming from the club to the swim’s official start, joining the crowd that had walked there, and then swimming back.
Why the purple Speedo? That was my nod to Gay Pride: A small recognition of the freedoms won by gay rights and LGBTQ activists in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and beyond. They dared to express themselves in ways that were dangerous to their reputations, their careers, and even their lives. Because of their work, people in this country are now freer than ever to express their love no matter which way it inclines.
My life is richer because the queer people I know and love can be true to themselves. But I also have personally benefitted from this freedom, because as a mostly heterosexual male it takes the pressure off me to constantly defend and represent my own “straight” sexuality.
For the swim, a kayaker, Gary Maier, had agreed to accompany me, and we estimated it would take about an hour to do the reverse swim, given that we didn’t expect much resistance from the current. So I did a loop around Aquatic Park to start, and then Gary and I set out toward Coghlan’s Beach.
Immediately on coming out of the cove and into the Bay, it was clear that the flood had already started. It wasn’t strong, but I wasn’t being carried along by the last of the ebb as expected. What’s more, a headwind was whipping up one- to two-foot waves. Not a big deal except I couldn’t find a rhythm that let me breathe comfortably, so, as I’ve done in similar situations in the past, I frequently switched to breaststroke. That stroke allows me to glide through and under the waves and breathe comfortably, but it’s noticeably slower.
My speed slowed still further as the flood built up against me. With fifteen minutes to go before the start I was still a quarter mile away, and, as I stopped to drink a bit of orange juice that Gary was carrying for me, I said: I don’t think we’re going to make it in time. Indeed, I was still about 100 or 200 yards away when I heard the honk of the air horn signaling the start of the swim. A few minutes later a could see a river of swimmers splashing along in our direction.
I swam out to where they were and turned right, joining the river. I returned back to where I started in about half the time it took me to get out there. I didn’t reach the official start at Coghlan’s Beach, but it didn’t matter, since I got my two-hour swim in, it was a reasonably tough one covering about 2.5 miles, and I felt good about it.
The Pride celebration continued at the South End with brunch and dancing to disco music on the patio, under the colorful flags and a multitude of multicolored balloons. I thought about a man I talked to on the beach, just before starting out that morning. He had moved to San Francisco in 1972. It was a fantastic time, he said. The city was so accepting and so full of love. And, he added, laughing, everyone was having sex and doing drugs. I smiled. I was a kid in the 1970s, but even in Ohio we’d heard about how much fun they were having out in San Francisco.
There’s no doubt that a purple, glittery Speedo would have gotten me called names when I was that kid back in Ohio. In fact, I did get called names: for wearing an earring, for not wearing the right clothes, for having funny hair, for not walking in a masculine enough way, for being terrible at sports. Today, that purple Speedo might raise an eyebrow (because let’s face it, it’s a bit outré) but it’s not going to make anyone call me names or make assumptions about me. Or if they did make assumptions, who cares?
I have more freedom, and we all have more freedom, thanks to LGBTQ activists, and for that I’m grateful.
I’m writing one or two posts a week about my journey towards a 6.5-mile swim in SF Bay on July 9. Would you like to follow along? Just give me your email address here: ↓ ↓
I’m going to attempt to swim down SF Bay, from the Golden Gate Bridge to AT&T Park, on July 9.
The distance is about 6.5 miles. The water temperature will probably be about 59 degrees Fahrenheit (plus or minus a couple degrees), or about 15C. Depending on how much of an assist I get from the flood current, it could take over 3 hours. In distance and time it’s longer than any swim I’ve done so far.
Can I do it? I’m not sure yet. I’m pretty confident, and I’m training hard. But I was never a swim team member, came to “serious” swimming fairly late in life, and I’m in no sense particularly athletic. In fact I’m an extremely average swimmer.
Most of the time the reaction to learning that I’m a Bay swimmer is something like: That’s crazy. The water is way too cold for me.
It’s true, the water can be chilly. But you get used to it.
I’ve been swimming all my life, from my first swim lessons at age 5 onwards, and I have always enjoyed the water, but it’s only in the past few years that I got really serious about it.
At some point, around 2010, I heard about a coworker who swam in the Bay every morning before coming to work. That’s kind of impressive, I thought! So I decided to try it out myself. I found my way to Coyote Point, a semi-enclosed cove near my home in San Mateo, where there’s a beach. It gets very windy in the afternoons but early in the morning it seemed like a pretty calm place to try swimming in the Bay. It was late summer, and the water was warm-ish, well into the 60s, and I wore a wetsuit. Since I was alone, I stuck very close to shore.
I learned that 60-ish water was warm enough I didn’t need a wetsuit. On the other hand, I also discovered that I could barely swim 50 yards without getting out of breath. Even though I’d been running fairly regularly and considered myself to be in good shape, swimming required a whole different set of muscles and techniques. My stroke was good enough for getting from one side of the pool to the other, and then taking a daiquiri break, but not much more than that.
I returned to Coyote Point a few times, each time swimming a bit longer, and each time marveling as I discovered the watery world, the way the dawn light looked shining through the trees, how the salty water embraced and held me floating at its surface. One morning in particular I remember watching the moon set in the west as the sun was rising in the east, and I was all alone, floating in still, almost mirror-like water, stunned at the beauty of it all.
It wasn’t long before I realized I needed to learn how to swim better, both to enjoy myself more and to keep myself safer. That led me on a journey of improving my stroke, mostly using Total Immersion techniques, off and on over the next few years. (This video showing Shinji Takeuchi’s amazingly smoooooth crawl stroke, is the one that convinced me Total Immersion had something remarkable going for it. The fact that the accompanying music has the refrain “I can see my destiny” might have helped too.) I’m not following all of its techniques any more, but TI caused a major improvement in my ability to swim comfortably over time.
The next step was when I realized that technique alone wasn’t going to transform me into a powerful swimmer: I needed to spend more time training. While I loved the open water, I could never stick to a very serious workout at Coyote Point. I was more like a tourist. So eventually I found my way to a Masters swim group, Burlingame Aquatic Club. “Masters” in this case simply means “old,” not necessarily expert, and “old” means “over 18,” so it’s a really misleading name. In fact, Masters swim groups have adult swimmers of all abilities, from very slow to very fast. And as I found there is no obvious correlation between age or shape and speed. I was in one of the slowest lanes and was regularly getting smoked by older women of a, shall we say, comfortable shape.
But I stuck with it, after awhile, and found that with some moderate training I was getting a little faster and a lot more comfortable in the water. That brought me back into the bay, and in late 2015, I started swimming with my friend Kate at the South End Rowing Club — another perhaps misnamed organization, since in addition to rowing it also supports handball, running, and, yes, swimming. It’s also nowhere near San Francisco’s South End anymore, although it started there; since the 1930s it’s been located on the city’s north shore at Aquatic Park, adjacent to Fisherman’s Wharf.
In Aquatic Park, I discovered an enclosed cove that, while colder than Coyote Point, had stunning views: Ghirardelli Square, Coit Tower, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge. And the historic ships along Hyde Street Pier: The epic masts of century-old sailing ships, and you could swim right past them, like a pirate! I was in heaven.
Throughout 2016, Kate, her friend Chris, and I had a weekly midday swimming date. We explored Aquatic Park and its environs, in the water and out of it, swimming longer distances as we got used to the water and checking out different lunch options almost every week. It became clear to me that Aquatic Park was a jewel in San Francisco’s crown, an under-appreciated treasure, and it was right there for anyone to jump into it and enjoy. Even better, every day we swam there it was different. Water conditions, air conditions, things swimming about with us or flying overhead: Every single swim was like an amazing new voyage. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Of course, I was hooked.
In my next update, I’ll explain why the cold really isn’t so bad. Honest!
If you’d like to follow along from now until July 9, please add your address using the form below, and I’ll send you a message or two each week, as this story develops.
In the aftermath of Paris, the gutting of the EPA, and rolling back of environmental regulations all over the place, we need local environmental advocates like SF BayKeeper more than ever. Please join me in supporting them. (You don’t have to swim with me, unless you want to, I promise.)
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