I seem have a real talent for losing swim gear. In the past year I’ve lost two pairs of goggles by dropping them in the surf, one set of fins by leaving them behind in the locker room, a pair of sandals left behind in the locker room, and countless little bottles of body wash. Plus I’ve nearly lost swim trunks, towels, and other things that have turned up in lost & found. Is this an unusual skill, or just part of the swimming life? I have no idea.
crossposted from Facebook
August 19, 2016 at 08:31AM
Yesterday I realized a dream I’ve had ever since I started open water swimming around 2010. I swam from Alcatraz back to San Francisco. It’s about 1.25 miles though we covered a bit more water than that due to fighting the current a little. In all, it took me one hour and 13 minutes in pretty calm and 60-62 degree water. I was swimming with a group of 5 other swimmers, plus a pilot, Bill Wygant, the president of the South End Rowing Club, who took us out to the island and then watched over us as we swam back.
I saw cormorants, a huge flock of pelicans, a speeding pilot boat, a big-ass Hanjin freighter thankfully well behind us, and a cute orange jelly — a few feet below me and out of reach. (I am a bit freaked out by jellies, and while it was pretty to look at, I’m glad I didn’t touch it.) Plus I got to see a gorgeous sunrise over Alcatraz.
It was a terrific experience.
When I first dipped my toe into San Francisco Bay, at Coyote Point, in 2010, swimming Alcatraz was something that seemed only distantly achievable. I’ve been swimming all my life, but never swam on a team and never learned to swim distances. At the time I could barely swim 100 yards before needing to catch my breath. I realized pretty quickly that if I was going to keep going into the Bay I’d need to learn how to swim better. Over the next few years I pursued it only sporadically, though. I studied Total Immersion videos, DVDs, and books, and went through a whole series of TI-based drills to correct the obvious “windmilling” flaws in my stroke. I tried to get in laps at the Y when I could. And I returned to Coyote Point occasionally, never venturing too far from shore.
But last year I took a stronger interest and joined a Master’s swim team at Burlingame Aquatics in September. US Master’s Swimming has an impressive sounding name, until you realize that “Masters” just means “old,” and “old” means “anyone over 18.” “Adult Swimming” would probably be more accurate. In other words, you can be slow and have a terrible stroke, like me, and get along just fine in Master’s swimming, as long as you’re a grownup. You don’t have to compete in swim meets. Heck, you don’t even have to finish the workouts. The main advantage is that you get some coaching, and for me that structure was critical. It forced me to swim longer than I would on my own (2,000+ yards per workout instead of 1,000-ish as I would do if undirected). It also provided a context where I could learn from my lane-mates and my coach. And my coach, Cory Ferrara, has been amazingly encouraging and constructive.
With the help of these workouts I was able to improve my 100-yard interval (the pace I can swim on a regular, repeatable basis) from about 2 minutes and 10 seconds to about 1:45 or 1:50. I can sprint a 100 in 1:30, which was unthinkable a year ago. That’s still not very fast, and there are still a lot of things I can improve, but I’m on the right track.
Most importantly to me, I can swim comfortably for longer amounts of time. Last weekend I was in the water for an hour and 35 minutes on a challenging swim from Pier 7 to Aquatic Park, just as the tide was turning and started to push against us. And then there was Alcatraz yesterday. Both swims were challenging but well within my capabilities.
I also joined the South End Rowing Club, an organization that’s been in San Francisco since 1873 and is devoted to rowing, swimming, running, and handball. But mostly it seems dominated by swimmers, people like me who really enjoy swimming in the Bay. The South End has provided lots of opportunities to go on shorter swims around the Bay, and to pick up advice and encouragement from other swimmers. (Some of whom have swum Alcatraz 1,000 times or more!) Plus, it has a sauna.
Isn’t it cold, you may ask? Well, yes. But here’s the amazing thing: You get used to it. Sure, that initial shock of cold is always there. But while I used a wetsuit when swimming in colder water before, last winter I decided that I would try doing without it. As the temperature dropped below 65 to 60 to 55 over the course of a couple months, I just kept going in the water, a couple times a week. And I acclimated to it. The process is partly psychological but I believe also physiological, and your body actually gets better and better able to tolerate cold water. (And a sauna helps a lot at the end of your swim.)
For me, swimming in the Bay or the ocean is a lot like hiking. I do it because it connects me to the world, because I see things like cormorants and jellyfish (and sometimes sea lions) up close, and because it makes me feel relaxed and alive.
So that was the big thing about Alcatraz. I achieved a goal I’d set for myself years ago, yes. But in another way, it was just another beautiful swim in the jade-green water. And I’m sure I’ll be doing that swim again soon.
The breaststroke has a faint sense of femininity attached to it these days. There’s the name, of course: Anything beginning with “breast” seems inevitably female, at least a little bit. But it’s also a slower stroke than the crawl, otherwise known as freestyle. You could use the breaststroke in a freestyle race—theoretically, you’re free to use any style you want—but no one would, because it’s so much slower. It’s also the stroke favored by people who want to savor things, to watch what’s going on, to keep their heads and their hair out of the water. It’s a grandmotherly stroke.
I’ve always liked the breaststroke because it’s so easy for me to breathe and to make forward progress while seeing where I’m going. When doing the breaststroke, I feel like I could swim all day. That’s never been true for the crawl. So I usually use it as a recovery stroke, to rest a bit, and I use it for looking around and getting my bearings. But I don’t generally use it that often, because, well: Slow. And grandmotherly.
But at one time it was the only stroke. When Capt. Matthew Webb made the first successful crossing of the English Channel in 1875, he used the breaststroke. The “American crawl” was known at the time, but it was considered too splashy and undignified. As a self-taught English swimmer he may not have known the crawl anyway. The breaststroke it was. And his was quite powerful, with wide, sweeping, powerful arm strokes, and a kick that somehow caused the soles of his feet to emerge from the water. He used it for a zigzaggy, tide-driven course across the Channel, covering about 39 water miles in 21 hours, 45 minutes, making history and turning himself into an instant celebrity.
Saturday I was on a much less ambitious swim, a three mile course from the Bay Bridge back to Aquatic Park with about 50 other members of the South End Rowing Club, accompanied by kayaks and zodiacs. We had a bit of an ebb current pushing us along, but it wasn’t exactly a powerful tide. You had to keep swimming, we’d been warned, if you wanted to get back to the cove of Aquatic Park before the tide turned and started pushing against you. And with water at 56 degrees Fahrenheit, you didn’t want to stop swimming anyway, or you’d get chilled.
About twenty minutes into the swim I’d gone comfortably past the Ferry Building, and the Disneyland-like buildings of Pier 39 were in sight, when the water started getting lumpier. It wasn’t exactly rough or choppy: There were maybe one-foot waves rolling directly toward us from the other side of Pier 39. They were big enough and spaced out in such a way that they were really annoying to swim into: They kept slapping the top of my head and making it hard to breathe. I couldn’t find a good rhythm that fit into this water, so I kept having to stop, breaststroke, and look around.
Eventually I just switched to breaststroke full time, swimming directly into the little waves. It turned out this worked very well: I could lift my head up high to see and to breathe between each wave, then I would put my head down and pull through the next wave, the water breaking over my back smoothly and easily. Lift, breathe, look. Duck, pull through, glide.
I kept thinking about Matthew Webb: If he could cross the Channel this way, I could easily manage a mile or more. So I said to myself with each push, “Matthew Webb.” Pull. “Matthew Webb.” Pull. Matthew Webb.
It worked: I made progress, and I found I was able to keep pace with another swimmer, a tattooed guy who I later learned was named Dave, who was taking more traditional freestyle approach to the water. We swam alongside each other for twenty or thirty minutes, and when we were finally even with the breakwater that protects Aquatic Park and Fisherman’s Wharf, the water calmed down enough that I could switch back to the crawl.
I made it in to the beach just fine, one hour and 10 minutes after jumping into the Bay at the bridge. Of course I used the freestyle to swim the last hundred yards or so. With all those people looking on, you wouldn’t really want to use the breaststroke for your glorious finish, now, would you?
Postscript: Other notable breaststrokers include Lord Byron and Roger Deakin, the incredibly observant poet of Britain’s swimmable waterways.
Maybe for my next post I’ll write about the virtues of the sidestroke, which serious swimmers really despise.