Open Water Safety & a Swim in the San Francisco Bay Bay

As I continue my training and preparation for the Tampa Bay 24 Mile Marathon Swim on April 23rd, my mind is never far from the issue of safety. While safety in open water swimming has always been important, it has come to the forefront in face of the rapid growth of our sport. There are many people who have spoken out on the issue of safety in open water, but none more so than Steven Munatones. 

Steven's accomplishments are many and include acting as a Coach at the World Swimming Championships (2001, 2003, 2005 and 2007) and Head Coach at the 2004 World Open Water Swim Championships. He was also a 2003 inductee in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. However, his accomplishments are not restricted to land. Steven was also a professional marathon swimmer and a 1982 World 25K Swimming Champion. Steven established Open Water Source which functions as the most important web-destination for those seeking information about the sport. He is also the editor of The Daily News of Open Water Swimming. In his spare time, Steven coaches Catalina Channel, English Channel and USA Swimming National Championship swimmers.

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Steven is passionate and persistent in his efforts to increase safety awareness and institute new safety protocols for open water swimming events. In pursuit of that goal, he was the Conference Coordinator at a recent Open Water Safety Conference in San Francisco. This 3 day conference was held under the leadership of experts from U.S. Master Swimming and U.S. Lifesaving Association, along with some of the world's top open water swimming and triathlon race directors.

I was glad to be able to attend one day of the conference while on a family trip, and found it both insightful and informative. It was particularly rewarding to participate in the excitement as top professionals shared their experience, and fielded questions from the information hungry crowd. I was even lucky enough to hear and meet some of my favorite open water heros. Looking at the conference schedule, and  given the swims ahead of me, I was sure not to miss the 3 sessions on Ocean, Cold Water and Marathon Swimming. It was a great opportunity to learn from the best, and I was not disappointed.

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Shelly Taylor-Smith

Saturday morning started off with a great presentation by Shelly Taylor-Smith, a 7 time World Marathon Swimming Champion, who through the telling of her own fight to the top, shared with us the mindset of a true champion. And while there were many well known and famous marathon swimmers in attendance, I was most excited to hear Paul Asmuth exchange ideas with Marcia Cleveland on the Marathon Swimming panel.

Back in the 1980’s Paul became the most dominant racer on the professional open water circuit, and one of the world’s greatest professional marathon swimmers. This was at the time when I first hatched my plan to swim the English Channel and I closely followed his career, or at least as closely as one could in those pre-internet days. To hear him speak almost 30 years later was truly inspiring. Marcia is also an accomplished channel swimmer, and the author of the excellent book Dover Solo.  My careful reading of her book convinced me that through proper training and conditioning in cold water, I could prepare myself to swim in the chilly waters of the English Channel.

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Paul Asmuth

The Open Water Safety Conference finished up the next day, producing a set of concrete policies and directives that can be immediately applied to improve safety in open water races and events. A brief video summarizing the event can be seen by clicking here. It was great to be able to take part in this event, however, no trip to San Francisco is complete without a dip in the Bay.

The swim was organized by renowned open water swimmer David Barra. Incredibly in 2010, David swam the Catalina Channel, English Channel and the Tampa Bay Marathon all in a single year. Over the past year David has also been generous with his time in helping me learn some of the complicated logistics of channel swimming.

There were a dozen of us, all in town for the conference, ready to take the dip. Some people might say that there were only 4 sane people in the group, and they were easily identifiable by the wetsuits they wore.  As for me, I elected the safety of a neoprene cap. I was going directly from the 79° to 83° water of the pools I train in, to the cold water of the San Francisco Bay. I decided that a bit of foam around my brain couldn't hurt. I also elected to take my competition-illegal speed suit out of the drawer to take the edge off the initial plunge. My thinking was that while it would not keep me warm, the suit covered my entire torso and might lessen the initial shock. It was only a fun swim and not a race, so there was no downside.

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Our route: Golden Gate Bridge (on the left) to Aquatic Park. Alcatraz is the island on the right

The swim would be from the Golden Gate Bridge to Aquatic Park, a distance of about 3 miles. The incoming tide would offer us a push along the way, but this would be offset by the challenging conditions. I have done a number of swims in the Bay, but none in water as cold as this. I do not consider myself a cold water swimmer. I swim in cold water only when absolutely required. For me there is no need for water to be cold for a swim to be fun, however, amazingly there are others that disagree. 

When the morning of the swim arrived, I checked the readings at the Alcatraz buoy and it read 53°! At 4° colder than my coldest swim, this was going to be a real challenge. The swim was supported by Leslie Thomas, the owner of San Francisco's Swim Art. As an accomplished open water swimmer herself,  Leslie has to her credit a 1st place finish in 2005 at the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim.

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Leslie arranged for 2 Zodiac boats and a number of kayakers to provide safety and support for us.  We all walked to the pier, piled into the Zodiacs and headed out. It was windy and cool. Typical weather for the Bay. However, once past the Golden Gate Bridge the wind speed jumped and swells pitched violently. Leslie assessed the conditions, and  rightly decided the jump would be located back on the other side of the bridge. We were all relieved by her quick decision, except David, who I later heard say that if Leslie had said jump, he would have.  What I know about David convinced me he was serious; but I also know that Leslie focuses sharply on safety and would not have permitted it.

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Photograph by Rob Dumouchel

We headed back under the Golden Gate Bridge and one by one we jumped from the Zodiacs. Once in, it was immediately obvious we were in for some fun. When you jump into 53° water you don't spend a lot of time thinking about the swim ahead. All you can think of is "Swim, Swim, Swim!". 

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Photograph by Rob Dumouchel

I made it through the initial warming up period, and settled into a strong stroke. However, as soon as I became comfortable in the water, I swam into what is referred to as "confused" water. This is water that seems not to know which way it wants to go - so it goes every which way at the same time. In this case, it was produced by a combination of a tidal current coming from one direction, ocean swells coming from another direction and the wind blowing from a completely different direction. The water seemed to pitch straight up. I stopped, looked around, found the most direct way out of the area and swam as hard as I could. Confused water can be treacherous, and one swimmer smartly elected to be repositioned. In a swim like this it is always better to be safe than sorry, and once the swimmer raised up her hand, one of the Zodiacs promptly pulled along side. She climbed on board and then jumped back in at a calmer spot.

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I swam with confidence. I have been training hard for the Tampa Bay Marathon and I could feel all the work paying off. I'd like to say that the remainder of the swim was uneventful, but it wasn't. Time after time I would swim into an area with a strong surging current that pushed me sideways, and requiried constant adjustments. If that wasn't enough, the wind and water demanded that I stay completely focused on taking a breath at the right time, or I ended up with a not so tasty mouthful of salt water. 

As I approached Aquatic Park I swam toward the breakwater guarding its narrow entrance. It wasn't until I got close that I realized how strong the tidal current was. I had one chance to make it into the entrance for Aquatic Park, and when the time came I swam as fast as I could. Miss it, and I would have to shoot for the next opening and swim around the back to get out. Once I was in, I swam across what is typically a calm and protected area of water, but was surprisingly turbulent. The day would not be over without one more strong effort.

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Aquatic Park on a beautifully calm day. We approached it from the left

We were all out of the water after about an hour, and then off we went for a long hot shower at the unassuming South End Rowing Club, a San Francisco institution since 1873. We stood with the wonderfully hot water pouring over our backs, and lost track of time. Finally, the legendary Bob Roper approached us politely, and in not so many words, reminded us that showers are not for reliving every moment of the swim over and over. Bob is one of the true giants of open-water swimming. In 1969 he crossed the Golden Gate in 17 minutes, 21 seconds, a record that stands to this day. We took his advice and headed into the sauna. As we did I thought: someday I will tell my grandkids that I was kicked out of a shower by Bob Roper at the South End Rowing Club. However, I suspect it won't mean as much to them as it does to me.

Afterward we all dried off, put on clean clothes and headed off to breakfast. Unfortunately, while on our way the sky opened up, poured down rain and we all got soaked to the skin. It's one thing to be in cold water swimming hard to keep warm, but it's another to be waiting in line to be seated for breakfast while shivering in your wet clothes. If given a choice, I know which one I would choose.

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