Golden Gate Bridge to Hunters Point

One of the great draws of open water swimming, and its biggest difference from pool swimming, is that there are certain things which are outside your control in the sport. The biggest one is weather. Bad weather can radically change the difficulty of the swim, sometimes to the point that it causes the swim to be abandoned. Sometimes it also can stop a swimmer from even getting in the water. This was the case in my recent attempt to complete a double crossing of the Golden Gate in San Francisco.

To complete a double crossing certain conditions must be present. First, the tides must be such that they will allow the swimmer to get over and back without dragging him out to sea, or pushing him deep into the Bay. Second, visibility must be good enough to see any ship traffic and maintain the right line to the opposite side. Unfortunately, on the morning planned for the swim fog shrouded the lower portion of the bridge, making the attempt impossible,. Moreover, the necessary tidal conditions would not be present later in the day, or the following day. 

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Gary Emlich

Photo Courtesy of Lane Lines to Shore Lines

It is always tough to call off a swim and this was no exception. I had hired Gary Emlich of Lane Lines to Shore Lines to put me in the right place at the right time and to set a course so as to take advantage of the tidal window. As we stood at the end of Pier 39, we looked across the Bay. At that point you could not see Alcatraz Island, although it did show it's face from time to time. Likewise, the tops of the 2 towers of the bridge emerged briefly from the fog, only to retreat as quickly as they appeared. So Gary turned to me and said is was my call. If I elected not to go, there would be no charge. 

While I'm sure Gary didn't want to lose a client that day, he left it up to me. With all of the swimming related expenses I was facing in the next 2 years, I could hardly afford to spend the money to motor out to the Golden Gate Bridge just to see if the conditions cleared. The tidal window was narrow so there would be no opportunity to wait out the fog. It would either be an immediate go, or a quick return to the dock. It was tough, but I elected to wait until next year when hopefully I will have better conditions.


Even later in the day the lower portion of the bridge remained obscured by fog.

Photograph by Bob Needham

After we said our good-byes, I headed back to my car. On the way I decided I should take advantage of the newly found time and head over to Aquatic Park for some training.  The water temperature of the Bay was its customary summer temperature of 59°. A training swim that day, and the next, would give me an opportunity to adjust to the water in advance of my 2 longer swims that week.

My next swim would be on Thursday, 2 days later. It would be a swim from the Golden Gate Bridge to Candlestick Park some 13 miles away. In contrast to the Golden Gate Swim, this one would be hopefully timed to take advantage of the incoming tide that would assist me on the leg to the Bay Bridge. My final swim would again be 2 days after that on Saturday, and it would be from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge 10K. Once again it would be timed to take advantage of an incoming tide.

After a couple of days of training in the confines of Aquatic Park, I was ready to break out into the Bay. On Thursday I met with Leslie Thomas of Swim Art of San Francisco who would coach me on the swim. I had met Leslie at one of her swims last March: the Golden Gate Bridge to Aquatic Park 5K. On that swim I was impressed with her organizational and leadership abilities, and the great emphasis she placed on safety. She had also been an early supporter of Bob Swims


 Leslie Thomas

Photo courtesy of Swim Art

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While this was to be the toughest of my 3 swims, it was the last one I had signed up for. Originally I had planned the trip around the Golden Gate Bridge Swim and the upcoming Golden Gate to Bay Bridge Swim. The rest of my time in San Francisco was going to be spent training in Aquatic Park in preparation for my mid-September attempt to swim across the Catalina Channel. However, a couple of weeks earlier something quite unexpected occurred. At that time, my support paddler for my Catalina Swim contacted me to ask if a friend could come along. When I found out it was Leslie I immediately called her and asked her if she would coach me across the channel. Gratefully, she said yes and since I was going to be in San Francisco soon, we arranged for a practice swim.

So on Thursday morning I headed down to the San Francisco Yacht Club and met up with Leslie and boat pilot Brent McClain. Once on Brent's Zodiac, we reviewed the plans for the day. I was to jump into the 59° water under the Golden Gate Bridge and head east with a tidal current assisting me along the way. I would then veer south under the Bay Bridge between downtown San Francisco and Treasure Island. I was hoping the current would be as strong as it was when I swam the Golden Gate to Bay Bridge in 2010. In that swim I had to sprint to the base of the bridge tower in order to get back on the boat and avoid being swept off by the tide to Alameda. It was anticipated that the tidal current would continue to work in my favor under the bridge and on my course further south. It was estimated that it would take me 3 1/2 hours to complete the swim if we hit the tide right. That turned out to be a very big IF.

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Golden Gate Bridge to Candlestick Park course. The red line shows my swim

The jump from the Zodiac was uneventful, or at least as much as one would hope jumping into cold and rushing water with nothing other than a speedo, goggles and a cap on. Having done this more than once, I did not waste any time taking off my clothing and getting in as quick as possible. In fact, I was in so fast that I forgot to put on Vaseline to prevent chafing around my neck and arms. A rookie mistake, and something that would lead to another lesson learned.

The start of the swim was uneventful. The conditions were typical: a bit windy with bumpy swells which are always their worst at the start. I swam with purpose, but on this first stretch of the swim there is nothing nearby to gauge your progress. Nevertheless, I have done this portion of the course before, so I just settled into a rhythm. The water of the Bay's irregularly timed swells always provide a challenge, but before I knew it I saw the 2 towers marking the entrance to Aquatic Park.


Swimming past the entrance to Aquatic Park

Photograph by Leslie Thomas

Once past Aquatic Park, the buildings of downtown San Francisco provided a point of reference and gave me a sense of how fast I was moving. I didn't take notice of that right away, but slowly I came to realize that the waterfront was not passing by as fast as it had been on my swim the year before. I knew I was swimming better, so I began to wonder about the strength of the current.


Photograph by Leslie Thomas

Often people ask me how big the waves were on a swim. I always explain to them that often it is not the actual size of the swell, but what the surface conditions are like. If it is windy, spray can be constantly hitting your face making it a challenge to get a breathe even if there are only small waves. Luckily on this day the wind was not an issue. However, if you have small inconsistent "bumpy" waves you are needing to constantly make subtle changes in your stroke to maintain momentum. The extra energy expended can add up on a long swim. It seems that every time I've swum in the bay, bumpy conditions were the norn. That day was no different, but luckily is slowly flattened out as I got closer to downtown.


Swimming through a gentle bumpy area, harder on the crew than me

Video by Leslie Thomas

In contrast, compare this with the video taken a month before while I swam 11 miles along the Willamette River in Portland. Surprisingly, I felt terrific in the rougher conditions in the San Francisco Bay, but suffered in the calm waters of the Willamette River. Appearances are indeed deceiving.

Video by Aurora Martin

One of the primary reasons for this swim in the Bay was to prepare myself or my Catalina attempt on 9/19. I know that the conditions can be very challenging in the channel, and the more experience I can get in  rough water the better. Even my 24 mile swim at the Tampa Bay Marathon in April netted me no more than an hour of swimming in rough water. Similarly, once under the San Francisco Bay Bridge the water flattened, although it did pick up again near the end of the swim.

As I stopped for a feeding below the bridge there was no longer denying that I had completely lost the tidal current. I looked up at the span and it just remained fixed in my view. There was no swirling eddie at the base of the nearby tower that was so apparent on my swim a year earlier. I was just about at a slack tide. Having lost the current assist, this was looking like a much more difficult swim.


In the calm water below the Bay Bridge

Photograph by Leslie Thomas

As the morning wore on, I realized my failure to put Vaseline on was creating chafing, so I had Leslie toss me the tube. This solved the problem, but now I had Vaseline on my hands making it nearly impossible to open the GU gel packs I was using at each of my feedings. Thankfully, I did not need to adjust my goggles or I would have been really in a mess.

It also became apparent that I did not have a good strategy in the event this swim went on longer. Frankly, I hadn't been consistently feeding, counting on it taking only 3 1/2 hours. Earlier in the month I had done a 3 1/2 hour swim in the Atlantic Ocean off Southampton, Long Island with only 4 GU gel packs tucked into my suit. Unfortunately the swim this day went on much longer.

The other problem that arose as I swam was that I had swum too hard and fast for the first 2 hours through the rougher water. Instead of a more deliberate pace, I had hoped that putting a strong effort in getting to the Bay Bridge would pay off in my gaining a better tidal push further along the course. Unfortunately, that did not come to pass.


Swimming south with ATT Park (home of the Giants) in the distance

Photograph by Leslie Thomas

So I continued to swim south realizing I was facing a very difficult task. I was able to easily manage the water temperature, but my earlier strong swimming fatigued my muscles and they started to stiffen up. Ultimately, I was just looking forward to each of my subsequent 1/2 hour feeding stops when I could relax my shoulders. This entire stretch was a learning experience in how to continually adjust my stroke to prevent my muscles from freezing up. I got to the point where I wasn't sure if my shoulder were hurting me, or if I was hurting my shoulder. If it was the former it would be simply a matter of grin and bear it; but if it was the latter, it could force me to canceled my next swim 2 days away. In a worst case scenario, it could create a problem for my Catalina swim. I was not willing to take that risk, so I pulled up midway between feedings. By that time the tide had swung around and I would soon be unable to make any further headway.


Coach Leslie Thomas and Pilot Brent McClain

Photograph by Bob Needham

Once I called it a day Brent pulled the Zodiac along side, and it quickly became apparent that I was not going to be able to pull myself up over the pontoons. Further, I felt it was not a good idea to let Brent haul me out considering my compromised shoulder. So with the engine off, I swam around the back of the boat, and climbed up past the outboard motor. I stepped up and flopped onto the deck like a fish landed after a long fight, but none the worse for wear. I bundled up quickly, and we headed back at a good clip. The swim had gone well past the 3 1/2 hours anticipated. In fact, I was in the water for 5 hours and 20 minutes having swum 11 miles, just a mile short of reaching Hunters Point.

It was a good day in the water. It reminded me that consistent feedings and patient swimming will get me where I want to go just as they had done at Tampa. It was also a great opportunity for Leslie and I to work together as a team in preparation for Catalina. Unfortunately, later that day I was unexpectedly called back home and had to cancel my participation in the Golden Gate Bridge to Bay Bridge 10K. It was a great disappointment, but tempered by the knowledge that I had already completed a far more difficult swim and now felt ready to take on the Catalina Channel

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