I love urban swims where there are lots of things to look at while I swim, so when I heard about a course along the whole shoreline of San Francisco, I knew I had to do it. It was a very early morning because we had to meet the boat in Sausalito at 5am, but I made it happen and got to see the sunrise, which was nice. At the dock, I met up with Sylvia the boat captain, Kerianne my feeder/supporter, and Zach the observer, and we had our safety briefing and headed down to the boat. Sylvia warned us that is was very swelly outside the Golden Gate Bridge so we would have to go slow on our way out.
We loaded up the boat and motored out under the GGB and into the rougher open ocean. About a month ago, Kerianne and I both swam the South End Rowing Club Bay to Breakers swim, which covers some of the course that we were motoring through and we both thought it was really cool to see the route from the boat. When we were about halfway between the GGB and where I would jump in to start, Zach pointed over the port side of the boat and yelled “spout!” and sure enough, there was a whale spout about 200 yards away! We kept heading to our jump spot and the whale spouted two more times.
We arrived at the jump spot and Zach checked the county line coordinates on the map. Sylvia does not usually tell the swimmer the water temperature because knowing the number can be mentally difficult since the swim has to happen regardless, but before I jumped in she looked at me and said, “Abby, the water is very cold here but I don’t want you to worry because it will only be that cold for about an hour.” I was very grateful to know this because I found out later that the water was 53 and when I jumped in it took my breath away.
I started swimming north trying to find my rhythm while being buffeted about in the swell and chop. The swell was so big that I needed to stay farther away from the boat than I prefer and when i was in a trough, I could not see the boat in the next trough. In someways swimming in the big swells was really fun even though it was challenging and I just focused on trying to keep my stroke relaxed since I knew I still had hours ahead of me. I felt really bad for my friends on the boat, though. The water was cold and my fingers and toes were getting numb but I knew that I always get warmer as the swim goes on and that the water would get warmer too. The most prominent landmark that I could see was this big radio tower and I kept trying to pass it and never seemed to get beyond it. Now, I realize that its location within SF means that it is visible from the water most of the way and since we were circumnavigating, I was basically swimming around the tower. We were far enough from shore that I could not make out much detail but eventually I could see Seal Rock in the distance and knew that I was making progress.
After I came around Seal Rock, the water got much warmer and I could see Mile Rock beyond it and even glimpse the GGB in the distance. Around this point is when I started to have fun with the swim, partly I think because the swell was flattening out and partly because 2 hours in is around the time I usually start enjoying myself. Mile Rock looks like a giant cylinder sticking out of the water and it is such a cool piece of scenery to swim around. As we rounded Mile Rock, I asked Sylvia if I should be sighting off the center span of the GGB, but she said to sight south tower and off we went. As I headed toward the bridge, I noticed that Sylvia was shepherding me farther and farther south until I was aiming more for where the bridge connects with shore and not even the south tower anymore but I trusted her and didn’t worry.
Suddenly, on a breath over my right shoulder I noticed an enormous tanker heading straight for the bridge. I looked up at Sylvia and said “Oh, Shit!” but she said that I was fine and that we were just going to swim in a circle and let the tanker pass. It sucks to have to swim in the opposite direction of my goal (feels like backtracking on the freeway) but I was grateful that this was going to only be a short delay and that we were safe. I relaxed my stroke through and tried to expend minimal effort while going the wrong way. As soon as the tanker passed, Sylvia said I could head back under the bridge and I turned and headed under the bridge. The water right under the bridge is super choppy because the water gets much shallower there (I think it goes from something like 300+ feet deep on either side to 100 feet deep under the bridge, creating turbulent water).
After I passed under the bridge, the water flattened out again and I was in water I know much better as my pod trains nearby but much closer to shore. I set the goal of getting to Alcatraz within a half an hour and focused on making my strokes efficient. Now I was looking for all the familiar landmarks that I know along this stretch of the water front. I was hoping to see Anita Rock but we were too far from shore for me to spot it. Soon though, I was able to spot the piers of Fort Mason so I knew I was going to pass Aquatic Park shortly. When I stopped for a feed even with Alcatraz and just passed the Aquatic Park opening, I joked to Kerianne that we had missed our chance to stop at the club and go to the sauna.
After the feed, I waved in the general direction of the club and said “Bye South End! See you later!” Even though it should be about the same distance from the GGB to even with Alcatraz as it is from Alcatraz to the Bay Bridge, this next stretch of swimming seemed to take forever. I was trying to make it to the Bay Bridge in another half an hour and it ended up taking more like an hour to get there. Also, around this point my arms started to get achey from all the chop that had beat me up earlier. I had a feed with Advil in it and that helped a bit. I also wished that I had looked at a map because I realized that I had absolutely no idea how many miles the finish was from the Bay Bridge and thats not a question I allow myself to ask the crew, because the answer is rarely helpful.
After the Bay Bridge, the scenery became way less interesting as the shoreline was mostly bare except for shipping containers and cranes but I kept picking landmarks to work on passing. There were also interesting smells (not the good kind) accompanying this part of the swim. I count my feeds so I knew how many hours I had been swimming but I had no idea how much farther I had to go and its my rule not to ask even though I would rather know. At one point, I said something like “I don’t know where we are” to try to get someone to tell me what I had left but Sylvia just said “head for the airport” and I could not even see the control tower yet, so I just kept swimming. Finally, I could start to see the control tower but it was VERY far away so I told myself that I must have several hours left.
When I stopped for my 5hr 30min feed, Kerianne told me it was my last feed and I was surprised but happy. She also added a waffle treat to my feed and I was very happy because I had meant to ask for one and forgotten. So now I knew i likely had no more than 30 minutes of swimming left and tried to pick up my pace. I kept looking at the boat when I breathed to my right looking for some kind of sign that I had passed the county line was done. I thought maybe they would blow a horn or wave or something but I just kept swimming. I finally someone put up their hands and shout “Abby, you’re done!” Apparently they had been blowing the horn for a while and I just did not realize!
I climbed back on the boat (grabbing some floating trash along the way) and received big hugs from my friends. Overall, this was an incredible route to swim even though it was a tougher swim than I expected it to be. The total distance was 21 miles and the water temperature ranged from 53 to 56. My goal was to get as close to 6 hours as possible an my final time was 5hr 50min 19sec, a time I am very proud of. I could not have done this swim without the unparalleled support of Kerianne and Zach, the superior Piloting of Sylvia, all of my many training buddies and teammates, and everyone cheering me on at home!