Last Friday evening I received a text message from my swim training buddy, Simon: “Fuck. What have we got ourselves into? The things we do for fun.” The timing was odd because I was asking myself that very same question. Weary from an exhausting week of training and work, the thought of setting my alarm clock for 2:15am to prepare for a long 6 hour swim in the San Francisco Bay was a little overwhelming. I was tired. The scheduled 4am jump certainly seemed like a good idea when we planned the swim days before, but now I was left questioning why on earth my passion (addiction?) had to involve cold water, under the cover of darkness, in the very early hours of the morning. Still, there was no possibility either one of us would back out. It was far too exciting.
I am learning throughout the process of training and completing these long swims that often times, it is not until the night before when reality hits. Suddenly the sensible mind makes a fleeting appearance with an awareness and recognition that there is simply no going back. The surging awakening of excitement, nervousness and adrenalin then swiftly floods this reality. For me, the anticipation of a swim is like none other. An aquatic adventure is imminent and my body can tell. Every fiber and cell in my body comes alive. It is electrifying.
Simon needed to complete a 6 hour qualifying swim for his solo English Channel crossing, scheduled in July, and I was keen to add another solid training swim to my collection. Ideally it would have been nice to have enjoyed a couple of relaxing days ahead of a long 6 hour swim in 55- 56 degree water, but that simply was not possible. Besides, I know I can always benefit from having the opportunity to push through and complete a training swim while tired. It is excellent training for the real thing. That is because marathon swims are notoriously unpredictable; it is unusual for all the stars to align perfectly. One is essentially playing with an exhilarating cocktail of unknowns: at the mercy of Mother Nature and the limitations of the body and the mind. For me this is one of the many draws to the sport. It is adventure in the truest form, and despite all my training and preparation, I have come to expect the unexpected.
Delayed by a Small Craft Advisory issued by the US Coast Guard, we begin our swim at 4:30am. Slipping in the dark brackish water alongside Simon from the beach at Aquatic Park, I once again question my sanity. Our trusty boat pilot, Mr. Joe Butler, motors cautiously nearby guiding us out into the expanse of the San Francisco Bay. The open water swimming community is uniquely exceptional because there is always someone who is equally keen on adventure and willing to volunteer their time to help you achieve your goal – no matter the time of day. Collectively we embrace the unpredictable charm of Mother Nature. When one of the clubs most seasoned and expert boat pilots, Mr. Butler graciously offered his time to help with our swim, it was both an honor and delight. Vessel Traffic and the US Coast Guard were informed of our plans days before as well as prior to our starting the swim. But with the wind howling we were understandably concerned by the Small Craft Advisory (a 12 foot rubber zodiac boat and two 5’11” swimmers definitely fit the category). Mr. Butler decided that we would try the swim, but if it were too rough out in the Bay we would abort.
With my heart pounding as I swim through the dark water, bioluminescent glitter sparkles from my hands and arms. Roving waves slap my face with such an intensity that I secretly hope Mr. Butler does not notice. I want to keep swimming. Moving out into the middle of the shipping channel, I can see the lights of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance on my left. Mr. Butler’s silhouette in the zodiac boat on my right is perfectly backlit against the eerie light from the Alcatraz Lighthouse through the darkness and the slither of daylight breaking in the East. Now settled into a glorious rhythm with the waves, and swimming side by side with Simon, it feels trance-like.
Without warning, Mr. Butler screams through the wind, breaking the spell. And like a cruel and abrupt end to a glorious and intense dream, I am awoken by “Swim to shore, NOW. NOW!” Mr. Butler speeds the zodiac boat protectively close to us, and without hesitation Simon and I swim as hard as we possibly can. Hyperventilating with my fastest sprint ever, my mind goes through a checklist of possible threats to swimmers at 5am in the Bay. “GET IN THE BOAT NOW!!!!” yells Mr. Butler. He cuts the engine and Simon as I swim frantically up to the boat. Struggling with getting myself out of the water and terrified for the reason as to why we are being ordered to get on the boat, instinctively Mr. Butler hauls me into the rubber confines of the zodiac. I flop awkwardly over the spare gas container and feed bottles. Simon follows seconds later. Now safely in the boat, and holding tightly onto to the rubber handles, we speed towards shore. A few minutes later, Mr. Butler slows the boat. “Look over your right shoulder.” A mere 300 yards away, a massive cargo ship is barreling stealthily through the water where we were just swimming. After the ship passes, undeterred, Simon and I slip off the tiny rubber zodiac and into the wild Bay to continue our swim. 6 ½ hours later we return safe and sound back to Aquatic Park with another completely normal story to share.