Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Gang aft agley*

Along for the ride, past Coit Tower, behind kayaker Mark with the orange flag. All photos by Liam Turner
Despite my every sabotage, I did it — I swam the swim of my dreams.

Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge, on Sunday, six miles.
(Really, it was St. Francis Yacht Club to AT&T Park, where the San Francisco Giants play, about the same distance, but that doesn't trip off the tongue or evoke quite the knowing enormity. More on that in a bit.)

(Full disclosure: tide assisted. Hell, tide enabled: The measured swing of my arms and languid flash of feet were mere pantomime, the current doing all the work. More on that too, later.)
The idea of this swim became a water parasite digging into my brain shortly after I began open water swimming three years ago. It took hold soon after the infection that caused me to want to swim from Alcatraz.

As a result, I share the mania of many open water swimmers — at the sight of any body of water, I immediately wonder whether I can swim it.

With every infrequent crossing of the Golden Gate Bridge, the parasite's tendrils would entwine my neurons and squeeze. I'd take a measure out to the Bay Bridge, scanning the distance and the sailboats and ships chalking the serpentinite water, and try to picture myself making that long crossing. Such a long, long way.

Two years ago, Nancy and my swimming friend Jim drove out to Treasure Island, the human-made village hard by Yerba Buena Island, on which the halfway point of the Bay Bridge is anchored. Between Treasure and Yerba Buena islands is a human-made cove, and a coach with swim-art.com was leading a swim. Jim and I were the only "skin" swimmers, going without a wetsuit. Partway through the session the coach, on a stand-up paddleboard, asked if we were cold. A couple of the wetsuited swimmers said they were. Jim and I just looked at each other.

Cold? Bring it.

Happy with hope and hubris, trying not to hyperventilate …
Alight with hubris, Jim and I looked out on the sunset, the water of the Golden Gate bright fire, the orange span of the bridge sharp in the late light to the right, the Bay Bridge looming up and to our left, The City high and alive between, just across the water.

"Let's do this!" said Jim. "Bridge to Bridge!"

"Yeah, we gotta!" I said.

"I'm doing this, you in?" Jim said again last December. Swim-art.com was advertising a Bridge-to-Bridge expedition swim for June, and warning that the America's Cup (better known as Larry-Ellison-plays-with-his-toy-boats-and-lets-you-pay-in-installments-to-watch) would truncate the big-swim season. If you want to swim bridge to bridge, in other words, this was the only chance this year.
(Straight-up plug for swim-art.com: Though I know of other expedition swim guides in the Bay Area, I'm sticking with Leslie Thomas who runs swim-art. Almost all the coached and guided swims I've taken have been with her group, and the vibe is strong: This is swimming for the joy of swimming. It's not about racing, it's about being your best self in the pleasure of swimming. I'm not a racer, I'm just trying to be a swimmer. If that's your thing, look up swim-art.com)
"I'm in." I signed up right away. Six months to get ready, I remember thinking.

Thus began the best-laid schemes o' this mousy man, almost all gang aft agley. I needed to be trimmer, fitter, stronger to make this swim. This was no day at the beach, but a real swim. Do not trifle. So one by one, I tried and failed at every attempt to improve:
  • Bought a medicine ball and stretch cord (with ergonomically sensitive plastic handles!) for building my core. I took them out to Lake Natoma twice, declaring it my own outdoor gym, where I would perform a battery of upper body exercises, alternating swim days with workout days. The medicine ball rolls around in the trunk of my car, banging the wheel wells in mocking reminder …
  • Decided to start running. Pulled out a "Chi Running" DVD swimmer friend Stacy and given me a year and a half ago. Watched it twice on my computer. Bought running shoes and anklets. Anklets! Ran twice. The shoes are neatly stowed by my bedstand. Neatness is a bad omen …
  • Found our old PX 90 DVDs. Re-learned how the DVD player works. Did the stretching session twice and the cardio once … 
  • Pulled out my copy of "Lane Lines to Shore Lines," a wonderful if homespun DVD swimmers Gary Emich (1,000 Alcatraz crossings!) and Phil DiGirolamo made for open water swimmers, and Alcatraz hopefuls in particular. Watched 30 of its 70 minutes, stopping where the narrators describe the benefits of drafting off another swimmer. As if anyone could swim as slow as me …
  • Finally found my DVD "Outside the Box: A TI Program for success in Open Water," by Terry Laughlin, developer of the maligned Total Immersion swimming technique I practice. Worried how far away I'd strayed from the technique. Never opened the box …
  • Resolved to reacquire bilateral breathing skills (usually it's three strokes, breathe from the left side, three more strokes, breathe right, etc.). In the cold water I developed the bad habit of breathing every two strokes from my left side only. When I realized the swim would follow the flood tide into the Bay, I would be looking toward Marin County to the north, then Oakland and Alameda to the east, and I wanted to see The City on occasion too. I practiced bilateral breathing for maybe six minutes, choked on a lot of water, gave up …
  • Thought about swimming nearby Folsom Lake on windy days to practice in heavy chop, but balked at the too-warm water …
  • Made plans to swim the Bay. Went to one of swim-art's training sessions, never made it for another because of work or out-of-town obligations …
  • Forgot my comfortably ugly Crocs™© at home, and had to walk around Fisherman's Wharf in heavy thrift shop slip-ons I use for my tour guide gig. In an array of sweatpants and fleece jacket and bright yellow beanie and decrepit dress shoes, I resembled a west coast, 21st Century Ratso Rizzo
  • Forgot my neoprene hood and made do with a silicone cap and two swim-art latex caps, which squeezed my head in a rubber vice …
In the end, the only thing I did right was swim, almost every day, in the cold water of Lake Natoma. It's the only exercise I've been able to stick with in the first place, so I stuck with it. In the last couple of miles I've managed longer distances, 2.5 miles instead of the usual 1.3.

Then the cold water abandoned me and I worried. Temperatures have risen ahead of schedule, and Lake Natoma hovers at 61-62 degrees Fahrenheit. The Bay was siting at 58-60, a shocking difference when it comes to water.

Ultimately, Jim couldn't make the swim, but wished me good speed.

I told almost no one, and then just matter-of-factly. I didn't want to come back from a failed swim and explain; either way, though, you know I'd blog about it.

Such a swim costs six to seven times more than a typical open-water race. It's a trophy swim, to be sure —my combined birthday and Christmas gift, so you don't hafta get me anything now — a chance to swim in one of the most beautiful places in the world. But that fee pays for a lot of safety. The lead boat, passenger boat, chase boats and kayakers dwarfed in number and precaution almost all of the open-water races I've joined.

Leslie Thomas and her team needed all of it Sunday.

Twenty-two swimmers and friends and family boarded the Silver Fox at the St. Francis Yacht Club. I stayed with my son, helping him move the last of his stuff into his new apartment in The City. He came aboard with his camera.

Though evening fell Saturday bright and sharp with a fine golden mist — picture perfect — the entire Bay disappeared Sunday, swim day, under a great suffocation of white shapeless fog. Leslie began the pre-race instructions in a cold wind with her back to the Bay, all of us scanning in vain for shreds of blue sky.

All we could see of the Golden Gate Bridge, made more menacing by its veil …
The Silver Fox hauled its human cargo out to the Golden Gate Bridge. I tried to keep a smile pasted to my face, as I thought of the great distance this boat was making just to get to our starting point.

The bridge was a kaiju, a great beast of expanding size in the shroud of mist. It planted one leg in the water before us, its other leg lost in long stride in the distance. It bellowed its great fog horn of warning. A fishing boat curled past and then in front of us at high speed, causing our boat to rock sharply side to side. Excited swimmers and their spectators got quiet. Leslie moved quickly about the boat, talking on the radio.

A pod of escorting kayakers was lost in the fog. Leslie blasted a canned-air horn and listened for the kayakers' whistles. A sailboat appeared suddenly close by and vanished.

By radio, a kayaker said they were fixed on a location and that the Silver Fox needed to come to them.

After a while I just closed my eyes, because in the whiteness I had lost any sense of where we were. The fog horn's bellow quieted, then honked again somewhere else.

A tugboat's coming under the bridge, Leslie said. We have to wait.

Finally I saw the lights of the tugboat, thinking once it passed we'd jump in and get going. Except the lights disappeared and dark vertical shapes pushed out of the mist in their place. Trees. We were on the Marin County side of the Golden Gate. Or were we?

Then the bright shape of a building, a familiar building: We were back where we started, at the St. Francis Yacht Club. We'd start from here.

A shortened swim. I was happy: At least we could swim. We didn't have to cancel.

Into the water, warm and soft compared to what I swim in daily. My arms disappeared to the shoulder in the milky blue-green water, plumes of tan silt falling in where strokes had passed. The water rolled heavily, but somehow despite my inefficient breathing technique, the water didn't choke me or splash my face.

Buddied with Liz, a startup developer, we joined with kayaker Mark to become the Full Moon Flooders — our impromptu team name — and swam into the void. Mark was the only marker to follow, in his green shortie kayak with the orange flag fluttering behind. I lifted my head every four strokes, far too often, unsure of my surroundings.

In an incomprehensibly short time, The City pushed gray and muted out of the fog, moving fast past me. We were in a "super moon" flood tide moving at 3 knots, more than three miles an hour.

Done! Not done? not done …
Pier 39, make a hard right we were warned, or we'd get pushed east to Treasure Island. Just follow me, Mark said. The Bay Bridge loomed, and like most landmarks I swim to, seemed never to get closer until finally it did. I crossed beneath its lofting, forbidding green span, finished, elated.

"We're swimming to AT&T Park," Mark said, motioning another half-mile away. My will had dissipated at the Bay Bridge, but with Liz close by, I pushed on, easing off my shoulders, relying on my hips, one stroke at a time, the current still pushing us.

Finally, finally, finally, the Silver Fox floated in the distance, the light towers of the ballpark looming behind. Apparently the much faster swimmers had blown past the Bay Bridge and just kept swimming, and we followed impromptu.

Six-ish miles in an hour and 28 minutes. It typically takes me that long to swim three miles, so you get an idea how strong the current was.

With neither shiver or shake I got back on the Silver Fox we motored past The City, retracing the route, the bridge, the piers, the Ferry Building, Coit Tower. We swam past all of them. My son handed me two Oreo™® cookies, Leslie Thomas' post-swim trademark treat, and we watched The City go by, then Alcatraz. The Golden Gate Bridge remained concealed and monstrous.

So happy to be here …
Knowing all the factors Leslie weighed to determine whether to stage the swim has made me all the more comfortable. We were in safe keep. The smiling faces of the kayakers shepherding our route confirmed this.

I'll be back. Bay Bridge to Golden Gate Bridge next, hoping for bright sun, but swimming in fog if fog be.

Doing what Dory says.

*To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, by Robert Burns

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