Thursday, February 13, 2014

Come again another day

Don't be fooled by the ferocious sea: It was rocky, but this is from a low angle on a wave just
about to crest on the beach, between the South End and Dolphin Clubs' docks. I'm about
to hand off the next leg to Lisa Amorao, who shot the day-long adventure with a GoPro™©
camera mounted over her swim cap. The masts of the Balclutha, a 19th-Century
cargo ship, loom in the back.
By noon the day after, the floor finally stopped heaving.

Unseen forces finally stopped pitching me forward whenever I stood still, and stopped nudging me off my gait down the hallway.

Now I miss that gentle vertigo, an unexpected souvenir of what I'd just done: Joined a team that swam 24 hours straight in San Francisco Bay.

See exactly what we did here, a rollicking video by teammate Lisa Amorao.

The 24-hour Swim Relay was Suzie Dods' crazy idea back in November. At least, that's when she unleashed the proposition upon the swimming world. Maybe it brewed in her brain long before.

Looking back, I probably had no business taking part. The 54 swimmers who flocked to Aquatic Park in the Bay last weekend, to the quirky, cozy confines of the South End Rowing Club and Dolphin Club's complex at the edge of the water, are channel swimmers (English, Catalina, you name it) and big-lake crossers. They swim great distances, fast. They direct and organize distance swims of their own. Google their names and their epic exploits top your list of choices — and Suzie is a channel and distance swimmer extraordinaire. She also guided me on my first Bay swim three years ago.

It was an honor to design the cap logo, which I filled with landmarks and the wishful
thought of safely encountering a sea lion. Several asked what the shape on the lower
left is. It depends on your attitude: It's a watch marking time, or a circling drain.
Many of these swimmers who took part dart through the green silty salty waters of the Bay regularly, know the tides, know the dangers.

I swim cold and flat Lake Natoma, have swum its length on three separate summer occasions, and swim Aquatic Park maybe once a year. So end my credentials.

But I brought them, some chutzpah I didn't know I had, and three friends — Lorena, David and Karl — with whom I swim at Lake Natoma, to join the team.

Through a Lake Natoma swimming connection, we gained two San Francisco Bay veterans from the south Bay Area — Lisa and Fred — and during the swim were able to add another veteran, aptly named El Sharko, to the team.

(Two Natoma stalwarts, Doug and Patti, got sick right before and couldn't come. All the more reason to do this again next year.)

The name is everything! Option 2 was
Team Curglaff. Lisa Amorao photo
We became the Fogheads, as new Bay Area friend and teammate Fred dubbed us.

Chutzpah took a hit the night before the swim, when Suzie told the gathered swimmers, "Watch yourself: The first swim will feel great, the second and third will feel fine. It's the fifth, sixth and seventh swim, swimming in the dark, when you will really feel it."

Fifth, sixth and seventh swims? I hadn't really considered them. What had I done? I'm gonna have trouble, and now I've talked several people into getting into trouble. The Bay's 51-degree water wouldn't bother me; we swim in colder water near Sacramento. But swim after swim — seven in all for me over 24 hours, most of them 1.5 miles each — was not something I had necessarily trained for.

I'm used to swimming our Lake Natoma once a day, 1.3 miles or so at a go, dancing in the parking lot to exorcise the shivers, swilling hot cocoa until warm again, and driving home. That being that.

This event was so. Much. More.
Too late to doubt. Time to strap up. In all, I swam 10 miles — the Fogheads must have logged in at least 60 miles together. In the end, we smiled; throughout, we smiled. This was a strange and wonderful journey we were taking together, that we were somehow accomplishing. It was hard not to smile.

Each swimmer was to complete at least one 3/4-mile clockwise triangle of Aquatic Park lap at a go — along a buoy line parallel to shore to a floating "wedding cake" buoy with a flag atop and a thermometer dangling by a tether into the water, near the Maritime Museum; then through a collection of moored sailboats out to the end of two jetties marking the bay entrance to the park; then back to the clubhouse past the historic ships Balclutha and Thayer tied up at the Hyde Street Pier.

The next swimmers had to be at least shin deep in the water to high-five their incoming teammates, calling out their numbers, before starting their turns.

I usually swam two laps. We heard of at least one swimmer who swam five laps at a go.

Throughout, miracles happened, big and small:
  • It rained.
  • and rained.
  • and rained.
  • It never stopped raining (an unconfirmed source alleges that rain stopped between 5 and 6 a.m. but I'm inclined to doubt, having picked one of those hours to sleep in a corner of one of the South End Club's handball courts.)
  • We'll take any credit cast our way for putting a dent in the horrible drought. Bright calm unseasonable skies heralded us — until the night before the swim, when winter began making up for lost time. Wind blew throughout, sometimes hard. Swimming became our salvation, our way out of the misery of standing on South End's pier awaiting our turn or checking in on incoming teammates.

    The gray boil of sky matched the green roil of water.
  • I met a man named Jim Bock. Met a man, I say, because when last we met, he was a little skinny kid with me in fourth grade during our former lives in the little Air Force/diatomaceous-earth mining city of Lompoc, Calif.

    In the event's early planning and flurry of facebook®© and email communications, I came across Jim Bock's deceptively unusual name. One and the same? One and the same! And somehow we are reunited 43 years and six hours away from our hometown by an avocation neither of us had imagined back then.

    A nice dinner with him as he met Nancy, our son and his girlfriend, was not enough conversation. I was busy swimming, he busy watching over us as a volunteer guardian and South End denizen, so we'll have to make future excuses to continue the talk. Good thing he swims in such a beautiful pool.
  • A sea lion did not eat me. More important, a sea lion did not nibble on my kneecaps, which was the irrational fear I carried into each swim. It didn't help that on my second round trip, mid-afternoon Saturday, I saw a sleek black shape surf the green waves out toward the opening of Aquatic Park, where the water begins to get rough.

    The shape was so big, it occupied two waves. Just as quickly, it disappeared.

    "Did I see what I thought I saw?" I asked the kayaker/guardian angel posted at the opening.

    "Yeah," said the angel, "but I saw it chomping on a fish a while back, so it won't be interested in the swimmers."

    Night presented a different story. Just when I had let my mind wander in the dark sensory deprivation of the water, my safe cocoon, I felt a smooth shape slide right into me. After a big swallow of water, I stopped to see — another swimmer! Somehow in all this water, each of us lit up like little Christmas trees with our blinking lights and glow bracelets, we crashed.

    'Round midnight, lulled by the relief of reaching the dock — it loomed like a torii gate silhouetted in the clubhouse's orange lights — another shape crashed on my head. An aggressive sea lion declaring territory? No, another swimmer doing the butterfly. We smiled in shared relief.
  • Virtual swimmers became real. I have before sung the praises of a facebook™© page called "Did you swim today?" (dyst?) The relay provided opportunity to meet some of the swimmers with whom I have shared daily stories of swims from around the world.

    There came peripatetic Londoner Jackie Cobell, a member of swimming royalty, a cheery ambassador of open water swimming, known now as much for the extreme cold-water swims she's made as for holding the record for the longest time taken to cross the English Channel, 28 hours, 44 minutes.

    I met Mark Spratt of Indiana, a dedicated distance swimmer and dyst? poster, and Amanda Hunt from Australia by way of Chicago. Globetrotter Bruckner Chase, a long-distance swimmer from New Jersey and American Samoa whose livelihood advocates for ocean health and access to the ocean for all people, was there too.
  • No one went hungry. No one had a chance: Food filled a big table in the South End dining room, and food never stopped filling the table. At 4:30 a.m., fresh pepperoni pizza suddenly appeared. Imagine how good pepperoni pizza tastes at that hour after a disorienting swim!

    The modest entry fee and the generosity of swimming cooks went far — loaves-and-fishes far. Who could not get fuel was a fool.

    I drank cup after paper cup of hot water, until the cup could no longer hold its shape and I'd get another. I was driving off cramps as best I could, and took electrolyte tablets swimmer Bruckner Chase had provided right before each swim.

    Lisa Amorao's delicious couscous dish tempted me to skip a rotation and scarf it all instead.
  • The world in the wee hours became magic.

    On my second night swim, around 3:30 a.m., all was dark save for lights along the shore and the gargantuan Ghirardelli chocolates sign (gleaming for whom? I wondered). It was much darker than it had been 'round midnight. The water this time fizzed as I entered, so loudly it hissed through the wax ear plugs I wear to ward off cold and keep from getting dizzy.

    As my arms drove the fizzing water below me, bright green balls of light rose from them, up and past me. Another Bay veteran swimmer had told me about the bioluminescence given off by tiny creatures — were they making the fizz? — but I was sure he was mistaking it for bubbles that caught the ambient light of The City. Of course he knew better, and I swam along enjoying the gift of sight and sound and sense. Suddenly I became very calm, and in that calm grateful to God for this opportunity, and deep in thought for my wife and son to be able to see some of the event, and my late mom, whose birthday was Saturday.

    Heading for the showers and another twitchy cycle of warming up, I heard Jim Bock on the South End dock, clad in a yellow sou'wester as he checked off the swimmers, singing "Greenland Whale Fisheries" into the sideways rain.
  • Fogheads came through. "King" Karl helped South End folks move a sailboat and almost missed one of his rotations. David helped warm up a shivering swimmer in the middle of the night. (Normally in a wetsuit as an Ironman™© triathlete, David went several go-rounds without.) Lorena staffed the kitchen when our team's time came, and summoned the grit to go out each time in the foreign waters, emerging strong each time.

    Lisa continues to provide inspiration with her photos and video and cheer, resolving to swim in the dark without an escort, as she had first planned. Her Karl (different from our "King" Karl) kayaked even though he was sick.

    Fred and "King" Karl worked the walkie-talkies from midnight to the end so that weary swim teams could know their turns from the comfort of the South End dining room.

    Modest Chris "El Sharko" Blakeslee, a South End veteran and heralded as one of the oldest swimmers to cross the English Channel, joined our team midway as his team was dispersed, and at every turn did what he could to make our team go.

    I'm overjoyed to have been among them.
Most of the Fogheads: David, Fred, Fast Karl, me after the final lap, Lorena and Lisa. In the hullabaloo,
we lost track of Chris "El Sharko" for the photo. Nancy Turner photo.
Suzie Dods had it pegged: The first swims were a fine and relatively easy. "King" Karl, our youngest and fastest, led off the rounds 9 a.m. Saturday. It was the only lap that felt like a race, all of the nine teams seeming to send off their fastest.

By 11:30 p.m., three or four go-rounds into it and 13 1/2 hours later, the clocks seemed to stop, and missed naps were widely regretted. Nine teams had collapsed to seven, smaller teams dispersed to medium-sized teams.

By 11:30 p.m., my underarms and neck chafing and stinging, I began to think this endeavor folly. Teams fell to sleeping when and where they could — sometimes all but the swimmer in the water was asleep, and the next in line had to be found and roused so the teammate could officially leave the water.

Early-morning swims (the fifth and sixth go-rounds) required extra deep breaths, extra smidgens of motivation. Each round required swimmers to know the tides and how they changed. Failing to adjust meant more work at best or swimming into hulking breakwaters and historic moored ships at worst. Even the buoy line near shore was dodgy in the dark — one swimmer returned with a cut forehead from swimming into a buoy.

When I relayed Suzie Dods' announcement that teams who were tired should just all take a break for one or two swimmers' rotations — "It's not a race, we're not keeping books," she said —  "King" Karl (aka Fast Karl) was incredulous.

"That would be cheating!" he said. "You couldn't say you swam 24 hours straight, then." None of the Fogheads even considered it, I gather.

Right before dawn, the clock sped up. Light shone in the darkness. Strength returned.

Karl, Fred and me, never quite dry. Lisa Amorao photo.
By hook or crook or conspiracy, I had the privilege of swimming the last leg of the last go-round for our team. The big triangle route, closed off in the early hours when visibility and conditions worsened, was reopened with sunup. I tried to make two laps as before, but wasn't fast enough to come in on time. I settled for one lap around and one lap along the buoy line next to shore, as leisurely as possible, before heading back in.

Swimmers who had earlier gathered on the dock to cheer Suzie Dods for her last swim (she came in towing a kayak with her teeth) were back on the dock cheering the last swimmers and our shared accomplishment. A wave lifted us onto the beach for the last time.

Many of us weren't even dry before we were wishing aloud to do this impossible thing again next year.


  1. What an awesome write up Shawn! I never would have known by the way you were swimming out there that you seldom swam in the bay! Can't wait til next year! I have gotten many compliments on the cap design too! Everyone says how aptly it represents all elements of the City by the Bay!!

    1. thanks, cathy! fooled ya, i guess. i can't wait either. thanks for your help and your spirit carrying us through, and your kind words. that's what i was going for; almost put the ghirardelli sign in, but thought i'd leave well enough alone.

  2. Wonderful & your easy but descriptive prose is like a watching a smooth freestyler gliding effortlessly through a chop. !

  3. I LOVE this post... it makes it all sound so romantic...

    1. well, wasn't it, in a swashbuckling sort of way?

  4. I fancy this next year, Suzie was telling me about it this weekend