Thursday, February 12, 2015


I drew this in July, six months before the 24-hour swim. That's how excited I was to return.
Swim No. 1, 9:58 a.m.: This must be how a musician feels, saving a lost guitar, tentatively retaking a rhythm, attempting a certain choreography of fingers, feeling rough but right.

Hitting the green water, salt once again in my mouth, tripped memory. First, around the wooden pier with its hinged ramp bobbing like a great hungry jaw. Ah, the buoys next, tall and cylindrical, in permanent cant, a row of crooked teeth stretching to the black grove of eucalyptus beyond. Somewhere at the end of the buoys is a box-shaped one with a flag on top and a thermometer tethered to it, a sort of Aquatic Park mascot. I can't see it from here; I just have to swim and find it, like last year. Here we go.

Brad Schindler has gone first, two laps. Then Cathy Harrington. For how long? I can't remember. So how long until I swim next? Two hours? Is that right? That can't be right. Ah, forget it! Just swim, fool!
I'm going three laps this time, three laps each time if I can. I don't think I could have done that last year. But that was last year.
Such a difference a year makes! Since meeting him at the first 24-Hour Relay Swim last January, Craig Lenning of Colorado became the first person in 47 years to swim from the Farralon Islands to the mainland, a 25.7-mile trek in treacherous waters west of the Golden Gate.

Since meeting him last year, Simon Dominguez, an Australian by way of the Bay Area, swam the English Channel.

Since last year, my relay teammate Lisa Amorao has racked up the miles and night swims and tricky waters, and bounded into this relay with abandon, night swims and all, recording it all on her GoPro™® camera for another much anticipated video of events. So did Cathy Harrington, who swam and swam and swam over the last year, and has swum up at our Lake Natoma several times, an opportunity lost if not for having met at the relay.

David Walsh and I have extended the miles at our lake since last year, and David shed his wetsuit even through the coldest water. I talked him into another relay. We were ready to do more this year.

An alternative design, meant to evoke the ever-moving, clock-spanning, rollicking nature of the relay.
As with the top illustration, you can "read" the illustration from any angle.
Marathon swimmer Suzie Dods created the relay, inspired by a long-ago event in Quebec called 24 Heures La Tuque. That event comprised two-person teams trading off 'round the clock for a full day. Suzie's version features teams of different number, from four to 10 this year, who divvied the swims in different ways.

Of the 40 or so swimmers this year, at least a fourth know each other from the facebook™® page, Did you swim today?

Swimmers ranged from common schlubs like me to world-class marathoners. Our team boasted Brad Schindler, who has crossed Tahoe and swum an ice mile, which is a mile in water 41 Fahrenheit or lower.

"Fast" Karl Kingery, who used to swim with me at Lake Natoma before finding work in Colorado, joined the team of four that, besides Lenning, comprised:
  • Elaine Howley of Boston, last summer the first person to swim the 32-mile length of Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho and
  • Sarah Thomas from outside Denver, who within six months in 2013 swam two lengths of Vermont's Lake Memphremagog (50 miles) and was the first "skins" swimmer to double-cross Lake Tahoe (44 miles)
They each swam in three two-hour blocks — just strolls around the block for them, I'm sure — compared to our team, the Fogheads, which swam five or six rounds each.

We kidded Karl that he was out of his team's league, but know he'll soon be amassing his own massive swims. Besides, we kid in admiration: Karl was swimming with torn ligaments in one knee, from a skiing accident the week before.
Swim No. 2, 2:26 p.m.: The good news — thanks to teammates Paul Springer and Lorena Sims, who know their way around cyberspace, the swimmers who make up the Fogheads know when they'll be in the water each round of the 24-hour relay, and for how long, and what they'll be doing at any other part of the relay. 

Lorena and Paul orchestrated a spreadsheet they could change on the fly from their handhelds, and it only took one round of us swimming for them to develop an accurate prediction of our endeavor.

The bad news — the data show I've got K.P. duty at 3, so I have to hold my second swim to one lap. I resolve to enjoy it, stretching out my arms for an extra glide, paying attention to how my hands enter the water and hold straight and wide. Someone over at Ghirardelli Square, the old block-long brick factory-turned-mall above Aquatic Park, has the gall to bake cookies and send their warm sugary splendor out over the water.

I can make a straight line out to the bay opening of Aquatic Park, with no real tide to fight, and Swim No. 2 ends too soon. Nothing really needs doing in the kitchen, it turns out, as everyone gets quiet in the rhythm of the long event, saving energy. I long to be back in the water.
I was trying to serve two masters with this one version: Something that will fit on a cap, and a taste of
the counterculture/spiritual still alive and well in San Francisco. Can you not tell how really, really
excited I was to come back for this event?
The inaugural 24-hour relay last year coincided with California's only real winter storm, a rollicking deluge that barely let up, and churned Aquatic Park's water so hard that swimmers were restricted to swimming along the beach through the night.

This year's relay followed days of unseemly warm false-spring days, par for the four-year drought, until the weekend promised: Rain! Some joked we should market the relay as a rainmaker. Swimmer Mark Spratt of Indianapolis took personal blame, or credit, depending.
Just something completely different. I wanted to do something inspired by
the Ohlone people who first inhabited what became San Francisco, but couldn't
find much beyond the spare geometry of basket art;besides, I feel
uncomfortable co-opting native art. This reminds me more of some the
Works Project Administration murals around The City.

Except for Sunday morning at the relay's end, though, the rains never really came. The Golden Gate Bridge gave its glory day and night, the Marin County end perpetually swallowed in fog or lavender-hued rain clouds. We never saw that bridge last year.

Stars competed for attention this year with lights of The City during the night swims.

As evening fell a cruise ship, the Star Princess, sailed out under the black span of the Golden Gate Bridge. The ship looked like a skyscraper laid on its side, lit top to bottom as if on the night before taxes are due.
Swim No. 3, 6:47 p.m.: First dark swim. Teammate Kelley Prebil has kayaked out to the buoys and attached blinking lights to help swimmers see the route better. They look like cartoon time bombs, as if Kelley has mined the swim route. But when the buoys bob wildly, the blinks frequently disappear, and navigation requires finding the buoys' silhouettes against the dazzling lights afar. I zig and zag, stopping too often to guess where the buoys might be, hoping I don't hit one.

The famous flag buoy at the end of the row has been moved, I'm convinced of it, as darkness begins its trickery.

I manage to crash into the same swimmer I collided with last year, just in a different part of the course.

Cigarette smoke gives way to marijuana smoke, wafting from somewhere in the blackness of the eucalyptus groves. The ocean, flowing hard into the Bay now, gives me fits. Try as I may to reach the gap between the city pier and the breakwater, I end up far to the east each lap, which resembles not a triangle but a loop like one of those breast cancer ribbons.

The kayaker at the first buoy compliments me on my butt buoy, a bright orange inflatable tow device swimmers use for safety. Borrowing a British swimmer's idea, I put my backpacking headlamp inside, turning the buoy into a jack-o-lantern and me into a low-altitude firefly. It works better than a blinking light, making me visible from a great distance.

So when the unseen beasties under water get me, the relay organizers will know where I was last seen.
The water is 55 to 57 Fahrenheit, far warmer than Lake Natoma right now and four to six degrees warmer than last year in the Bay. It's discomfiting, how comfortable it is.

San Francisco blazes relentlessly into the water, setting fire to the bubbles of my wake.
One late variation after it turned out my designs would
overwhelm a cap.
When all was new last year, I fretted unreasonably that I had to stay awake to make sure our team was swimming when it should and carrying out its volunteer duties.

Even after I realized that, of course, they're adults and would do more than their share to ensure the event goes on, I resisted sleep. The early morning hours were almost intolerable as a result, time having stopped, enthusiasm having drained away.

This year I played it smart, knowing not to worry about the Fogheads. After each swim I wound my way through a utility passageway of the Dolphin Club, around some sawhorses, to the hobbit door that opened to a handball court that served as sleeping quarters, and napped for an hour.

The relay's off hours passed in comfort of a hardwood floor and the joy of chocolate muffins on waking up.
Swim No. 4, 11:16 p.m.: San Francisco refuses to sleep. The Fontana Towers, twin condominiums above Aquatic Park that Alcatraz swimmers use to sight themselves back to shore, is still lit top to bottom.

Pot smokers refuse to quit.

The tide having slacked again, I can make my way to the opening of the park a bit straighter. The second leg of the triangle route, out to the opening, feels the longest, only ghostly sailboats to guide by, and a mesmerizing collection of lights out in the Bay, devilish as sirens, by which to sight. The buoy out at the opening is always farther away than I think.

The homeward leg feels downhill by comparison, over before I realize. I slide stern to stem past the Balclutha, a three-masted 19th Century sailing ship moored in the park, and feel like I'm sneaking alongside to do battle, cannons ready.

Next I must take care to swim wide of the mooring chains of Eppleton Hall, an early 20th Century side-wheel tugboat, its prow jutting out into the park. A quick adjustment and I angle back to the Dolphin Club dock.

Back at the dock on the first lap, I see Jim Bock, my friend from fourth grade, working the midnight-to-3 shift checking on swimmers as they pass. Jim is dressed in a banana costume. From the water I break into the opening lines of "Greenland Whale Fisheries," a ballad I heard Jim sing from the dock last year. I learned the song since and waited for this moment. We sing together. I flub a key line. My throat is scratchy and I'm a little loopy. All, though, is well.

My mind refuses to let me be, imagining beasts crisscrossing below, to nudge and nip. My hand hits a stick in the water. I think it's a stick. I quicken a bit and wait for the stick to chase me. Nothing.
When Lisa Amorao shot this Saturday afternoon, it'd be another three hours
and 20 minutes before I swam again, when night fell. I watched from
comfy heights as David Walsh got out ("went dry" in the relay lingo)
and Paul Springer got wet. 
Waves from a growing tide thumped against the pilings below, waking me from my cocoon on the handball court floor. Nap No. 3 done.

The relay had gone into hibernation, sleeping-bagged bodies on the main floor of the Dolphin Club, in among the varnished wooden rowboats, up on the little stage, even up in the locker room. It's a stark difference from 9 a.m. when everyone cheered the first round of swimmers.

In short time the event became a matter of quiet survival, hanging out on the dock in view of The City, or quietly talking around the tables inside, until it was time for each to swim again.

No matter the hour, swimmers could count on a slice of pizza and a cornucopia of grub coming out of the kitchen.
Swim No. 5, 4:18 a.m.: My goal is not to be the last swimmer at the end of the relay. It was a treat last year to be last on my team, to swim up to a crowd on the docks, cheering all the last swimmers as much in happiness for having taken part as in relief that we all had made it through.

This time I wanted to be done and have my sopping gear all packed, ready to cheer someone else from the deck instead. Using Paul and Lorena's projections, I resolved that if I did four laps, or three miles, I would be almost certain to be finished with my swim contribution by about 4:30. Cathy Harrington would be our last swimmer when 9 a.m. came 'round.

San Francisco is finally dark except for the Ghirardelli sign and the bulbs that outline the big old factory. The bubbles below me glow green on their own.

The lights on the buoys blink sleepily, weakly, barely now.

I'm cold. How can I be cold!? I have yet to complete the first lap and my head feels icy. I really, really need to hang out here for four laps, so I breathe slowly, stroke deliberately, trying to blank out the cold.

On the first lap out to the watery opening of Aquatic Park, a buoy swims by. It's round and dark, bobbing and bearded with vegetation, untagged by a blinking light. Where did that come from? How did I end up swimming by it? Great, now I've gotta watch for it each of the next laps, hoping I don't bash into it.

People are walking along the concourse on the edge of Aquatic Park this time of the morning. Someone is still smoking marijuana. In a lit doorway of the Maritime Museum, a man in a sleeping bag is screaming into the night.

Green flashes suddenly explode in my head. I am dreaming, or one of the buoys is following me, or a boat is sailing out of the park. No, it's a swimmer, blinking light on his goggle strap, going incredibly fast past me.

On my last turn around the buoy at the opening, I thank the kayaker and see, above her, dark figures standing on the pier, watching, like sentries on a battlement. At 4:20 a.m.
The cool heat of eucalyptus oil settles on the water, trumping all, calming me. The fourth and final lap is warm and normal. I conquer the Balclutha in one more sneak attack and make for shore as stealthily as an orange firefly can swim. A wave spits me out on the sand.
All told, I swam about 10 1/2 miles. The foursome that included "Fast" Karl each swam half again more.

The surest sign of the relay's success is that we want to do it again. Though the sides of my tongue are ground raw and can't taste — though a "greater than-"shaped welt of red has tattooed my neck — I want to do this again.

All the art I'd done wouldn't work on a cap, so I pulled this detail from
my first illustration of the famous flag buoy, and tweaked it for a new purpose.


  1. Congrats Shawn!

    Great artwork too --
    all of it.

  2. Shawn, we miss your posts and hope you can come back this year ( or next.. 2017)

  3. if work stuff doesn't interfere, I'd love to be there ...