There’s a short piece near the end of my book The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill where I go for a swim in San Francisco Bay and then join the South End Rowing Club. The piece was intended to symbolize my finally arriving in San Francisco after living here for more than 20 years, yet always feeling that I was just passing through. At the time I wrote that, it felt like a bit of a stretch, and it may still be. But I have gotten more into swimming this year. The water temperature in the bay has been unusually warm this year — probably not a good sign, although swimmers love it. (All the starfish have disappeared. All of them.) In the past the temp has rarely gotten above 63 degrees, but this year it has hit 66 degrees consistently, and occasionally even higher.
The South End Rowing Club was founded in 1873. It’s old blue-collar San Francisco—not fancy or expensive. The name is deceptive. Not only is the club at the north end of San Francisco, it caters mostly to swimmers. Originally, the club was at the south end of the city and catered to rowers. At some point, they moved the entire building from its original location to Aquatic Park. If you’ve ever been to the Hyde Street Pier near Fisherman’s Wharf or visited the old sailing ship the Balclutha, you’ve seen the club building. It sits on the beach of a protected cove. Most club swimmers never get out of the cove, and up until now, I’ve been one of those. My wife Judy on the other hand does the Alcatraz swim almost every year. Before I met her, I couldn’t swim—not properly at least. She taught me how to do “the crawl,” but I’ve never felt strong enough to do any out-of-the-cove swims. They’re a little scary. If you get into trouble, you’re way out in the bay, far from land. The club out-of-cove swims are done in groups and have pilots in boats, but it’s still a little intimidating for a weak swimmer. (Contrary to myth, there are no dangerous sharks in the bay.) There is one club swim, the Coghlan Beach Swim, that I’ve always sworn I’d do if all my conditions were met: They had to do it during the summer or fall when the water was warmer, it had to be non-competitive, and I had to have plenty of company. This year the club put together a special Coghlan Beach swim for newbies. So I started training.
Coghlan Beach with Alcatraz to the right in the background
The beach, named after an old time South End swimmer, Frank Coghlan, is a small spit of sand that has gathered against an artificial breakwater a mile west of the club. They drive you to the beach in a car and then all you have to do is swim out into the bay 20 yards or so, which puts you right out in the current. But it’s not as though you don’t have to do anything. If all you did was float, it would take you a long time to get back to the club. The morning of the swim, conditions were perfect. There was a strong flood tide, and the air was warm, but the sky overcast. People told me that on sunny mornings the sun can blind you. Judy swam with me and I had my own pilot in a row boat, a friend, David Kennedy. I’d expected to be at least a little nervous, but I wasn’t at all. It was fun watching the city float by, and, as I say, I was busy stroking, too busy to feel any anxiety. One technique I used to ease my fears was to look at my watch when my arm was underwater. I’d trained on up to a 53 minute swim, and I could see that I was going to get in earlier than that. The water looks and feels silky right now—deliciously so.
1) Alcatraz 2) The Pier 3) The Opening to the Cove
Just before the cove is a long pier, and the current really picks up when you get there. It was astonishing to see how fast we were flying past the pylons.
The Opening between Muni Pier and the Breakwater
At the opening to the cove, I swam through and started making my way to the club beach. It took me 38 minutes to complete. I wasn’t tired at all. Actually, I wanted to do it again.
The South End Rowing Club Building
The Beach with the Opening (1) in the background
It was good to have something take my mind off my obsession with my book for a while. I’ve never pictured myself trying it, but I now see swimming from Alcatraz as a real possibility. Judy will make sure I’m ready and get through it okay. Not this year, though.
I feel a little odd talking about my personal enjoyment at a time when the world seems to be heading straight to hell. I find the news hideous reading these days. But it is reality, and we do have to deal with it. I don’t see anyone saying what I think needs to be said, so I’ll be heading back in the direction of religion and politics soon enough. Meanwhile, back to the book.