Friday, July 31, 2020

Somebody Call Guiness

107 billion human beings have lived on the planet Earth.  It would take a pretty extraordinary individual to be the one person to have ever accomplished a particular feat.  And it would have to be a pretty extraordinary feat.  Guiness World Records should know about this.  The feat that I have in mind is swimming more than 3,000 miles in San Francisco Bay during winter in nothing more than a swimsuit, swim hat, and goggles.  This means walking into Bay water from December 21 until March 21 and swimming mile after mile, day after day, and year after year when the temperature is as cold as 47 degrees and almost never warmer than 53 degrees Fahrenheit.  Laura Merkl is the solitary human to have done this.

Laura Merkl
Seeking a provocation to get other members to swim with him in the winter, Dolphin Bill Powning invented "The Polar Bear Challenge" in 1974.  Use of wetsuits is prohibited. Since its inception, members of the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club of San Francisco have tracked the number of miles they swim in the Bay during the coldest 90 day period of the year.  Earning a "polar bear" has meant recognition with a gift of a three-quarter inch block of white marble inscribed with the number of miles swum that season.  Perversely, this trinket is not distributed until the November awards dinner.  The memento provides a timely reminder to participants of their previous winter accomplishment and tacitly encourages them to tackle one more frigid campaign.  It also provides a permanent record of the miles Laura accumulated during 34 consecutive Polar Bear seasons.

Laura Merkl graduated college with a degree in physical education and swam at a recreational level.  After a couple of years working in the phys ed field, she switched to a career in accounting.  The downside of this move was a sedentary day at a desk job so she joined the YMCA to swim with their masters program.  She met Laurie Weiner there and they began participating in open water swims at places like Lake Berryessa.  Soon, they left the pool behind and were swimming from the beach at Aquatic Park on a regular basis.  When Laurie joined the Dolphin Club, Laura followed in December of 1984 very much looking forward to the opportunity to swim from Alcatraz.  Although she swam through the winter, for the first couple of years of membership Laura remained unmindful of the Polar Bear mileage charts festooning the entry to the Dolphin Club.  Then, in the 1986-1987 season, she decided to partake.  Since she was living nearby the club and working downtown, she felt like the 40 miles required at the time for a marble block was insufficient and thought, "100 sounds good."  Sure enough, slightly more than 120 miles later, Laura had earned her first Polar Bear.

Stack of Polar Bear Blocks
Stack of Polar Bear Blocks
Then in the winter of 1993-1994, she was again on target for more than 100 miles.  When she attended 
the Old Timers dinner in February, Dolphins asked her about her aspirations to be the Polar Bear champion that season.  She said, "I don't know what that is."  Her friends excitedly told her, "Well, there's the Polar Bear and then there's the Polar Bear CHAMP!  You could be the CHAMP!"  Alerted to this possibility, Laura quickly learned that no woman had ever before been the Polar Bear champion.  She says, "I've never felt any negative being female at the club," but the idea of being the first woman champion held substantial appeal.

She and fellow member George Kebbe were closely matched in swimming speed and had developed a friendly and competitive relationship in the club-sponsored events.  As it turned out, George also had his eye on the Polar Bear championship.  In order to win the Polar Bear Laura had to swim more miles that winter than George and more winter miles than she ever had swum before.  Club members avidly monitored the race in slow motion, regularly checking the mileage log in the foyer as she and George spurred each other along through the remaining weeks of the Polar Bear. Their colored squares leapfrogged one another in a simulacrum of a fiercely contested Olympic event.  Laura had plenty of support.  Women would regularly find her almost sleeping in the sauna and bring her strong coffee.  Stan Hlynsky, president of the club the year before, would leave voicemails on her office phone with words of encouragement including advice to "eat more."  And eat she did.  She had recently started a new job and three bagels for a morning snack were common.  Her gobsmacked co-workers were left marveling at where she put all this food on her lean frame.  By March 21, 1994, her determination had produced 174 miles and the first woman's name to adorn the Polar Bear Champion plaque.

Champion Plaque
The next winter Laura cruised to a leisurely 101 miles.  Then she moved to San Carlos and took a job in San Jose leaving herself a daily commute of over 100 miles if she wanted to keep up her string of Polar Bears.  In the next four seasons, she swam 50, 78, 80, and 75 miles; admittedly short of 100, but still a mind-boggling display of discipline.  In the winter of 1999-2000, her commute dramatically reduced, she swam 150 miles and tied with Scott Haskins to once again affix her name to the championship trophy.

For the next six years, she posted 100 miles or more.  Then came a five year stretch during which her South Bay commute resumed and she could only manage to chart mileage in the 80's and 90's.  In the 2011-2012 season, the scourge of extreme athletes struck and she finished with a measly 68 miles and severe shoulder pain.  Of course, she postponed the necessary rotator cuff surgery until after the Polar Bear was over.

As she recovered from surgery and pondered her goals for the coming year, her accounting instincts kicked in and she realized that she had accumulated more than 2,600 winter miles in the Bay.  It occurred to her that people bike 3,000 miles across the U.S.  They hike 3,000 miles across the U.S.  No one can swim 3,000 miles across the U.S.  But isn't 3,000 a good number for Polar Bear attainment?  By March 21, 2017, she had racked up 3,035.75 miles.  She now has over 3,200 miles in her wake and has not formulated another goal beyond, "keep it up."  Guiness needs to know about this.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Five Coves of Death

Depiction of Battle of Puebla
On May 5, 1862, a seriously out-manned and out-gunned Mexican army soundly defeated the French army at the Battle of Puebla.  While not much celebrated in Mexico, the fifth of May is a big deal in the United States based partially on the mistaken notion that this is the day of Mexican Independence from Spain. In fact, many modern day Mexicans deplore the devolution of the occasion into an excuse for drunken debauchery and promotion of derogatory Mexican stereotypes. Accentuating this irony in 2005, the U.S. Congress ordered the President of the United States to observe Cinco de Mayo with appropriate ceremonies and activities.  While the representatives supporting this resolution spoke passionately of the desire to celebrate Mexican-American "culture, music, food, and customs," at least no one specifically mentioned tequila.

Decades before Congress got into the act, Bill Horgos, a member of some notoriety of first the Dolphin and then the South End clubs, suggested a swimming tribute to the fifth of May. He designed and promoted the aptly named “Five Coves of Death” swim.

The swim begins at the clubs’ beach in Aquatic Park. The clockwise option will take the swimmer to the Flag and then to the Goal Posts. Nothing much death-defying about that. From here, though, the course threads under the length of the Muni Pier, a thin, barnacle and starfish-encrusted pathway between concrete and creosote posts. It continues under the Roundhouse and past the jagged pilings out to the Opening. The swimmer then navigates the surging current squishing in and out through the thin gap at the Jacuzzi. From here, the course takes the swimmer behind the Balclutha, swimming over and under scratchy, barely submerged lines and hoses draped from boat to shore. Swimming behind the Thayer presents a similar and slightly more confining challenge. Emerging from behind the Thayer, the swimmer has a short distance to reach the South End pier. Downing an optional shot of tequila at the pier completes one “Cove of Death.”  Popularity of this option seems to have diminished over the years, having been replaced with non-alcoholic hydration and complex carbohydrates.

Passage Behind Thayer
The official start time for this swim is 5:05 pm.  Aspirants whose schedule can't accommodate the afternoon jump-off will start their swim at 5:05 am to maintain the appropriate measure of poetic symmetry.  However, it's the late afternoon start that garners the most support in terms of pilots, dock workers and boosters.  As usual, dinner is waiting for all 55 participants, 34 of whom will complete all five loops this year.  After 2 1/2 hours of swimming in cold, bumpy water even the swimmers who opted to simply swim close to, rather than under Muni Pier have definitely earned the calorie-laden repast.

Recently, the Five Coves of Death has served as a qualifying swim for the Bay to Breakers swim.  Consequently, several yellow-capped individuals who couldn't manage a mid-week swim were circling Aquatic Park Cove Saturday and Sunday.  Forced to weave through the weekend crowd of wet-suited swimmers, these folks soldiered through the course essentially unwatched, unloved, and unfed.  These people must have a high need to swim the Bay to Breakers.

Perhaps the award for "Most Obsessive" must go to Kimberly Chambers and her companion.  They finished their first Five Coves of Death Tuesday morning at 7:30 am.  Emerging from the water looking radiant, they cheerfully informed observers of their plan to return and repeat the course at 5:05 pm.  While not unprecedented, this is highly unusual.  What is even more unusual is that Kimberly's companion wore no swim cap whatsoever for the occasion.  One would imagine that these two scooped up double helpings of food at the buffet that night.

Monday, January 12, 2015

2015 NYD Alcatraz

Alcatraz Viewed from Northwest
At 5:30am on New Year's Day in San Francisco, the traffic is sparse and the walk through Aquatic Park is dark and quiet.  Shattered bottles strewn in profusion across the landscape testify to the revelry the night before, but no revelers are awake to provide any details.  As if it were suffering a massive hangover, the City seems almost comatose.  Opening the door to the Dolphin Club, the contrast is stark and startling.  Lights are blazing from every fixture and the hubbub and press of over a hundred milling bodies gives the feeling of having popped through Alice's looking glass.  The crowd has assembled for the yearly swim on January 1st from Alcatraz island to Aquatic Park and the atmosphere crackles with excitement, fear, and anticipation.

Two clubs split organizational responsibilities for two annual joint events.  The SouthEnd Rowing Club manages the NYD Alcatraz swim.  The Dolphin Club oversees the more logistically challenging Escape from Alcatraz triathlon.  This year, the SouthEnd planners have segregated the NYD registration.  Dolphins register at the Dolphin Club and bare their right arms for the black magic marker that brands each swimmer with a consecutive number prefixed with a "1".  This extra digit distinguishes us from SouthEnders.  Swimmers from the adjacent club have their left shoulders marked sequentially without the preceding numeral.  Check-in at the finish line will also be segregated.  With the SouthEnd dock on the returning swimmers' left and the Dolphin dock on the swimmers' right, the alternate shoulder markings will expedite the job for the timers and recorders from each club.

A freelance photographer, various large cameras slung about his neck, has tracked down Diane Walton on her last day as president of the Dolphin Club.  Reuters news service dispatched him to get pictures of the New Year's Day Alcatraz swim and Diane asks me to provide guide service.  We exchange pleasantries on the dark, cold deck at the back of the club as people shuffle about preparing pilot craft; wishing loved ones well; or just huddling against the freezing wind piping out of the east-northeast.  The photographer and I agree that when we reach the boat to take swimmers to the island, we'll just see if he can meld into the crowd and board with us.

The separated registrations naturally cause members of the two clubs to congregate apart until time to go next door for the swim briefing at 6:30a. As we begin trooping to the front exit, word filters back that the door at the SouthEnd is locked and untended.  This gives me a chance to show our guest a walkway between the two clubs that winds up narrow stairs to a passageway overlooking the three handball courts.  On the SouthEnd side of the walkway we descend an even narrower and steeper staircase evoking comparison to the Winchester Mystery House.  We take our place beside a 4-oared barge under construction gaining an unobstructed view of the briefing station.  For the first time, I see my companion snap a few photographs.

Lovely Martha
The SouthEnd swim director begins the briefing instructing 49 Dolphins to board the Lovely Martha and 49 SouthEnders to board the Silver Fox, both docked along Jefferson Street in the Fisherman's Wharf.  The dozen or so remaining swimmers will catch a ride to the island in one of the motorized inflatable craft.  With a few more general instructions, he turns the briefing over to Gary Emich for course information.  Gary has personally logged over 1,000 swims to and from Alcatraz and he operates a commercial piloting service for private swims.  He speaks with great authority and says that although high winds had forced a cancellation of the test swim the previous day, his experience in similar conditions indicates the ebb tide will kick in about halfway across the channel.  He recommends that the fastest swimmers aim for the sailing ship Balclutha and that "mere mortals" aim farther east for the Jeremiah O'Brien and the "creakers."  The basic principle is to avoid being caught west of the "opening" and having to fight a building ebb to get to shore.  Because this day coincides with a massive "king tide" the currents at their maximum will stymy even the most powerful swimmers.

Briefing over, we file out of the clubhouse.  The photographer skips ahead down Jefferson Street snapping away.  Boarding the Lovely Martha with the other Dolphins, we meet no challenge to his presence verifying that our strategy of asking forgiveness rather than seeking permission is paying off.  The captain is driving from his station below so we have the flying bridge to ourselves, giving the photographer a superb vantage point to ply his craft.  The rising sun gradually mutates the clear, cloudless sky through a spectrum from midnight to navy--ultimately displaying the cityscape behind Fisherman's Wharf on a canvas of imperial blue.

Before Lovely Martha leaves the dock Dolphin swim commissioner, John Nogue, begins a roll call.  Although rare, it happens that swimmers disappear between the club and the water taxi.  Broken glass, familial entreaties, or just a general change of heart can bring someone to their senses and a u-turn.  If the individual, through embarrassment or laxity, fails to notify one of the event authorities, pandemonium eventually erupts when it appears that a swimmer has gone missing in the Bay.  By the time all Dolphins have answered to their name, the SouthEnders in the neighboring boat are in full snort.  In parody, their swim leader shouts out, "Roll Call! .... Is everybody here?"  Upon receiving the cackling responses of "present," "here," and "sober" he hollers, "Is anybody not here?"  No response.  He then merrily announces, "Then let's swim!"

The two boats cast off and slowly motor out of the wharf.  As the gas dock slides by, the Reuters man exclaims over the wholly unanticipated water-borne perspective and does his best to capture the beauty of the old boats tied to Hyde Street Pier.  The motion of the Lovely Martha adds a couple of knots to the piercing wind slicing out of San Pablo Bay and my companion asks in dead earnest, "Don't you get cold?"  Of course the answer can only be "Yes."  After a brief moment we both laugh.

As we pass by the end of the breakwater protecting the boats docked at Fisherman's Wharf, I explain why this location is named "creakers."  In the years before the concrete breakwater was installed, a string of floating tires provided partial protection from the storm surge capable of wrecking the fishing fleet.  These tires were anchored on the east end by three long creosote-soaked posts sunk deep into the Bay ooze.  Once the permanent structure was completed, these posts remained for several years, loosening in the incessant waves and making an eerie creaking noise.  The name survives long after their removal.

As we motor into the San Francisco Bay, the ripping flood tide collides with the opposing wind spawning a confused and lumpy sea.  Beautiful but daunting.  Swimmers are going to be swallowing some saltwater today.

The two boats coast to a stop on the southeast end of the island within a stone's throw of the sign warning of dire consequences for aiding escaped prisoners.  Within a few minutes we hear the call "10 minutes" float across from the Silver Fox.  I leave the photographer to his own devices, strip down to my swimsuit and goggles and stuff my clothes into a plastic bag.  I know from experience that the start often goes unannounced and want to be ready to slip over the side as soon as I see the first SouthEnders splash down.

The day before, the SouthEnd lead pilot published a Fleet Utilization Plan directing the Dolphin pilot craft to take up the west flank of the swim and remain on the southwest end of the island until the start.  Since the Dolphins supply 38 pilot craft compared to 17 from the SouthEnd, the usual flotilla doesn't surround the two swim boats before the start.  This is a bit of a blessing in that I can jump from the wooden rub rail without fear of colliding with some water craft.  Upon seeing the expected splashes, I slide into the cold water and start stroking for shore.

As a swimmer whose speed ranks as "mere mortal" my strategy for these cross-current swims is to sight on the Golden Gate bridge.  Breathing on the right side and keeping my course parallel to the bridge ensures that I am swimming perpendicular to the current regardless whether it's flooding or ebbing.

The cross-current swim of greatest renown is the English Channel.  Distinguished Channel Swimming and Pilot Federation pilot, Mike Oram, has published several analyses of Channel tides and piloting strategies and they mostly boil down to the notion of "T-ing the tide."  The quicker a swimmer can get across the adverse current and get some assistance from the ebb, the faster the crossing time.  Trying to swim against the current just wastes energy and time.

As intellectually and mathematically satisfying as this strategy might be, a swimmer needs great discipline to maintain execution when the island starts sliding rapidly away on the right, the Golden Gate bridge keeps shrinking, and the Jeremiah O'Brien fades into the distance.  Immediately, the flood begins scattering swimmers across the bay with the slower ones being swept toward Treasure Island.  Pilot coverage is exceptionally sparse during this period for a couple of reasons.  First, two-thirds of the pilots had started from the west side of the island as instructed and were fighting the northeast wind to reach the rapidly dispersing pod being forced east.  Second, the swim plan made no provision for retrieving the numerous plastic bags full of clothes when the water taxis return to dock.  This means that all the motorized inflatable pilot craft from both clubs are crammed to the gunwales with garments and incapable of rescuing swimmers until they have made the 30 minute round trip to drop their bundles at the club docks and return to the scene of the swim.

Forbes Island
Three quarters of the way across my discipline deserts me.  Despairing of seeing the Jeremiah O'Brien continually recede, I begin crabbing against the tide.  Like a dehydrated man chasing a mirage, I claw my way toward a diminishing objective.  Eventually reason reasserts itself and I realize I just have to take my medicine and swim directly to shore until I eventually find the ebb current.  150 yards from Pier 39, I look up to see Forbes Island far to my right and gliding yet farther away.  Choking down a moment of panic, I determine to keep going due south until I find the ebb or find a ladder along the shoreline.  If all else fails I can swim around the breakwater west of Pier 39, pull myself onto the dock, and walk back to the club in my skivvies.  In a "darkest hour before the dawn" moment though, I shortly find myself crashing through the flotsam that delineates the crease between two converging currents.  I have finally found the ebb.  And it is strong.  6.8 feet of water has to get through the narrow opening at the Golden Gate bridge by 3p and I am now swimming in water that is in a hurry to get a head start on its exodus.

I am not alone in catching the ebb far, far east of the Aquatic Park opening.  Even the fastest swimmers of both clubs have been swept east of the creakers before finding the favorable current.  And the slowest swimmers have been carried as far as pier 35.

The inflatables are now busily at work, fishing tired swimmers out of the water and ferrying them back to the clubhouses.  In all, 15 swimmers (7 Dolphins and 8 SouthEnders) choose to retire early--somewhat less than 15% of the starting number and exceptionally high even for a tough swim like NYD Alcatraz.  A SouthEnd inflatable picks up a Dolphin husband and wife pair near the east end of the Pier 39 seawall.  As usual, the communication frequency chosen for this SouthEnd swim is channel 69 and the pilot radios his status.  Asked what numbers the swimmers wear, he says he doesn't see any markings on the left shoulders.  Instruction come crackling back over the radio to check the right shoulders.  Upon finding that the boat is carrying Dolphins, the lead pilot issues guidance to SouthEnd pilots to no longer rescue Dolphins.  "They can take care of themselves."  Upon reaching the creakers, the husband and wife ask to be dropped off so that they can finish swimming to the beach.  The pilot sniffs, "I'm not dropping you fools off here.  I'd just have to pick you up again."  He carts them the rest of the way to the dock.

Upon catching the ebb, a back eddy ushers me slightly inshore so that I cruise first by the Pampanito and then the Jeremiah O'Brien at Pier 45.  Cutting inside the breakwater at Fisherman's Wharf, the building ebb quickly propels me west where I thread between the Hercules and the Eureka; under Hyde Street pier; behind the Eppleton Hall and stroke for home feeling equal parts relieved and elated.  My crossing has taken 1 hour and 11 minutes compared to my previous high mark of 55 minutes.  Without question, this was one tough swim.

The gaiety in the men's sauna reflects the struggle of the swim.  When Mickey Lavelle arrives, the party shifts into high gear as the small wooden enclosure booms with the chorus of tenor and baritone voices joined in uproarious sing-along of Irish ballads and cowboy songs.  The circulating bottles of whiskey probably contribute to the high spirits.

The swim trinket is a towel emblazoned with the SouthEnd logo along with the date and name of the event.  Unlike previous NYD swims, no mention of the Dolphin Club appears.  Not enough towels are available for all swimmers so the SouthEnders enjoy first dibs with a promise that Dolphins will receive theirs when the reorder arrives.

Every NYD Alcatraz swim spawns its share of stories.  It is a cold, difficult, unpredictable swim and swimmers and planners must deal with whatever Mother Nature decides to dispense on the given day.  However, more than one Dolphin was heard to ponder in the days to come, "Hmmmm.  Separate registration, separate water taxis, separate fleet plan, separate start, separate rescue craft, separate check-in, separate trinkets, no mention of Dolphin Club.  What is it that makes this a joint swim?"

Saturday, June 21, 2014

And Then There Were Three

Darcy Wettersten discovered the link through some means of her own.  Perhaps she snorked it on the internet.  Perhaps she learned of it from one of the cadre of marathon open-water swimmers friends she has at the Dolphin Club.  Regardless of source, she was tracking the steady progress of Craig Lenning on her browser as he attempted to become the third person in history to complete a solo swim from the Farallon Islands to the California mainland.

A little before 10p on April 8, 2014, Darcy realized that Mr. Lenning was due to strike land at Muir Beach in the Marin Headlands.  She immediately emailed an alert to her friend, Jon Rauh, who lives nearby and encouraged him to take advantage of the opportunity to witness a truly historic event.  As it turned out, Jon was attending the Giants home opener at AT&T park when the email came through.  The game was just wrapping up and he hurried back across the Golden Gate bridge to stand on the beach.  His timing was perfect.  He spied the small light affixed to the swimmer's goggles blinking feebly 100 yards off shore.  The light from Jon's electronic torch in turn provided the swimmer a beacon to guide him the final distance to land.
Craig Lenning and Jon Rauh

Operating under standard English Channel swimming rules, Lenning was required to climb onto completely dry land without assistance in order to have the swim officially ratified.  Fearing well-intentioned, but potentially disastrous contact, he emphatically screamed out, "Don't touch me!"  Although he'd been swimming since 6 a.m., Lenning emerged from the sea with a measure of elan and remain untouched all the way to dry sand where he posed for a picture with Rauh before going back to the water and his escort boat.

Although Craig Lenning lives in land-locked Denver, Colorado, he is a supremely accomplished open water swimmer.  He has swum five channels of the Oceans Seven challenge including the English Channel and the North Sea Channel between Ireland and Scotland.  He is also a member of the exclusive club of people who have completed the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming.

The chalkboard next to the pay phone at the Dolphin Club duly noted Craig's accomplishment and crossing time.  Underneath, some wag wrote, "So close to making it."  This snarky remark was apparently a reference to an arbitrary stipulation by the recently-formed Farallon Islands Swimming Federation.  Their rules identify the Golden Gate Bridge as the official start or finish line.  The amusing thing is that when Ted Erikson, the second  Farallons Channel soloist, was forced to conclude his swim at the bridge boundary in 1967, a fair amount of grumbling ensued that he had failed to reach dry land.  In fact a 1968 relay team of Dolphin Club members achieved the only successful swim crossing from the Farallon Islands to dry land in Aquatic Park Cove.  The team of Ed Duncan, Lew Cook, Conrad Liberty, Stu Evans, Bill Harlan, and Bob Jimenez outraced a crew from the South End Club who failed to reach land.

In any case, someone quickly erased the denigrating remark and Craig Lenning adds his name to the incredibly short list of three individuals and three relay teams to have completed the toughest swim in the world.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Shark in Aquatic Park

Mike Silva and Kim Chambers
assess the danger
Joe Mannion stood waist-deep in the translucent green waters of Aquatic Park and contemplated the shark as it languidly prowled the shoreline.  The dark dorsal fin sliced slowly through the water leaving a tiny wake.  The water was clear enough to easily see the distinctive dark upper body and white underside--coloring reminiscent of the infamous great white.  The shark made no aggressive moves although it was obvious that a quick flick of its tail could propel it across the six feet separating bather from fish with potentially disastrous results.  Joe discussed the latent threat with his shore-side companion for a couple of minutes.  As the shark progressed slowly east with the flood current, Joe gave a phlegmatic shrug of his shoulders and plowed into the water with his characteristic brawny freestyle stroke.  Swimming to the end of the Dolphin Club pier with his head buried in the bay, Joe was oblivious when the shark changed course and began undulating west and headed straight toward his churning feet.  Passing within inches, the shark turned and followed the swimmer for a couple of terrifying yards before resuming its slow eastward glide with the current.

It seemed that the shark was investigating any movement in the shallows.  At one point Mike Silva stuck a splayed hand in the water and swished it back and forth.  The fish immediately turned towards his hand and moved in the direction of the agitated water.  In the following video, it's clear that the shark is following the movements of the wader who is not eager to get too close.  A member of the Pelagic Shark Foundation later surmised that the shark was probably suffering from blindness due to a bacterial infection.

Afterwards in the sauna Joe Marenda, an avid surfer, offered his wholly credible expertise on sharks.  "That was a salmon shark," he said with authority.  "It has similar coloring to the great white and when a seven or eight-footer swims by your board it can scare the hell out of you.  But they're not dangerous to humans unless provoked."  Pressed on the similarity, he pointed out, "You can tell it's a salmon shark because only the dorsal fin sticks up from the water.  On a great white, you'd see both the dorsal and the tail fin."  Subsequent marine wildlife experts confirmed his identification.  Apparently, these sharks make long oceanic migrations and are not uncommon in the San Francisco during "pupping" season.  Regardless of how "common" they might be, more than one person has been swimming in the bay for twenty-five years without seeing or even hearing about this type of shark.

Sadly, a couple of people spotted the shark the next day being attacked by seagulls.  The gulls were pecking at the fish's eyes and generally putting on a display of nature's brutality.

Salmon shark
More than half a dozen shark species prowl San Francisco Bay.  Leopard, seven gill, spiny dogfish, and soupfin sharks are quite common.  They comprise the bulk of the 1,000s of sharks that inhabit the Bay.  While increasingly popular with local fisher people, these sharks are rarely visible in the murky green water.  In addition, they generally patrol the muddy bottom feeding on clams, crabs, small fish and fish eggs remaining out of sight of swimmers as they go about their business.  The seven gill shark is a little more ferocious.  It attacks other young shark species as well as the occasional harbor seal but leaves humans alone. 

Some years ago, Bill Powning was participating in a Gas House Cove swim.  Intrepid but slow, the flood tide swept him past the pilings of the Municipal Pier and under the lines of fishermen congregated on the bay side.  Just as Bill was about to make the turn at the Roundhouse and return to Aquatic Park Cove, a man on the pier reeled a writhing, four-foot leopard shark straight over the swimmer and hauled it onto the pier.  Bill remained completely unaware of his close encounter of the toothy kind.  His pilot in the kayak had a ringside view, though, and thrilled to the evidence of locally based sharks.

Two questions dominate those asked of bay swimmers.  Isn't it cold?  What about sharks?  Even with the unexpected addition of salmon shark to the Bay list, the answer to the second question remains, "Nothing that will eat you on purpose."

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Eight Man Stack at Night

Ivan in five-man stack
Extraordinary characters abound at both swim clubs in Aquatic Park.  Of course, the setting is a magnet for marathon cold-water swimmers.  But some of the outsized personalities have chalked up notable achievements out of the water.  Ivan Balarin is a charter member of this group.  He has compiled more than 5,000 parachute jumps from planes and promontories.  Had he access to today's modern technology, that number could be well north of 10,000.  However, in the days of round, relatively un-guidable chutes, Ivan spent many days in Livermore sitting and waiting out weather that wouldn't deter a well-equipped jumper today.

In 1987, he took the soloist position in the docking of eight parachute canopies in flight.  This YouTube video of the SkyHawks in action shows how the stack is formed.  The difference is that Ivan's group built their eight man stack in the dead of night.  Here's how Ivan tells the story:

"When we used to do stacks, it was a big thing.  It's a delicate maneuver because it's easy to 'birdcage' yourself.  You usually build the stacks from the top down.  The one on the top is the pilot.  He steadies his hands next to his chest so there's not too much movement of the lower members of the stack.  You approach the stack from the back.  Never get in the front because you destroy the air flow and the stack will collapse and that's a very difficult situation.  The hardest position to get in was the last on the bottom. Because as the stack forms, it travels very fast, like a biplane.  So, you have to be in position to close into the butt or the back of the lowest man.  And then you start applying brakes and you float up and then he grabs your canopy and locks his legs in the line number one and line number two which is right in the middle of the front of your chute.  If you come last into the stack on the bottom, the United States Parachute Association recognizes you as a 'soloist' and assigns a number representing the number of people that have accomplished this before. We had done a couple of practice jumps earlier in the day and slapped one behind the other; boom-boom-boom-boom-boom; perfect!"

Beechcraft D-18
When night fell, the Beechcraft D-18 taxied down the runway for the final flight, gathered speed, and lifted off under the light of a rising full moon.  Ivan's wife, Kathleen sat in the copilot seat.  Her job was "illuminator."  When the pilot nudged her foot with his, she would briefly shine her flashlight on the instrument panel and then switch it off.  In these days before sophisticated dashboard lighting, this was the accepted protocol for preserving night vision.

As they ascended to jump altitude, one of the parachutists made a point of telling everyone that it was important that they all open their chutes at the same time, immediately after exiting the plane.  Ivan was not comfortable with this idea.  As the soloist, he was to join the stack last and approach from the bottom.  In the daylight practice jumps, he had delayed the pull of his ripcord for about 3 seconds in order to give the stack time to form and approach it from the bottom.

Ivan Balarin
For anyone who knows Ivan at all, the notion that he would subjugate his own judgement in favor of that of someone else seems ludicrous.  He was fourteen the first time he ran away from home in Peru.  His previous sport obsessions had been competitive fencing and weight lifting--both relatively solitary and self-directed.   Ivan is not one to capitulate easily.  But he was also an astute observer and quickly discovered that parachuting is a group activity with the mind of a small village.  Planes were scarce, shared resources and the obstinate or reckless were quickly and permanently ostracized.  His love of jumping forced him to control his independent streak.  With this in mind, he decided to practice going with the flow.

When the time came, the jumpers worked their way through the black tunnel of the fuselage two abreast and flung themselves into the dark sky.  As Ivan relates, "They built up the stack so fast, they caught me with my pants down!  And here, I'm following the stack almost right in the middle in the back of the third man down.  No way I can close like that.  I have to be under the bottom man and then work my way up like an elevator."  Although he was incredibly strong from his weight training, it would have taken a superman to pull the front risers down enough to descend at the required speed.  In order to avoid crashing into the middle of the stack, he veered to the left.  "When I went to the side, they all looked at me terrorized because they thought I was going to go in the front.  You don't want to do that because your airflow will disturb everything.  I told them 'I'm aware' and peeled off the left, cursing myself for not following my intuition and giving myself the three second delay."

Yanking on the left riser alone, he corkscrewed himself down into the blackness until he was dizzy and disoriented.  He had lost contact with the seven other parachutists in the dark.  "And here I am, in the middle of nowhere, feeling sorry for myself because I knew that I could do the job. I'm sitting in the darkness, listening to the farm dogs bark and thinking about where I am over the Livermore vineyards.  If you land in those cut vines, it will tear you to pieces."  About this time, Ivan saw a black shadow floating past the full moon.  At first he thought it was a cloud.  But it was a cloudless night and clouds don't move that fast.  As he looked closer, it appeared to be a flying clipper ship getting larger and larger as it approached.  "I saw the stack coming in right in front of me.  As soon as it went by, I turned and flew parallel and started climbing.  I could hear the voices from above, 'Ivan come in!  Come in!  Ivan, you can do it! Come in!'  I put on the brakes and started floating right up.  About 4,500 feet off the ground, I made contact--right on the bottom man's legs and the stack was complete.  What a satisfaction."

They flew the required minute together until they reached the airport runway.  Then, starting from the bottom, each member yelled "Flare!" in turn to signal the person on top to release the lines.  This way, they landed one after another on the deserted tarmac.  They were the 103rd team in the world at that time to accomplish this feat.

This is only one of Ivan's many striking exploits and he is only one of the remarkable people who belong to the two clubs.  Together, their stories add a significant and spicy ingredient to the composition of the endorphin cocktail.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A History of Aquatic Park

The Japanese have a word for appreciating transient moments of natural beauty.  According to Wikipedia, the word Yugen "suggests [something] beyond what can be said but is not an allusion to another world.  It is about this world, this experience .... The exact translation of the word depends upon context."  Zeami Motokiyo suggests these as examples of Yugen:
"To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill

To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return

To stand upon the shore and gaze upon a boat that disappears in the distance

To contemplate a flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds"
Yugen experiences abound at Aquatic Park.  They provide one of the five sources for the endorphin cocktail that makes the club experience so addictive.  It is easy today to take these experiences for granted.  However, the creation of an "aquatic park" on the site of Black Point Cove was a complicated and combative process.  At one time the location was the setting for foundries and smelters.  Real estate development interests saw the area as a potential extension of the Fisherman's Wharf area:  a paved-over site for more restaurants and T-shirt shops.

Book Cover
Bill Pickelhaupt, in his book San Francisco's Aquatic Park, tells the story of the evolution of this site.  Rich with pictures and detailed captions, Mr. Pickehaupt's meticulously researched prose spins a tale fascinating to anyone who treasures this particular corner of the world.  He has kindly granted me permission to reprint the introduction to his book here:

"San Franciso's Aquatic Park is unique in San Francisco as one of the city's very few underappreciated spots of great beauty.  Located just to the west of the hustle and bustle of Fisherman's Wharf, Aquatic Park's daytime serenity is surpassed only by the thrilling glitter of Tiburon and Belveder's lights, reflected in San Francisco Bay as one stands on the Promenade of the park at night.  An even better view of the bay from Marin and Contra Costa counties can be gained from Muni Pier.  The people of San Francisco and the Bay Area in general were almost robbed of this wonderful park, as the conflict between development and recreation raged from more than a century in the little cove.

Pioneer Woolen Mills
"Known as Black Point Cove because of the dark shade of the trees in Fort Mason (the cove's westerly boundary), the location was isolated from the settlement of Yerba Buena and Mission Dolores during the gold rush.  Even as these settlements became San Francisco in the 1850s and 1860s, Black Point Cove was considered remote enough to allow establishment of the Pioneer Woolen Mills and the Selby Smelter, and far enough away from the reach of the law to host several highly illegal bare-knuckled boxing matches in post-Civil War San Francisco.  Yet the commercial interests shared the cove with a hearty breed: swimmers flocked to the shores of Black Point Cove and many small swim houses catered to the needs of these men and women, boys and girls.

"The San Francisco Daily Alta noted in 1869 that a man named William Lenz had drowned while swimming from 'Charley's' swim house in the cove and that the cove had been a popular beach for those fond of saltwater swimming 'for a long time.'  Around 1867, Carleton Watkins took a stereoview of a group of four young boys, naked as the day they were born, letting the surf break over their feet, as the boldest among them moves hesitantly into the chilly water (even after a long warm spell in summer, the temperature of the bay usually does not exceed 65 degrees Fahrenheit).  The most famous victim of the waters of Black Point Cove was banker William C. Ralston, who perished in the cove on a line with Tonquin Street the day he lost control of and was booted out of the Bank of California.

State Belt Railroad Fort Mason Tunnel
"The little swim houses and woolen mill fell into decline as the 1880s came to an end, but the decision of the Dolphin Swimming and Boat Club to move from the foot of Montgomery Street (now known as Columbus Avenue) to build a new boathouse at the foot of Van Ness Avenue held enormous importance for Black Point Cove.  Even though the contemporary Sanborn Insurance Map described Van Ness Avenue as 'impassible by (horse) teams,' visionaries at the club saw a water park for the recreation of the citizens of San Francisco.  In 1908, the Dolphins were joined by the South End Rowing Club and the Ariel Rowing Club, both driven from a short stay in Central Basin (near Mission Rock at the foot of Sixteenth Street) by the State Board of Harbor Commissioners.  San Francisco's development interests, particularly along the waterfront, saw the catastrophe of the 1906 earthquake and fire as a great opportunity to fill in shallow parts of the waterfront.  After Long Bridge and Mission Bay (the north side of which would be where Pac Bell Park is now situated) were filled in and disappeared forever, the northern waterfront next fell in the sights of developers.

"The State Belt Line Railroad was built across the cove in 1913, and the clubs had to continually fight to prevent the Harbor Commissioners from dumping the borings from the Fort Mason Tunnel in front of the docks of the clubs.  If the clubs' access to the water were cut off, that would be the death knell of the clubs and public access to the cove.  The harbor commissioners went so far as to remove part of the South End dock at one juncture.

"Young Mitchell"
"Ed Scully, a South End member since the early 1890s, led a fight to protect the site as a park and to get the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to commit the city to conversion of the cove to an aquatic park.  Scully and others forged an alliance with organizations interested in public health, welfare, and recreation.  Old-time South Ender John L. Herget, a member of the board supervisors and well-known as 'Young Mitchell' from his days as a championship boxer, helped on the political front.  Beginning in 1909, the clubs held a series of Aquatic Park Days to publicize successive ballot propositions to finance park construction.  (Several striking photographs survive from these events).  Although all ballot measures fell short of the two-thirds approval needed for passage, the board of supervisors, in 1918, went on record in favor of an aquatic park for the citizens of San Francisco.  The city spent the next decade acquiring the property necessary for the park.  Then the Great Depression hit.

"The city was able to build Municipal Pier (known as Muni Pier) in 1931, but funds ran out.  The State of California did some work in 1932 and 1933, but also lacked the funds to carry the project through to completion.  The federal government took on the construction of Aquatic Park as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in late 1935.  We not only have the park, but posterity also benefits from the fact that the WPA had a photographer come through the park nearly every month from 1936 to 1938 to provide a graphic record of progress on construction.

Maritime Museum Building
"What is now the Maritime Museum Building was intended to be the home of the Dolphin, South End, and Ariel clubs.  The South Enders did not like the building, because there were no handball courts; Dolphin Club members wanted their own clubhouse.  The streamline Moderne building, with its Benny Bufano murals, basically sat empty until Karl Kortum, a chicken farmer from Petaluma, approached the board of supervisors with the notion of a Maritime Museum for San Francisco, and the Aquatic Park building as the museum.  Alma Spreckels was Kortum's financial backer.

Fort Sutter Riverboat
"Kortum brought several vessels into the park, but the situation came to a head in 1953, when the Fort Sutter, an old riverboat that had made the run from Sacramento to San Francisco, was brought into the cove by Kortum associate Barney Gould.  The intent of Kortum and Gould was to turn the decrepit hulk into 'high-tone' restaurant, bar, and gambling casino.  The hulk was run up on the beach right next to the eastern comfort station.  The rowing clubs, just next door and dwarfed by the decayed vessel, complained on numerous counts, and the old tub was moved to the western side of the park in late 1953.  It sat there and decayed even further over the next six years.  Finally, a group of four young men, rumored to be South End Rowing Club members, doused the deck with gasoline and set the tub ablaze.  It is said the flames could be seen from Berkeley."

The members of the Dolphin and South End clubs regularly tell one another how fortunate we feel to have access to such a sublime and magical realm.  We can thank the pioneering members of the clubs for fighting to create a public haven.  We can also thank the successive members whose continuing vigilance preserved our distinctive niche.  We can now add Bill Pickehaupt to our "thank you" list as someone who has captured and preserved the history of the creation of Aquatic Park.