Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Toughest Swim of All

A Farallon Island
People who know the geography of San Francisco City and County usually think of it as a seven mile by seven mile square at the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula.  The little known fact is that the City boundaries extend to include the Farallon Islands, a 211-acre archipelago of rocks and islands nearly due west of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Closed to the public and inhabited by only about a half dozen researchers, this area has legitimate claim to the title of "roughest neighborhood in the City."

Denizen of a Rough Neighborhood
"Every September, one of the world's largest and densest congregations of great white sharks assembles in the waters surrounding the Farallon Islands .... No one fully understands what this gathering represents, why great whites, the ocean's most solitary hunters, choose to reside for a period of time in such close quarters.  What's known for sure is that the sharks remain at this location for approximately three months."  This excerpt is from Susan Casey's book, The Devil's Teeth:  A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America's Great White Sharks.  She goes on to say that Scot Anderson and Peter Pyle, researchers for the Farallon White Shark Project, recorded almost 80 attacks in the year 2000.

Sharks are only one reason that swimming between the Farallon Islands and the continental Pacific Coast is the toughest swim in the world.  The currents are a brutal deterrent to a successful crossing. In most famous open water swims such as the English Channel or the Hellespont, the current flows perpendicular to the swimmer.  In these cases, for a well-planned and well-executed swim, the current moves the swimmer sideways, but doesn't necessarily impede forward progress.  Not so for a Farallon Islands swim.  The land pinches in between Fort Point and the Marin Headlands to a distance of about a mile and a half.  The flow of water here is subject to the "Venturi Effect" where a fluid's velocity must increase as it passes through a constriction.  As a result, the maximum current at the gate exceeds five miles an hour.  Coincidentally, this is the maximum swimming speed ever recorded by a human over a very short distance.  For someone who has swum 26 miles from the islands through frigid water, even a slight ebb can throttle a successful attempt.  Timing an arrival to catch a flood tide is a dicey proposition given wind, waves, ocean current, and flagging swimmer speed.

Rough Water in the Potato Patch
The powerful currents create another obstacle.  The ebb tide shoots through the Golden Gate like the buckshot from a blunderbuss, scattering silt and piling it to form shallow areas just outside the gate called "the Potato Patch Shoal."  Openwaterpedia describes it as "an extraordinarily rough area of living hell for boaters, fishermen, and, especially, open water swimmers."  The shoal got its name in the 1800's when the crushing waves would capsize freighters, scattering their cargo of potatoes across the seascape.

Adding to the difficulty is the water temperature.  57 degrees Fahrenheit is considered cold in the English Channel.  This is balmy for the Farallones swim.  Some attempts encounter water as cold as 46 degrees.

"Stew" Evans
Only two people have successfully made a solo Farallon Islands swim.  The first, Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Evans, completed the swim under basic "English Channel" rules:  one swim cap, one standard swimsuit, goggles, and swimming untouched.  In August, 1967, he crawled ashore at Point Sonita, north of the Golden Gate after 13 hours and 44 minutes of swimming.  Current day English Channel swimmers would cringe at his diet of 7-Up and lemon Jello.  The caption on the video of his swim claims that he fulfilled the final dictum of Channel rules and went from "dry land to dry land."  That claim is suspect.  Jack Gordon writes of Col. Evan's start, "He crossed himself and I then fired the [starter] gun.  He tumbled over backwards into the water at 10:17 P.M. Pacific Daylight Saving Time." Col. Evans is still the only solo swimmer to finish on dry land. Since the Farallon Islands became a wildlife refuge in 1969, trespass by the public is now prohibited and a "land to land" swim is highly unlikely to ever happen.

Ted Erikson
Less than a month later, Ted Erikson, a legendary open water marathon swimmer, swam the longer distance from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate.  Like Stew Evans, he wore standard English Channel swimming attire as well as a specialized grease concoction.  Paul Girard was the official observer on behalf of the Dolphin Club.  He records in his log, "6:50 am:  Ted comes up from his bunk after taking a nap.  Frank Drum and I add two packs of shark repellant to the Chevron FM-2 grease he is to use.  It is a mess.  The grease is a blue-grey now and somewhat lumpy as though it had rocks in it.  I spend about 5 minutes picking out the larger stones and throwing them overboard.  The grease looks good."  After 14 hours and 38 minutes of swimming, Mr. Erikson reaches the Golden Gate bridge and Girard sets off a flare to signal completion of the swim.

In his log, Girard writes, "9:45pm:  He is still strong, but not strong enough to head for Aquatic Park.  We will bring him aboard after we cross under the bridge at the green lights or dead center."  Grumbling ensued among some of the Dolphin Club members at the time regarding the "water finish" in spite of Erikson having swum 9 and a half miles farther than Evans.  Today, the recently formed Farallon Islands Swimming Federation has decreed the Golden Gate bridge as the "official" start and finish line.

Stew Evans' account of the race
The first successful Farallon Islands relay completed a year later with a satisfying landing at Aquatic Park beach on September 9, 1968.   Conceived as a race between the South End Rowing Club and the Dolphin Club, South Ender Bob Roper and Dolphin Ed Duncan started swimming from the southeast Farallon island at exactly 11:09 pm.  Lew Cook, Conrad Liberty, Stew Evans, Bill Harlan, and Bob Jimenez from the Dolphin Club followed in succession, maintaining a constant lead.  At the end, the South End team, using dead reckoning as their navigation device, swam too far south and encountered a building ebb when they reached the Golden Gate forcing an end to their swim.  The Dolphins, on the other hand, were using LORAN to navigate and swam straight into the Golden Gate.  Pete Biannucci was piloting at the time in a wooden rowboat and frantically steered the swimmer away from the vortex that would have swallowed him at the South Tower of the bridge.  The Dolphin team achieved landfall when Conrad Liberty beat his way across a dying current to Aquatic Park beach for a team time of 14 hours and 54 minutes.

Subsequent solo and relay attempts from west to east have failed, one team even resorting to the use of wetsuits.  But, like the English Channel, swimming east to west is a less risky proposition.  The start can leverage a predictable slingshot effect from a strong ebb tide to shoot through the Golden Gate and squirt past the Potato Patch.  2011 saw the success of two relay teams utilizing this strategy.  On May 20, the co-ed team of Phil Cutti, Darin Connolly, Dave Holscher, Vito Bialla, John Mathews, and Kim Chambers made the crossing 43 years after the first one.  A couple weeks later, on June 4, 2011, Kim Chambers, Laura Vartain Horn, Cathy Delneo, Melissa King, Patti Bauernfeind, and Lynn Kubasek created history becoming the first all-women team to complete the Farallon Island swim.

West to east, east to west, Golden Gate Bridge, Bolinas Bay, or Aquatic Park beach:  This is still one tough swim.  The cold, the current, the wind.  And did I mention sharks?

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