Swimming in Open Water
Updated: Sep 10
During the past five months, since the start of the Covid 19 pandemic, I’ve been swimming in San Francisco Bay where water hovers between 60-67 degrees on a good summertime day. I never thought this is where I’d want to be. But, I learned, much to my surprise, that it takes swimming in cold, open water to make me feel alive. On the edge. Full of determination and drive.
About two hours ago, I stepped into the Bay off a small foggy Marin County beach and was greeted with
a forceable current pushing against me and a strong headwind that made for choppy windblown seas. I went through my “getting used to cold-water” routine. I walked into the biting water and felt a layer of chill wrap around my thighs. No matter what the temperature is, whether it is in a pool at 80 degrees or a bay measuring 62 degrees, it feels daunting, like I want to turn around, sneak out and do something else. But I have learned to wait, maybe a minute or two, until I begin to acclimate or go numb. Then I duck down into the water, once, twice, maybe a third time. This is a trick I learned from open water guru and friend, Suzi Dods, and it works every time. I harden myself to the impending submersion, but it is never as bad as I think it will be. That’s the signal to my brain: “okay, let’s get going.”
I push off the sandy bottom and start to stroke, arm over arm, feeling the water surround my torso, legs, head. I can tell if it’s colder than usual by how the cheeks on my face respond. If they are tingly, the water temperature has dropped a few degrees. Today, the tingle is a nano-second and then quickly subsides as I move forward. Although I start out with two other swimmers, Mike and Jim, they move ahead and I find my own rhythm, my own course, my own connection to the water swirling surrounding me.
Out around the point, swimming against the strong tide and a 10-12 knot wind slows all three of us down. I look up to sight on Mike’s bright yellow safety float device and I see him off to the side, closer to San Quentin. I am being pushed out away from shore so I try to paddle in. I head toward him, but I don’t go anywhere. For about five minutes, I am parallel to an historic old white guard tower at San Quentin and I am not moving forward. The tide and wind are forcing me to swim in place. I am even losing ground and the white guard tower is now once again ahead of me.
And then it isn’t.
The winds begin to lighten and I make progress. The three of us meet after struggling to swim 600 yards and Jim decides to go back. Mike and I move forward, slowly, through the chop that sometimes blocks my view of him. I start to sightsee which I do whenever I am in open water. I glance at the upper tiers of the prison, the fenced in yards, the point of land with a modern guard tower and notice that the old tower is now well behind me.
We stop again at about 800 yards and Mike says, ‘Do you want to go on?” which in retrospect was a very gentle way of saying, maybe we should turn back since we were already about 15 minutes slower, off the usual pace.
My reaction, “I want to go there.” I was pointing to the channel markers of the Larkspur Ferry which does not run on the weekends. They looked about 300 yards away. So, we swam there, still struggling against the tide. And we got there and congratulated each other for making it in these adverse conditions. Treading water, I glanced at my watch. It had taken more time to swim to the channel markers than it usually does to swim round trip. We started out with a pack of swimmers ahead and behind. Now, no one was at the pilings but the two of us bobbing up and down in the Bay. In fact, no one was around at all.
Swimming back, the sun began to peek through the fog floating across the sky to the East Bay. It lit up the small waves and turned them a fleeting gold, gold on top of the brownish water – a dreamy image that brought on a smile. I thought about the people I know that have swum the English Channel: Suzanne, Gary, Christine, Catheryne, Lynn and Suzi. What do they think about when they are in the water for 9 hours or more? I normally settle on singing to myself, but today, within an hour, I was bored, so I began reciting the ABC’s.
With the wind behind me, my orange flotation device would often blow over my arm and hit me in the face when I turned to breathe. I switched to breaststroke until I could push it back in place. It didn’t stay and I battled with it until I reached the beach. The swim back was 1/4 the time it took us to go the other way.
Hanging out at the beach after a swim.
Photo: Patty Lyn Hutchings Tweten
Once on the sand, I was cold. I slipped on my swim parka, pulled off my swimsuit and headed for the street. The heat in the car didn’t help; the long steaming shower at home didn’t help, two cups of hot tea didn’t help. The only thing that made a difference was time…the time it took to warm up. I am a bit tired now, but I am very pleased with myself. Would I do it again? Sure thing. But not tomorrow.
FYI: If you want to try your hand at open water swimming, connect with Suzie Dods at www.suziedodsswimcoaching.com. She is a great instructor especially for those new to open water swimming.