I love the water. When I was younger, I used to let out all my breath and sink to the bottom of a twelve-foot pool, close my eyes, and lay there, feeling the water moving and letting it soothe my senses. It’s so peaceful under the water. It feels like freedom, and softness, and danger and death all in one.
There is a very fine line between life and death. That line is a single breath.
That line was whispering in the back of my mind as I woke up early Monday morning for the Golden Gate Sharkfest. This would be my second open water swim. Last summer, I escaped from Alcatraz, so I knew a bit of what to expect, but there is always lingering doubt. Yes, I am a strong swimmer, but the tides are strong. Yes, I tolerate cold water well, but I’m not immune to the creeping fingers of hypothermia.
While the sun rose over Angel Island, swimmers milled around, waiting for the event to start. A man walking his dog asked me what everyone was doing in the park. When I told him that we were going to swim the Golden Gate, he said, ‘That’s crazy!’
I couldn’t really disagree with him, so I shrugged, and comforted myself with the fact that the sun was shining and there wasn’t a trace of fog in the air.
As less than 200 (as opposed to Alcatraz’s 800) swimmers boarded the ferry, I was feeling pretty good. The water in Sausalito was all smooth and tranquil. But as we got closer to the Golden Gate, I began frowning at the sea. The water was choppy. Very choppy. Way worse than the Alcatraz swim. When I asked someone about it, she said, ‘It was worse last year.’
It’s just going to take me a bit longer, I thought. There was a regiment of kayakers, a few paddle boarders, life-guard boats, and police zipping around on jet skis dragging floating stretchers with handles for swimmers in distress. It was comforting and… not so comforting. I only remembered kayakers from the Alcatraz race.
One thing I learned from my first open water race, was not to be at the front of the start up line. I got kicked in the face six times when the starting horn blew. So this time, I was not in a rush to jump out of the ferry.
The ferry stopped on the west side of the Golden Gate Bridge (the ocean side), which was farther than I had thought. I couldn’t see the finish line, but the bridge was like a giant lane line, so I wasn’t worried.
The doors were opened, and the first horn blew. Swimmers jumped ship from both sides; one after another, in quick succession. If you hesitate, they drag you off to the side until you are ready to jump. No one was hesitating on this swim.
I followed the line down to the open doors, and jumped to the cries of ‘Go, go, go!’ The water temp was a nice 64 degrees, enough to steal my breath, but only for a moment. I came up, readjusted my goggles, and started swimming towards the line of kayaks.
The water was choppy, and I was having trouble making it to the starting line. This is where training in actual open water would have been beneficial. Oh, well. Too late.
Half way there, the second horn blew. A mass of swimmers took off. They looked like a school of feasting piranhas churning the water white. At least, I thought, I didn’t get kicked this time.
Determined to find some kind of rhythm, I kept swimming. But the closer I swam towards the bridge, the worse the water became. The waves seemed confused. I was being battered from all sides while slipping down a valley of waves and trying to make it to the top of an angry crest. This was the potato patch. It reminded me of moguls on a ski slope, only the moguls were moving and trying to dive down my throat.
A swell of panic threatened to seize me. It would have been so easy to raise my hand and have a kayaker come rescue me, but I swallowed down fear, and kept going. Unable to find any kind of rhythm in the chop with a free style stroke, I switched to breast stroke, hoping that the water wasn’t like this for the full 1.6 miles.
In the thick of choppy waters, in the shadow of the Golden Gate, there was an old bearded sailor in a wooden rowboat. He was bellowing at the swimmers. “Swim left, or you’ll end up on Angel Island!” He kept his rowboat there as a sort of blockade. I switched directions to follow his orders, and when I grabbed onto his boat to keep from swimming into it, he said, “Rough, isn’t it?”
Having already swallowed a fair share of sea water, I nodded, and gasped out, “Way worse than I thought.” But I kept on swimming.
On the other side of the bridge, the water evened out to nice normal swells and I finally found my rhythm. Every breath was greeted with the bridge acting as a giant lane line to keep me on course, which was really nice, since I swam way off course during my Alcatraz swim.
I passed a swimmer being rescued by a police jet ski, and kayakers blowing their whistle to signal a swimmer in distress. I swam through streams of cold currents, and at one point, the water smelled like diesel fuel. It was only after I saw my husband’s pictures that I realized why. I was so focused on my goal that I didn’t have time or energy to look behind me. It would have been hard to miss the giant tanker.
Eventually, I started catching up to the slower swimmers of the main group. The hard part was over, the rest was just endurance, and I kept my sights on Fort Baker’s protected harbor. Entering the harbor was a relief and stretching my arms over that last bit of calm water was exhilarating.