The recent interest in swimming from or to the Farallon Islands is on the rise. Last month a relay of 5 men and 1 woman successfully completed a swim from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Farallon Islands in 14:45:08. Last weekend, in less than ideal conditions, an all female relay successfully completed a similar course in 16:29:30. You know I am all about girl power and I am brimming over with excitement for these girls. 6 beautiful mermaids and 1 incredible feat. Dream it and Swim it…LIKE A GIRL!!
Here is a beautifully written recollection from the South End Rowing Club’s own Cathy Delneo.
On May 22nd, I saw an e-mail to the South End Rowing Club Google Groups from Vito Bialla. Kim Chambers was looking for five women to join her on a relay from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Farallon Islands. I thought about it for about a nanosecond, then decided I was in – if they’d have me. I have had fantasies of swimming to the islands every time I glimpsed them on the horizon. I’d looked at the map of the relay swims in the day room at the South End and read about the various attempts of relays and solo swimmers. I needed to do this. I got in touch with Kim and was thrilled to hear that she had a place for me on her team. My dream of swimming to the Farallon Islands was about to be a reality.
Telling my family was out of the question. And really, telling ANYONE seemed a little misguided. I mean, I’ve been bitten by a shark already. And people at the South End really like to give advice. I really didn’t want to hear any negative input. I didn’t want to hear that people were worried about my motivations, or worried that I might freak out if I saw something in the water. I didn’t want my family’s tears or drama. So I told very few people and just laid as low as I could, trying to get to the morning of the swim with as little drama as possible.
One week before the swim, Melissa King, Kimberly Chambers, and Laura Vartain Horn, and I met with Vito, Phil Cutti, and SF bar pilot Drew Aune and went for a swim five miles out in the ocean. The brought us five miles out past the gate, we jumped in and swam for an hour. Phil and Drew jumped in with us for the last fifteen minutes. To swim out in the ocean was amazing. The sea was choppy, there were big swells, but I didn’t even notice that. I just felt so thrilled at the chance to swim out there. Not along the shore, not in the bay, in the ocean. I felt like I felt the first time I went to the beach as a kid. There were these waves and an amazing amount of motion and this vitality. It was amazing to think that this ocean is out there all the time and we barely even scratch the surface of it. We mainly swim at the edges and in protected places. I was hooked. I knew I had made the right decision.
After that practice swim, things started moving really fast. Kim gathered a full team of six female swimmers – Patti Eckert Baurenfeind, Laura Vartain Horn, Lynn Kubasek, and me. We started communicating about the swim a bit through email and it seemed like it would really happen. Vito had told us that the crew would make the call on Tuesday or Wednesday about whether the conditions would be good enough for our swim. Wednesday came and it was still a go. This swim was going to happen.
On Saturday, June 4th, we met at the Sequel at the San Francisco Yacht Club at 4 am. Vito Bialla was our pilot for the day, Dave Holscher our official observer, and Patrick Horn was the support crew. We loaded up the boat and left for the Golden Gate Bridge. Patti jumped in the water at 4:50 am, into a raging ebb. The small blue light on her goggle strap seemed to zip through the water with impossible speed. Within only ten minutes she was nearing Point Bonita. We were headed out to see faster than I could have imagined.
I got ready to swim. Suit, check. Cap, check. Goggles, check. Blinky light, check. I don’t remember being nervous, just so excited that I was really doing it, really swimming in this relay. While Patty was swimming I heard Vito say that the bar pilots were having trouble boarding freighters out at the sea bouy. I heard him say something about possibly lowering our expectations a bit, that the weather might prevent us from completing the swim. For me, the chance to swim even one leg of the relay was an amazing opportunity. I hoped we’d go all the way, of course, but felt grateful just to get the chance to swim in the open ocean.
I don’t remember much about my first leg. It seemed to go so fast. The conditions at that point were pretty rough – it was raining and grey. Everything looked the same. I felt like I was moving really fast but had no landmarks to gauge my progress. When I got out I heard people saying I’d gone 4.5 miles in one hour! The current was helping us toward our goal.
Laura went in the water and looked strong. She was so consistent. I went below deck at that point. I got dressed in the tiny bathroom, falling into the door and the walls again and again as I struggled with my long underwear. I put on my down parka and collected my sleeping bag. Then I got my recovery drink ready and made my way back to the cabin. I chugged the recovery drink and sat happily in my sleeping bag for about 15 minutes. Suddenly I was sick. Really sick. Running to the rails sick. I stayed that way for the rest of the boat trip.
Meanwhile, the swim continued. Melissa King, Kim Chambers, and Lynn Kubasek got in. Each did some solid swimming, consistently moving us forward toward the islands. It felt like we were flying on that first rotation. Every report of how far we’d traveled seemed impressive. But we knew that the tide would turn soon, and things would slow way down, which they did.
The energy on the boat was great. I was sick as a dog, but couldn’t stop smiling. It was hard to open my eyes without feeling more nauseous, but I didn’t want to miss out on the fun, either. I remember hearing Kim, Patti, and Melissa shouting and cheering and being able to throw in an occasional, “wooo!”
By the time that Patti got back in for her second leg, the water wasn’t moving in our favor anymore. She swam beautifully, strong and smooth. And then it was my turn again. Somehow I knew that when I hit the water I would no longer be seasick so was looking forward to getting off the boat. I hadn’t been able to keep any food or drink in my stomach, so I tucked a chocolate Gu in my suit before I jumped in. I fed part-way into my leg and felt a burst of energy. The waves seemed bigger during the second leg, and I was just focusing on covering as much distance as I possibly could. I saw jellyfish well beneath me that seemed to be orange and purple and almost glowing. They weren’t big ones, just discs the size of my hand. I realized how much deeper into the water I could see – how clear the water was in comparison with my first swim. When I got back onto the boat I heard from the others that porpoises had been swimming just behind me and had even passed under me while I swam! It seemed like such a good omen.
Then, during Laura’s second leg, I heard Dave shout, “A whale!” A large whale had been spotted not far from Laura! Another good sign. At some point I realized that I might feel better if I went out onto the deck and felt the wind. I hopped out in my sleeping bag and wedged myself into place on a bench. I remained there for the rest of the journey, save my final leg.
The women kept swimming. During Lynn’s second leg patches of kelp appeared out of nowhere. One held a large jellyfish that looked like a sea nettle. She navigated around them smoothly. When she got back on board the boat, she said that she had been thinking about the kelp she swims along in southern California longingly – and then there it was.
We were getting closer to the islands, and the grey skies had turned sunny. By the time I reentered the water for my third leg, the sky overhead was blue. Despite the sunny skies, the conditions continued to remain treacherous. When we started our third round of swimming, the swells were 15-20 feet and were breaking on the boat and swimmers. And we were facing a bit of a problem. Lynn was really sick. She had come out of the water cold and vomiting after her second leg. We had about 6 miles to cover, and were only progressing a little less than a mile for each hour of swimming due to the tough conditions. We weren’t sure if Lynn could safely swim again. We didn’t want to have to ask her to swim again because the pressure seemed so great. Everyone ratcheted up their game.
Before I got into the water, Dave told me that he felt I needed to eat more Gu. He knew I hadn’t kept down any food or water and was probably running low on fuel. He had seen how my pace picked right up after the Gu in my second swim. He thought one Gu before getting in and then two during the swim was a good idea. I had never tried to consume that much sugar in my life, but realized that if I didn’t, I would probably not have the energy necessary to do my best.
During the half hour leading up to my final swim I had another big decision to make. The rules for the Farallons are the same as for the English Channel EXCEPT that the swimmers can wear neoprene caps. I’d never thought I would put one on. I never wear a neoprene cap. NEVER. But that extra warmth might enable me to go just that much faster. Going a tiny bit faster might mean getting just a little closer to the islands. But I also realized that if I wanted to give my best performance for the team, I’d need to lose my pride. I asked Dave, who had been on the first Night Train team to make the crossing, if Darrin Connolly had worn a neoprene cap. Darrin’s a swimmer that I respect and admire. I figured if he wore the cap, I could justify it. Dave said yes, that for his last leg, Darrin had a neoprene cap on. I put my hand out and Kim put her cap in it. No question about it, I was going to use every tool I had to get as close to the islands as I could during my swim.
I ate as much Gu as I could without being sick, then jumped into the water. During my swim I stopped twice and had Gu each time. Aside from that, I swam as fast as I could possibly swim. It is impossible to know how my swim truly went. But I perceived that I was sprinting for the entire hour. During that last swim, the water seemed more clear. I felt that I could see things even further below me than in the prior swims. During that last swim I got spooked twice. The first time, I was swimming parallel to the boat but a little behind it because it had turned to face a wave. It felt like something grabbed my foot, almost like a human hand gripping me for a second. I kicked it off, and yelled to the people on the boat. I swam up close to the boat, refocused, and just kept swimming. Not long afterward I saw something grey below me. It seemed big but deep under me. I’m not sure if it was a porpoise or something else, but whatever it was, it was going the same direction as me and didn’t seem interested in meeting up. I knew I needed to keep making progress, so I closed my eyes and just told myself to keep swimming. When I reopened them it was gone.
I got out of the water feeling like I’d really done my best. And each of the women after me did the same thing. They just kept digging deep. They remained focused on our goal and continued to move us closer to the island. And it worked. When Kim jumped in for her third and final leg, we were pretty sure she would touch the buoy. How fitting – this crazy, amazing girl who had brought us all together was the one to bring it home. Kim is such a happy swimmer. She yells “woo!” during her swims to express her excitement and keep motivated. She smiles when she breathes. But during her last leg, she looked so determined, so focused. The sun was going down, and she was plowing ahead toward the islands.
As we approached the Farallons, it was hard not to think about shark’s teeth. The islands stick up out of the water, all nasty and scraggly. The one island that doesn’t look like a shark’s tooth looks like a tombstone. There might be a more ominous place on this planet, but I’m not sure I want to see it. The sun disappeared completely, and a tiny sliver of moon was visible in the sky. Everything was dark. We could hear birds crying and seals and sea lions barking. Kim kept swimming, but couldn’t see the buoy. She yelled to the boat and Vito turned on the spot light. Birds flew into the light and I wished he’d turn the light back off. What if it attracted animals in the water in the way it drew the birds? I breathed a sigh of relief as the light went off again. Kim yelled for the light a second time. We yelled to keep going straight ahead, she was almost there. The light was turned on as she approached. She kissed her hand and touched the buoy. Then quickly back to the boat. When she was back aboard, we all breathed a sigh of relief. We’d made it safely. Then we started grinning and shouting – we did it!
Two days later, I still can’t get my head around this swim. I saw the islands from the Sunset District again yesterday. They’re so far away. And yet we swam there. Six women swam there. And we did it with the help of people I hadn’t even known two weeks before. People who just wanted to give us this chance to do something so wonderful, so epic that we could always amaze ourselves just by repeating the factual statement, “I swam a relay to the Farallons with five fierce women.” I am so grateful.