Open Water Insanity

National Park Service Picture of Aquatic Park

What’s crazier — learning to open water swim in the icy cold San Francisco Bay or swimming in open water for the first time at an actual triathlon?  Figuring the former was the lesser of two evils, I convinced my accommodating triathlon buddy, Sachi, to go with me to a SwimArt open water clinic at Aquatic Park in San Francisco.  As noted in my last post, I had spent the morning with my daughter and her friend at the Stanford Pow Wow 5K.  Afterwards, I hurriedly packed my bag with snacks and swim gear and joined Sachi for the hour drive from Palo Alto to Fort Mason.

Map Courtesy of National Park Service

The class met just downhill from the Maritime Museum & across the street from Ghiradelli Square.  The other class participants were already sitting with their bags of gear on a grassy hill overlooking Aquatic Park, a roughly 1/3 mile x 1/3 mile C-shaped cove encircled by the shore & piers.  We were a group of approximately 20 youngish to middle-aged normal-looking (i.e., sane + generally healthy but not freakishly so) people.  A fair number of us were planning to enter a triathlon soon and others merely wanted to sample the experience of swimming in the bay.

Leslie, the head coach, spent the first 45 minutes of the class introducing the other 4 coaches and then launching into a review of swimming skills and a discussion of sighting.  With no black line on the bottom of the pool to follow and no ropes delineating the boundaries of a lane, it’s fairly easy to unintentionally veer drastically left or right while swimming in an open body of water.  Sighting is the practice of quickly looking up periodically to monitor one’s navigation.

The next 45 minutes of lecture covered strategies for dealing with the cold.  Some signs we were advised to keep in mind include:  uncontrollably separating fingers, fingers curving into claws, body shakes, and the inability to correctly recite one’s phone number.  Any combination of them would suggest a hasty retreat to shore.  Brain freeze, panic, and numb feet or hands, meanwhile, were all normal conditions expected to subside or become unnoticeable after the first 5-10 minutes.

At least a couple of the coaches had an illustrative tale regarding open water induced hypothermia, so by this point I was questioning my judgment and, more immediately, resolve to follow through.  We were so worked up by the time we pulled on our wetsuits and ventured out into the icy water, the actual experience was far less shocking than feared.

Here’s what the view looked like back toward shore.

SF Chronicle Image of Ghiradelli Square Viewed from Aquatic Park

My coach had suggested we gradually introduce our neophyte bodies to the cold bay water over a several minute period.  Not necessarily one to follow directions, I took one step and another and then plunged my torso and head in one go.  The water was opaque but luminous, manageably salty, and gloriously buoyant.  My wetsuit extended from ankles to neck and back down to wrists.  Every second of immersion led to the icy tentacles of sea water reaching ever further underneath my insulating neoprene.  One, two strokes, breathe.  One, two strokes, breathe.  Not so bad.

Our class was divided into 4 groups and I followed Leslie along with two other women and three men.  We alternated 20 stroke practice runs with brief rests.  From her kayak, Leslie directed us to sight, lengthen strokes, rotate to breathe, and swim straighter.  Within a few minutes, Leslie recognized that I had learned to swim via Total Immersion, a fortuitous coincidence since she had actually been a Total Immersion coach for 6 years.  She commended me on learning solely via books and YouTube videos but had pointers for improving my technique.

When 30 minutes had passed, participants started to return to shore one by one because of the cold, despite our all wearing wetsuits.  After an hour in the water, we were down to a party of four — Leslie, two men, and I.  As we strolled back to the grassy knoll to reunite with the other teachers and their students, I felt the eyes of passersby casting judgment on us as seawater dripped off our sea otter like bodies.  No, I’m not crazy … I’m empowered!

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