Letter to the Editor: Swimming the Bay to Breakers


We call it the “longer, colder, harder” Bay to Breakers. Started in 1987, by famed South Ender Bob Roper, he claims it came to him in a dream along with the phrase “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”

The 10-mile swim has the same start and finish as the run; Bay Bridge to Ocean Beach. Jumping from boats under the Bay Bridge, swimmers follow the City’s waterfront until they reach the Golden Gate. After passing under the bridge, they are no longer protected by the (mostly) calm Bay, but are now in open ocean.

During the May 22 swim, the swells rolled to heights of 10 feet, eclipsing kayakers and support boats. It’s an epic task keeping everyone together and safe. Each swimmer is escorted by a dedicated kayaker who stays alongside and guides them. Outside the Gate, they navigate toward Mile Rock where they make a sharp left turn toward Seal Rocks and Ocean Beach. The water is still moving west, so it’s a difficult task staying on line. Once they pass Seal Rocks, swimmers check in with a support boat and are cleared to swim to shore through the breakers. On land they are greeted by hoards of volunteers with warm water, clothes and a ride back to the Club.

While I have swum this in the past, this year I was on the Pilot team navigating swimmers, kayakers and support boats. There are two co-leads, one in the front (me) and one at the back (Don Margolis). We stayed in communication over marine radios to find swimmers the best water and currents and relay those decisions to the rest of our support fleet.

We also have the task of diverting oncoming high speed traffic (commercial and recreational boats) as well as communicate with large vessels entering the Bay. We had one ship this year, an enormous 60,000 tonnage oil tanker. It was eight miles offshore as the swim passed under the Golden Gate, right in the middle of the designated shipping channel. We had roughly 30 minutes to make sure all swimmers were out of the way. With the help of a quick current, everyone made it south toward Mile Rock long before the ship passed by.

This year there were 20 swimmers attempting the swim: 13 women and seven men. 18 finished at Ocean Beach, two got hypothermia and were pulled just outside the Golden Gate. The water temperatures drop quickly outside the Gate. Inside the Bay near the Bay Bridge the water is 57 degrees F, but outside the Gate it drops to 52 degrees. 

For 20 swimmers, we had more than 60 support volunteers. It takes a village to make this swim happen and it’s incredible that so many people step in to help.

Sarah Roberts

South End Rowing Club

Categories: Uncategorized

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