The South End Rowing Club

During our recent US Catalina Channel/road trip, Helen and I had the pleasure of visiting San Francisco.  As well as swimming from the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz, we took the opportunity to visit the South End Rowing Club (SERC).  This venerable, wooden-built club sits on Aquatic Park at the northern tip of the San Francisco peninsula, nestling next to its sister club, the similarly venerable Dolphin club.


Both clubs are private members’ clubs, but they are happy to welcome guests, you just have to knock on the door, hope someone hears you, then sign in to accept the rules, and pay $10 day fee.  It’s especially nice when visiting a new place like this to be shown around by a regular.  We were lucky enough to be shown around the SERC by ‘not just any regular’, but Ranie Pearce, who has an admirable list of serious swims to her name, including the EC and Catalina Channel solos.  Helen and Ranie knew each other from shared brutalisation at a past Distance Week, and greeted each other like old friends.

Ranie showed us around the club: the boat room, the day room, the racquets courts, and then directed me to the gents changing room.  Soon the three of us met up outside and stepped out onto the small private beach the club owns.  It was earlyish on a Sunday morning, and San Francisco was shrouded in the pea-soup fog it is legendary for.  Again, a good reason to have a local guide.  We struck out to the edge of the Cove, and checked the temperature at the buoy in the middle of the channel into the open bay (60F) – lovely and warm for Mid October in SF!

From the SREC Day Room  Out to Aquatic Park

From the SERC Beach Out to Aquatic Park  – taken during our Second Visit – with no fog!


Ranie had already checked the tide tables, so knew that we were safe to strike out leftwards towards the GG bridge, staying close to the breakwater, and swimming against the very weak current created by the incoming tide just starting.  We swam on through the fog for a while, eventually fetching up at Fort Mason, stopping at the 3rd port building along.  We stopped quite a few times for a chat, and to laugh at the extremely playful harbour seal which spent quite a while swimming alongside me, showing off by jumping clean out of the water.  Magic stuff!

After a while we returned the way we came, passing back past the entrance to the Cove, and swimming back to the end of the breakwater in the other direction.  We then came back to the cove entrance once again, completing what is known locally as a ‘Chas Lap’, named after a South Ender who popularised the route.  By the end of the swim, during which frequent chat stops had been enjoyed, the current was running a little harder, a good reminder that you really need to know what you are doing in this piece of water.  Even though we are competent, sensible, and strong swimmers, it would be easy to be caught out if you weren’t careful.  Though there are easier ways to get back using the shelter of breakwater or piers…….. the shame, the shame.

As we got to the buoy at the entrance to the Cove, the sun broke through the fog, and there was the Bay laid out in front of us, with Alcatraz Island right there, looking so close you could reach out and touch it!

Afterwards, we enjoyed a good late breakfast in the warm autumn sunshine with Ranie, and a great chat, before Ranie went off to her weekend, leaving us both with a SERC sweatshirt as a gift.  Thank you very much to a generous and gracious host.  You made us feel very welcome!!

We enjoyed it so much we came back the next day, this time swimming late in the afternoon, with no fog.  This time, I got some beautiful photos of a very beautiful place.  I have a strange soft spot for Dover Harbour, but this place is something else……

The Best View From a Sauna in the World?

The Best View From a Sauna in the World?

From the day room towards the GGB

From the day room towards the GGB

View from Fort Mason towards the Golden Gate - blurred but magnificent

Swimmer’s Eye View from Fort Mason towards the Golden Gate – blurred but magnificent

Swimming Golden Gate to Alcatraz

Open Water Swimming Meccas

There are a number of open water swimming meccas around the world, places steeped in history and achievement, where swimming is an established part of life for a significant number of people. These are places that people flock to on reputation, having heard or read about them, and wanting to experience them themselves. Some examples:

  • Dover – well obviously right? The big one. Where it all began with Captain Matthew Webb’s Iconic first solo crossing of the English Channel. Where people still come to every year in their quest to try their hand at Marathon Swimming’s most well known test piece.
  • New York – another test piece resides here, the round Manhattan Island swim known as MIMS (Manhattan Island Marathon Swim), though there are a number of other notable swims such as the Ederle Swim, named after the first woman to swim the English Channel, Gertrude Ederle. While this took place 50 or so years after Webb’s landmark swim, it was hotly contested, very fast, and held the overall record for x years. Gertrude was also a major celebrity in her homeland US, albeit briefly.
  • La Jolla – This place is legend. A safe cove, roughly a mile across, or a mile and a half to the pier if you want 3 miles there and back. Largely free of sharks, but well stocked with other animals, and as a marine reserve, blissfully free of motorized craft. Year round the water is swimmable for a decent period without wetsuit. In my own experience, it has ranged between 12C and 23C. It is also a great place to get in some early season distance training, while UK and East Coast US waters are still languishing in single digits. The area is home to a friendly and keen year-round swimming group, and is only just down the road from America’s own test-piece, Catalina.
  • Sandycove – tucked away on the south coast of Ireland near Kinsale in County Cork is Sandycove Island. Home to a large and enthusiastic community of year-round swimmers, and home to Ned Denison’s legendary Distance Camp. Recently featured on American TV, this is where swimmers from round the globe come every summer to be beasted in the lakes, rivers, and sea around Southern Ireland.

There are many other spots that I am sure qualify as Meccas: Perth (home of the Rottnest Channel Swim), Lake Geneva, Lake Tahoe, Lake Memphragog, Tampa Bay, Hawaii, The Bosphorus, Cape Town, The Straits of Gibraltar. There are others – please don’t beat me up for omissions!

One further Mecca Helen and I visited recently is San Francisco. Despite having traveled there many times with work, I had always stayed south of the City, and had never found the time to go up and experience what it had to offer.

San Francisco has many sights. Alcatraz Island, the Bay, Golden Gate Bridge, the wild Pacific beaches, and the distant, mythic, shark-patrolled Farallon Islands.

A week after Helen’s recent Catalina triumph, and after a few days R&R in the beautiful surroundings of Yosemite, we descended back into the city to our hotel in downtown 4th and Market. Early the very next morning we were to be picked up at 6AM by a legend of Open Water Swimming, Gary Emich. Helen had organized an Alcatraz swim with Gary, who until very recently ran this as a business (now handed over to Susie Dods).   Gary is one of only two men to have swum to, or from, Alcatraz over 1000 times. Awesome stuff!

Gary was punctual, and took us up to where the boat was moored at Pier 39, briefing us on safety and procedure. The Pilot Rick turned up at about 6:40, and we set off in the Rib, speeding out over the still-dark waters, the first glimmers of dawn appearing to the east.

This was not to be any ordinary Alcatraz swim, for I had suggested, and Helen readily agreed, to combine two iconic San Francisco locations, and swim from the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz Island.

Gary had planned the swim with the benefit of his local knowledge, to start by the Golden Gate Bridge as the tide had turned, which would assist us, pushing us across towards Alcatraz Island. This is not a swim you do alone and unescorted. There are many big ships passing in and out, the tides will run faster than you can swim against, and the waters are typically not warm. We were to swim together, and be escorted the whole way by Gary on the rib. He would aim us so we hit the Island, 4 miles distant.

Going out we saw porpoises which was fantastic. I was so pleased for Helen who had missed out on dolphins on her Catalina swim. They weren’t swimming with us, but they were clearly visible. Magic!

Just before 7, it was splash time. I jumped in first to the ‘Potato Patch’, closely followed by SuperHelen. It was lumpy by the bridge, and the tide was already running quickly. The video shows Helen and me being pushed away from the rib at some speed.

It was ‘cool’at about 16C (61F), and it was also terrific fun. Swimming in lumpy water isn’t always fun, but this was, climbing over the waves as we shot into the Bay. After a little while, it flattened out a lot, and the sun rose beautifully into a clear morning sky over the mountainous horizon.

We stopped several times to admire the view, laughing to ourselves at how awesome this was and how lucky we were to be experiencing it. As we swam on Gary shouted to us a couple of times to adjust our course. ‘Aim for the tower!’ as he pointed to the famous water tower on the Island of Alcatraz. It then got really swelly for a while as we got closer and closer to the Island. About ½ a mile out he shouted for us to aim right. Gary could tell that we were in danger of being swept north of the island and missing the target.

Swimming into Dawn

Swimming into Dawn

We turned on the afterburners and dug deep. I really felt for Helen having to dig in barely a week after a 20 mile epic Catalina, shoulders still a little sore. Also, as we swam ever closer, we thought we were going to be swept onto a submerged rock marked out by a large buoy just to the west of the Island, but we just managed to avoid it, continuing to dig deep to get in to the shelter of the island, and the tiny submerged beach where we were to make landfall.

After 45 minutes of beauty, wonder, and then harum-scarum thrashing, we were done. Helen’s third ‘Prison Break’ swim completed (Rottnest and Spike Island being the first two). We swam back out to the rib, and motored back to the city, waking up and gleaming in the early morning light.

Returning to the City

Returning to the City

For a swimmer-tourist, I cannot recommend an Alcatraz swim highly enough. Suzie Dods and SwimArt both will escort you on private swims, and there are also mass participation swims that are run. Go. Have fun. It’s wicked!!