Swimmer tackles frigid bay in race under Golden Gate

The gun went off, and like lemmings we plunged into the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay -- more than 150 of us, contenders all in the First Annual Golden Gate Invitational Open Water Swim. As I felt the chill on my face, I wondered if maybe I could swim the whole 1.8-mile race with my head up. The bay is known for its inhospitable waters. The currents move swiftly and unpredictably. Photographers cherish it for the unusual patterns generated by eddies under the Golden Gate Bridge. And for all the years Alcatraz was operated as a prison, no convict was ever known to swim to shore.

We had congregated before sunrise on Baker Beach at the Presidio. I was cold before I even felt the water. The ritual of indelibly marking our shoulders with big black numbers and letters went quickly. We were given our charter ``first annual'' T-shirts and commemorative swim caps and paraded to the water's edge for last-minute instructions.

Those ``rough water'' swimmers with previous cold-water experience zealously greased their bodies with goop. All I had was $20-a-jar night cream for protection against dry cheeks. Not to be left out, I spread $15 worth of it all over.

Most of the swimmers took off like lightning. It wasn't until later I found out many of them were ex-Olympians or national champions. Now, paddling furiously in the frigid water, I was beginning to wonder if this bay had room for a recreational swimmer.

Rough-water swimming is always taxing and unpredictable. Gone is the security of a pool, perfect visibility, and the guidance of lane markers. Ahead lies wilderness water, never stable, always moving, sometimes violent.

On summer and early fall weekends, rough-water swimmers congregate on California beaches in hordes of 100 to 1,000 to test their prowess against waves, currents, cold water, and each other. This is a mature crowd, an ``over 20'' set, many of whom swam competitively in high school or college, many of whom just like to swim. Contenders in all shapes, colors, and sizes lunge into the surf.

I had wanted to swim the Golden Gate for ages. But the only organized events had been private. So upon learning of this new, open competition, I dashed in my entry form. The butterflies had started immediately. Now, out in the bay, with the cold blotting out other thoughts, I decided to relax, take it easy, and enjoy the scenery.

My first objective was to stay west of the bridge's south tower. If I did that and passed it quickly enough, I was told, I'd be home free. I thought about my friend Betty Talbot and how grateful I was that she had set me up for a date with a sauna after the race. She has done more to promote rough-water swimming on the West Coast than anyone else. She is easy to pick out -- the only one who competes in a bikini. She turns 60 this month.

Just past the south tower I knew I had underestimated the current. Although I'd passed the appropriate side, and was under the bridge enjoying the view, I sensed a slight drift toward Alcatraz. I was so enamored with playing tourist where tourists never go, turning my head radically with each breath to see the sights, I didn't realize how swiftly the current was taking me off course.

The San Francisco skyline was spectacular. I couldn't see another swimmer around. I was mid-channel, all by myself, surrounded by eddies. I felt like a cork in a washing machine. We had been warned about drifting off to Alcatraz.

I had had plenty of experience with riptides, and this was quite similar. Although I felt like an out-of-control water toy, I knew that if I couldn't handle it, I could at any time put my hand up and get assistance from the boats and kayaks following the race.

Meanwhile, Joyce Perry, a Hollywood scriptwriter, was behind me swimming on a collision course with a freighter. It was a little too big to argue with. She and others were pulled from the race to avert mishap.

By now I was 'way off course. I met another swimmer in the same predicament. We stopped to talk. We'd been out for at least an hour. We saw the guard boat only 100 yards away pick up someone I recognized as the world's second-fastest woman in her class. She was exhausted and disoriented, unable to finish. The other swimmer and I knew we had to give it everything we had to get back on track if we didn't want to be part of the boat people. I poured it on.

BAM! I ran into a soft-sided kayak on my blind side. I had overcorrected. ``The finish is back that-away,'' the occupant yelled. My goggles had fogged, and I could barely see where he was pointing. It was impossible to see from sea level anyway, for all the chop, but I kept on.

Another kayak pilot directed me through the finish buoys toward the dock. A huge banner read ``FINISH LINE.'' ``It's about time!'' I thought. I was very grateful to see it. I glided into shore with a strong stroke. I stood up, the crowds cheered, the race was over.

An hour and 19 minutes had passed, just a few minutes short of my normal three-mile time. I had lost all feeling in the bottoms of my feet -- just about the only area to escape the night cream. Most of the people on the dock were already dry and guzzling hot broth. Others bundled in sleeping bags, shaking and shivering. As quickly as I could coordinate my body on dry land I changed into my sweat suit and joined the other happy finishers as we exchanged war stories between munches of six-foot-long sandwi ches made with that great San Francisco bread. I took two hot baths, one on each side of a long nap. Out of 179 entrants, 157 swam, 129 finished. I finished fifth in my class (35-49 years).

I've come home feeling I accomplished something very big. I may have taken twice as long as the first finisher, but I had twice the fun!

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