Swimming in San Francisco Bay

‘The Bay Area’, ‘The Golden Gate Bridge’, ‘Escape from Alcatraz’. These familiar terms root San Francisco with the water that it sits by, but what of the water itself? On numerous visits I’ve failed to put two and two together and get into the bay for a swim. On my last visit I saw some hardy souls in the water while strolling past a place called Aquatic Bay. On this visit I was determined to do so myself.

The gig is at a pair of water sports clubs located by the bay, one of which is the venerable South End Rowing Club.

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‘We are a difficult club to enter: we are only open 24/7/365.’ I’d been told by the friendly chap answering an email I sent asking if I could come in. So, at 7.30 one chilly January morning I rocked up, trunks, towel and swimming hat tucked under my arm.

I rang the bell as directed and waited. Then I waited some more, then I figured if I waited long enough someone would rock up and let me in. I was in luck. A gentleman called Jeff arrived, clearly a regular, and took me under his wing.

Inside was the unmistakably convivial atmosphere of a nutters club. As a member of several of these I felt quickly at home. Everyone was chattering excitedly about the temperature, which was at something of an annual low of 48f (8c). In a bid to establish my credentials as someone to be admitted, not gently discouraged, I mentioned my own swimming in London, where the water lies in wait at a dark and angry 2c. This was interpreted by some of the chaps as what Americans would call trash talk. On seeing how far South End members regularly swim compared with my own swift winter dunkings – let’s call them efficient uses of time for a busy life – I think the score was an honorable draw.

Jeff walked me through the clubhouse and out to the small strip of beach, with two old wooden jetties on either side, and noted the presence of an extremely accomplished open water swimmer. We were introduced. She had swum the English Channel and many of the other great long-distance swims of the world and was quite happy to stand knee-deep in the bay and pass the time of day. As inspiring as the conversation was, getting a blast of morning breeze was not exactly driving my enthusiasm to start swimming. I excused myself and flopped under the grey-blue water, aiming for the buoys other swimmers were lapping after exiting the jetty area.

There was a lot to see in the bay – other swimmers either swimming lengths of the buoys or aiming for the harbour opening, which involved passing some vintage boats on one side. I’m used to the cold confines of the Men’s Pond, tiny in comparison to Aquatic Bay’s wide open spaces, and I stayed in for longer than I would at home. It was enough to induce a shiver, especially when I jumped under the hot shower which was waiting at the end. A hot shower, what’s that all about? Jeff, it should be noted, kindly escorted me back to dry land then went off for his proper swim. I hope to return the favor in London sometime.

I later got an email which suggested I had done ok: ‘You set a good example: one cap, no goggles and no sniveling!’ It must be that British stiff upper lip following me round the world.

When changed, another member, who had replied to my email in the first place and was serendipitously present (or perhaps just always present, either way, thanks Joe) took me for a coffee at the fabulous old school Trieste Espresso in North Beach. This wonderful place, where everyone knew the names of each other’s dogs, happily exists in the kind of America I love – friendly, outgoing, warm and thoughtful. And this is the America that lives at South End Rowing Club. Next time, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, more swimming, more everything?

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