There are doors, and there are doors.
One of the great doors of the world is the unassuming entrance to the South End Rowing Club, standing in the middle of Fisherman’s Wharf and North Beach overtourism. Hundreds and possibly thousands pass the door of this and neighbouring Dolphin Club each day without stopping to read the sign that proclaims it is open to non-members, with the implication being that all you have to do is work out how to pass through the portal to the other side.
I’ve done so twice now, and both times it was a similar experience. Like the first time, I stood at the door for a moment, which rattled when pushed but did not open, then rang the bell and waited. And waited. And wondered if I should give up and/or run for the hills. San Francisco has lots of hills. Eventually someone let me in, I introduced myself and declared I was hoping for a swim. I was beckoned inside. Sign up, pay your $10 and you’re in. And as soon as I was it became clear that I had passed into an extraordinary place. A clubbified Men’s Pond for all genders, its bottom floor is a boathouse, home to a collection of beautiful rowing boats that give the club its name.
Upstairs, as shown by the chap who opened the door and who had immediately taken on the role of host and guide, a rag-tag changing room with space for hundreds to change. I made my excuses when he offered for me to join a collection of very laid-back swimmers lounging on big chairs who, I suspected, would swim for miles once in the water, and headed off by myself.
South End has its own access to a small beach, quiet and calm where a few yards away is crowds and chaos from the late-summer visitors to the city. I was still slightly (very) jetlagged, and had had a pretty stressful day, and after pausing to speak to a lady warming up for her own swim walked straight into the cold water. It took a while to get the measure of the water, pulling me this way and that, and to take in the mighty ships moored to my right and the long line of buoys running parallel to Aquatic Bay. The idea is you swim all the way along, then back, or around the Bay, or out to the mouth and back, or whatever. I aim for ten minutes, which is quite enough for me in my state. It is a marvellously solitary experience. The bay is home to old ships, a beach and distant view of the Golden Gate Bridge, with the fog rolling onto and over its northern end and across the high points of Marin County. What a lovely place for a swim.
The shower afterwards induces shivers, but as much as anything I rejoice in the sense of quiet privacy of being left alone in the club. Though I’m tempted to go back to the guys in their armchairs I don’t linger but head off straight uphill, which in this city means great stupidly steep gradients, and continue on another San Francisco institution, the seemingly unnecessarily yet also inevitable long and hilly walk back to my own neighbourhood.