Let me just start by saying, the Farallon Island swim is no joke. This is not something to be taken up lightly, if at all. Frankly I have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that it has actually been completed by a non marine mammal. It has all the hallmarks of a bad idea: fast moving water, extreme cold, large swells, boat traffic, and of course the ever looming threat of a visit from the landlord as we push deeper into the gnarliest corner of the Red Triangle. On Wednesday night/Thursday morning I watched a man take on the burliest, blackest, angriest water I’ve ever seen. My hat is off to JC for attempting to tackle this most unforgiving and unlikely of swims, I watched the whole thing from the deck of the SEQUEL and had a hard time determining if I would ever have the audacity to start such a thing. Anyways, let’s start at the beginning shall we?
I’ve never actually met JC in person before I found him in the parking lot of the San Francisco Yacht Club, but through the magic of the internet we’ve been chatting intermittently for quite a while. We have a lot of friends in common and are the same age. Back in January I got a note from him asking me what I was up to in May and if I’d be interested in crewing a swim for him. Based on my personal geography I assumed were probably talking Catalina, maybe a Santa Barbara Channel swim, but I wasn’t sure because he wasn’t specific in his need. Either way as long as I had the time available I was in. After asking a few more questions to figure out where we’re going he asks me to keep it in stealth mode and then drops the bomb… Farallones… stfu. I had two major thoughts when I saw that. One – of course I’m coming now! Two – are you out of damn mind? Haha, it was a shock… in my mind one does not simply swim to the Farallones much like one does not simply walk into Mordor. It just doesn’t work that way.
His dates were a little tight for me but I managed to work it out with my office to ensure I could get up to San Francisco on time. In the years my current business has existed my dad and I (we work together/started the business together) have had a general rule… first 3-4 business days of the month no one is going anywhere because we’re too busy. I think what put this particular trip over the top into exceptionville was the destination. My dad used to live in San Francisco, he was very familiar with our ill advised destination. As a dude I think he felt compelled to let me slide this one time in the name of adventure. In the weeks leading up to it we talked a lot about the um… biodiversity of the swim. Remember not only does this place get swarmed with pinnepeds and white sharks you also attract other apex predators like orcas. I know most of us have a pretty positive Shamu type appreciation for killer whales, but they’re pretty serious business… they can kill a white shark, as documented out by the Farallones, pretty sure they could swallow a human if so inclined.
So thoroughly amped up to go help a friend take on a swim of epic proportions, I hopped in the truck Wednesday after I was done working for the day and made a mad 265 mile dash for San Francisco. Somewhere around Palo Alto I got a call from JC checking up on my progress and got to chatting a bit. I asked him how he was feeling about the whole thing and he was a little nervous but ready to go. He said “like any other marathon swimmer I just have to get out there and put my head in it.” Good answer. Luckily I picked the right combination of highways and missed all the traffic. I rolled into the yacht club probably around 9:45 and gave JC a call. He came out to greet me and show me the way to the boat. We chatted a bit, this being the first time meeting each other in person and all, but we both had sleep on the brain. He needed to rest a bit before swimming and I needed to rack out if I had any chance of staying awake for the swim after only a few hours sleep the night previous, a full day of work and a long drive. While in the cabin I also met Andrew who’d be crewing as well. We spoke a little and then I turned my backpack into a pillow and crashed for an hour or so.
I woke up around midnight to Vito, our captain, boarding the boat and starting to get things in order for the trip. The rest of the crew filtered in shortly thereafter. We had Phil as an observer from the Farallon Islands Swim Federation and John from the South End Rowing Club who came out as a pace swimmer. Before leaving we got a quick visit from Joe Locke who just made an attempt at the same swim just a couple weeks ago. He put in a strong effort but the water dove to 47 degrees and the reality of the situation is that a human can only sustain life for so long at that temperature. I’m pretty certain Joe intends to hop back in again soon to give it one more go before White Shark season gets underway.
A little before 1am we were motoring for the Golden Gate Bridge. I love the view from under the bridge, but this was different. It was the middle of the night and a huge moon loomed off in the distance. The base of the bridge was lit up a little bit and there was this orange haze that floated around it. I’m not sure what the proper adjective would be to describe the scene, but majestic and magnificent are my top choices. Beyond just the aesthetic beauty of being in this little boat surrounded by black water under a giant orange bridge on a clear night, there was a certain electricity in the air. My senses were on fire with the anticipation of the adventure we were about to set out on. Last time I was at the base of the bridge it was daytime and I got stuck in a whirlpool with a friend, we stayed away from the outside of the bay because it was too rough out there… this time I’m out there in the dark about to throw a guy into the ocean and tell him to swim away from the continent as far as he can. Craziness.
A few minutes before 1am Vito tells JC he can go anytime he wants and he did the damnedest thing, he jumped off the fucking boat like it was nothing. If it were me I would have hemmed and hawed, cracked jokes, complained, possibly waited for another invitation to go… a parade perhaps? I need a little fanfare. JC just tossed himself into the inky black waters of the Pacific under the Golden Gate with zero hesitation like he does this shit all the time.
The swim was on and so was the ebb tide. The good news was the water was ripping from San Francisco out to sea, the bad news is that’s not a particularly smooth and calm process. JC was assaulted with big swells (my guess would be 6 feet-ish) with all kinds of random potato patch turbulence that area is famous for. I posted myself up on the deck outside with a glowstick (good thing to do on night swims so your swimmer can tell you’re watching) on my jacket and watched the whole swim unfold minus a handful of puke breaks on the other side of the boat. Every once and a while we’d hit a line of whitewash from the ocean and the bay colliding as one tried to push further into the other. Despite it being very dark out there there was enough light from the moon and the city behind us to allow you to decipher the shapes and sizes of the movements in the water and I think it’s fair to say that was some of the burliest water I’ve seen with a person in it. The whole thing still plays in my head as I contemplate whether I would ever have the balls to take on such a ridiculous thing.
At 30 minutes we were set for the first feed. Andrew was in charge of that and I think JC was starting with some Gatorade. The water was in the low 50′s at this point and he was doing pretty well (it’s worth noting he had a successful ice swim earlier this year). The feeding had a few technical difficulties but we learned how to fix that up and make the future feeds a little smoother. In the early phases of the swim JC was having some technical difficulties with his goggles as well. I think he was fogging up and having a hard time seeing. After the first feed I started taking stroke counts. In hour one we were up around 62. Phil was doing the same thing on the boat and we compared counts occasionally to make sure we had similar numbers. It wasn’t always easy to see JC between the dark and the rough water, a lot of the strokes I counted were based on hearing them not seeing them.
As we charged on the water stayed agitated but we made extremely good time as the tide spat us out into the open ocean. The Golden Gate became smaller and smaller until ultimately it was just a line of lights in the darkness. It’s pretty weird to push that far out into the blackness away from the mainland. In Southern California you at least have the Channel Islands to break the power of the wide open ocean a bit and give you the sense that there’s some sort of land boundary between you and the vast unknown expanses of the sea. In San Francisco you have no such luxury. All we had was a brilliantly bright stripe of silvery moonshine in front of us and city lights behind us that were rapidly falling away, blurring together, and eventually disappearing. It’s an eerie feeling.
By about the third feed JC yelled to us on the boat that he wanted hot chocolate to heat up his insides a bit. Andrew worked on getting that all put together and JC went back to swimming along side the boat until it was time to feed. Around this time we started seeing some buoys in the darkness that drifted right along the side of the boat. It looked like fishing gear to me, I asked Vito and he told me they were crab pots. I didn’t even know people crabbed right there. It’s a good thing we had JC far enough off the side of the boat that he didn’t hit one of those things!
Apparently Farallon Island Swim Federation rules say no pace swimmers in the first 3 hours of a swim so JC was out there from 1am to 4am with just him and the space between his ears. Who knows what was going on in there. Internal radio? Quiet panic? Determined self affirmation? Random contemplation of anything besides what may lurk below in the darkness? Hard to say, but he was chatty at feeds. As opposed to quick and dirty in and out drink and toss type feeds he would float beside the boat to drink, ask questions and contemplate peeing. I was a little worried about the length of his feeds although I do the same thing in similar water temps. My concern was mainly raised from his dropping stroke count and the fact that I heard him either throw up or dry heave really hard a few times. We started around 62 strokes per minute but were now hovering more around 54 and would eventually bottom out at 52/53. There were a couple feeds where he’d ask about progress and we just had to yell at him a bit because the tide was turning around… yes you’re moving forward but you have to KEEP moving!
JC kept good track in his head of how many hours he’d been swimming and on the feed prior to 3 hours he requested a pace swim be ready to hop in. John was itching to get in from the moment he boarded the boat so we let him take that first swim with JC. As JC finished drinking that next feed and swimming away from the boat we tossed John off the boat and he swam out to meet JC. Things didn’t go so smooth at first. Pacing in the dark isn’t the easiest thing you’ve ever done. When you’ve never swam with the other person and there’s a major speed discrepancy it’s even harder. At first John had a hard time slowing down and kept getting ahead of JC. We yelled at him from the boat to get out of that spot and stay next to JC not in front of him, didn’t want him to give him an accidental draft, plus it’s against the rules. Moving the guys side by side created a new problem, they were crowding each other towards the boat. JC damn near hit the boat at one point while I shouted at him to back off. It was a little dicey. On the boat we were questioning whether we’d be giving him any more pacers while it was still dark out. Although it was most likely a mental boost to have company it was looking pretty bad for actually swimming. Luckily after a while both guys figured each other out and managed to swim together pretty uneventfully for the remainder of John’s shift. The funniest part of the whole thing to me was JC’s response to the initial chaos. He said something along the lines of “no disrespect to John, he’s doing a fine job, I’m just not used to swimming with a pacer.” How many people can be so polite at time like this? John stayed in swimming very slowly based on his own natural pace for as long as he could stand the cold. His presence helped JC pick up his stroke rate a little bit and undoubtedly perked him up a bit.
With John on board getting dried off and trying to warm up JC was approaching the nadir of his Farallones excursion. The night had gotten extremely dark during the pace swim leg. The moon was gone and it was going to be a while before the sun broke out over the surface of the water. We were all alone save for the far away lights of container ships in the distance. At one point JC stopped and declared “this is a dark hour.” It was pretty obvious that was more than just a literal interpretation of our evening. The swim was getting to him. The dark. The cold. The unforgiving beating from the sea. They were all taking their toll. As an added bonus he was having a hard time peeing which is bad news in a marathon swim. He started asking questions about distance and how close we were to the Lightship. I ducked my head in the cabin to ask one, what’s the lightship? and two, how far. The lightship is some sort of large lighted ship or buoy or something that essentially marks the mid point of the swim. It was 2 nautical miles out. The way the question was asked I wasn’t sure if JC wanted to know to set small internal goals, or if it was the new goal and he wasn’t going to tell us yet. The way his stroke rate and navigation were going it was starting to look like we’d be making that call before he would. Ultimately we did pass the lightship and we kept charging into the night waiting for the sun to finally rise up and change the whole feeling of the swim.
JC kept plugging away, fighting with everything he had, he wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. We encouraged him best we could and as the east coast started waking up I was getting tweets and text messages from people wanting to get status updates and send along encouragement. You could tell JC really liked hearing that guys he looks up to like Dave Barra were proactively keeping tabs on him 3000 miles away. Little bits of brightness in an extremely dark place.
In the last 15 minutes of JC’s swim he started getting really squirrelly. He was reporting a big temperature drop, his stroke degraded in a major way and his navigation completely fell apart. Although his mind was still in the game we were watching the sea finally break his body. The captain told Andrew to put a suit on and go check JC out in the water. We tossed Andrew in and he went and looked JC in the eyes and asked him a series of questions to get a grip on whether JC had a grip. He was fairly lucid but slurring a bit. Although we’d occasionally been a little fast and loose with the truth for motivatory reasons up until this point Vito gave it to him straight from the deck. The flood tide was starting to win and we had at least 10 more hours of swimming as it stood right now. JC took pause and then made the right decision – get back on the boat and live to swim another day. He’d successfully swam 12-13 nautical miles off the US mainland through incredibly rough and cold water in the dark of night.
I don’t care that we didn’t make it to the islands, that was a sufficiently bad ass swim for me! I think only a small percentage of your hardiest open water swimmers would have ever even jumped off that boat in the first place in the dark swirling waters below the Golden Gate. I’m still not sure if I’m man enough to do that, JC gained a lot of my respect for making the attempt and it sounds like this won’t be his last dance with the Farallones. I have a feeling we’ll see him on this coast again soon looking to claw and fight his way through the hellacious waters between San Francisco to the Devil’s Teeth. Good luck to JC on getting ready for round two and thank you very much for allowing me to come along on the boat and have this experience that so few people will ever have I deeply appreciate it.