SAN FRANCISCO, Calif., April 30. AN elite group of 18 athletes is participating in a lesser-known Bay to Breakers race one week before the famous Bay to Breakers footrace.
This one involves sharks and water. Very cold water. And very real sharks.
Early in the morning on Saturday, May 8, 18 swimmers will make their way down to the Embarcadero promenade and plunge into 52-degree water at the foot of the Bay Bridge just before the sun comes up, right as the ebbing tide peaks at a roaring 5.3 knots.
They will swim non-stop for up to three and a half hours covering over 10 miles from the Bay Bridge to Ocean Beach, where tens of thousands of Bay to Breakers runners will cross the finish line a week later.
And they will do it in nothing but Speedos, swim caps and goggles. No wetsuits.
Hypothermia is the most obvious of the dangers the swimmers face during the race, but container ships the size of Financial District buildings, racing speedboats, riptides and the notoriously perilous surf at Ocean Beach near Seal Rock are also very real dangers.
And while there has been only one swimmer killed by a great white shark in San Francisco waters (off Baker Beach in 1959), the threat of shark attacks is not taken lightly.
"Ocean Beach is the most hazardous and dangerous piece of shoreline associated with an urban environment in the whole United States," confirmed Francis James Smith, a Cal graduate student who has studied local rip currents for half a decade.
Because of the potential dangers, 34 pilots on kayaks, rowboats, surfboards, Zodiacs, and sailboats will escort the swimmers the entire length of the race. SFFD surf, cliff and water rescue units will also be deployed, along with members of the San Francisco Surfriders, who will assist swimmers and kayakers through the fierce surf at the end of the swim.
Last year, every swimmer was rescued from the water just before reaching Seal Rock after strong riptides and violent sea swells made it impossible to land at Ocean Beach.
"Tens of thousands of runners do the Bay to Breakers, but only 18 swimmers attempt it," said 65-year-old Bob Roper, race director of the Bay to Breakers swim and local swimming legend. He is the driving force behind this and hundreds of other sans-wetsuit Bay swims every year.
When asked what motivates a person to risk their life for a race very few have ever heard of, Roper adds with a grin, "Pain is temporary; pride is forever."
Like the gorillas, centipedes, ballerinas, and floats that will make their way from one edge of San Francisco to the other in the footrace on May 16, the 18 people swimming the Bay to Breakers are as diverse as the city, and their reasons for doing it vary.
Ranging in age from 29 to 57. They come from Brazil, Chile, France, India, Ireland, and the United States. Six are women, 12 are men. They include a student pilot, two architects, a professional beer brewer, a car dealer, a cancer research scientist, several engineers, a grandfather of seven, a handful of real estate agents, a theater director, and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
All are members of the South End Rowing Club, San Francisco's oldest swimming and rowing club, where a sense of adventure and spirited rebelliousness is common.
Fifty-seven-year-old Drew Downs of San Diego, who has seven grandchildren and two more on the way, says he does it because "It's fun! So few people in the world would even think of doing something like this. It is man against the sea. It takes you beyond anything you thought you could possibly do."
"I'm doing this swim because it's the closest I can possibly get to Mother Nature," said Edison Peinado, a 29-year-old student pilot from Brazil who crossed the English Channel on a six-man relay team in 2002. This is Peinado's third Bay to Breakers swim. "With this kind of swim, you really learn to respect the power and beauty of nature."
Ron Avignon of Santa Clara, who has never attempted a swim of this magnitude before, says, "I decided to accelerate living a bit and spend more time in the present as a way of honoring the passing of my good friend Tobb Dell'Oro, and to honor the fight for life that my friend Colleen Vojvodich is going through now."
Laura Colette, a software engineer from San Jose, has a more irreverent attitude towards the swim: "I'm swimming the Bay to Breakers because it's a heck of a lot more fun than running it in a crowded pack of sweaty folks. With the fast current, it'll be like running down the moving sidewalk in the airport with no one there to yell at you."
Dianna Shuster of San Francisco, whose 55th birthday is the day before the swim, says, "Open water swimming is one of the most exhilarating things I've ever done. I can't think of a better way to celebrate life. Swimming that long in water that cold with nothing between you and the sea demands that you be fully present. And being totally present reminds you how glorious it is to be alive and healthy."
Established in 1873, the South End Rowing Club (www.south-end.org) is the oldest rowing club in San Francisco. SERC is a non-profit organization for rowers, swimmers, handball players and runners, hosting international swims, regattas, triathlons, handball tournaments and other competitions throughout the year(Courtesy Market Wire)