It's a beautiful day – no wind, no fog and the sun is sitting high in the sky. For all intents and purposes, it's a perfect day for a swim. Except this isn't summer and I'm not standing on the warm concrete of a public pool, contemplating diving into the deep end. Instead, I am up to my knees in frigid Bay water on a late December day, wondering if I'll survive.
I am wearing nothing but a bathing suit and a thermal swim cap, the uniform of both the Dolphin Club and South End Rowing, whose patrons share a love of the freezing water, a disdain for wetsuits and despite their serious rivalry, a wall. The two clubs are nestled side-by-side, lining the Aquatic Park in Fisherman's Wharf.
The Dolphin Club, dressed in blue trim, is the more regal of the two, with beautiful lacquered walls and a collection of wooden boats lining the entrance. The upstairs is filled with captain's chairs that look out over the water. By contrast, the red-trimmed South End club is a bit rougher, with dank public school-style locker rooms, a bar for happy hour (next to its own collection of gorgeous boats) and the feel of a clubhouse, not a country club.
In general, the South Enders are the more rowdy of the swimmers; the Dolphin Club are more traditional. But anyone crazy enough to jump into the Bay on a regular basis has more in common than not.
Both sides of the Aquatic Park's sandy entrance are lined with weathered docks, which are filled with a mixture of leather-skinned rowers pushing their bone-white skulls into the water and tourists, in San Francisco fleece jackets, who have come to get a closer look at the sea lions and insane locals who call this freezing water home.
I'm passing as one of those locals right now, jumping up and down in the shallow water, aping the gestures of my guide. She doesn't know she's my guide, and if she had seen me rip the tags off of my just-purchased swimsuit and cap, she would have likely swum away from me as quickly as possible. I am a novice, potentially a liability and already absolutely frozen.
Yet, as an athlete, I'm confident. I know how to talk locker room better than most, which is where I met my guide, or as I'm now beginning to think of her, my Siren.
I told her it was my first time in the Bay, but not my first in cold water. This was only partly true. I've jumped in the Puget Sound in Seattle on a semi-drunken dare, taken the cold plunge at the Korean women's spa and surfed at Ocean Beach in a thick wetsuit. But I've never dealt with tides without a board and know nothing about sustained skin exposure to cold, open water.
My Siren seems concerned, even without knowing the full story. She tells me that this week the water is 51 degrees – the coldest of the year – and that after 29 years of swimming here, her limbs atrophied on Monday and she nearly didn't make it to shore.
"No heroics," she says, rubbing the cold water onto her arms and legs. "When you feel your fingers drifting apart, it's time to come in – that's when you know you're losing control." I look at my fingers; the scars on my bony knuckles are already purple.
"I have a wetsuit," I offer, nervously. My large messenger bag contains a full-length surfing suit and a wakeboarding shortie. I told myself I'd wear what the real swimmers do, but truthfully, I was hoping it was something thicker than a Speedo.
She looks straight at me and says, "You'll definitely freeze, you might die, but why would you ruin it with a wetsuit?" It rolls so easily off her tongue that I wonder if it's actually a club mantra.
But as a day user, I'll never know. There's not even anyone to show me around, just a box for my $6.50 and a wrinkled sign-in sheet for my name. Because the clubs are on public land, they're obligated to let anyone swim there, but it's clear that this is a place for regulars.
And the regulars have a name for those who choose synthetic skin over their own – they simply call them "the wetsuits." "You don't want to be a wetsuit," she says, and dives into the dark, chilly water.
My guide looks like she's in her early 40s, but after she tells me that she's glad she's way past the days of menstruation (during your period, your body works hard to keep your organs warm and your limbs get colder faster), I realize she must be in her late 50s or early 60s. She's beautiful – thin and muscular, with glowing skin. The other swimmers, most around her age, also look like they've swallowed the sun.
The walls of both clubs are filled with pictures of aging swimmers with sagging suits and equally sagging skin. Recently, a silver-haired club swimmer repeated Jack LaLanne's handcuffed Alcatraz swim. LaLanne himself is an honorary lifetime member of the Dolphin Club.
The locker rooms of both clubs are filled with dripping suits – hanging like shed skin. Most of the suits are faded and many have bright flowers on them, just like my grandmother's. And I realize that this murky, salty, frigid water may very well be San Francisco's own Fountain of Youth.
I'm left standing in the water alone now, with no one but a tourist on the dock above, who keeps yelling, "Cold enough for you?" I've already been in the water five minutes, half the time my Siren suggests swimming at this temperature, and I figure it's time to swim or chicken out and head to the sauna – both of the clubs have them and it's there that the swimmers warm slowly and share stories about near drowning, best race times and large mammal sightings. But I figure I can't enjoy the sauna and its stories if I don't do the swim.
My legs are numb now, but not painful. I count down from ten... and at three, I surprise myself by diving in head first. I was expecting to panic, and while my breath is shallow and nervous, my body feels surprisingly relaxed. I'm swimming. I'm actually swimming out here! It's not pretty and I definitely won't make it to Alcatraz like this, but it's enough of a consistent stroke to move me past five buoys marking the boundary of the park, and it's certainly far enough to drown out the sound of the tourist. Cold enough for me? Maybe.
After eight minutes, definitely. I look at my hands – my pinkies are splayed, and as if pulled by magnetic force, the rest of my fingers move outward as well. It's time to come in. But, like most events in life, returning is a lot harder than leaving.
Before we left the clubhouse, my guide showed me the day's plummeting tide graph. Its sharp drop meant nothing to me – I'm a land-dweller and a philistine of the sea; my naïveté is what got me in the water in the first place. But now that I'm out here, I understand what the graph means. Conditions were wrong for a first swim.
All of my energy is going to my stroke. I'm counting – One, two, three, breath. One, two, three, shallower breath. One, two – I continue my rhythm, turning my head toward the shore with each frantic breath.
I count the buoys and am thankful I only went five and not the full length, about a mile in circumference. I've likely only swum ¼ of that distance, but it feels like an Iron Man competition. My fingers are fully splayed now. After what feels like an eternity, I see the posts of the dock when I come up for air. I'm almost home – almost to land.
The same tourist is there. I clearly haven't been gone long. To him, I probably look like a wimpy swimmer who barely made it out of earshot, but when I round the dock, I feel like an Olympian crossing the finish line.
After several failed attempts to find the ground, my toes finally touch the gritty bottom of the Bay. I'm safe. My head hurts, every hair on my body is sticking up and my limbs are nearly fluorescent. But as my shaking legs carry me toward the clubhouse, I can feel a smile beginning to form on my lock-jawed face.
Want to take the plunge yourself? Just show up and introduce yourself at the Dolphin Club or South End Rowing Club, located at 502 and 500 Jefferson Street in Fisherman's Wharf. The clubs alternate days (Dolphin Club: Wed, Fri. 10am-5pm; South End: Tues, Thurs, Sat. 10am-5pm) and charge $6.50 to swim.