So You Want to Swim in the Bay

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You’ll see them when you’re biking along Crissy Field or visiting Ghiradhelli Square: the crazy people swimming in the Bay. They do laps in Aquatic Park or crossings from Alcatraz to San Francisco. Some of the most adventurous swimmers will even swim under the Golden Gate Bridge or from the Golden Gate around the edge of the city to the Bay Bridge on the other side. (It’s a long, long swim).

The water is typically in the high-50s – which yes, is cold, but not too cold. If you’re wearing a wetsuit, then you’ll be able to swim for an hour or even longer, once you’re used to the temperature. If you’re not wearing a wetsuit, then your body temperature will drop more quickly. Either way, the cold will take some getting used to.

Now’s the time to jump in, as the weather warms. In the summer, the number of swimmers and organized swims skyrockets. But, make sure you’re prepared. Leslie Thomas, the founder of Swim Art, an open water swim group in San Francisco, talked to RootsRated about what people should know about swimming in the Bay and what you’ll need – which is mostly a good attitude!

Mat Honan

“They should be up for an adventure,” says Thomas.

Even with your sense of adventure, before jumping in you should be able to swim at least 100 yards in the pool without stopping, says Thomas. And, you’ll want to make sure you have the right gear:

-        goggles or swim mask

-        brightly colored swim cap (latex or silicone)

-        swim suit

-        wetsuit (depending on temperature – though you can certainly swim without one)

-        earplugs (optional)

-        anti-fog spray for goggles (optional)

If you don’t have a wetsuit, you can rent one from Sports Basement for a month. You’ll also want a towel, warm clothes to put on after, food or hot tea and coffee for when you get out, and a plastic bag for all your wet stuff.

Naotake Murayama

It’s a good idea to swim with a friend or join a group – especially as you get accustomed to the cold water and open water experience. You’ll want to start with short swims and if you panic or get too tired, get out. It may take some time to get used to swimming in the Bay. “Open water swimming is scary for many people, so expect it to be overwhelming the first few times. Expect it to feel cold. Expect to swallow water and to be pushed around by the waves. Expect not to be able to see anything. Expect not to be able to breathe. Expect it to be a little more challenging than pool swimming. Expect the unexpected,” said Thomas. “Every swim is different.”

But most open water swimmers will tell you that’s exactly what makes it fun: you never know what will happen. You can enjoy the outdoors and an extra challenging experience.

“Each time you go back for another swim, it gets easier, more comfortable, and more enjoyable,” said Thomas.

Once you feel up for it, you may want to try an organized expedition, like crossing from Alcatraz. You should be able to swim a mile in the pool and you’ll want to get at least a few open water swims in before you jump off the boat to swim from the famous island.

Swimming in the Bay is very different from the pool. There is no black line on the bottom, so you have to sight off of landmarks by picking your head up slightly every 10-20 strokes. Watch this Youtube video from Thomas about how to sight in open water. The water is often rough once you’re out in the open Bay, especially when the wind picks up in the afternoon, which can feel a bit like a washing machine and can take some getting used to.


It’s also hard to see in the water. The murkiness can be scary, but remember the wildlife in the Bay is usually just as scared of you. (Maybe you’ll even get to see a sea lion up close!)

“You will not get eaten by a shark,” said Thomas.

The hardest part about swimming from Alcatraz is taking the current into account. Often the water is rushing out of the mouth of the Bay or pushing in, which means that you’ll have to take that into consideration when you aim at where you want to land. For that reason, on the day of your big swim from Alcatraz, listen carefully to the pre-swim briefing given by the race organizer. They will explain what the currents are doing that morning and what you will need to sight off.

Do not try a swim out in the Bay – beyond the wall around Aquatic Park or outside the buoys that mark the swim areas at beaches – without a guide and organized group. There are large (very large) shipping boats that come in and out of the Bay, as well as smaller motor boats. If you’re out by yourself, you’re putting yourself in serious danger.

Does all this sound like fun?

Swim Art offers an Intro to Open Water swimming clinic, which introduces people to swimming in the Bay. Thomas also organizes coached group swims every Monday night at 6:30 p.m. in Aquatic Park – for $20 you’ll get a guide, some instruction, and a friendly group to swim with. Once you’re ready for a bigger challenge, sign up for an (noncompetitive) expedition swim.

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