Sharkfest 2009 – aka Suckfest

This year was the 17th annual Sharkfest swim from Alcatraz.  For me it was the 3rd annual.  I signed up for it immediately when registration went on-line last Sept or Oct because I just couldn’t wait to do it again!  Registration for 2010 is already open and I have yet to jump on that.

In the last 2 years I’ve done this with FeLady, Mr. FeLady and some friends of theirs (J and P) and it has been a ton of fun.  This year the FeLadys were not able to come due to school starting so I figured it would be just me doing a solo act although their friends would be there.  I just didn’t have a lot of hope of finding them in a crowd of 800 because my sighting is bad in those cases.  In fact my sighting is weak, oh so weak, a reality that would come back to haunt me viciously on this swim.

I really wasn’t feeling it.  In fact, I had a strong sense of doom and very nearly talked myself out of the race but I paid $100 bucks for it and I’m training for an IM so I made myself just keep moving forward.  I left the house late and then missed the exit I needed to take, found myself in the middle of San Francisco going the wrong way and hitting a red light about every 2 blocks.  I finally got back to where I needed to be but the red lights just kept it up – ugh.  I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get there in time. Wishful thinking.

Finally got there, parked at Ft. Mason in a 2 hour slot (very risky) and started running to packet pick-up.  Only I tried to take a shortcut across the lawn of an historic house and ended up on the edge of a sharp drop off – no way down (duh!  It’s a FORT!).  Then I found some paths through a wooded area and even though I knew perfectly well they were probably made by homeless people I just kept going – until I hit a homeless encampment.  Oops!  I finally headed for the street and ran with my transition bag full of wetsuit, clothes, water bottle, etc.  It was kind of heavy.  I was running in slightly oversized FUGS (fake Uggs from Costco) that made a loud and annoying flapping sound and alerted everyone within a 100 yard radius of my presence.   Oh Lord.

I finally got to the building fully expecting people to be shaking their heads and saying ‘sorry – too late!’ but no such luck.  The line to get your chip was still out the door.  It’s game on!

Got chipped, suited up, got my stuff and started to head to the ferry when who should I see but Mr. FeLadyFriend (aka J) and wife – yay!  I instantly felt better for not being alone.     Only J is a swimmer, not his wife so we parted ways and got on the ferry.  J was explained how to get the best line to me on the way out.  Fat lot of good that did.

The boat stopped by the island and it was time to jump.  By now I was feeling much better about this whole thing but I was desperate to pee and really looking forward to the line up at the start where I would have time.  I said good-bye to J because I knew he would be out of the water long before me (he spent 3 weeks swimming 5,000 meters a day to prepare) and off we went.

Jumping off a ferry into the SF Bay is always a shock – that water is cold.  I was taking my time heading to the start because I had to get my face used to the water and I really needed to pee (I’m going to have to write a race report theme song called “Boy Did I Need to Pee!”).  Sadly, No time!  I didn’t make it to the line before the horn went off – drat!

My goal was to stay with people and not end up all by myself, off course.  Goals are really good but we call them ‘goals’ instead of ‘this is the way it will be’ for a reason.    I was with people, then I was near people and on my way over and then – no people.  I found the people and headed for them and then – no people.  Lather, rinse, repeat until I didn’t really see the people any more.  I didn’t see the red buoy on the lead boat, I saw only kayaks and I mistakenly thought that as long as kayaks were near I was okay.  I’ve made this mistake before but never quite understood the issue.

Did I mention I was wearing dark, mirrored goggles?  This is a big no-no in open water swimming and I know this.  Unless the sun will be blinding you you need to wear clear goggles so that you can see because being able to see = good sighting.  Dark goggles = short sight line = you’re not going the right way = story of my life.  That plus the night before, for the every first time ever I had to wear my glasses to see the TV across a short room.

The water was much rougher than I was expecting it to be, too.  It was smooth and glassy inside the sea wall but out in the open I was getting buffeted around like a gum wrapper blowing down a  windy sidewalk.  I tried not to be nervous about the current or the fact that I often couldn’t see over the waves.

At one point I knew I was not doing so well so I stopped, pulled up the goggles, looked around and there were some people so it wasn’t so bad. The big crowd was so far along I didn’t see them and I still needed to pee so I just hung out there and took care of business.  I just didn’t care any more.  I got my bearings, found something to sight on and got going again.   I could go on and on and on about how I couldn’t lock on to a target and wandered in the wrong direction perpetually but it gets boring so I won’t.

Ultimately I was getting closer.  I could see a big gray ship that I thought was right at the mouth of Aquatic Park so I headed for that.  As I got closer I realized I couldn’t see the Maritime Museum, couldn’t see the opening in the wall and couldn’t see the red buoy marking the opening of the wall so I stopped, started treading water and finally, FINALLY a kayak dude said, “head right – see that big red ball over there”  and I did – about 500 meters away to my right.  ARGHH!!  The good news was that  I was close so off I went.


click picture to enlarge

I got inside the park and got passed by a breast stroker.  Yeah – I know.  I drafted off her.  Other people were starting to pass me and I started getting very, very worried about a DFL but I was beyond fighting and this isn’t a race I do well in ever so I just kept swimming and I finally got out of the water.  People smiled at me in a way that said, “you have smutz all over your face” and said, “nice job!” and I felt my face and it was covered from top to bottom with sea smutz. Can’t wait to see the pics (not!)

I turned around to confirm my status and I’m happy to say I was not DFL.  I was certainly among the last 20 in but not the last. Regardless,  I was not happy.  I was quite cranky.  I was really mad at myself and really perturbed that the kayaks had let me go so far off course but I have to assume I was not the only one.  Some poor soul was probably sighting off of me – HA!  Big mistake.

Mad as I am about the whole thing and as much as I feel like a loser I’m all too aware that many people reading this would never, ever voluntarily find themselves in the middle of the San Francisco Bay and you think I’m quite the stud for jumping off the boat in the first place.  I also feel a deep gratitude that I have the ability to swim that far in bouncy water and come out alive and well in the end.  All of that health and vitality are a gift and I try really hard not to forget that.

Tomorrow I go on a century ride.  I can follow the road and that’s a good thing.

Post Script:  The kayaks are out there to keep you from going too far off course.  If you are swimming near them then they are probably in the process of herding you back where you belong.  Lesson – don’t sight off the kayaks and if your trajectory takes you toward them stop and find something solid and unmoving to sight on.  I sincerely hope this isn’t a lesson I have to keep learning over and over.

This entry was posted in Events, Lessons Learned, Swimming. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Sharkfest 2009 – aka Suckfest

  1. Wendy says:

    You ARE a stud! Really.

  2. Aka Alice says:

    That is impressive that you swam to Alcatraz..I don’t know that I’d have the balls to swim in SF Bay!

  3. Anne says:

    I think you turned in an impressive effort — extra effort, even. Sea smutz? Sounds icky. Thanks for the advice on the googles and the kayaks. (And I once made the same mistake in Fort Mason on a run and nearly ran off the cliff.)

  4. Rene says:

    It’s serious business out there, but you did it – way to go!

  5. Molly says:

    I think just swimming in the Bay – and from Alcatraz at that – is a victory in itself. That takes major balls! Great job, even if it wasn’t everything you hoped for!

  6. Juls says:

    I would be one of those who would never find themselves “swimming” in the SF bay. Nope. So…nice job!

  7. jeanne says:

    whoa. so scary! that takes some major cajones. thank god you are strong enough to get the job done!

  8. Donald says:

    I was reading this and thinking, “this isn’t really that bad” … until you got passed by a breaststroker. Ouch.

    For what it’s worth, I know how easy it is to get off course, turned around, disoriented, and otherwise perplexed out there, so I can sympathize. I’m sure the next time will be better.

    Because there WILL be a next time, right?

  9. hilary says:

    and as much as I feel like a loser

    yo, mom! Stop denigrating yourself.
    I know you don’t need yet another voice telling you how awesome you are — but I’m adding to the choir anyway. I’m pretty fearless but open water swimming that far out in the bay? Crikey.

  10. fe-lady says:

    Like I said…everyone swam slowly that morning as the flood tide was extremely strong and people got pushed towards the bay bridge and off course.
    Almost everyone had to enter Aquatic Park via the seawall-Peggy said no one really swam straight in this year.

    But I bet you will sign up for June 6th 2010 won’t you…you studette! 🙂

  11. Maria says:

    Enjoyed reading your story and felt like I was there with you. That’s probably the closest I will ever get to swimming in the bay – thru your experience. You rock!

  12. Kelly W. says:

    I have done this swim 4 or 5 times….every one different (some sucky). But…I never feel so alive as I do when I jump out of that ferry!!! What a thrill. I will be doing it again in September for the Escape swim (Team 737 in honor of Phil Coulston’s passing last year). Care to try again this year???


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