We tried open water swimming in San Francisco's Aquatic Park Cove, and here's what we learned
It all started in a meeting a few weeks ago: We were discussing cool stuff to do around town. Blair mentioned those people who go lap swimming in the San Francisco Bay... they're kind of awesome—and maybe a little insane? We all shrugged, scoffed and nodded in agreement: Crazy. So naturally, we had to do it.
Several weeks later, there we were: Suited up and ready to take the plunge on our first-ever (kind of official?) open water lap swimming experience. The adventure went down just a few minutes from our office at Aquatic Park Cove in North Beach's San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. No, we did not get eaten by a shark; no, we did not get frostbite; and yes, you can do it too. Here are our tips and takeaways:
Parking: not the nightmare you'd think
We rolled up (or down...) to the water around 5:45 p.m. on a Thursday in May. It's not peak tourist time, but there's still your fair share of visitors taking pictures of seagulls, etc. Even so, we found plenty of street parking near Ghirardelli Square, and it’s free after 7 p.m. (score). On our second visit (yes, we came back two weeks later and swam again!) we found parking on the corner of Beach and Polk streets. Upon exiting the car, a passerby cautioned us that break-ins are common in this area. See: Paragraph on having a helper.
Everyone is welcome!
Yes—everyone! You don’t need to be a member of the Dolphin Club, have a permit, be a triathlete, or a prisoner attempting to escape from Alcatraz to fit in here.
Who you'll be splashing with
Expect to see all types at the Aquatic Park Cove. This includes plenty of confused/impressed tourists who will gawk at you from behind their scarves and puffy coats like you're a god or Michael Phelps. You'll see triathlon training groups looking dedicated and focused and basically superior to you in every way (#goals). There's also old guys in speedos wading into the water so coolly and calmly, you'd think it was a hot tub. Two things you won't see? Sharks (phew) and lifeguards. So swim in daylight—and with a buddy!
Don’t be self-conscious—you’re not the only newb
This guy approached us with all sorts of questions...which we had very few answers to. Clearly we looked like we knew what we were doing. Ha.
Dress for success
The essentials you'll need to get swimmin' are a wetsuit, goggles, a towel and sunscreen (even when Karl's out, you can still get burnt). We can't emphasize the goggles part enough—if you think chlorine stings, wait until you discover the agony that is saltwater + sunscreen in your eyeballs after rubbing them too much. Booties and a neoprene hoodie are nice to have, too. Of course, if you're a total badass, just ditch all of those things and just bring your lovely self in a speedo.
Warm it up!
Exercise requires stretching, and swimming is no exception. We got our blood flowing with a few moves—don't want to pull a muscle!—and then took a (small) shot, because no amount of stretching will warm your innards like Old No. 7.
Slipping into your swimmies
The concrete bleachers surrounding the beach make a great place to set up while you change. It's also the perfect spot for your handy helpers and No. 1 fans to sit and watch while you take the plunge. Either shimmy into your wetsuit there or head to any of the public restrooms nearby: Your best options are the Maritime Museum Building from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and the Hyde Street Pier and Visitor Center from 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Take the plunge
There is no specified entry point for getting in the water, and no specific dock you're required to jump from—just mosey on in. So mosey we did, with a well-executed cartwheel.
Mind your manners
We didn’t research this ahead of time, but there is etiquette for open water swimming. First and foremost: Never swim if you're not feeling 100 percent up to the challenge. No one wants the scare of playing lifeguard for a stranger during their daily workout. Swimming with a buddy is highly recommended, and so is a buoy dry bag like this one to store your phone and keep you afloat and visible. If it's crowded in the designated swimming area, keep to the edge so hardcore Mark Spitz types can glide on by. And last but not least, pay attention to where you're kicking. Swimmers sometimes have support kayaks or SUPs trailing behind them in open water, so stay aware of your surroundings.
It's cold, right?
The most common question we got after telling people we swam in the Bay was, "Did you freeze?!" We did not become ice cubes, but our wetsuits are on the thicker sides (Blair's is 5/4 mm and Emily's is 4/3 mm). We weren't joking about the dudes in speedos, either—and as far as we could tell, none of their limbs froze off. The water is coldest in January with average temperatures of 53 degrees, and warmest in August and September at about 60 degrees.
For the most part, this part of the Bay is very protected. Piers, docks and a small fleet of historic ships form a perimeter around the swimming area, which is marked by five big buoys. There is a current, but you won't feel like you're going to get swept out to sea.
Is it deep?
Yep, the Bay gets deep—quickly. Most of the time you won't be able to touch. Don't be fooled by this photo. We were treading water.
Is it hard?
We hopped in and started swimming towards the boats on our right. "This is a cinch!" we exclaimed foolishly, unaware of the slog that awaited on the way back. Then we turned around and nearly died, swallowing mouthfuls of sea water as the wind whipped our freezing faces... OK, we're embellishing the dying part, but expect more of a challenge when swimming against the wind and current.
Moral support goes a long way
Swim with a buddy! Not only is it safer, it's also great for conversation and encouragement. We discussed our respective childhood swimming teachers, Ms. Judy and Ms. Barbie, as we flailed through butchered freestyle strokes and made meager attempts at the butterfly. We egged each other on when the prospect of finishing even one lap seemed dubious. And we exchanged conversational bon mots, such as: “So, last night, I accidentally went out with a guy who was 10 years older than me..."
What about marine life?
If the mere thought of open water lap swimming water makes you think of that one movie, let us stop you right there: The Aquatic Park's fauna doesn't get more exotic than fat seagulls squawking overhead and leashed dogs onshore. We didn't run into anything slippery or slimy swimming around below us, and unless this guy is back with a vengeance, you're more likely to encounter sea lions at the local aquarium or Pier 39.
Have an onshore helper
One of the most convenient things, we found, is to have a wonderful 'handler' named Cyndy nearby at all times. A Cyndy will be crucial in aiding with logistical items such as parking, encouragement, watching your stuff, assisting you with wetsuit malfunctions and keeping a watchful eye as you as you flail around. (She will not, however, David Hasselhoff you out of the water, so don't get too cocky.)
Don’t be disappointed when….
You close your eyes, put your face in the water, kick and kick, your heart is racing, your arms are burning, and—woof, you must have gone miles!—then look up to discover you haven't actually moved. Hooray for the current.
You will feel like a Bond Girl...or just bond with your buddy
Whether you exit the water looking and feeling like a rockstar or just get to know your doggy paddle pal better, there's a real sense of achievement that comes with braving the not-so-icy waters of the Bay. Plus, you're definitely going to win the water cooler wars when someone asks what you got up to on a Thursday night. Boom.
Conveniently, an awesome piece of local nostalgia called the Buena Vista Cafe sits on the corner right across the road from the Aquatic Park. Towel off and head straight there: An Irish coffee (or three) and a Pacific Coast sunset are the perfect ending to an awesome achievement...even if you only swam one lap.
Postscript: Since our inaugural dip, we've started to swim on a weekly basis! If you're on the fence about it, just get out there and give it at try. Like us, you might find that an invigorating swim in some cold-ass water does a body good—and is a nice break from the monotony of an elliptical. (Even if you only swim one lap. Still counts.)