The San Francisco Bay’s temperature ranges from around 50 degrees in January to 61 degrees in September.
Plunging into cold water is always a jolting experience, but it carries an extra zing when you’ve spent a lot of time in the last year sitting at the computer in your bathrobe and Facetiming distant friends from your bed, shuffling to the kitchen every few hours for snacks. After spending months swaddled in the monotonous comfort of a work-from-home lifestyle, my first dive into the San Francisco Bay was a delightful shock to the system.
I grew up in San Francisco, but I owe my initial Bay baptism to a friend from Mongolia who was staying briefly in the city and had taken up the practice. When he asked if I’d like to join him one day, I was tentative, recalling news stories of sea lion attacks and entertaining the idea that I might get hypothermia and die. (As someone who’s lived through four Minnesota winters, I really had nothing to fear.) But eventually he convinced me. I blasted the heat in my Honda Civic as I drove out to the sandy beach of Aquatic Park, which lies at the end of the Hyde Street Cable Car line on the San Francisco Waterfront, a place familiar to me from childhood trips to Ghirardelli Square for ice cream sundaes.
It was mid-morning, a clear but brisk day in the end of December, so I was testing the waters at a particularly cold time of year. Small clusters of middle-aged, Speedoed swimmers were stretching on the bleachers, toweling off, pulling on goggles and swim caps, and gossiping through their masks. Tourists, making their way from Fisherman’s Wharf, meandered by on electric bikes. Children dug in the sand at the water’s edge.
After I became accustomed to the physical sensation of my muscles constricting and my breath shortening, I paddled to the middle of the sheltered cove (I am a sufficient but clumsy swimmer), which is enclosed by a long, arcing pier. Suspended in the water between the Golden Gate Bridge to the West, Alcatraz to the North, Treasure Island to the East, and the iconic Ghirardelli Square sign on shore, set against the San Francisco skyline, I felt distinctly like I was in some sort of strange simulation. The vividness of the seagulls swooping next to me, the heightened awareness of my body adjusting to the cold, the new attention I paid to my surroundings from my unusual vantage point in the bay — it felt so real that it seemed fake.
This year, I’ve spent so much time immersed in a disembodied, digital world — a distressing daily average of 2 hours and 4 minutes, my cell phone’s Screen Time app reports — that the visceral act of cold water swimming at first was almost unintelligible to me.
It seems that my search for aquatic oblivion is trending, and it can’t be blamed entirely on the pandemic. In a New York Times piece from a few months ago, Kyle Chayka argued that increasing interest in sensory deprivation tanks — those Joe Rogan-endorsed contraptions wherein participants float atop a shallow pool of body-temperature saline solution in total darkness — epitomizes modern society’s increasing desire to escape overstimulation and “[erase] our existence” (for $145 an hour).
The first sensory deprivation tank was designed in 1954 by neuroscientist John C. Lilly, and floating was a popular practice among artists and scientists in the psychedelic ’70s. Concerns over shared water and the stigma surrounding AIDS halted the movement for a time, but in recent years, sensory deprivation tanks have been cropping up around the country, gaining a new popularity among anxious, experience-driven millennials. Float proponents promise that their product will deliver absolute relaxation. (I myself got a free pass to float with a friend last year at Oakland’s Reboot Float and Cryo Spa, which calls itself “a sanctuary for self-care” and assures clients will leave “recharged, refreshed and reborn.” Both my friend and I were deeply underwhelmed.)
Cold-water swimming takes the impulse to harness water’s restorative powers in the other direction. Or, to be more precise about the chronology, the sensory deprivation tank commodified a restorative relationship between people and water that’s been practiced for millennia.
Swimming in the cold, open water of the San Francisco Bay is an anti-sensory deprivation experience. Instead of seeking a kind of disengaged transcendence in a universal no-place, it demands a high level of engagement and focus on a specific task. There is also a degree of danger that I found refreshingly real and comprehensible in comparison to the looming but oftentimes abstract threat of the virus. Swimming in the bay is precisely what I needed.
And, in a time when public pools, sensory deprivation tanks, and communal baths are all closed, the ocean — free, open 24/7, expansive — is accepting all comers.
There’s an extraordinary joy in swimming freely rather than in a pool. Unguided by plastic lane dividers, untracked by the phone that’s usually tethered to my body at all times, free even from the music I work out to, not knowing the time of day, I feel light in a way I haven’t since I was a child. To kick about in the water toward no end — this is a rare respite in our age of relentless productivity and connectedness, when many of us feel paralyzed by the anxieties of a global pandemic and climate disaster.
After my first immersion in the Bay, I brought anyone who would come with me — friends, family. For the first few swims, I wore a wetsuit, as I was not brave enough to go in bare like most of the veteran bay swimmers do. But a few months ago, I took the plunge. To my surprise, it didn’t feel much colder.
When I get out of the water, my body radiates unusual warmth. We sit on the bleachers wrapped in towels and drink hot chocolate out of a thermos, catching snippets of conversations around us. Parents talk about their kids’ schools reopenings, young tech employees discuss what will happen to their companies and jobs once the pandemic is over.
Ward Bushee, the newly initiated president of San Francisco’s famous Dolphin Club, says that he’s observed an unexpected surge in membership in the last three months. “We’ve had well over a hundred new people join,” he tells me, “even in this financially difficult time” (membership requires small fees here and there). “With pools closing,” Bushee explains, “you have these really dedicated, hardcore swimmers who had to find something else.”
But it’s not just long-time swimmers who are finding their way to the Bay. Diane Walton, who retired a few months ago from her role as president of the Dolphin Club, tells me the group has seen “lots of new friends and amazing growth across all ages and experiences” — from Boys and Girls Club kids through college swimmers.
Indeed, that’s one of the greatest things about bay swimming: It’s delightful even for absolute novices. In fact, swimming is hardly a requisite for experiencing the bliss the Bay has to offer. Floating on your back in the water is very pleasant. So is wading with your feet in the sand.
Soon after I started swimming, I watched the Netflix documentary Kim Swims, which tells the incredible story of the first woman to swim solo from the Farallon Islands to shore — a thirty-mile distance through notoriously sharky waters. Kimberley Chambers’s wayward persistence is inspiring; she rises to swimming fame after a freak accident almost leaves her with just one leg. Inspiring as it was, the documentary gave me no desire at all to pursue long-distance swimming, which is revealed to be a brutally punishing sport: After the swim, Kim emerges chafed and in shock, hardly able to speak from pain. (We also learn that she had to be hospitalized after a different long-distance record swim, and nearly died.)
Joyfully, being in the Bay is a gratifying experience even without any expectation of progress or improvement. For me, the spontaneity of moving in the open water is plenty. The contours of each swim are shaped by the wind, the weather, the birds, which ships are on the horizon. It’s continually interesting. The idea of any sort of tracking metric to see if I’m getting faster or better seems not only difficult to achieve, but completely beside the point.
Bushee describes the experience of open water swimming as akin to “going on a hike, but in an aquatic park.”
Pandemic swimmers have proven their creativity this year, learning new ways to stay warm while the Club — and its hot showers and saunas — is closed. This innovation has been most clearly on display on the bleachers, which have become the natural gathering place for swimmers. Some swimmers are wrapped in blankets, others bring hot water buckets to pour over their heads. Bushee has nicknamed the hordes of swimmers dwelling there every weekend the “bleacher creatures.” The bleachers have become quite a lively scene, and many of the Club’s swimmers are marking new and unexpected friends there, Bushee says. “There’s a lot of camaraderie.”
New swimmers in the Bay are wading into a tradition with a long history. Aquatic Park, originally called Black Point Cove, was an industrial zone back in the day, but even in the mid-1800s it was a popular site for San Franciscan swimmers. At the end of the 19th century, local recreation clubs (including the famous Dolphin Club and the South End Club) pushed to turn the area into a waterfront park.
Interestingly, the Maritime Museum that overlooks the cove — the bleachers where we sit and warm up are the museum’s — started out as a public bathhouse for swimmers. It was constructed as a symbol of hope and joy during the bleak years of the Great Depression. In 1936, the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration began building the spectacular, modern bathhouse, which could accommodate hundreds. Imagined as a “palace for the public,” the space included not just long rows of showers and dressing rooms, but also a hospital, a restaurant, and myriad concession stands. It was a swimmer’s dream come true.
The building’s interior was covered in beautiful murals, the work of Sargent Johnson, one of only two Black artists who partook in California’s WPA program.
At its opening in 1939, WPA officials announced to an excited crowd of thousands of San Franciscans: “Here thousands of happy youngsters find protected play-ground in the water and on the shore. Here thousands of wearied adults may sink into warm, embracing sand, content to just lie and relax, and revel in the beauties spread before them.”
But the bathhouse didn’t live up to its grand potential. It was woefully underused, and eventually leased to private owners, who were unfriendly to swimmers. They turned much of the building into a rowdy casino, despite public outcry. During World War II, the military used the building to quarter soldiers.
When the Maritime Museum filled the space in the ’50s, people rejoiced, excited to once again have a public space to enjoy the waterfront.
Today, swimmers in the Bay fulfill Aquatic Park’s WPA legacy.
And Bushee hopes that swimmers can continue to fulfill this legacy far into the future. The Dolphin Club’s biggest project right now is renovating their building (which is owned by the city) to adapt to climate change. Rising waters threaten to destroy some of the building’s lower rooms.
It’s not quite right to call swimming in the Bay an escape. In the Bay, unlike in a standard Olympian chlorine pool, or a futuristic float pod mold, or the World Wide Web, I feel immersed in the very particular place I’m living in. I feel affected by changes in the seasons, in the tides and currents. I pay a new attention to Chevron spills and fishing regulations and humpback whales in the Bay, who are emerging after years of conservation efforts. I feel like I am in relationship with this ecosystem, responsible for it, receiving from it. And this, ultimately, is why I love being in the Bay.
Clara Liang is a contributing writer. Twitter @clarablakeliang