At 8:45 a.m. on a Sunday in mid-September, the temperature at the Berkeley Marina was 65 degrees and you could see all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. If the khaki green waters of the San Francisco Bay were any more placid, you would have mistaken it for a lake. The water itself was 67, a temperature that draws crowds at this time of year, the most popular time to swim. When it’s windy and cold, swimmers get in and out as fast as they can. On this day they lingered on the pier, many in just their bathing suits, a leisurely vibe palpable in the conversations.
In the parking lot, Susana Inda, an attorney from San Jose, pulled on her wetsuit as her husband and year-old son waited by the opened hatchback. Like many other swimmers, Inda was preparing for a triathlon. Her first was a week away. This was just her fourth time swimming in the bay.
“I was definitely nervous about it: open water, wildlife, not drowning,” Inda said.
As the popularity of open-water swimming has exploded, not only in the Bay Area but worldwide, the East Bay company Odyssey Open Water Swimming has become a growing presence at the Berkeley Marina. While anyone can swim in the bay for free — and many swimmers do — a big draw of paying Odyssey $18 a swim (or $150 for a ten-pack) is safety. Swimmers are supervised by a flotilla of kayaks, paddleboards and a rigid inflatable boat whose captain, Taylor Hurt, is a lifeguard. The team communicates via walkie-talkie to make sure swimmers stay on course and out of trouble.
“We go kind of crazy with the safety side of things,” said Warren Wallace of Walnut Creek, Odyssey’s founder and CEO. “We want to make sure everybody is totally covered.”
Wallace, who’s been a lifeguard, swim coach and instructor, founded Odyssey in 2013 after swimming in the open waters at San Francisco’s Aquatic Park. “There weren’t any good options in the East Bay — so I made one,” he said. Odyssey operates supervised swims at the marina on Sunday mornings and Tuesday nights, along with lessons for beginners and, for the more advanced, the two-mile Alcatraz Swim, which attracts swimmers from all over the world.
While its benefits have been long documented — open-water swimming can boost circulation, metabolism and the immune system — it was the pandemic that pushed great numbers of swimmers out of the pool and into the elements. Many open-water enthusiasts are refugees from indoor facilities that closed in March 2020. Odyssey’s growth reflects that trend. In August 2018, the company attracted 25 participants for its Sunday swim. Now it draws more than 100 on Sundays, requiring additional swim times to allow for social distancing.
“We have all kinds,” said Conny Bleul, an Odyssey swim coach and orientation leader, “from newbies to people who are lifeguards.” Odyssey’s swimmers are also racially diverse and range in age from teens to septuagenarians.
On Sept. 19, Bleul gathered newcomers around a whiteboard containing a map of the triangular swimming course and reviewed safety procedures. She’s an open-water veteran. She started swimming in the bay 20 years ago and recently completed a 22-mile Catalina-to-L.A. swim.
The distance to the first (green) buoy was a quarter mile. Beginners sometimes swim there and back — a half mile. To the yellow buoy added another .28 miles. Back to the dock was almost a half mile more.
“We don’t care about speed,” Bleul explained. “We have swimmers who go to the first buoy and back and people who do 10 loops.”
Swimmers usually arrive with their own inflatable buoy (or buy one from Odyssey) and are assigned numbers so coaches can keep track of them. The buoy wraps around the swimmers’ waists and floats in the water above them. “So far, we have not lost anybody,” Bleul said.
“If something does happen — you get a cramp or you’re tired — don’t scream. We can’t hear you. Raise your hand. Hang onto a kayak to catch your breath if you need to,” Bleul said. “There’s no shame in it.”
For swimmers used to the walls and separation lines of the pool, staying on course in the open water can test their mettle. “The biggest technical difference is sighting — every five to ten strokes you have to pop your eyes up and make sure you’re heading in the right direction,” Wallace said. “You have to build this new motion into your stroke.”
Body and mind
Physical challenges include running into an occasional piece of flotsam, water that can dip to 48 degrees in winter, and dodging windsurfers, sailboats, kayaks and paddle boards, especially on windy days when they are pushed off course and into Odyssey’s designated area.
Open-water swimming’s most daunting aspect, however, is the psychological one. Released from the relative safety of the pool, swimmers have only the sky above, the darkness below and the guarantee of nature’s unpredictability. “Some get psyched out by waves or their minds, wondering, ‘What’s beneath me?’” Warren explained. “The people who take to it easily are not necessarily the strongest swimmers. They’re the people who can handle the psychological side of it.”
Though the bay does contain almost a dozen species of sharks, they are small and non-threatening. Attacks are rare. (The last recorded white shark attack took place near the Golden Gate Bridge in 1959.) Seals, however, occasionally appear and can interact with swimmers. Acknowledging that possibility, Bleul told newcomers about a seal nicknamed Homer, in keeping with the Odyssian theme.
“Don’t stare at him,” Bleul said, “or he will chase you.” Bleul described him as looking like “a little dog,” but so far, Homer, unlike many little dogs, has never tried to bite anyone.
In the water, the swimmers’ neon-colored swim caps and buoys distinguish them from the dark waters. At the 9 a.m. swim, 57 swimmers crawled, backstroked and breast-stroked their way to the buoys. If swimmers go off course, one of the flotilla vessels nudges them back.
When Hurt received word of a Homer sighting, he pushed the boat to full throttle and headed south. He cut the engine and the boat drifted for a few minutes before Homer appeared briefly, about a half mile away, a bobbing head above the water, before disappearing under the surface.
Luckily, the tide kept coming in. Hurt checked the depth: 8 feet. When the tide is low, swimmers must enter the bay farther west, near the site of the former Lordships restaurant. “You hit Lotto, in terms of the conditions,” Hurt observed. To get confirmation, he asked a passing swimmer, “How’s the water?”
The fear and what’s beyond
Odyssey may be the only group of its kind in the East Bay, yet small, informal clusters of open-water swimmers can be found, not only at the Berkeley Marina, but at the Albany Bulb, Keller Beach in Richmond and Alameda’s Crown Memorial State Beach. Many Odyssey swimmers participate in these groups, too.
Rosemary Graham, a Berkeley-based novelist and professor at Saint Mary’s College of California, who did Odyssey’s Alcatraz swim in June, is part of an group of 10-15 mostly middle-aged women who dive in at the Albany Bulb weekdays at 7:45 a.m. and weekends at 8. Graham is a pool refugee and an open-water convert. “It honestly made the pandemic survivable for me and opened up a whole new world possibility,” she said.
Despite potential dangers, swimmers, many of them triathletes, choose the open waters to challenge themselves or to feel the aquatic equivalent of a runner’s high, a great stress reducer in the age of COVID-19.
“It’s a mental challenge,” said Jessica Redditt, a triathlete from Pinole who was among the newcomers. Being out in the open waters “somewhat scares me, but I like to get over my fears.”
Before he started Odyssey, Wallace was disappointed to see that most Aquatic Park swimmers went back and forth between buoys, staying close to shore. “For me, part of the point is getting away from shore and pushing yourself mentally and physically.”
As if perfectly timed to the trend, Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim, a meditation on swimming, came out in April 2020. She lives in the Bay Area and sometimes swims in Tomales Bay, as well as in lakes. “Buoyancy, floating, weightlessness. Freedom. These are the words we use to talk about swimming,” she writes. “Is it a coincidence that this is also the language we use to talk about the lightness of being, the wellness of being that we strive for in this corporeal world?”
Bay swimmers often use such language to describe their move to the outdoors, when the pandemic threatened to make them feel the exact opposite. Odyssey’s motto: Break Free from Lanes and Walls.
“Open water is meditative,” said Mike Rice, of Berkeley, a political opposition researcher. “And it’s a safe way to hang out with people during the pandemic.”
Back on land, on a synthetic lawn, a few took turns washing off saltwater with a hose shared with windsurfers and kayakers. In the parking lot, swimmers began a reverse pantomime: leaning against opened hatchbacks, they peeled off their wetsuits.
“You definitely feel as if you accomplished something,” Inda said, of the satisfaction that comes after a dip.
A global pandemic may have pushed swimmers out of chlorine and into saltwater, but most say this newfound activity is not some passing fad that will end with the scourge.
“This morning we saw a ton of pelicans and cormorants. Occasionally, we’re joined by or watched by a seal,” Graham said. “If I can help it, I’m never going back.”