Open Water Information
OUR MISSION: To offer a safe, fun, and relaxed experience. To offer encouragement and feedback. To share as much knowledge as possible. To personalize our service and get to know our swimmers. And to do all of this with humor and kindness and patience.
Expectations and Agreements for Swimmers: Please see our expectations and agreements.
Aquatic Park Directions:
We meet on the grassy hillside at the end of the Van Ness Avenue. This is next to the Van Ness Avenue parking area. The best place to park is at the end of Van Ness Avenue. Van Ness dead ends down by the water in a big parking area. Park there and then walk East. You will see the water. This is Aquatic Park. You may also access Aquatic Park easily by Muni (19 Polk, 30 Stockton, 47 Van Ness, 49 Van Ness-Mission or F Market).See our map of the Aquatic Park area for parking spots, bathrooms, and landmarks. Google map here.
Parking: If you drive, your best bet is at the end of Van Ness Avenue. There are lots of free spots there.
Public Transportation: MUNI buses number 49 and 10 go directly to Aquatic Park (last stop at the end of Van Ness Ave). MUNI buses 30, 19, 47, and the street car F all go within close walking distance of Aquatic Park. Check 511.org for schedules.
Equipment and Gear:
The basics: swimming suit, goggles, cap, and towel. We will provide a neon green latex cap for you. You can also consider: earplugs, contacts / prescription goggles. Fins are not allowed on our group swims. Bring warm clothes to change into afterward - hat / warm clothes / gloves / thick socks and shoes. Warm tea is also nice, and a bottle filled with water will be handy in cleaning the sand off your feet! Please leave your wallet and cell phone and any other valuables in your car. We do not require wetsuits for our swims. Some people wear wetsuits and some do not. More info about wetsuits follows in the FAQ section.
The mask by Aquashpere is quite popular. It is the most reliable against leaking, and it provides good visibility. If you decide to go with a goggle, it's critical that it fits you correctly. Try on several pair before committing. The way to do that is - place the goggles against your eyes without the strap around your head. If the goggles stick to both eyes, then they fit. If one or both pops off. . . not a good fit. You'll also want to buy some anti-fog spray. After about four uses, the goggles lose their anti-fog coating and can cloud up easily. If you are near-sighted, TYR and Speedo both make generic prescription goggles. These are a life-saver and fit very well.
We are lucky enough to have a deal with the wetsuit maker Fit2Race for cheap wetsuit rental. $45 gets you a suit for 30 days. Rent a wetsuit at the Swim Art store on the Fit2Race website. Click the "Store" link and then click the "Rent a Wetsuit" link. Rental instructions and size info is also on their site. They will even MAIL the wetsuit to you!
Please note: We do not require wetsuits. The temperature in SF Bay fluctuates between 50 degrees in the winter and 63 degrees in the late summer. Many people swim year-round without wetsuits.
More wetsuit tips here.
Visiting from Out of Town:
The place to swim in San Francisco is Aquatic Park (see map). It is a public park, free, and "open" 24 hours, every day of the week. You might wish to drop into the Dolphin Club or the South End Rowing Club for their locker room, hot showers, and sauna - as well as the host of open water swimmers who swim there.
Getting started with open water swimming
Where to begin:If you're considering trying open water swimming for the first time, here are some good things to know and consider.
Goggles or swim mask
Brightly colored Swim Cap (latex or silicone)
Wetsuit (depending on temperature)
Anti-fog for goggles
Take with you for your swim:
All of the above equipment
Warm clothes to put on after
Bottle of warm water to wash your feet off
If your hands get cold easily, gloves and hand warmers
Trash bag to put your wet things in
Preparation: Plan your swim, including what to sight on Warm up and gear up mentally
Be visible to boats, other swimmers, bystanders, fisherman, etc.
Know what the tides are doing
Pay attention to the weather and daylight
Beware of fishing lines
Watch for boats and how they are moving around, coming and going
Know what is going on with your body and notice if you are starting to get cold
Know if there any animals that live in the water and whether or not they are harmless
Do not try to do too much too fast. Start with short swims and build slowly
Breathing can be more difficult in the open water:
Focus on taking slow and deep breaths
Make sure you exhale, or blow bubbles
Roll your entire body around to breathe
Avoid lifting your head up to breathe
Breathe frequently. You may not always get air each time you roll to try, especially if the water is at all choppy
Why = There is no black line to follow, so you need some way to see where you are going
The way to do this is to lift your eyes out of the water every few strokes to sight on what is in front of you
Lift your head as little as possible, to maintain good body position
Take a quick look at what is in front of you
-- if you are headed in the direction you are trying to go, keep swimming!
-- If you are off course, reorient yourself
What will you sight on? =
Look for tall and big landmarks, objects, and features in the landscape
The higher and bigger object you sight on, the easier
Try not to interrupt your stroke as you sight
Lift eyes out with one stroke
Sight just before you breathe
Swimming in a straight line: Keep your arms straight out in front of you Your arms are your steering wheels. The straighter they extend out in front of you, the straighter line you will hold Most people go off course when one arm crosses the mid-line of the body or one arm extends wider than the other
This is THE most important open water swimming skill
Open water skills and swimming are about mental control and composure
Keep the self talk positive
The most important elements of technique that a beginner swimmer should focus on first, when starting OW swimming:
1) BODY POSITION
a) Head down, eyes looking down, neck relaxed. This will allow the hips to rise up, reducing drag.
b) Rotate the hips. By allowing the hips to swing from side to side slightly, you will minimize drag even more and cut through the water farther and faster. Rotating the hips will also make it easier to get a relaxed, comfortable breath.
2) LET THE WETSUIT WORK FOR YOU
a) Glide Beginner swimmers make the mistake of constantly and continuously moving the arms. As soon as a recovering arm hits the water, it pulls back right away. Thus the arms are constantly working. We think that in order to move forward we must constantly be working for it. But, this is not the case, especially with a wetsuit! Because the wetsuit puts you in a more streamlined and hydrodynamic body position and because the material of the wetsuit is so slick, you will move forward farther and faster with each stroke than in the pool. If you allow yourself a small moment to glide, you will benefit the most from the wetsuit and allow your body a second or two of recovery. I recommend the Polka Drill to add some glide into your stroke. Do this by counting to 3 each time your recovering arm hits the water. During that count of 3, the front arm should be extended out in front of you, not moving. The other arm can be recovering over the water. After the count of 3, make the stroke. Then, 1 2 3, stroke, 1 2 3, stroke. This will add a momentary pause in which your body can glide forward, without having to work for it at all!
b) Relax Open water swimming can be scary and create a great deal of anxiety. Add to that the fact that the water is often very cold, and we end up as very rigid, tight, and tense swimmers!! Because you are more buoyant in a wetsuit than you have ever been in your life, you can use it to help relax. Let the wetsuit hold you up. Relax into the water knowing there is no way you can sink. You do not need to try to hold yourself up. Relax your arms, relax your legs, relax your hips, relax your neck and feet and jaw. You will save a lot of energy by relaxing!! Plus you’ll have a lot more fun!!
c) Kick less Because the wetsuit is so buoyant, especially around the hips and legs, there is virtually no reason to kick. You will not need to kick to keep your hips high. You will not need to kick to keep from feeling like you are drowning. And since you will be faster in the wetsuit, there is really no need to kick to try to move forward faster. Anything more than a 6beat kick in the open water is a waste of energy and effort. For most swimmers, anything more than a 2beat kick is a waste, especially if your open water swim is part of a triathlon, where you will bike and run after exiting the water. Relax the legs; let them virtually float behind you.
Training and Skills
Training and Preparation: For tips and advice for preparing for each of our Expedition swims click here. Our 8-week Alcatraz training plan will give you an idea of how to prepare for this swim if you are a beginner or intermediate swimmer.
Sighting: For help learning how to "sight" and perfecting this skill, see our YouTube video.
Cold Water - What to Expect:
ENTERING THE WATER
- You'll experience a burning sensation on the exposed skin
- You may feel short of breath, or you may hyperventilate
DURING THE SWIM
- Jaws will lose ability to move
- You’ll slur your speech
- Your feet will go numb
- Your fingers will go numb
- Your fingers may separate and/or curl up into a claw
- You might hyperventilate
AFTER THE SWIM
- This is the coldest part of your swim!!
- You will feel colder now than you did in the water
- You may shiver
- You may feel more tired that day or the next
Burning sensation. The good news is that this is limited to small areas of exposed skin. As long as you have warmth in your core and feel the fire inside, you will be fine. Focus on your inner warmth, and know that the feeling on your skin is just a temporary, unpleasant sensation.
Hyperventilation. Breathe as slowly as you can and make sure you are exhaling! Blowing out the carbon dioxide is critical. Use your brain to force yourself to slow down the breath and go deeper with it.
During the swim. It is important to monitor your body and the different stages of cold you are experiencing. Keep checking in to see how numb your fingers and feet are, how your speech is, if your fingers have separated, if you still feel warm in your core, etc. It is really important to pay attention - things can change quickly out there! If you get the claw, begin to shiver, or become dizzy, definitely get out.
After the swim. Take lots of warm clothes to put on afterward, including a fleece hat. Have a bottle of warm water to wash your hands and feet with. Let your body shiver to rewarm itself. Blast the heat in the car on the way home and take a long, warm shower when you get there. Most importantly, enjoy the accomplishment and the satisfying feeling of having swum in cold, open water!
Cold Water - How to Deal with It:
BEFORE GETTING IN
- get lots of sleep the night before
- eat something (a lot) before you swim
- eating and drinking warm foods and liquids will help you stay even warmer
- stay warm until you jump into the cold. that means wear lots of warm clothes and stay dry
- prepare mentally for what you are about to do
- set up your gear before you head out, so that when you come back, you can quickly towel off and change
- set up a warm foot bath for your self
- lay your clothes out
- make sure you have lots of warm clothes to put on afterward
WHEN SWIMMING. Should you get cold during a swim, here are some tips to bring back body heat. Remember, if you feel warm in your core, you are fine!!
- kick harder
- sprint for 20 to 50 strokes
- swim butterfly for a while
- slow your breathing down (breathe every 6 strokes instead of every 2, for example)
AFTER THE SWIM. This can be the coldest part of the swim.
- get out of your wet suit as quickly as possible
- dry off
- put lots of warm clothes on
- jump up and down to generate some body heat
- eat something
- drink some warm liquids
- shivering is ok
- go inside as soon as possible
- warm up slowly in a hot shower
- warm up slowly in a sauna
WHAT IF YOU DON'T HAVE ACCESS TO COLD WATER TO TRAIN IN. Here are some things people have done to help acclimate when there is no cold water to swim in
Drills to practice in the pool:
-Swim with 4 other friends, side by side down one lane, to experience swimming with people all around you and getting bumped
-Swim between two friends who are wearing fins and kicking with a kickboard. This will simulate rough water swimming
-Sight for the end of the lane
-Breathe every 6 strokes to know what it feels like to not always get air when you want it
-Swim with your eyes closed for 15 strokes to know what it feels like not to see anything
-Do some laps without pushing off the walls
- take cold showers
- sleep without blankets on the bed
- take ice baths
- eat ice cream!!
Three great articles about the Cold:
Acclimating to the Cold: link
8 Ways to Handle Swimming in Cold Water: link
Tips from Lewis Pugh: link
See our YouTube video about rough water.
Here are a few thoughts about swimming in Rough Water. Many of you out there are preparing for an Alcatraz "escape". Rough water can be one of the most challenging things about swimming Alcatraz. Here's what to expect and how to cope with it.
First of all, PRACTICE is critical. The more you're out in it, the easier and more comfortable it will be.
What to expect:
- you will swallow water
- you will get hit in the face
- you will get tossed around
The main challenges in rough water:
3) staying balanced and holding your body position as you're getting tossed about
4) moving forward
How to deal with each:
1) Breathing strategies:
- roll farther onto your back than you normally might
- lift your head more than you normally would
- breathe more frequently (every two arm strokes)
- breathe as quickly as possible - there is a small window of opportunity, so take as much air in as you can in that small moment
- know that (and be prepared for) you won't get air every time you try to breathe
- and know that when you don't get air you can always try next time
- roll completely onto your back and float there any time you need to rest and catch your breath
2) Sighting strategies:
- be able to swim in a straight line
- try to sight less often, as sighting will make you more vulnerable to getting clobbered by the chop
- lift your head a little higher than you normally would
- you may have to try sighting a few times in a row, before you can actually see in front of you
- try to time the sighting with a break in the chop. if you're feeling the water moving around you, you can sometimes tell when you'll be at the top of a wave and will have a clear view forward
- sight quickly - the more you hang out with your head up, the more the waves will beat you up
3) Staying Balanced:
- engage your core
- don't fight the water and minimize your movements
- stay relaxed, like a rag doll
4) Moving Forward:
- strong anchor (pull)
- stay long and glide as much as possible
- stay under the water as much as you can, to hide from wind and waves
- lower your stroke rate and increase your stroke length
IN GENERAL, it is MOST IMPORTANT to:
- stay relaxed
- have positive internal dialogue
- stop when you need to
Alcatraz: If you have questions about completing an Alcatraz crossing, please see our Alcatraz page.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is this your first swim EVER in open water, or in the Bay?
If so, you'll find some basic info about Getting Your Feet Wet on our Facebook page.
What is the water temperature in the bay?
The water temperature usually fluctuates between 50 in the winter to 62 in the summer. The coldest month is February, and the warmest is September.
Here is the approximate break-down by month (in Fahrenheit):
March - 51 to 53
April - 53 to 55
May - 54 to 57
June - 58 to 60
July - 60 to 63
August - 60 to 63
September - 60 to 65
October - 57 to 60
November - 55 to 57
December - 54 to 56
January - 49 to 54
February - 49 to 53
Are there sharks in the bay? Will I get eaten?
There are sharks in the bay, but not the man-eating kind. YOU WILL NOT GET EATEN!
Are there other resources about the bay?
Check out the Bay Model in Sausalito, Bay Keepers, Surf Rider Foundation.
Is the water clean?
The bay is clean and is tested every day of the year for bacteria levels. You can check the status of various beaches. If a beach is closed because of high bacteria counts, it will be shown there and we would cancel a swim accordingly.
What are the currents like?
The currents can be very mild or pretty strong, depending on the tides, which depend on the phase of the moon. Generally speaking, the strongest currents in the bay are difficult for even the strongest swimmer to swim against. But the currents are no where near as strong in "The Cove" of Aquatic Park as they are outside in the open bay water, where the water is flowing in and out. The gentle currents can be swum against easily and may even be unnoticeable.
Should I wear a wetsuit and what kind?
About 75% of Swim Artists wear wetsuits. However, there are many people who swim in the bay without them. The water fluctuates between 48 in the winter and 64 in the peak of the summer (September). So, whether or not you wear one depends on a few things:
1) comfort in the water - the wetsuit makes you unsinkable. you will be so buoyant in the water, that it will immediately put you at ease and make swimming easier
2) thermoregulation - if you have a tendency to be warm in colder climates, then you will probably be fine without a wetsuit. if you have a tendency to get cold easily, the I would suggest one.
3) triathlete versus swimmer - in general, most triathletes wear wetsuits, and most swimmers go without. this is the case for a few reasons. triathletes tend to be leaner, and thus get cold easier. triathletes, on average, are not as good swimmers, so they like the wetsuit for the buoyancy, good body position, and ease of movement. triathletes have to bike and run after they swim, so they are concerned with conserving energy (warmth is energy), and swimmers are not.
What kind of wetsuit is the next question. The wetsuit made for swimming is called a Triathlon wetsuit (or Tri suit). In general, a surfing wetsuit will do, if you're just going to do a few open water swims on an irregular basis. It will do the job of keeping you warm. However, if you are training for triathlon or are pretty certain you're going to swim in the Bay regularly, you'll want to buy a Triathlon wetsuit.
The majority of people wear full sleeved. A few people prefer the sleeveless, for more range of motion in the arms. The thickness of the triathlon suits are all pretty much the same: 2/4/5. I think it's 5 in the hips and core, 4 in the legs and arms, and 2 at all of the joints.
The best wetsuit is the wetsuit that fits you the best. Different brands, and even different models within a brand, are cut differently. If you're going to buy a suit, try a few different ones on and you'll know the one that feels the best on. People seem to like the Blue Seventy and the 2XU. Orca is also popular, but there are about 20 different brands out there, depending on how much you want to spend, etc.
More wetsuit tips here.
How far do we swim on Monday nights?
Both groups swim for 45 minutes. The Workout Swim covers approximately 1.25 miles. The Coached Swim covers approximately 1\3/4 mile.
What is the pace of the groups?
The Workout group swims at about a 30- to 40-minute mile pace, with three to five rest stops along the way. The Coached group swims at about a 40- to 45-minute mile pace, with many rest stops along the way, swimming 100 to 500 yards at a time.
Things to know if you are getting in the Bay for the first time: Usually the things that freak people out about the open water are:
-the salty taste
-not being able to see in the water (there is no visibility)
-not being able to touch the bottom or hang on to the wall
-not being able to see where you are going
But, it is possible to become comfortable with all of the above. It takes a little practice, and patience. It will also take some time to build up endurance and stamina. All of this is possible, though!