Where will you find yourself at sunrise on New Year’s Day? Snoring peacefully? Hung over atop a pile of empty Veuve Clicquot bottles? Stirring a vat of black-eyed peas for a giant brunch?
If you’re one of 99 members of the South End Rowing Club (SERC), the long-running athletic organization at San Francisco’s Aquatic Park, you will be in the middle of San Francisco Bay, braving frigid waters and occasionally wicked tides to swim the 1.25 miles from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park.
“Or, rather, 1.5 miles once you take into account the currents,” incoming club entertainment commissioner Erika Gliebe told The Standard. “Some of the fastest swimmers will finish in 30 minutes, and others in an hour.”
To be eligible, she added, you must participate in a qualifier to ensure that you’re physically capable and won’t become hypothermic, requiring a 911 call. The event is capped at 99 swimmers, because if it exceeds 100, SERC would need all sorts of medical responders on hand. As it is, some 40 support personnel—some on kayaks, some on inflatable boats and all of them volunteers—ensure that swimmers are safe and heading toward Aquatic Park Cove’s narrow entrance.
“It’s threading a needle, navigating the currents to that tiny opening,” said Gliebe, who will be an on-shore coordinator on New Year’s Day but who has swam from Alcatraz more than 30 times over two decades. “If a swimmer is looking distressed, they will give them advice in real time.”
The National Park Service’s indefinite closure of Aquatic Park’s pier hasn’t affected SERC much—at least, not as much as the fishermen who make their living there. But it’s disintegrating, and the swimmers—who range in age from 18 to their 60s and 70s—know not to venture too close. Some nautical veterans have successfully swam from the rocky island as many as 1,000 times.
Gliebe describes the crossing in the you-never-know-what-you’re-gonna-get metaphor familiar to anyone who’s watched Forrest Gump.
“We do have a good idea of what the currents may do, but it's an estimate or a forecast. That’s why we do a test swim the day before, then shift it by 45 minutes based on tides,” she said. “You also have vessel traffic. If there’s a big tanker coming through, they have priority.”
Unlike most polar bear plunges and other moderately-insane-sounding New Year’s Day shocks to the system, SERC’s Alcatraz swim isn’t just people “jumping in to frolic,” Gliebe added. Water temperatures this winter have been among the chilliest in more than a decade, averaging around 49 degrees. So when the swimmers make it back around 8 or 9 a.m., they’ll be taken care of by the cheering volunteers of one of the oldest athletic clubs on the West Coast.
“For South End Rowing Club, 2023 is our 150th anniversary, so it is a massively huge year,” Gliebe said. “We will celebrate the end of the swim with a beautiful breakfast and a champagne toast.”
Will it be a perfunctory pour of Cook’s, or a crystal flute of something truly fabulous, like Dom Pérignon?
“Whatever BevMo has,” Gliebe said.