Sports Corner
The Endorphin High Of A Bay Plunge

November 2011

Dolphin Club members prepare for an endorphin rush (Photo: Ian Ranmsley Design + Illustration/Flickr)

Immersing the most sensitive parts of the body in terribly cold water, body temperature dropping, the threat of “ice cream head,” the prospect of being nipped on the foot or nudged by a frisky sea lion or seal, fingers and toes quickly numbing – this is San Francisco Bay swimming. So why do it?

“The endorphin high,” says Reuben Hechanova, president of the Dolphin Club, the 130-year-old swim and rowing club located just below Ghirardelli Square where Russian Hill meets the Bay. “Coming out [of the chilly water] is something addicting.”

Other swimmers concur. Krist Jake, who’s been swimming at the Dolphin Club for 20 years and often scooters over from Cow Hollow, says, “Once you get going, 5 or 10 minutes in the water, it’s just heaven, especially in the winter.”

The Dolphin Club, and its twin rival, the South End Rowing Club, sit on City parkland and therefore are open to the public. For the day rate of $6.50, anyone can walk in, change and swim. The Dolphin Club is full of charm; South End Rowing has dank lockers and a sense that a hard-core ice-plunger is better surrounded by the barest minimum of necessities.

If you enjoy the ambiance of comfy chairs and peaceful clubrooms with spectacular views of Aquatic Park and the Bay, then head into the Dolphin Club, change and swim. Earplugs, Neoprene bathing caps (both to ward off “ice cream head”), and goggles are strongly recommended. A wetsuit is not.

According to devoted swimmers, a wetsuit defiles the Bay-swimming experience. “Wearing wetsuits misses the whole point,” says Tommy Sancimino, a broad, smiling man standing in the sunshine, gazing out at the water, seemingly mesmerized by the Bay. Tommy is part owner of Swan Oyster Depot on Polk Street, an institution connected to the sea for almost as many years as the Dolphin Club. Tommy continues, “When we were kids and we hurt an ankle or something, my dad would say, ‘Get in the [Bay] water. The sooner you get back in the water, the better you feel.’”

Who can argue with the logic of the health benefits of salt-and-mineral-rich water, what with the price of a jar of mineral-laden Dead Sea mud equal to that of 18 shucked oysters served on a platter at Swan Oyster?

A course of buoys marks out a one-mile circuit, and most swimmers methodically stroke along these markers. For newbies, an up and back to the nearest marker is one-quarter mile. Then it’s time to hit the sauna and bask in the sun, if it makes an appearance.

This routine challenges one’s fortitude enough on a sunny October day when the water temperature is near its annual high. What about in the middle of winter when it seems that Alaska is shoving icebergs into San Francisco Bay?

Mickey, who comes up from San Bruno, says, “You’ve got to be religious when the temperature gets down. You’ve got to swim a minimum two times a week. It feels better in winter. You have a special relationship with the sauna.”

For those who want to get out on the Bay, but not in it, both the Dolphin Club and the South End Rowing Club offer rowing in non tipping, wood-hulled boats. At the Dolphin Club, after some training, you can lower one of the 200-pound, polished, immaculate boats from a dolly into the Bay and head off, dry. Sometimes rowers haul across to Sam’s Restaurant in Tiburon (45 minutes) or around Alcatraz.

Everyone I meet at these clubs seems blissed out. Is it from swimming enough to be in good shape? Or is it a happy symptom of regularly numbing one’s body in the Bay? Could it be from the fact that Gold Rush-era maps show the site of the swimming clubs very near a lead smelting factory?

Perhaps you have to be a bit wacky to endure so much discomfort. And you can’t mind being an object of wonder to the bundled-up tourist hordes stuffing their mouths with hot dogs and chocolate while they watch you swim. Go ahead and take the plunge. It just might change your life.

Steve Hermanos is the author of O, Gigantic Victory! Baseball Poems: The 2010 Championship Season. He is a real estate agent at 2200 Union Street. E-mail: [email protected]