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Open Water Rowing
Not Your Everday Flatwater Regatta
September 10, 2000
JD Schaefer

My doubles partner Ellen had never been around the Golden Gate Bridge South Tower before. Certainly not under race conditions nor with the full force of a raging flood tide trying to keep us from getting past the tower so we could reverse direction and continue with the last 9 miles of this 12-mile race. She couldn't have imagined the uncertainties caused by rowing next to the tower and not have the scenery change. We rowed and we rowed but the boat DIDN'T move. It was as if the current were challenging us to do more. Piled on top of that were the waves coming over the gunnels filling up the boat. I knew a lot of what she was thinking because I was certainly unprepared for the South Tower experience my first time in this race. All I could say was "Keep on rowing, don't stop" in as calm a voice as I could muster. So there we are pulling hard after the first quarter of the race and we just are NOT moving. We knuckle down, pull still harder and we start inching past the tower so we can change directions and go with tide.

We wanted to beat Jon Sanger to the tower which we did but he was able to maneuver around the tower much quicker because of his boat size and previous experiences with this race. Now he was ahead of us and I growled to myself. One part of my brain said "After him" while a somewhat more responsible portion reminded me to get my partner and myself out of this roiling mess in which our gunnels were under water for agonizingly long minutes. We slowly made our way around so that we were headed in the direction we wanted, the direction of the current. However the forces generated by the strength of the tide bouncing off the massive structure supporting the most beautiful bridge in the world continued to dump massive volumes of water in our boat. The temptation to panic was never far. I just kept remembering the two water tight (I hoped) compartments in the bow and stern that were keeping us afloat despite the massive weight of all the water in the cockpit which actually covered our legs. The comparison to swimming was striking. We couldn't have been wetter. It was like we were just trying to stay afloat by thrashing about with these 3 meter long poles in our hands.

Ten years previously, I had built a testing shack for the Department of the Interior at the base of the same tower for the purpose of analyzing the chemical makeup of the Bay at that location for commercial fishermen. I glance up to see if it's still there and forego the temptation to point out my minor achievement to my erstwhile partner who probably didn't need additional distractions at that point in time.

Bill Erkelens is unkindly slammed by a large wave and he smiles gamely as he flips over. He's soon out of the water, in his shell and racing again and finishes a remarkable 7th place out of 30 or so boats.

We get 15 meters past the tower and open our bailers while waves still wash over us. I can't say the waves were washing over the gunnels since the gunnels were just below the surface already. How, we ask ourselves are these two tiny self bailers going to suck out the constant barrage of invading sea water that never-endingly assaults our tiny 29 foot long piece of floating fiberglass. In all races, one has to have a course of action and stick to it. We do, and once we're 80-meters past the tower, the conditions are much calmer and there are only pints of water in the boat whereas before there were 10s of gallons. NOW we can go after Jon Sanger. But the creep has other ideas.

In the skippers' meeting before the race, it was suggested that our return course from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge be between San Francisco and Alcatraz. We take that course and see either through style, grace and or strength (or none of the above), that we distance ourselves from those rowing closer to shore. We soon get to Pier 39, a tourist trap that has dozens of sea lions, barking loudly with their body odors assaulting our olfactory nerves. Right after that landmark, we make the turn to the Bay Bridge and see the distance to Jon Sanger is closing.

Ellen's style is excellent and my endurance is holding up (don't ask about my style). I utter words of encouragement to let her know how close we're getting to Jon. As we come into the turn around the west tower (the one not connected to dry land) of the Bay Bridge, we're bow to stern with Jon. Singles can always make a tighter turn than a double so we lose some distance on him at this tower but I'm more determined to overtake him in the last quarter of the race.

We hug the coastline and Jon kindly warns us as we nearly become entangled with nearly invisible fishing lines from nearby piers. We gain on him but he finds little inlets where the current going against us is kinder to him than to us. We almost pull even but he ducks in again and powers his way across the finish line 13 seconds ahead of us. I halfheartedly consider clever forms of revenge. I settle on the goal of beating him in the next race.

I'm proud of Ellen for her bravery under very stressful conditions. Nothing could have prepared her for the experience at the South Tower. A 12-mile race without waterbreaks through challenging conditions is not something everyone can accomplish and still maintain a benign composure after hauling our tuckered carcasses and the somewhat waterlogged Maas Dragonfly out of the water.

We're the fifth ones in and it feels good to be done. We look around at those that have finished before and after us and the shared sense of survival strengthens bonds that enhance the friendship that all open water rowers seem to feel for each other. No room for elitism or overt display of club affiliation here.

We enjoy the best lunch South End Rowing Club (started in 1891) has served in the seven years I've been racing here. We sit in the warming sun on the club deck comparing hair raising experiences. 73 year old Norm Peterson was flipped by the surf and lost his seat but his infectious grin and saluting bottle of beer just enhance the day's experience. The awards are handed out by the event organizer Diane Davis and the smile on her tired face (she and her partner Tom McInerney were the first over the line and made a course record for mixed doubles) reminds us, at that point in time, there's nowhere else we'd rather be.

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