Around the Rock Race Report: DNF / DQ


 Alcatraz from Aquatic Park

I’ve never said this phrase or acronym about a race. DNF, did not finish. DQ, disqualified. My mind is still even trying to process it, to be honest. Generally, when you don’t have a mechanical error or a serious medical situation, you 100% control whether or not you finish anything. You just push through the pain and get it done.

Open water swimming in the ocean is a different story. There are important lessons to be had about mother nature. Poor judgement or simply bull headed brute force efforts, can be disastrous.

The annual Around the Rock swim race was held this weekend. And the flood tide was stronger than expected.


The thick red line is my route for the race, as plotted by my Garmin 920XT. The green line was the plan of record for the return leg once I rounded the north of the island. The purple arrows are the direction of the flood current.

The way out to Alcatraz was a breeze. Perfectly on target, and swimming with the tide. Once around the north side of the island though, which was spectacularly turbulent, and the first sign of trouble, we turned straight south. And that flood tide hit us like whole gale force winds. To be fair, I knew we’d be swimming against the flood on the way home, since we had swam out with it.

The current was unbelievable.

There was no perceivable progress from the water. In hind sight, and after looking at the charts, it was indeed southward progress, but just too little to notice over distance and time. From the water, I could tell I was drifting further East. And that was getting frustrating. When I would swim towards my southward targets (the red circle-X’s at the bottom), I’d drift further East into the bay. When I would correct my target west (towards the Golden Gate) to try and make-up ground, I’d stop making southward progress across the channel. Essentially swimming in place. Both very bad situations.

My watch read an hour 45 minutes and 6,600 yards. I asked a nearby kayaker if we were making progress, and what the currents were doing. He said slow progress, and that the flood current was still very strong. Mentally unsatisfied, I launched back into my assault homeward, knowing I needed to make a decision.

The first obvious option was to just swim harder and beat the flood. But I knew that path would not likely be successful, and it would lead to complete exhaustion. I had already been trying to do that, and was getting tired. Complete exhaustion wouldn’t be good given the environment. Another option was to slow down to conserve energy, but I would drift further East into the bay, guaranteeing a boat pickup, and a DNF or DQ. And if I went into conservation mode, but the flood magically subsided before a mandatory boat pickup, it would mean an even longer swim to get home.

The odds were down to my swimming ability against mother nature. And it was blatantly obvious who had the upper hand.

At that hour 45 mark, already my longest swim by time, my shoulders were feeling it. Doubt and reason crept in. After doing some quick fuzzy math, I estimated at least another 30 minutes to get home, or about a 2h 15m total swim time, if all at full effort. And even with a wetsuit, the longer I was in the water, the greater the risk of hypothermia. 2 hours was too long. With a risk of hypothermia, while marginal, my judgement itself could take its own dive south.

I was out of good options.

In complete and utter disbelief at my fate, I stopped swimming and raised my hand to flag support. I drifted East for a few seconds until I was near enough to the closest kayaker and said, “I’m done, call the boat.”  He said, “ok, grab onto my kayak.” Then I heard him radio the nearest boat for a swimmer pickup. You can barely notice it in the map, but in those few seconds, we drifted East 200 yards.

The boat was there quickly, and I was a little surprised to see 3 or 4 swimmers already on-board (there were 3 to 5 boats out there). From the boat, I looked East into the bay, and saw swimmers strewn about all battling the flood, with some of them already quite far into the bay and getting picked up. At that point, what happened became super real. Mother Nature’s flood out-powered us, beyond what our imaginations could have anticipated.

Luckily, there were no disasters, a 100% testament to the swim team’s program, the experience level of all our swimmers, and the expert kayakers and safety boats out there looking out for us. Distance swimming kayakers are guardian angels.

While I had my mind set that it was a DNF or even a DQ, and I just wanted to get to dry land, they were dropping us closer to a flood break (the blue X’s and arrow on my GPS map above). From there, we finished the swim. Regardless of how it’s pitched, that a repositioning is really just a safety measure, not a DQ or DNF, it technically is since we had boat assistance.

You win this year’s match, Alcatraz. See ya next year.

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