Interview with Amy Appelhans Gubser: Her Remarkable Marathon Swim to the Farallon Islands

Interview with Amy Appelhans Gubser: Her Remarkable Marathon Swim to the Farallon Islands

On May 11, 2024, Amy Appelhans Gubser, a 55-year-old grandmother and nurse from Pacifica, California, achieved a historic feat that has earned her a distinguished place in the annals of marathon swimming. She became the first person to swim from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Farallon Islands, a journey of nearly 30 miles through some of the most challenging waters on Earth.

The Farallon Islands are a remote and rugged group of islands located about 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco. Known as the “Islands of the Dead” by the Ohlone people and “Devil’s Teeth” by 19th-century sailors, the Farallones are a prominent part of Northern California’s “Red Triangle.” This area is infamous for its large population of great white sharks, which come to feed on seals and sea lions, especially during the fall and winter months. The Red Triangle, extending from Bodega Bay to the Farallones and down to Monterey Bay, is notorious for its shark activity, making it one of the most dangerous marine regions for both humans and marine life.

Amy’s journey began in the pre-dawn darkness at 3:25 a.m., when she immersed herself under the Golden Gate Bridge. Her timing was crucial as she rode a powerful ebb tide, covering a third of the distance to the islands in just four hours. However, the remaining 19.7 miles would prove to be a grueling test of endurance and mental fortitude, taking an additional 13 hours to complete. She reached Fisherman Bay on Southeast Farallon Island in the waning daylight, completing the swim in just over 17 hours.

Amy’s remarkable achievement was supported by a meticulously prepared and dedicated crew. Captain Chad Dahlberg of Pacific Rival Fisheries, who took on the role only two days before the swim, piloted the vessel. The crew chief, Abby Fairman, coordinated the team, which included support swimmer Kirk McKinney, Sarah Roberts, and John Sims. John Chapman provided vital assistance from a bright yellow kayak, humorously dubbed the “yum yum yellow kayak.” The observer, Ken Mignosa, who only took one break to swim alongside Amy in the coldest waters.

The logistical challenges leading up to the swim were significant. Just days before the attempt, the team had to adapt to major changes. Despite these hurdles, Amy’s determination and the unwavering support of her team ensured the success of the swim. Joe Robertson from Pacific Rival Fisheries, a long-time colleague of Amy’s husband at SMCHD, provided essential deck support.

Amy’s journey from a reluctant swimmer to a marathon swim legend is inspiring. She attended the University of Michigan on a swimming scholarship, competing as a backstroker from 1986 to 1990. After graduation, she stepped away from the sport to focus on her nursing career and raising her family.

About ten years ago, a friend from the South End Rowing Club in San Francisco persuaded her to return to the water. The freezing water numbed her feet, and she couldn’t imagine immersing her whole body in the water. However, she eventually took the plunge and began to swim. As her body acclimated to the cold, a remarkable sensation washed over her. “Every cell in my body felt alive,” she described. Despite initial reluctance and fear, Amy rediscovered her passion for swimming and quickly became hooked on open-water challenges.

From that moment, Amy was captivated by open water swimming. She joined the South End Rowing Club and participated in their annual swim from Alcatraz back to the club. Her training included swims from Alcatraz to the South End Rowing Club, under the Golden Gate Bridge, across Santa Monica Bay, and from Santa Catalina Island to the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Her swim career includes numerous notable swims, such as a Strait of Gibraltar crossing from Spain to Morocco, a 44.2 km crossing of Lake Tahoe, a Catalina Channel crossing, the SCAR Swim Challenge, and a 27-mile crossing of Santa Monica Bay.

Yet, the Farallon Islands, visible from her home in Pacifica, held a unique allure. Amy is a mother of two, with two grandchildren and a third on the way. In an interview for the San Francisco Chronicle during a lunch break at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, where she is a nurse coordinator in the fetal cardiac unit she said, “It was the toughest thing that I have ever set out to do.” In the same interview she said, “I joke with my husband all the time that I could swim there. It just draws me because it is so captivating and eerie.”  

It took five years to prepare for the swim, with training at the SERC club and the Burlingame Aquatic Club Masters two to three mornings a week. She swam in the bay for two hours in the dark against an incoming tide, often training before her workday started at 7:45 a.m.

Amy’s ability to withstand extremely cold water is a distinguishing part of this accomplishment. During her Farallon swim, she faced water temperatures ranging from 43 to 57 degrees Fahrenheit. When she hit the continental shelf, the Farallon Escarpment which reaches a depth of over 6,000 feet the water temperature dropped to 43 degrees. She mentioned she’d never been before in water colder than 47 degrees. Despite the cold, Amy persevered, motivated by her dedication to her stepbrother, Dan Fine, 67, who is fighting stage four pancreatic cancer. Her swim was a tribute to those she loves.

Amy’s accomplishment has garnered admiration and respect within the marathon swimming community. Amy’s modesty about her physical conditioning contrasts with the extraordinary nature of her achievements. She jokingly refers to herself as a “grandma lady,” yet her high tolerance for cold and mental toughness set her apart as an elite swimmer.

Can you describe the moment you decided to take on the challenge of swimming from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Farallon Islands? What was going through your mind?

Amy Appelhans Gubser: That is a good question — I want to express that this goal seemed like an unobtainable one until I challenged myself on a few other cold water swims: Monterey Bay and North Channel! Our open water community and fellow swimmers encouraged me to tackle this beastly swim, and I could not have done it without their support! 

When the horizon is clear — I see those islands and feel completely captivated by them! Yes, I have read “The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks” by Susan Casey, and I know that the Ohlone native Americans referred to these islands as the “Islands of the Dead” which further deepened the mystery and the draw to conquer this swim.

How did you cope with the physical and mental demands of swimming in such frigid waters, especially when temperatures dropped to 43 degrees Fahrenheit?

Amy Appelhans Gubser: I trained very hard in the cold and dark to prepare for this swim! I have Jon Grunstad accompanying me with his little boat every Tuesday and Thursday morning @05am toes in! I would swim until 07 — not using any warming shower or sauna and I needed to be at work at 0745. I also swam at BAC masters 2 days/week to work on my technique and speed (of which I am NOT a fast swimmer anymore — but still awesome) Then the weekends I would get the hours in and the distance! There were even two pool swims where I was able to get 30k (repeat 10k’s) in the water in 1 day.  So training to physically be ready built my confidence — but also 43 degree water was unexpected (I prepared for upper 40s)!!!!! So glad my crew did not tell me how cold it was! 

What was the most challenging part of your journey, and how did you push through it?

Amy Appelhans Gubser: The most challenging part of this swim was that 2 days before the swim I needed to find a new boat and captain due to the prior commitment of my original boat. Having connections with pillar point harbor master, Dante Madrigal, helped connect me with Chad Dahlberg of Pacific Rival fisheries and I was able to secure this commercial fisherman for this swim due to the fact that salmon is closed to commercial fishing! 

I would honestly say that the biggest obstacle with this change was the sacrifice of a proper bathroom for my crew (Abby and Sarah) had the most significant concession to agree to! This is a commercial fishing boat not a cruise ship! 

Can you tell us more about your support team and how their roles contributed to your success during the swim?

Amy Appelhans Gubser: Crew chief: Abby Fairman, is a rock solid team player who knows my swim ability and the depth of my swim grit (having both of us finish SCAR in 2017 — with gale force winds). We train together when she is in town or we are traveling together! She ensured I was training hard for this! Crew/support swimmers: Sarah Roberts and Kirk McKinney are my training partners (Beast pod), I have traveled the world with them and have challenged ourselves in open water swimming, Crew/Tactician: John is my dear friend who assisted the captain to ensure we would arrive at the island, I have traveled the world with John and swam with him on a relay team round trip to the Farallones (along with Kirk McKinney) and trust him with my life, Crew/kayaker: John Chapman is an incredible waterman who had to brave the rotation in a yellow kayak to bring me to the buoy! He had to recon with the reality he may be first responder if there was an incident with a shark—not to under appreciate the magnitude of this situation. Ken Mignosa: observer is my training buddy and good friend who I entrusted with the documentation and lead first aid responder (he teaches CPR/first aid/lifeguard training).

Chad Dahlberg – captain and expert commercial fisherman who had to drive at a very slow pace (much less than his trolling speed) to get me to a small island surrounded by treacherous currents. Joey Robertson, deck hand was there for all around safety!

How did your background as a nurse help you prepare for and endure the grueling conditions of this marathon swim?

Amy Appelhans Gubser: My background as a nurse has been a vital asset! Working night shift enabled me to know my physical boundaries. I also have learned how to compartmentalize so that I can tackle each challenge individually and not be overwhelmed!

What was your emotional state when you saw the Farallon Islands approaching after so many hours in the water?

Amy Appelhans Gubser: I did NOT see the islands at all until the last 100 meters — the islands were shrouded in fog! I was literally swimming in a sensory deprivation state for 17 hours — water was red tide and I have no visibility past my fingertips (which I am grateful for).

But when I was at the buoy I cried with joy!!!

You mentioned dedicating this swim to your brother and friends battling cancer. How did this dedication influence your determination and mindset during the swim?

Amy Appelhans Gubser: My brother Dan is my hero! He faces his challenges with poise and grace! He is fighting for his life daily! I channeled this to fight to help me through this swim!

I also have several friends battling cancer right now who are also my heroes! Keep up the fight!!!

The reality is that my swim was only 17 hours, I cannot hold a candle to the intensity and duration of those fights — I had to succeed on my swim so I can give them inspiration and strength.

How has completing this historic swim changed your perspective on your capabilities and future challenges you might take on?

Amy Appelhans Gubser: I am still not aware of my capabilities but I have learned that I do have some grit! I look forward to taking on more challenges in the future-the swim horizons are endless! I look forward to challenging myself and inspiring others!

Can you share any specific songs or thoughts that kept you motivated during the toughest parts of your swim?

Amy Appelhans Gubser: My mind is funny, I can think about everything and nothing at the same time. I can only count to 77 — then I lose count, I can only remember portions of songs — typically the verse, I laughed at the swarm of bats that was around us at dawn — I think the universe was telling me I am “bat sh-t crazy” — which gave me a great laugh!

What advice would you give to someone who dreams of tackling extreme challenges but feels overwhelmed by fear and doubt?

Amy Appelhans Gubser: Find a good group of people they support your crazy, and support them too with their crazy! 

Educate yourself and others about the challenges of open water swimming: currents, temperature, training, nutrition…

Do not get overwhelmed at the whole swim-break it down into manageable parts and just “keep swimming.”

Her story will undoubtedly inspire many to pursue their own seemingly impossible goals.

Photos courtesy of Amy Appelhans Gubser