The Farallon Islands To The Golden Gate Bridge

The Farallon Islands To The Golden Gate Bridge

This slice of history about swimming from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge is provided by Ted Erikson.

This story, resurrected from old dusty files, is updated to include details of open water marathon swims that are generally unknown to most of the public (even some swimmers) particularly tidal current problems caused by floods and ebbs.

The first (and only to date) swim from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge was accomplished on September 16, 1967, a distance of 48.9 km. (~31.5 miles) in 14 hours and 38 minutes. This effort, through frigid and shark-infested tidal waters stands for 46 years.

Several previous, and 2 failed attempts in 1966 emphasize the challenges of this open water marathon swim: hypothermia from water temperatures about 50°F (10°C), frustration of progress from ebb tidal currents up to 4.5 knots (8.3 km/hr or 5.2 mph), and fear of attack by shark sightings (shootings to avert). And for those who fear drowning in deep water (as I do for a childish reason), a lesson on the sine qua non of anyone who swims (inhale above, exhale below).

In 2008, Vito Bialla and Bay area swimmers formed the Night Train Swimmers with the mission, “to raise awareness and money for charities around the world through swimming”. Now, since 2011, the Farallon Island Swimming Federation (FISF) sanction attempts to dethrone this aging record. With solo attempts unsuccessful to date, two 6-person relay teams (one male and one female) of Night Train Swimmers validated Island to Bridge swims, however the best effort was 8 minutes shy of the time that has stood for nearly a half-century. Gulf of the Farallone crossings from island-to-bridge, bridge-to-island and (less so) island to mainland require special attention; to current and swimming vectors, time and positions for each, and co-ordination to make best use of ebb and flood tidal currents in situ. A swimmer needs the flood to enter the Bay and arrive at the Golden Gate Bridge, or be resigned to swim: the nearest mainland by onset of the ebb, or ~6 more hours to gain the next flood!

INHALE ABOVE…EXHALE Below © 1966,1968, 2006, 2013 by Ted Erikson

PREFACE: 2013 (updated)

This story, drafted after the swim in 1967, has resided in dusty files, forgotten and unpublished. It is here updated, to include details of open water marathon swims that are generally unknown to most of the public, particularly tidal current problems.

In summertime, as a child growing up on a ranch in Montana, my stepfather, brother, and I would occasionally wash and splash in a nearby reservoir. My brother (seven years older) had a perverse streak of repeatedly submerging my head under water in efforts to get me to say “Uncle”. Yelling,”No, stop!”, wasted a chance to breathe above water as he would push me under the water again. I gulped water when below until I nearly drowned. I learned to scream into the water and was then able to quietly gasp air above water, finding that I could win the game because my brother became bored and would stop. Thus was imprinted the sine-qua-non of swimming…inhale above, exhale below.

While enjoying the laurels of a successful non-stop England-France-England swim, I became aware of the Farallon Island swim in late September of 1965. Hawaiian swimmer Ike Papke of the San Francisco Dolphin Club, became another failure in an attempt to swim some 28 miles from the Isles to the California coast. A research associate coaxed me to swim to the Golden Gate Bridge. Part 1 reports the 2 failures of 1966. Part 2 reports results of the next year. In August 1967, Lt. Colonel Stuart Evans accomplished Papke’s attempt in 13:44. Focusing on the original goal, I made the 48.9 km (30.5 statue or 26.4 nautical miles) in 14 hours and 38 minutes.

In 2011, Night Train Swimmers turned their attention to these events of nearly a half-century ago by forming the Farallon Island Swimming Federation (FISF) to organize and sanction such attempts. Crossings from island-to-bridge, bridge-to-island and, (less so) island-to-mainland, require very special attention to frigid waters, tidal currents, and denizens of the deep, unlike English Channel crossings. The Golden Gate Bridge as a goal was proven in 2012 by two 6-person Night Train relay successes (one male and another female). However, their best effort was 8 minutes shy of the 1967 individual record.

To plan for a specific time to arrive at a position to gain a free ride on a maximum flood current into the Bay to the Golden Gate Bridge is a complex tidal current vector problem. Such factors to make use of tidal currents in any open water marathon make up this update in Part III.


After my double English Channel crossing of 1965, a friend in California, Paul Girard, then bureau chief for the Vallejo Times Herald, flattered me in a congratulatory letter, “…bet you can’t do the Farallon swim that has been tried by so many others.” With past successes up to 60 miles, the distance seemed trivial and I replied to Mr. Girard that swimming to the majestic Golden Gate Bridge would be a more challenging goal – three more miles than all past attempts. This statement ended the year of 1965 and became a consuming and ominous vow.

The winter of the following year found me busy researching the particulars of this swim. My enthusiasm waned as I read Mr. Girard’s “…not many people swim in this area because the water is too cold, currents are too strong, and fear of sharks…” Three rather disturbing bits of information became apparent: First, the water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean between the Farallon Islands and San Francisco rarely exceed 55ºF, and can drop below 50ºF, making these waters quite colder than the famed English Channel. Secondly, tidal currents directly oppose progress into San Francisco Bay for about six hours of every 12. English Channel currents are generally parallel to shore forcing swimmers sideways to miss any of nearest shore goals. Finally, I learned that occasional Great White shark sightings occur in these waters and there had been two fatal attacks recently documented.

Nonetheless, in early April, I began my training with short plunges into the barely thawed waters of Lake Michigan. Added to these ice baths were extensive weight training (high-repeat, low-load) and 13 miles of biking to and from work. Plus, the many hours of rote kicking, pulling, and swimming during the following four months are too boring to describe. The object is to rally, and place on tap, all of one’s bodily resources. The amount of effort required for a marathoner who desires success is simply defined by a guiding paradox: Train each day until exhausted, but not so much that it cannot be repeated, or surpassed, on the next.

With physical conditioning in the final stages, financial requirements began to trouble me. Then, fate intervened. My propellant contract with the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (I was a Senior Chemist at the IIT Research Institute) required a research report at a contractor’s meeting at UC Berkley nearby in mid-August. With travel expenses paid, and by adding some vacation time, a Farallon swim was realizable.

My research report at the Berkeley meeting was not my best, since I had became so preoccupied with the details involved in the swim. After the session on Friday the 13th, 1966 with my work obligations retired, I called Paul Girard about the swim.

Over the weekend we checked the U.S. Coast Guard and Geodetic Survey tidal charts. For maximum hours of daylight to approach the bay on the flood, the lunar cycle required an attempt within three days. Seeking a mother boat at Fisherman’s Wharf, we found fishing Captain Bill Brittain who (subject to weather and fishing party conflicts) consented to escort our party. He dampened my enthusiasm with his vagueness about details for this precarious “fishing” trip. Nonetheless, it was agreed to rendezvous at two o’clock on the morning of August 16 so as to make for the Farallons at an early dawn start. My apprehension grew over the weekend.

The crew included Paul Girard, his wife Nancy, my stepfather
Steven Munatones