The Big Swim

It’s been a year of big swims at the South End Rowing Club: Steve, Andrew and Cameron across the cold, challenging North Sea; Asha in force five winds across the English Channel; Sue checking off all twelve bridges in Portland’s Bridge swim; Sofra nailing both Catalina and the length of Tahoe, only weeks apart. Ryan setting the record time for another length of Tahoe; Melissa’s Catalina butterfly. Kim will soon swim for over forty-five hours from Sacramento to San Francisco. There have been other Tahoe lengths, by Susie, Scott and Elaine. More Catalina’s.



My swim this past Monday morning wasn’t quite so big (‘though champ Simon called it “a big effort”) or quite so challenging as these, but big enough for me. It was a challenge I set for myself to celebrate turning 65: swim across a diagonal width of Lake Tahoe. Swim Commissioner and Tahoe swim master pilot Tom Linthicum devised the route he’s dubbed The Viking: Cave Rock on the Nevada side of the lake to the top of Emerald Bay in California. It’s called The Viking because to complete the distance the swimmer must walk up the beach at Emerald Bay and knock on the door of Vikingsholm, the 1929 Scandinavian inspired mansion that sits at the head of the Bay. It’s hoped that Odin might answer. It’s been a popular swim this summer, with Mina, Cathy, Robin, Kim, Andrew and Zach already completing it.



Inspiration came the year before when I swam in Tahoe’s mountain ringed, azure waters for the first time while accompanying my wife Brenda at the North Tahoe Rowing Regatta. The fresh crystal clear water transfixed me. I knew about the Olympic Club Trans-Tahoe Relay, but wondered aloud whether anyone swam across solo. Brenda said of course and that’s when I decided perhaps I could do this.



Things got serious after my birthday in January, when feeling older in body than in mind, I made the commitment to swim across the lake. I joined the USF master’s swim team to improve my speed and technique and with Brenda’s expert help laid out a program of training swims once the Bay began to warm up in May.


The journey leading up to the swim has been as rewarding as completing the swim, the biggest surprise being my delight with being back on a swim team and competing. From the time I was eight until senior year in college I was a competitive swimmer, with a few records and achievements to bank on. I swam on and off over the years since, but never competitively again until this year. Now, with both the Pacific Masters short and long course championships behind me, I’m back in the competition groove, enjoying my team, Coach Val and improving my times. Our team has a healthy older contingent so I look forward to years of active participation.



Training in the Bay has had its own rewards, both in increasing my endurance and improving mindset. After swimming nine continuous coves, for over four and a half hours, I knew nothing could be as bloody boring as that. I tested feeding routines, settling on a combination of CarboPro mixed with Hammer Gel, with a few Gu’s and suckable baby food (apples, blueberries and oats) in between. (But, I never acquired the skill to pee and swim at the same time without stopping.)


From beginning to end, Brenda guided my planning. There wasn’t any question that my crew would be Brenda together with our good friends Jim and Michele Knight—Jim being a fast and expert swimmer himself. Tom Linthicum would captain the boat and lead the swim.


We arrived in Tahoe on Saturday afternoon and headed straight to Emerald Bay so that I could see my destination—get a good fix on the house and the beach where I would be finishing. We walked the mile down to Vikingsholm beach, where Jim and I took a test swim in the warm water. Any anxiety I had about getting cold while swimming was alleviated. Compared to San Francisco Bay, the clear fresh water was balmy.



After dinner made by Michele at home (we had rented fellow SERC member Trudy Molina’s house near Tahoe City for the long weekend) we all turned in around 5:00pm, since we were getting up at midnight to meet Tom at his boat—the Ghost Rider– moored in South Lake Tahoe at 2:00am. Once there, we made final preparations, securing glow lights to the kayak, organizing my feeding bottles, making little last minute adjustments to how the swim would proceed. We set off from the dock and motored over a few miles to the small boat launch at Cave Rock in Nevada, ready for the 3:00am start.


The night was cool, not cold. Light from a half moon behind overall cloud cover barely broke through the general darkness. Brenda was my first kayaker. Once she had the kayak in the water, we were ready to go. Tom moved the boat out into the lake, Brenda began paddling, and I walked down the boat ramp and swam out into the black, flat mysterious water.


Swimming is always solitary—even on a relay. Swimming in open water is doubly so since nothing is remotely in control of the swimmer except his own movement, his own thoughts. Swimming at night in the dark, in the dark lake water, creates its own watery cocoon of awareness. The only things to see are the glow sticks glimmering ahead on the kayak.


During one of my training swims I had counted my strokes from the end of the South End dock to the flag at the west side of the Cove: 335 strokes, about a quarter of a mile. I used this mental yardstick as I swam across the lake. One cove down, two, three…Sometimes I would lose count, especially if interrupted by a feeding, and start over; or just count 100 strokes, multiple times. It passed the time. By the end I was counting 10 strokes, 10 strokes, 10 strokes.



At dawn I figured I was about half way across. Oddly, time passed more slowly in the daylight. Maybe it was because distances are so deceiving on the water, especially from the swimmer’s point of view. When I reached the opening of Emerald Bay I knew I was on the home stretch. It seemed to come easily up to that point—despite often veering off course, swimming away from my kayaker. Then my boat crew—Brenda, Michele and Tom—would all yell out “stay with the kayak, stay with the kayak!” Tom even held up a sign at one point STAY WITH KAYAK. Did I swim an extra quarter mile all those times looping back to my guide? I have no explanation why I often swam off to the left. Pulling harder with my right arm?



Swimming the length of Emerald Bay, in the early morning, is a magical experience. Tiny Fannette Island, the only island in Lake Tahoe, floats near the end, with it’s ruined stone “Tea House” perched on top. The length of the bay is over a mile long and again the distance looks deceivingly close. I thought I would never get to the island! About a hundred yards from the beach Jim jumped in and swam along side me. As evidence of how tired I was feeling, Jim swam sidestroke as my freestyle was slowing down. Mostly it was due to my hip muscles aching.



Once walking out on to the beach, I had to make my way up to Vikingsholm’s front door and knocked. Oden didn’t answer, and only a few tourists were about, no doubt wondering what this hobbling guy with the white Desitin covered back was doing. Jim and I swam back to Tom’s waiting boat, the kayak already having been brought on board, and we headed back to the marina in South Lake Tahoe. I shivered—cold for the first time—and grinned like the happy swimmer I was. Six hours and fifty-one minutes. My goal was to make it under seven hours.



Once everything was packed up at the marina the five of us—up all night—went to Bert’s for breakfast and celebration. My swim was over, a success, a goal achieved.