Swimming to Honor Our Fallen: Golden Gate Frogman Swim AAR
Swimming to Honor Our Fallen: Golden Gate Frogman Swim AAR
Despite being out of the Navy for more than a decade now, I still feel very at home in the water and love swimming for exercise. The recent chance to swim under the Golden Gate Bridge and raise money for a worthy cause, was all that it took to convince me to sign up for the Golden Gate Frogman Swim in San Francisco.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about open water swimming, it’s to always have a swim buddy, someone that can watch you in the water while you do the same. There’s no one I’d rather swim with than my good friend and fellow classmate from BUD/s, Nick Hays. When I pitched the idea to Nick, he was all over it, especially because we’d been trying to find our way back to Tampa Bay, Florida to swim the Tampa Bay Frogman Swim.
It had been tough to make the Florida event work because it’s in January along the same time as SHOT Show in Las Vegas. Two years ago I was able to take my swim gear with me to SHOT Show and fly direct to Tampa for the swim. Unfortunately, a wicked storm surge blew in the night before the swim and it was ultimately cancelled.
This time, the weather was in our favor and Nick and I successfully completed the inaugural Golden Gate Frogman Swim. While there were only 14 swimmers there this year, my goal with this article is to not only tell you how it went, but also to help share some tips that will help you out when you swim it next year. I see you out there, saying “no way buddy, not me!” I’m here to tell you that it’s a very fun event and easier than you think. We didn’t see a single dorsal fin either!
While the 1.5 mile Golden Gate Frogman Swim is shorter in distance than the Tampa Bay event, there’s no disputing that the cold water adds a challenge to it. However, it’s nothing that can’t be overcome with the right equipment. Kind of sounds like being out the elements in any kind of event, right? It is. The water temperature was hovering right around 60 degrees, which was colder than the air temperature. I think the air was in the low 70s and it felt great compared to the weather where I came from in Texas.
While Nick and I had our good friend and ITS Life Member, Steve Wilson, there to kayak alongside us, there was a fantastic turnout by the South End Rowing Club to help support the swim with plenty of safety kayaks in the water. Everyone other than me and Nick used a crawl (freestyle) stroke and were swimming individually, so the support kayaks were crucial to keep an eye on those without a swim buddy. The swim really is more of a freestyle event, but we used plenty of neoprene, masks and fins.
Our crew was able to scout out the swim the day before and get eyes on the starting point. We learned at the packet pick-up / check-in event the night before, that we’d need to be there by 0630 at the latest. Making a dry run to know where we’d be going is never a bad thing and sure makes for a more pleasant event. It’s never good to have the stress of driving to a destination you’ve never been to before, on top of the stress of an event you’ve never done before.
The Golden Gate Frogman Swim was interesting from a logistics perspective and a bit confusing until we had our briefing as to what would happen on race day. We’d arrive that morning at Horseshoe Bay for the swimmer brief, load onto a boat which would take us west, under the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. Our infil was amazing, due to being able to hitch a ride on a running Navy PBR (patrol boat, river) blasting The Rolling Stones!
I’m a pretty big Vietnam history buff and to see a running PBR was quite a sight. To actually go for a ride on one was amazing and something I never even knew would make it on to my bucket list, let alone get crossed off on the same day! Captain John Sorensen and his three-man crew had it in immaculate condition and I could just imagine traveling through the Mekong Delta on one of those bad boys.
Just past the Golden Gate North Tower, at the start of the Marin Headlands, is a small beach called Kirby Cove. We’d end our infil by jumping out of the boat, swimming in to the beach and assemble into two waves to start. When directed, we’d launch from the beach, swim out and west under the Golden Gate Bridge. We’d then turn back north after the tower and head back in to Horseshoe Bay to finish.
It was exhilarating swimming under the Golden Gate Bridge! It’s tough to put into words what it meant, but it felt like a proper tribute on 8.6.17, the exact day six years ago that the single greatest loss for the U.S. Military occurred during the current war. For those unfamiliar with the tragedy, a Chinook Helicopter (call sign Extortion 17) carrying a QRF (quick reaction force) was responding to an engaged Army Ranger unit near Kabul, Afghanistan. It was shot down on 8.6.11 by an enemy RPG, killing 31 U.S. Military personnel, including Navy SEALs, Navy EOD, Navy Support Personnel, Army and Army Reserve Personnel, Air Force Pararescue, an Air Force Combat Controller and a Military Working Dog.
Before the swim began, the national anthem was sung and the names of each of the fallen on 8.6.11 were read aloud. It was a somber and emotional way to start the event and helped us all reflect on the reason we’d chosen to come to this event.
The premise for the Golden Gate Frogman Swim, is a fundraising event for the Navy SEAL Foundation. Each swimmer is asked to raise money for the swim, with a goal of $2,500 each. Most people are immediately turned off at the thought of the word fundraiser, but I assure you, this is a different kind of event. and the Navy SEAL Foundation is a tremendous organization.
They provide immediate and ongoing assistance to the Naval Special Warfare community and its families. Their programs are designed to improve health and welfare, build and enhance resiliency, empower and educate their families and provide critical support during times of illness, injury, and loss.
If you’ve read my past critique of the Wounded Warrior Project, you know how well researched our charity work is at ITS. We donate quite a lot each year to non-profit organizations through the sale of various patches and items in our store. The Navy SEAL Foundation holds a 4-Star, 100% rating with Charity Navigator, meaning it ranks in the top 0.6% of all charities in the United States. They spend 89.8% of their expenses directly towards the programs that the charity was designed to support. With that being said, I do want to acknowledge that WWP has been turning it around for the better, too.
With the Tampa Bay Frogman Swim and now the Golden Gate Frogman Swim, the funds raised are donated directly to the Navy SEAL Foundation. There are no paid positions and the organizers of the event do it because they believe in the mission, that’s something I can get behind. I’d like to recognize the hard work that former SEAL, Rory O’Connor and Ryan Nelson of the South End Rowing Club did to bring this event to San Francisco.
Rory mentioned that he hopes the event will bring in $50,000 for the Navy SEAL Foundation and Nick and I are proud that our fundraising efforts brought in a little over $6,000 of that total. That was largely due to all our ITS supporters who donated, so thank you guys so much!
Equipment and Technique
As mentioned, Nick and I were the only ones swimming with fins. We joked though after the race that we’d come in first in the fins division, but truth be told, there really wasn’t a fins division. Swimming with a mask and fins using CSS (combat side stroke) is something we’re both very familiar with and what we opted for during the swim.
The CSS isn’t a stroke that’s going to win any races in the water, but it’s very good for conserving energy on long distance open-water swims. It’s taught at BUD/s because it’s not only efficient, but it reduces the swimmer’s profile in the water, making you less visible in the water.
We both wore full wetsuits, hoods and gloves that were 3 mil in thickness. It was the perfect combo for the water temp, as I felt neither cold, nor hot. I swam with UDT Duck Feet for fins and wore dive socks, which are a 3 mil thickness bootie that resemble socks more than booties. I find those to be the most comfortable in Duck Feet, but my feet look like balloons when I get out of the water. They always fill with water, which I’m sure creates more drag than I’d want.
Dive masks were key, as was a liberal amount of Sea Gold Anti-Fog Gel we put in our masks the night before. A quick rinse before swimming ensured we didn’t have any fogging issues with our masks during the swim. That can be a real problem in open water swimming if you don’t have a proven solution. Many swear by toothpaste or simply spit in their masks, but those things have never worked for me personally.
Our swim was relaxing and we had a great unobstructed view of the Golden Gate Bridge, with the fog hovering just above it. For the most part, the swim was fairly uneventful until we got caught in an eddy just past the north tower of the bridge.
An eddy is a circular current of water that resembles a whirlpool and can be a real nightmare when swimming through.
There’s not much you can do when swimming through one, other than to swim hard through it. This is different from a rip current, where you can just swim parallel with the shore to escape it.
The eddy did wind up screwing with us for a decent portion of time and we didn’t know we were in one until we were out of it. It just felt like it was taking forever to get through the swim. Once we did swim through the eddy, we felt like we were flying towards the finish. Some reported seeing a sea lion during the swim and it was mentioned that we might even see whales. However, I was too focused on the swim and didn’t spot anything.
The finish of the swim was particularly special, as Gold Star parents Donna and Corky Axelson, whose son Matthew Axelson was killed during Operation Red Wings in 2005, were there to place the finisher medals around the swimmers’ necks. It was probably the coolest medal I’ve received for an event, as it was nothing more than a lanyard attached to a removable challenge coin.
If you’re interested in more on the gear I took, check out the latest Gear Tasting episode #101, where I went through a recap on what I used during the Golden Gate Frogman Swim.
I’d like to again thank all those that made the Golden Gate Frogman Swim possible and to all those that helped us raise funds for the Navy SEAL Foundation. I’d especially like to thank my swim buddy, Nick and our kayaker, Steve. I can neither confirm nor deny that I had anything to do with him falling out of his kayak and getting wet!
Please check out the Tampa Bay Frogman Swim, which is unfortunately already sold out for 2018 and stay tuned to the Golden Gate Frogman Swim website for 2018 dates. You’ve got a year to prepare, so I hope to see many of you out there in 2018!
Here’s a great Golden Gate Frogman Swim video from the coverage by the San Francisco Chronicle: