Urban Swimways Aquatic Park San Francisco

December 7, 2016

Why just look at the view when you can jump right into it? Such words are gospel for the open water swimmers of San Francisco Bay. Despite the chilly water temperature—which hovers in the mid-50s year-round—swimmers of the city-by-the-bay can consider themselves blessed to have Aquatic Park at their fingertips.


Take Van Ness Avenue all the way to its northern terminus and you'll find yourself at the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. With your toes in cool sand and the sleek Maritime Museum bathhouse at your back, follow the sweep of the 'Muni' pier as it curves out from Black Point on the left, arcing across your view to a point about a quarter mile distant. In the foreground lies an open water swimmer's delight, the perpetually glassy lagoon of Aquatic Park. Historic square riggers hug the Hyde Street pier on the right, as it reaches out to nearly touch the end of the Muni Pier across a narrow gap.


Because it's protected like this from the big bad bay on the other side of a breakwater, you don't need a ton of courage or a lifetime of marathon swimming experience to stride across the sand and dive right in. All you need is thick skin or comfortable neoprene for the cold water. You can play it safe by doing laps along a buoy line close to shore, or for longer distances you can skirt the piers along the perimeter of the cove any number of times. Through the narrow opening past the breakwater, Alcatraz Island and the far distant Marin shore entice the adventurous across tidal swift currents and perpetual wind-chop.

Turn around and gaze with pity on all those land-lubbers who think Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square are the limit of San Francisco’s bayside charms.  Like the city’s deeply-rooted open water swimming community, you know the real magic happens out here beyond the waterline.   As your lips grow numb and you marvel at how lucky San Francisco swimmers are to have this open water gem in their back yard, just take a moment to realize how this luck is the result of a 140-year hard-won struggle for public access.


Since the founding of the city, citizen groups of diverse origin, from swimming and rowing clubs to enlightened city officials and urban designers, have fought to provide a safe place to swim in the bay. Victory was achieved in 1939 with the completion of the Muni pier and Bathhouse building by Roosevelt’s WPA, officially establishing the entire cove area as the publicly-owned Aquatic Park.

The two main torchbearers in this struggle continue to thrive at the park’s east corner. Occupying adjacent clubhouses-- each with its own dock, boathouse, locker rooms and sauna--The South End Rowing Club and the Dolphin Club have cradled the heart and soul of San Francisco’s open water swim community since the 1870s.


Using Aquatic Park as base camp, these two clubs are the twin guardians of San Francisco Open water swimming. They preside over the area’s hundreds of yearly organized swims and aquatic outings, from the many Alcatraz swims around the year, to Golden Gate crossings and distance swims in surrounding lakes and bays. 


Go to each club’s website and you’ll find a ton of useful information about swimming in the Park.  In person both clubs are welcoming to visitors and will gladly show you the ropes, and provide swim-guides if needed. And fear not, ye thin-skinned! Despite their proud air of happily braving the bay’s cold waters au naturel, neither club will chide you for wearing a wetsuit.


Scratch below the surface and you will find in each of these clubs a long thread of colorful traditions, notable personalities, and tales of comedy and valor – all woven tightly into the history of the city and the waters of its beautiful bay.


For many, the crowning event of the neighboring clubs’ calendar is the annual Dolphin/Southend Triathlon, where their friendly sibling rivalry boils over into open war. In a day-long race that employs long-distance rowing, running, cold-water swimming, and plenty of sectarian hazing, a prized trophy and crucial bragging rights are at stake.


What does Aquatic Park have to offer for our own vision of the Willamette? While we Portlanders don't have the benefit of such a picturesque backdrop or of California’s sunnier days, our river water is no colder, dirtier, riskier, nor more crowded with boat traffic. Indeed, the core elements of San Francisco’s Aquatic Park are not out of reach for our own urban swimway: A protected beach; a simple building with a dock and a place to shower, change, and thaw out; and a proud group of crazy swimmers willing to dive into the view. We’ve got at least one of those three pieces already in place. It’s up to us to make the other two happen.


The full fascinating history of Aquatic Park can be found in the archives of the National Park Service

For more information about the South End Rowing Club go to and for the Dolphin Club go to

For a more detailed and colorful account of the ongoing rivalry between the two clubs, I highly recommend this article by Andrea Powell from San Francisco Magazine:


HAP columnist, Garrett Martin, is a lifelong swimmer and currently an architect with Hacker Architects in Portland. He competed as a swimmer through the collegiate level before discovering the joys of open water swimming, first as an ocean lifeguard for Los Angeles County. A Portland resident for 20 years, Garrett has long sought a dream of bringing a world-class swimming facility to the downtown waters of the Willamette River.

Return to WORLD SWIMMING Main Page