Aquatic Park is one of the few places in the world that makes this New Yorker jealous. Sure, we have mile after mile of beaches, an impressive array of outdoor pools, a richly fascinating maritime history, and heaps of iconic waterfront structures, but we don’t have anything that compares to this landmark embayment. As if the opportunity to go for a quick swim in downtown San Francisco were not enough, the place is in the shadow of a chocolate factory. You’ll be taunted by a giant “Ghirardelli” sign every time you breathe or sight to the south.
What really makes this place special, though, are the rival swim and rowing clubs with clubhouses complete with saunas, showers, lockers, boat-building facilities, bars, historic photos, and a wealth of other wonders. I’d swum out of South End Rowing Club on a visit to the Bay Area a few years ago and this time was able to try the neighboring Dolphin Club.
My host was the incredible Swimmer Suz, aka the 50-year-old freshman, whom I’d been in contact with as she applied for her latest undertaking: the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. She’s been training and racing in the San Francisco Bay ever since she was a kid. When I let her know I’d be in the area to meet my new nephew (!!!), and hinted at my pool tourism proclivity, she picked right up on what I was after and whisked me into the city for an early swim on Thanksgiving Day.
South Enders, aka SERCers, were pouring back into the cove when we arrived, having just done a quick swim to, you know, Alcatraz. Nonmembers are not allowed out of the cove, and the Dolphin Club is a bit more cautious in its explorations anyway, so we contented ourselves with a circuit going to a flag buoy, then following a bulkhead, peeking out at a bridge you might have heard of called the Golden Gate, and finally making our way back to the club beach past a bunch of beautiful ships. All along the way, Suzanne stopped to greet friends and let me catch up. I even saw people I know. I mean really, can it get much better than that?
The water temperature here fluctuates far less than New York’s seawater and was in the low 50s for our swim, pleasantly warmer than my last dip at Brighton Beach. With the clubhouses right by the beach there’s no worry about not being able to warm up after. The custom is to put your towel in the sauna while you take a shower (not too hot!) and then go join your towel and your swim buddies until you are toasty. It being Thanksgiving, there was much talk of pie and stuffing.
The Dolphin Club dates to 1877 and survived the 1906 earthquake that did in much of San Francisco. It’s history is fascinating and very much in evidence in the clubhouse today, both physically and spiritually. While some consider the choice of Dolphin versus South End to be a defining allegiance, passed down from generation to generation, others point to Dolphin’s more spacious women’s locker room and sauna with a view as a deciding factor. Some even join both clubs to have the best of both worlds.
I, too, would have a hard time choosing and am equally jealous of both clubs and the Aquatic Park they help to define. I hope to be back soon, especially now that I have a nephew to school.