Transbay swim is over, organizers say

David Briggs
The transbay swim has grown to unmanageable proportions over the years, and will no longer be organized, according to the founders.

For four decades, Nancy Hemmingway and Elizabeth Whitney have organized the annual Transbay Swim on the Sunday after Labor Day—at least as much as a word-of-mouth, unpublicized, unsponsored event on publicly-owned land can be considered organized. 

But this year, Ms. Whitney and Ms. Hemmingway say they are retiring the early-morning swim—which, according to their count, drew over 100 people last year—due to safety concerns as well as the fear that its homegrown character is vanishing. 

“The message we want to send is that the bay is still there, but this event, like a play, has finished,” said Ms. Whitney.

How are the two planning to end a swim that is, by one person’s humorous description, “half-disorganized”? 

This year, they are spreading word that the swim is cancelled, and are not providing the boats that accompany swimmers. They have given away collected donations—about $140—to the Tomales Bay Waterdogs for scholarships. Ms. Hemmingway plans to donate the Transbay Swim yearbook to the Jack Mason Museum of West Marin History.

Ms. Whitney also wondered if they should hang a sign somewhere. 

Still, how can anyone—even the founders—stop people from arranging boats themselves or just diving in, as people have done for decades?

“There will still be people that show up,” Ms. Whitney conceded. But she hopes that, if it does continue, it will shrink. “Decentralize it,” she said, “fragment it into mini-swims with your friends and family.”

Attendance spiked one year after the Marin Independent Journal mentioned the event, and afterward, the two decided to not talk about the swim publicly. Yet the event has continued to attract not only more locals but people and swim clubs from around the Bay Area, they said. In the era of social media it has become virtually impossible to halt that growth.

Last year, Ms. Hemmingway said, there was barely room to move on the beach; 110 signatures appeared in the yearbook. “And not everyone signed,” she said.

The event began in 1974 when Ms. Hemmingway and Ms. Whitney decided to urge friends to swim with them from Shell Beach to Marshall and back. Less than 10 people made the brackish journey between two tectonic plates, which takes the two roughly an hour. 

Since then, swimmers of all ages and in all manner of dress (bathing suits, wet suits and, occasionally, birthday suits) have communally crossed the three-quarter mile channel, to the chillier waters along the east shore, and returned. The swim has always been at the same place and time regardless of the chop or the tide. Last year, the tide pushed some all the way down to Chicken Ranch Beach, the founders said. No matter: the swim is, emphatically, not a race.

“It’s a celebration of the bay, this beautiful place and incredible water quality that we’re so fortunate to have,” said Marshall Livingston, who has participated since the ‘80s and swims in the bay almost every day in the summer.

Despite its informality, the event has provided a few essentials: the rallying boats to help tired or hypothermic swimmers (and offer visual cues to zipping motorboats); a treasured, elaborately decorated yearbook features signatures of the swimmers for each year; and, some years, a propane stove, tables and pancake batter boated in to feed people after the journey.

As the pair reminisced about the swim over tea and scones on Tuesday along with Ms. Hemmingway’s partner Bruce Mitchell, one year in particular stood out. In 2004, the thick fog obscured the sight of the east shore entirely. That morning, everyone waited for a few minutes, wondering what to do. On any other day, a hopeful swimmer might have left. But this was the day of the Transbay Swim, so they dove in.

“The fog was so dense you couldn’t see anything. It was like an Ingmar Bergman film,” Ms. Whitney said, describing how boats suddenly materialized, seemingly out of thin air, as she made the journey. Once everyone returned to Shell, she went on, the fog lifted, “like the end of a dream.”