The big chill

Arctic wake-up calls are a way of life for the swimmers of San Francisco’s iconic Dolphin Club. Wetsuits? Those are for amateurs!

By Leilani Marie Labong

Early each morning, disciplined Dolphin Club swimmers, who long ago shunned the TLC of wetsuits, take to the frigid waters at Aquatic Park Cove, where the midwinter temperatures can dip into the 40s. Their mission: to carry on the tradition started by the handful of German immigrants who founded the club—now 1,675 members strong—back in 1877.

Cold-water swimming is a known immunity and endorphin boost; for the majority of the dawn patrol, it’s both a daily meditation and an antidote to the chronic 9-to-5. (Judging from the club’s oldest members—some in their 90s—an icy plunge on the regular may also be a fountain of youth.) On a recent visit, we found Speedo-clad Dolphins in the cove working for their Polar Bears (distinctions awarded for swimming 40 miles over three winter months) or fleece-wrapped in the clubhouse galley, burning toast and confabulating over coffee. Seeking a bit of their fitness mojo to jump-start our New Year, we asked die-hard mer-men and mermaids about their most memorable experiences in the San Francisco Bay, site of countless Dolphin feats ranging from casual freestyles along the cove’s quarter-mile buoy line—cue the sharks— to record-setting Farallon crossings. Come hell or cold water, one thing’s for sure: This rare breed knows all the good strokes.


I once was in a group swim out to the opening of the cove. A seal kept bumping us the whole way. Usually, they’ll tickle your feet with their whiskers, but if you get bitten, you need to go to the hospital to get antibiotics. None of us ever swam faster, I swear. Then the seal swam around my legs. I started treading water and it kept swimming around me. I pulled up my feet and pushed it as hard as I could. It popped up and looked at me as if to say, “What’d you do that for?” It was actually kind of adorable. Lee Hammack, 63, member since 1985

Gone fishing

Herring spawn on the rocks in Sausalito and swim into the cove, and this one time, eight or 10 years ago, they came in with such force. I tried to swim normally, but it was really uncomfortable because there were many seals jumping out of the water with fish in their mouths and lots of pelicans dive-bombing for their breakfast. Eventually, I learned to swim close to shore just to avoid the feast. Milan Odehnal, 60, member since 2000

Amen to that

In 2009 I was at the tail of physical therapy for a bad leg injury I received from a freak fall down a staircase. I had been a ballerina for 15 years, but felt drawn to the water. Some guys at the local pool asked if I would ever try swimming in the Bay. It sounded like a dare to me. I’m stubborn, which I’ve come to realize helps a lot with tolerating cold water. So I went to the Dolphin Club. The water was 53 degrees. As soon as I went in, I felt this freedom that I’d been looking for. It was a very spiritual experience. At times, the Bay feels like church. Kimberley Chambers, 39, member since 2009

Bard to the bone

I was helping [fellow Dolphin Club member] John Ottersberg train for a swim across the English Channel. It takes a lot of logistics to make these eight-hour training swims happen—we have to be in constant contact with the big container ships that come and go on the bay. Despite all the planning, we found ourselves in the path of a huge tanker with no radio link. The Coast Guard had to put us in direct communication with the captain, whose call sign was “Romeo.” So there I was, out in a tiny boat in the middle of the bay, saying into the ether, ‘Romeo, oh Romeo, come in Romeo… .” Rick Avery, 54, member since 2002

In a bind

I once watched footage of the late Jack Lalanne—also a Dolphin Club member—swimming in handcuffs from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf in 1974. I thought, Someone else needs to do that. So I swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco handcuffed, leg-cuffed, and pulling a boat, just as Jack, the king of physical fitness, was doing in that picture over there [points to wall of historic photos in the Dolphin Club boathouse]. The only difference is that I had a gentleman in my boat reading the morning paper as I pulled him across the bay. Vic Pizzaro, 61, member since 1984

Tardy to the party

For almost 30 years, I went to the Club to bike, lift weights, hit the boxing bag and cook. I felt like a fake Dolphin. I didn’t get in the water until six years ago. Once I got in, all I did was stay in water up to my neck for 20 minutes. Then I swam my first two swims along the buoy line with a snorkel. Within a week, I swam all the way out to the opening of the cove, in the dark, by myself. I felt 10 feet tall. This is the greatest swimming pool in the world. George Howell, 55, member since 2007

Interested in taking the plunge? New members are required to introduce themselves at the bimonthly board meetings. The next one is in February. For more details on membership and tips on cold-water swimming, go to

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