SF’s Dolphin Club is the perfect place for anyone who dares to swim in the chilly waters of San Francisco Bay. Located along Aquatic Park in Fisherman’s Wharf, The club is a volunteer-run nonprofit that is centered around swimming and rowing but serves as an equally enjoyable place to relax and take in the panoramic views of the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond.
The Dolphin Club was started in 1877 as a place for members to swim, row, and recreate together. Growing from its original 25 members to well over 1,900, the Dolphin Club has become a staple of the SF and International open water swimming community.
The club is perhaps most famous for its heroic swims from Alcatraz and other challenging crossings in San Francisco Bay. They frequently host long-distance wetsuit-free swims along the waterfront, to the shock of wide-eyed spectators. Swimmers start from a dock or motorized boat and dive into the chilly bay water, closely followed by several small safety boats as they start their multi-mile swim.
Over a dozen swimmers participated in a recent 3-mile swim from Fort Point to Aquatic Park. As each swimmer paddled ashore at the Dolphin Club, members cheered loudly and welcomed them back on land with a towel and a hot meal. The club creates a hero’s welcome for all swimmers, not just the fastest.
Those who exit the water last are often whisked off to the sauna to recover. Extra time in the water means an increased risk of hypothermia, something that’s top of mind for this community. The club is experienced with both the risks and rewards of open water swimming and places a heavy emphasis on safety in all of its activities and events. Club swims are only available to members and require participation in several qualifying swims in addition to holding a current U.S. Masters Swimming card.
For those of us who are a little less ambitious, the club offers an opportunity to connect with like-minded swimmers. Dolphin Club President Ward Bushee told us “the club has its share of elite rough water marathon swimmers who are members. But for the rest of us normal human beings, the club provides a place to swim, row, work out, play handball, and enjoy the company of so many warm and friendly fellow Dolphins.”
Several members swim but others opt to take one of the club’s beautifully restored wooden boats out for a row around the harbor and beyond. This privilege requires some training and certification first, as some of the boats are over 100 years old.
The club is also home to a master boatbuilder, who operates a shop on site and repairs and maintains the club’s wooden fleet. The shop is open every Tuesday night for people of all skill levels to learn a little about wooden boat building and maintenance. Far from a quiet lecture, this event is for folks who want to sand, varnish, and learn the ins and outs of these historic watercraft.
Temperatures in San Francisco Bay can range from 50℉ in the dead of winter to 65℉ in late summer, a lot colder than your typical public pool. That said, don’t let the temperature scare you away, as the club has turned many first-timers into daily swimmers over the years.
“Once people find their comfort in the water, they’re hooked,” remarked Bushee. “Most swimming regulars find that their daily swims are transformational physically and mentally.”
Many members believe that their daily swimming has a positive impact on their health and wellbeing. One of the club’s most famous members, fitness pioneer Jack LaLanne, swam handcuffed from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park at age 60. A lifelong Dolphin Club member, he continued to accomplish impressive swims along the West Coast well into his golden years.
If you spend enough time at the club you’ll bump into avid swimmers in their 80s and early 90s. Age seems to have little bearing on their ability or willingness to plunge into the cold water. If anything, some of the older members are some of the most dedicated. We’re not claiming that bay swimming is the key to longevity, but based on what we’ve seen, perhaps a supportive community and a little salt water is its own kind of health tonic.
The Dolphin Club is located at 502 Jefferson Street in San Francisco. The public may use the club on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday by paying a $10 guest fee. You must be 18 years or older to use the club. Visitors will need to provide their own swimsuits, caps, goggles, and towels. Learn more at the Dolphin Club website.