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Farallon Islands Swimming Federation: Preserving the Past and Pointing to the Future

by Laura S. Jones, Staff Writer

It’s alive! History, that is. And a lot of other stuff, but if you plan your swim well, you’ll probably avoid the sharks.

Vito Bialla wants to help you with that planning. “We want to bring history back. There were two successful solo swims in 1967, and two relays did it in 1969,” says Bialla, 62 and a member of the Olympic Club. Then nothing.

“It” is a monumental swim from the Farallon Islands to San Francisco. Bialla recently started the Farallon Islands Swimming Federation (farallonswimfed.com) to honor and chronicle the history of the four past swims and to “promote, record and sanction” future swims. The website provides a wealth of information on these swims along with recent news and photos. “Ted Erickson helped a lot with compiling all the historical background,” says Bialla, who was afraid it would be lost. Erikson, still a member of Illinois Masters at 83, was the second and last person to complete the swim solo. And a pretty great guy according to Bialla.

The Federation will provide information on permits and pilots and support and will do all it can to help anyone planning to attempt the swim. “We want to further the sport,” explains Bialla. Knowing the swim isn’t for everyone, his goal is to see a few relays and a few solo swims each year.

The Farallon Islands (or Farallones) are 28 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco as the crow flies. But Vito Bialla has no interest in flying. In addition to helping others do the swim, he wants to tackle the challenge with five of his closest friends. It is a way to better know what his federation is preparing people for.

The relay swim will be a Night Train Swimmers event (Night Train Swimmers are a group of San Francisco Bay area swimmers dedicated to tackling difficult swims for charity) and will benefit three charities: The Wounded Warrior Project, the Semper Fi Fund, and the Navy Seal Foundation. Relay members are: Phil Cutti, 37 and a member of Stanford Masters who is a partner in the federation, Michael Chase, 29 and a member of the Dolphin Club, Michelle Deasy, 39 (pictured), and Bialla, both members of the Olympic Club who also train with the South End Rowing Club, David Holscher, 50, and a member of North Bay Aquatics, and Joe Locke, 41.

The relay is set for March 15, 2011, the “Ides of March”, as Bialla says with a hint of a chuckle. The water will be cold, acknowledges Bialla. “The ideal time is September [for warmer and smoother water], but that is when the sharks show up.” And not just sharks, Bialla says. Having swum out there, he says it is just “amazing the sheer abundance of life in the water.”

The FarallonesSpeaking of life on and around the rocky Farallon Islands, here’s some background from the California Academy of Sciences website:

“The North Farallones, Middle Farallon and Noonday Rock were established as a National Wildlife Refuge in 1909 by President Theodore Roosevelt. While tantalizingly close to the mainland and, in fact, visible on clear days, the public is not allowed on the islands in order to preserve and protect the sensitive birds and marine mammals that live there. [For this reason, swimmers do not have to clear the water at the start; they will start by touching the northeast buoy.] The Farallon Islands… are host to a diverse array of seabirds, marine mammals, and other plants and animals. This includes thirteen species of breeding shorebird and seabirds, five species of pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), visiting land birds, invertebrates and an endemic salamander. Sharks, whales, and a variety of other sealife are abundant in the surrounding waters.”

Since we’re back to the sharks, Bialla has chosen a safe time for his team’s relay attempt. John McCosker, a shark expert and chairman of aquatic biology at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco is quoted in a September 15, 2010 San Francisco Chronicle article: “The bottom line is that right now [September] is not the safest time to swim, surf or kayak in the ocean, especially near the Farallon Islands, Año Nuevo, Point Reyes and Tomales Bay. It is significantly safer to do those things between January and July, when the sharks live in the deep ocean near Hawaii.”

Bialla is prudent but feels nature is on the swimmer’s side. “We’d like to encourage safe swimming with the federation,” he says. “We’re not seals, though, and the sharks don’t want to get near the boat with its propeller. If you’re in their element and don’t give off the fear radar, they’ll leave you alone.”

Asked if since he started FISF there’s been an increased interest in swimmers attempting the crossing, Bialla said that “the phone’s not exactly ringing off the hook.” But Karen Rogers, 43 and a member of the South End Rowing Club, who cancelled a crossing scheduled for 2010 due to extremely rough conditions, is one of six solos swimmers hoping to make it across in 2011.

With the swims already planned for this year and the amount of knowledge and support FISF offers, plus the explosion of growth in the sport of open water swimming, it’s only a matter of time before more attempt the crossing, solo or as a relay. As for the Night Train Swimmers relay in March, Bialla’s plan is to “stack the odds in our favor and swim fast and quietly with very little splashing.” They also plan to start at dawn after crossing the channel and anchoring for the night in the cove. The boat trip can be pretty rough that time of year; spending the night will allow their stomachs to recover before tackling the extreme physical and mental challenge of swimming in the North Pacific.

If you want to get a better understanding of what the Farallon Islands are like, read “The Devil’s Teeth” by Susan Casey.  And stay tuned.

(photos are of Michelle Deasy on 2010 relay attempt and of the islands; both by Jim Hughes Photography)

 

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