Updated: Oct 17, 2019
It is a Saturday in October at the crack of dawn. There are three women in the Pacific Ocean, near the south tower of San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge. One is me, the other is an expert swimmer from an athletic club, the third one is dead.
My Irish friend’s dream was to swim under the Golden Gate. It had never occurred to me — a novice in the Bay’s waters — that someone could do such a thing. He was flying in from out of town for the weekend, so we quickly picked a commercial operator who was organizing one that very Saturday.
Swim organizers do several critical things: select the time for the swim based on the currents (ideally when it’s slack, typically at the end of a flood right before the ebb starts), they inquire about maritime traffic (the swim cuts across three maritime lanes, in one of the top ten busiest ports in the country), inform the cost guards, decide on the route (drop off and pick up points), tell swimmers which landmarks to sight on, and escort them along the way, keeping them safe and updating instructions.
We met the organizers before dawn at a small marina, and rode a boat out towards the bridge’s south tower. The setting was magnificent. The sun was just rising around 7:00am when we jumped in. While taking our first few strokes we admired a helicopter flying close by. The moment was truly breathtaking.
A few minutes later, a group of rowers and a swimmer from an athletic club pulled up alongside us. It was a pilot swim: the club would be hosting the same swim the day after, so the woman who would lead the club’s swimmers got in the water to test it. As she passed us, a rower escorting her greeted us with an enthusiastic “Isn’t it a gorgeous morning?” and kept rowing close to her.
I admit I envied the club. They all knew and trusted each other, the kayaks could stay pretty close (they didn’t have smelly, dangerous engines on), the rowers were jovial and encouraging (whereas ours, who did not know us well, had focused on safety, listing boat rules and shouting directions from a distance), and the pilot would know exactly what to advise the club’s swimmers the next day, having done it herself.
We were a less experienced bunch: we took our time splashing around in the red glow of the sunrise, then got increasingly slowed down by the mounting tide. By the time we got under the bridge and to the other side, I was looking at the zodiac pleadingly hoping for a “Want to hop on?” or at least a “You’re doing great, keep giving it your best!” I was hearing “What are you doing? I need you to keep swimming!” and becoming anxious myself. I put my head back in and groaned. For a solid ten minutes I swam at my peak strength, half raging at the current, half delighted to be forced to challenge my body to reach its limits. I raised my head to admire my progress: I had barely moved. If anything, I was about to be swept back under the bridge and out to Hawaii. The current had become too overwhelming for my level of strength and technique — something between freestyle and dog paddling. I told the organizer I was done and got immediately picked up, teeth chattering and heart pumping, blue lips smiling.
On the drive home with my friend we commented on the differences between public swims — where in the absence of a relationship, safety is ensured by powerful equipment (motor boats), rules and directions — and club swims — where safety comes from the high trust and connection between athletes and an even more impressive investment in preparation.
Later that evening we heard the tragic news of the young woman who had been lost at sea the night before. The helicopter we had admired at sunrise was looking for her body right near where we started our swim. She had been with her friends that Friday night on a nearby beach when she decided to dip in. It was not only dark, it was also right when the ebb tide was the strongest (two or three times as strong as what we experienced a few hours later). She screamed for help but could not stay afloat long enough to be saved by the crews who searched for three hours that night.
We learned something about leadership, witnessing these three experiences. When we undertake a challenge, we need securing expertise: leaders who know both how rewarding the adventure can be, and the risks involved; who can be close and encouraging, yet let us feel that the accomplishment is our own.
The unfortunate young woman was accompanied by friends who all must have lacked experience with tides — otherwise it is hard to imagine the circumstances under which they would have let her take that fateful dip
On the other extreme, the athletic club’s leaders felt like a group of friends enjoying themselves, they knew and trusted each other’s abilities and expertise, rowed kayaks that could stay close and cheer swimmers on
Our swim’s commercial operators had to be a little more heavy handed: they did not know how we would react to the cold currents, had to stay at a distance because of the engines, shouted (which stressed us although they had preemptively explained that it would not mean they were angry), and became increasingly directive as they witnessed our mounting struggle. Had we known each other, their directions might have given us wings (or rather fins!): using our names, telling us they knew we could do it, might not have made the slightest difference in the face of ocean currents, but would have made one to how we remember the experience.
This is the kind of securing relationship that we also want to give children, those we raise as parents, and those we educate or coach as teachers:
If we are kids ourselves, still focused on our own needs and without sufficient skills to get by in the world, we cannot keep children safe through big challenges
If we do not build trust and connection, we will need to rely on overbearing rules and specific directions. They may half-succeed but will likely resent us, rightly or not (after all, we kept them safe and got them to do it!)
If we empathize, having experienced the cold currents before them, stay close and cheer them on, they will be successful and delighted with themselves. They may take our securing support for granted, but will later provide it to their own young. And that is all that matters.