Chas De Ferrari and the art of open water swimming.
An unmistakable swimmer, speckled with freckles from head to toe, emerged from the water at Aquatic Park. He pulled off his neoprene swim cap, and a shock of chestnut curls danced on his head. He was in his early seventies, but his abundant hair and playful smile pegged him at no more than fifty.
“That’s Chas,” my friend said as we were getting into the water for our weekly dip.
I had heard about Chas De Ferrari over the years. He is known in the local open water swimming community for having completed one of the hardest swim courses in the bay more than a thousand times—a feat earning the course a name: the Chas lap.
The people who had told me about him were, like De Ferrari, members of one of the oldest swim clubs in San Francisco, the South End Rowing Club, a group comprising determined athletes, international record–setters, and other open water swimmers. They shared an addiction to achieving unimaginable goals. A community that frowned upon wetsuits, they trained for “ice miles” (a one-mile swim in water colder than 41°F), swam in Antarctica, and devised journeys that required swimming for multiple days without sleep.
I wanted to hear the story of the man behind the Chas lap, so I asked my friend for an introduction that day on the beach and interviewed him a few weeks later. I knew that open water swimming is a dangerous sport. So dangerous that it can require support boats, especially along the coast of California, where the water is much colder than in the Atlantic and swimmers are at risk of hypothermia.
But what I didn’t know was that long before De Ferrari held his own in the open water, he frequently accompanied competitive swimming events in the bay as an expert power-boat driver. He became exceptional at piloting inflatable boats alongside swimmers, mastering the critical skills that ensured safety in one of the busiest shipping channels in the country. Piloting these long crossings to Alcatraz or Angel Island was always unnerving. Visibility was frequently poor, vessel traffic moved at high speeds, creating enormous wakes, and winds could be as severe as twelve knots, tossing up waves so high that swimmers were obscured in the water.
To make matters more challenging, swimmers that enter the water at the same time can be separated in less than a minute due to differences in swimming speed and uncontrollable currents. Long, exposed distances elongate quickly between individuals in choppy channel conditions, and fast-moving water creates a disorienting effect. Pilot boats often need to charge small vessels to divert them from swimmers who may not be visible in the water.
There is also wildlife. Seals and sea lions are just some of the marine mammals who live in the bay, and while they mostly keep to themselves, they are 400-pound animals that can act aggressively. In the past five years there have been multiple instances of attacks on swimmers that resulted in beach closures in Aquatic Park. Though nobody was killed, the bites were severe enough to lead to hospitalization.
And then there are the great white sharks. More commonly found outside the Golden Gate and around Ocean Beach, where they prefer the saltier ocean water, great whites do occasionally wander into the bay. In 2015 a tourist captured video of a great white shark slaughtering a sea lion just off the shore of Alcatraz, and in 2019, a fisherman made a surprise catch that was covered by the local news. There is always a chance these predators might encounter a swimmer.
All of these dangers become even more treacherous with San Francisco’s iconic fog. Split-second judgment calls, constant vigilance, and meticulous planning are required of those driving safety boats. Pilots must have knowledge of the tides, winds, and temperature, all while proactively communicating with fishing trawlers, commercial freight, and the Coast Guard. De Ferrari learned to coordinate all of these factors, but the job was causing him increasing anxiety. After many years, he was ready to undertake a more relaxing activity.
He wanted to swim, and he wanted to swim alone, without having to burden a pilot with the stress and worry he knew from his own piloting experiences. Though swimming from Alcatraz was exciting, he didn’t want to have to make arrangements for an escort boat, safety kayakers, or all the equipment needed for pilots—radios, personal flotation devices, and a gasoline outboard motor, which were all required when crossing the channel. Swimming with nothing but a swimsuit, goggles, and a neoprene cap was fast, light, and low impact.
As a member of the South End and keeping in mind his experience as a pilot, De Ferrari began experimenting with solo swim routes. After a few years, he found the limits of a safe but very challenging course that was simple, elegant, and minimal. The best part was that it provided what every endurance athlete craved: a grueling workout. Starting from the beach at Aquatic Park Cove toward the open bay, the swimmer heads about a quarter of a mile from the shore toward Alcatraz Island one mile away. Since it is unsafe to make this crossing without support, there are only two other unsupported route possibilities: left or right.
Why not swim to both? De Ferrari thought, on brand with one of the South End mantras: anything worth doing is worth overdoing.
The two marinas closest to Aquatic Park include the “gas house,” the third pier of Fort Mason, to the west, facing the Golden Gate, and what is known as “creakers,” the end of the break wall, to the east, facing the Bay Bridge. Starting in either direction is allowed at the beginning of De Ferrari’s course, but the swimmer has to swim to both creakers and the gas house before returning to the beach.
From an aerial view, the course, approximately two miles, doesn’t look too daunting. But the distance is not what makes it difficult. It’s not even the waves, or the winds, or the frigid water. It’s the currents. No matter which direction the swimmer heads first, swimming against the current is guaranteed. Pulling against a peak ebb or maximum flood is a definite possibility, and fighting for every inch with all one’s energy can be punishing and painful. The reward, returning with the tide, is as fun as running on an autowalk at an airport. As De Ferrari tells it, “Swimming with the current can feel like flying. You go airborne.” But timing the start with the change in tides is the difference between making it and not.
On the surface, above the currents, large waves ricochet off the break wall and Municipal Pier. Close to these structures, which is the safest space for a swimmer to occupy without ending up in the pathway of boat traffic, the hydrodynamics cause turbulence that sloshes swimmers around like socks in a washing machine. Swimming too close to piers or break walls risks being suddenly pushed into them and injured by a dilapidated piece of steel. Swimming too far out risks being sucked into too fast a current and missing the turn into the cove. Expending energy against a current’s impossible force increases oxygen demand. In the wind, brackish water that smells like a bowl of rusty pennies can smack the swimmer’s face over and over, complicating breathing and leaving behind the taste of metal. The turbid water offers no visibility to the bottom, and the uncertainty of what’s underneath can add to feelings of fear.
But every danger, every risk, also brings with it a certain thrill. Being immersed in the open bay is exciting, and any open water swimmer will reveal that its wildness can be addictive. The euphoria from surging adrenaline is unmatched. As the cold slowly numbs the entirety of the skin, the senses become flooded, the mind stills, and a spiritual sense of natural beauty pervades all.
De Ferrari told me that one morning, after punching his way through persistent, slappy waves, he couldn’t stop smiling.
“I live for the crazy conditions out there,” he once told a friend while he was regaining peripheral blood flow in the men’s sauna at the club. “It’s like I’m just swimming in my pool. Another day, another lap.”
“A Chas lap!” his friend declared, and the term stuck.
While some of the other swimmers at the South End wouldn’t stop boasting about the hundreds of Alcatraz swims they’d completed over decades of their lives, De Ferrari set his own goal. He proposed finishing one thousand Chas laps by his seventieth birthday, in part to needle his fellow extreme swimmers. Though it started as a way to poke fun at such a high standard, the one thousand mark became a serious pursuit. Some days he swam double Chas laps, and he was logging more than two hundred Chas laps each year. Five years later, in 2018, just one month after he turned seventy, he finally hit one thousand.
. . .
De Ferrari’s accomplishment led to what would become one of the largest annual events at the South End Rowing Club, the Chas-lap-alooza. No one has beaten his lifetime record so far, and it becomes harder and harder to do so as he continues to log more and more Chas laps. But despite all this record setting and one-upping, De Ferrari’s many hours in the water have not been without moments of danger.
“There was one wintry morning when I was trying to swim back from the gas house,” he told me, shoulders squared, with a blank expression.
It had started like any other Chas lap. The current hadn’t been too strong when he set out, but as more time went by, he became unsure of whether he was going to make it. He had been in the water for about thirty minutes. On his way to Fort Mason, the ebb current was pushing him farther back with every second. Alone, without a pilot, and cold, he was suddenly unable to move his hands, arms, or legs. Fear took hold.
The water temperature was barely 50°F, and with each second he approached hypothermia. His core body temperature descended into the low nineties. Clarity leaked from his brain, and all inner communication became static. His breath grew rapid and his heart rate raced, trying to recruit his limbs: Kick your legs. Do something. But he couldn’t move.
Most of us are familiar with the physiological stress response of fight-or-flight. But there is another one: freeze. Acute flaccid paralysis, the third most common physiological response in a panic attack, overtook De Ferrari. He was going to drown. As he started sinking below the surface, his head drifting downward, one last idea surfaced: What if you floated on your back?
He rolled over, and slowly, he began taking control of what he, as a former computer software engineer, called his inner processing system. He began a slow self-talk, bit by bit calming things down within his body. His brain was coming back online, and even though he still could not move his arms and legs, he was able to turn his torso around to float on top of the surface and look up into the white sky.
He needed to formulate a plan. And he had no time to waste. The best chance he had was to find a shortcut, some opening underneath the Muni Pier that could lead him inside the cove. That way, he would be somewhat shielded from the strong current. He was able to start kicking again toward the waterfront and then start pulling again with his arms. He found a gap that would take him straight through to shore, but it was a tight squeeze and his arms got scratched up as he passed through. His skin was turning purple from the frigid temperature, but he could finally see the buoys and the shore. In minutes, he would reach the safety of the locker room.
When he was patched up, he reflected on what he had learned.
De Ferrari shared those lessons when we spoke. “You have to reject inner messages in your head,” he said. “The ones that tell you that those panic- button responses, fight, flight, or freeze, are your core personality traits. They aren’t. Maybe they once helped you survive something long ago, but they no longer help you into adulthood.
“We all have wounds from the past, and you have to go into a bit of a mourning space with those panic buttons. Thank them for their service and use them as an elevator up. Locate the safety in your body, like a suggestion to float on your back. And connect with an element of peace that can get you out of the harmful thought. We all have elements of peace within ourselves.”
. . .
Swimming in San Francisco Bay is an activity that provides endless opportunities to practice locating inner peace, rewiring the body’s stress responses, and healing from wounds, visible and invisible, that can send us soaring into fight, flight, or freeze. The bay places the swimmer directly in touch with high amounts of discomfort. But the suffering and pain felt in the water is manageable discomfort.
“The sensory chaos, the pain you feel, it won’t kill you,” De Ferrari said. “The other side of suffering offers tremendous elation. After you are able to make it through that period of panic, and you get good at deploying your calming elements, you can quiet your panic responses and you reach what I call ‘manifestation.’ Energy plus intention.
“Every time I get into the bay, I’m energized. Being submerged in the ocean is real, raw, in your face, like human emotions. The winds, the currents, and the silky-smooth millpond mornings. The early light of the sunrise accumulating on the water. You can catch it two inches above the surface, and it shimmers and shines in the most serene way. It feeds the soul. It’s the only thing I get up at 5 a.m. to do, and it delivers so much.”
Many of us may resist discomfort or suffering, preferring to look away from the parts of our life that most need our eyes. We may be avoiding difficult conversations, difficult truths, difficult elements of our past. And that difficulty may become stored in the body, as tightness in the chest, panic attacks, moments when we freeze up or get fully reactive, acting out whatever strong emotion has seized us.
“It’s confronting discomfort with a true observer’s perspective, that’s when the real healing, the true manifesting begins,” De Ferrari said. “Just like a leg of the Chas lap. Sooner or later, you have to swim against the current. You can’t avoid it.”
We can choose, though, whether we want to go right or left. Whether to put it off, or go headfirst. ♦
Kat Hall has lived in San Francisco for fifteen years. She has a master’s from UC Berkeley and is a contributing writer for Swimming World magazine. Besides writing profiles, she enjoys reading nonfiction and spending time outdoors.
Nien-Ken Alec Lu is a freelance illustrator dwelling in San Francisco with his husband and their plant babies. He has illustrated for many editorial and commercial clients. In his downtime he often walks around the city trying new coffee shops and restaurants and immersing himself in the SF’s diverse food, film, and art scene.