Local Legend Kimberley Chambers Swims from Farallons to San Francisco
We here at BrokeAssStuart.com like to show love to the people who make cities like San Francisco and New York special. The Local Legend series is our chance to hip you to some of the strange, brilliant, and unique folks who populate these towns and give them the character that people from around the world have come to love. Meet history maker & now SF local legend Kimberley Chambers.
When Kimberly Chambers set out to attempt her epic swim, her crew received some ominous news: a freshly decapitated seal carcass had been spotted out at the Farallons, near her starting point. This confirmed what she and her support crew already knew: she would be sharing the water with great white sharks.
At 11:10pm that night (August 7th,) she stepped over the side of her support boat and settled into a front crawl stroke. Her destination was the Golden Gate Bridge, thirty miles away. She stared down into the black Pacific, through her goggles, and reminded herself that sharks don’t feed at night.
Seventeen hours and twelve minutes later, she emerged from the Bay immortal.
To put her achievement into perspective:
4,000 men and women have summited Mt. Everest.
1,426 have swum the English Channel.
12 men have walked on the moon.
Only 5 people have swum from the Farallons to San Francisco. Kimberley is the first woman. There’s only one Kimberly Chambers.
After taking some time to process her accomplishment, Kim told me her story.
How’d it go? When was the first moment of ‘I might just make it…’?
The hardest part, was the last 3 miles from Point Bonita to the Golden Gate Bridge. But everything just fell into place for me.
Coming into the golden gate I was riding a flood (incoming) tide. It’s only a mile across at the bridge, this forces the tide through a bottle-neck and it moves faster than any human could swim. So I could get ten yards from the bridge, and the tide starts going out and it’s over. Everyone on the boat was cheering and I said, look, it’s not over until I get under that bridge. I was really worried I was going to run out of flood.
I can see the bridge out my window at home and it’ll never mean the same thing to me.
I find myself looking at a map and saying ‘I did that.’ I’m still trying to process this experience, but now I feel like if I can do that what else can I do?
You’re solo but not alone. What about your team?
They call it a ‘solo’ swim, but really it’s not. I couldn’t do it without the love and support of the people on the boat. My mum was there.
But you’re still completely vulnerable, completely exposed. When it comes to sharks, if one were to attack it would happen so quickly there would be nothing anybody on the boat could do.
Could you explain the rules of open water swimming? I think some people assume you’re allowed to rest along the way.
No wetsuit. You’re allowed to wear 1 regular swimsuit, 1 pair of goggles, and 1 regular swim cap. Nothing that keeps you warm or helps you float in any way. You jump off the boat and the only time you get back on–or even touch–the boat is when you finish. These are known as the English Channel Rules.
Every half hour you have a ‘feed,’ my support crew throw a bottle attached to a string over the side. I tread water and get it down as fast as I can and keep going. My feed is a product called Urban Remedy, Chocolate Banana. It has just the right amount of fat, carbs and protein. At night the feed bottle’s attached to a glow stick which just adds to the experience of feeling like I’m in outer space.
If you touch the boat, you’ve tapped-out, it’s over.
That’s right. You know that all you have to do to make the pain and the cold go away is just touch the boat. It’s right there, tempting you, the entire time.
What about sharks?*
We had reports of increased shark activity. A week before my swim, my swimming partner, Simon Dominguez , got pulled out of the water because a great white was circling. He was 3 miles from finishing a swim going the other way (Farallons to SF.) The problem was he’d been in the water for eighteen hours and his neck had started to chafe. He was dripping blood, and that’s what the shark picked up on. When he showered off on the deck, his blood ran over the side, back into the sea, and the shark came back.
We used thermal imaging and a fish finder and they didn’t pick up anything the whole way across. We also have a ‘shark shield’ which puts out an electric signal that doesn’t harm the sharks but is supposed to keep them away, like an electric fence on a farm. Who knows if it works.
I couldn’t keep my food down all night. I kept thinking I would make a terrible Navy SEAL–
“I wanted to sneak by in stealth mode and not wake the locals, but I ended up basically chumming the waters. When the sun came up I said, wow, I’ve cheated death.”
It’s so clear out there that if a shark came at me I would see it. There would be nothing I could about it.
They say ‘shark infested’ but it’s really ‘shark inhabited.’ I have to be careful about how I use those words because I don’t want to play into people’s fears. They’re beautiful creatures. I’m entering their world every time I swim. We never considered a cage or divers in the water with spearguns or anything I like that. I come in peace.
You had some bad luck with jellyfish on your North Channel swim (from Scotland to Northern Ireland) in 2014, tell us about that.
I got stung over two hundred times by lion’s mane jellyfish. It was like swimming through land mines. I was crying, I was vomiting. I had put on a lot of muscle and fat to prepare for the cold–getting hospitalized for jellyfish stings ended up being an interesting weight loss plan.
I was in a cardiac ward in Northern Ireland (after completing the swim in 13 hours and 6 minutes.) The doctors said ‘What worries us about you is that your tolerance for pain is so high, you’re likely masking symptoms that would be apparent in a normal person.’
They were right. The next day I toured the Bushmill’s distillery. I was drinking whisky, but I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t sleep on the flight home I was in so much pain. Back home, I went straight to work. Everyone could see that I was not okay but I wasn’t going to ask for help. This sport teaches you pain tolerance and stubbornness. I ended up in intensive care at CPMC with fluid around all my vital organs, fluid in both my lungs. I almost died. My stubbornness nearly killed me.
Were jellies an issue on your Farallons swim?
The stars aligned for me this time. I didn’t get stung once. All the jellyfish were a few feet below me. At night it was like looking into space and seeing these gelatinous blobs. Your arms are glowing from the bioluminescence.
We got incredibly lucky with the water temperature too. It was 63° at the Farallons, which never happens. I had prepared for a swim in the 50°s.
You got into swimming as an adult, is that right?
I had an injury. The doctors told me I might never walk again. Swimming was part of my recovery, my first swim in the bay was in 2009 after two years of re-learning to walk. I’m tall but I have little feet and hands so I’m not built to be a swimmer.
‘IN THE WATER I WASN’T DISABLED ANYMORE’
I was a ballerina for fifteen years. That kind of prepped me for this, I was familiar with all-consuming goals. It gave me an exceptionally high pain tolerance. I’m used to suffering.
What’s the weirdest training you’ve ever done?
I take cold showers for months before a swim. To train for the North Channel went a step further: I filled a kiddie pool with ice from Safeway and I’d sit in there for hours reading Vogue and the Economist. Then I’d get out and shiver until my body warmed itself up. My neighbors saw it all. There’s no scientific evidence that this works, but it prepares you mentally to face the cold and fight through it.
And what’s the weirdest thing you’ve eaten?
I put on 65 pounds for the North Channel swim, and 25 pounds for the Farallons. I eat a lot of avocados, breakfast burritos, pancakes. Huge breakfasts. My skinny-girl friends are like ‘I hate you.’
In the two weeks leading up to the swim I just rested. On the weekends I would nap for four hours a day, emerge from bed to eat a pint of ice cream and then go back to sleep. I lost ten pounds during the swim and another fifteen-twenty pounds in the two weeks after the swim. Those extra fat reserves are just a security blanket on an extreme swim. If you’re training for Alcatraz or something you don’t have to go to that extreme.
And now for the ‘as a woman…’ question you’re probably sick of hearing. But how does gender come into play out there and back on land?
Aside from the whole sharks and periods thing…
It’s not a sexy sport, but I’m a super feminine woman–I always wear my diamond earrings when I swim. I love that I can do this with grace and beauty. So that’s something I want to show other women, that you don’t have to become a man to do this hyper masculine sport. You can be a woman and compete with men. I want to show other women what’s possible, not in terms of accolades but in terms of what a woman can want for herself. This was about honor, honor for myself. I wanted this because I’m in love with those islands. Those are my islands.
Gaining weight for these swims has taught me to appreciate my body in a whole different way. I tell people, this is my vessel and it has to be as seaworthy as possible. This body got me to France. This body got me to Africa across the straight of Gibraltar. If I fuel it right and I treat it right, it can do these amazing things.
‘OF COURSE I’M AFRAID OF SHARKS…’
There was a lot of pressure. I think some of that had to do with my being a woman. The media played up the shark thing because of Simon’s swim. I was thinking on the boat ride out to the islands, what if I get out there and I can’t get in the water? I felt like I really set myself up and I didn’t know what was going to happen, right down to my own emotional response.
People talk about this sport being more mental than physical. You use the word ‘spiritual.’
This is the one of the most risky sports you could possibly do. You have no protection against the elements. You’re kind of jumping in on a wing and a prayer. That’s what draws me to these swims. I feel like life on land is so prescribed, swimming makes me feel like a modern day explorer. There’s nothing like it, just talking about it makes me want to go back out there.
For all the risk there are no accolades for it. So you have to have a deeper purpose in this sport that keeps you waking up at 4 AM. You have to be pretty stubborn, it takes sacrifice.
‘IT’S A JOURNEY, NOT AN ATHLETIC EVENT.’
Every one of these swims is like having a mid-life crisis in the best possible way. You face life and death, you question what you’re made of and who you are and what you’re capable of and you come out of the water a different person than you went in. I tell people, with each one of these swims my soul has more wrinkles.
It’s very spiritual for me to be out at the Farallons in particular. It’s in my will to have my ashes spread out there. That’s where I want to get married some day.
Do you have any advice for readers who want to jump in the Bay for the first time? Swimming seems like the perfect sport for broke-asses.
You don’t just jump in and swim thirty miles. Any swim, whether it’s thirty miles or your first time swimming along the buoy line at the Aquatic Park, can be broken down into manageable pieces. Set yourself up for success, keep enjoying it.
Open water swimming costs you nothing and it’s a way to feel something you wouldn’t feel in an ordinary day. At Aquatic Park you can pay the day use fees at the Dolphin Club or the Rowing Club, but you can also just get in. It doesn’t matter if you wear a wetsuit. For the swims I do it matters, but if you’re a recreational swimmer there’s no shame in wearing a wetsuit. It’s something I wish more people would just try. Yeah it’s cold, yeah you don’t know what’s underneath you, but if you just try it… That’s what’s counts, trying. I remember the first time I did Alcatraz, five years ago, I can remember being mid-channel and looking at Alcatraz and looking at the city… I just couldn’t believe I was out there.
As adults we forget to play, we get so serious about exercise, this is just playing. I was swimming with seals this morning.
Check out Kimberly Chambers at KimSwims . That ‘deeper purpose’ behind her swims includes some badass non-profit work:
Kim serves on the board of advisors for the Warrior Canine Connection which connects veterans with service dogs.
Her Vimeo channel has some amazing footage of the Bay and the Pacific from an angle most of us have never seen it.
To honor Kimberley’s achievement, I’m calling on Stuart Schuffman to declare August 8th ‘Kimberley Chambers Day’ if elected.
*The Farallon Islands mark one point of the Red Triangle , the great white shark capital of the world. 38% of all great white attacks in the U.S and 11% worldwide have happened in this patch of the north Pacific.
Read Lone Swimmer for everything you need to know about swimming in cold water.
Images: KimSwims.com, CBS, Adobe