The Alamedan master’s open-water swimmer takes the hard way around Alameda, accomplishing a new first.
Craig Coombs does not wade in the water. An open-water swimming enthusiast, the 57-year-old has swum among the Hawaiian Islands, completed 36 miles of a tough Arizona swimming challenge, and completed lots of other ultra marathon open swims.
For good measure, he has run the Bay to Breakers footrace several times. In September, Coombs added swimming around the main island of Alameda to his open-swimming accolades, clocking a record time for the 15.75-mile swim, completing the route in 7 hours, 12 minutes, and 3 seconds. The previous best effort was 14.66 miles in 7:38:39.5 by Al Kallunki in 1951 when Alameda was slightly smaller.
“It’s a beautiful swim around Alameda island. It’s so varied. You’ve got natural, residential, and industrial areas,” Coombs said. “The noise underwater from those ships is tremendous.”
In between these open-water swimming challenges, Coombs consults for medical device companies. He had just returned from a medical device conference in Philadelphia when he was preparing to teach an extension course on a similar topic in Santa Clara. Here’s what Coombs had to say about his swim around Alameda and his motivation for being a man of action.
What is your background and relationship to swimming?
I started swimming as an adult when I was 49 years old to ward off the aging process that I and everyone else about that age typically begins to feel. I like to exercise with a goal, so I decided that I’d work out to the point that I could do an Alcatraz swim, a bucket-list item. Once I did that in 2011, I was hooked on open-water swimming. The difference between pool swimming and open-water swimming in the Bay Area is analogous to the difference between jogging on a treadmill facing a beige wall and jogging through a beautiful forest trail.
Since that first Alcatraz swim, I’ve done another 26 swims to or from San Francisco and Alcatraz. Nearly all of them were done with the South End Rowing Club, of which I’m a member. I’ve swum the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain to Africa, between the Hawaiian Islands with whales, and around Pennock Island in Alaska. These are all considered to be ultra marathon open-water swims, which are any swims longer than 6.2 miles. Others believe the threshold for “ultra” should be 15.53 miles. Either way, the perimeter of Alameda Island qualifies as an ultra marathon swim. It certainly is exhausting enough of a swim to qualify.
What was your inspiration to do the swim around Alameda?
Open-water swimming is a rapidly growing sport. As such, it’s pretty difficult to find a “first” that a 50-year-old could accomplish. One day, I started wondering if anyone had swum around Alameda island. To my surprise, there were very few swims around this beautiful island, with the last being documented in 1951. There are no records of swimming the island in its current built-out status, which includes the additions of the Naval Base, South Shore, marinas, and bird sanctuary marshes. The island perimeter is about 1.75 miles longer than when the first swim around the island was completed in 1927. I told a couple master’s swimming friends about my goal, and they joined in helping me figure out how to accomplish the feat.
What were some of the difficulties and challenges of doing the swim?
There are always three issues with any ultra marathon open-water swim. One, you have to swim entirely on your own power. No swimming aids are allowed in the sport. That means no wetsuits. You can only wear a Speedo, cap, and goggles. You can’t touch or draft any other swimmers or the support boat. You can never rest on the boat or be supported in the water at any time. You have to feed every half hour on the liquid feed your support crew throws or hands to you while you tread water. Fortunately, my swim manager, Danielle Ruymaker, is an expert swimmer and supporter.
Two, the logistics of swimming around Alameda are significant. The distance requires detailed planning. We spent two years figuring out that the swim had to be done during a new or full moon. It required coordinating my speed and starting time in accordance with two tide changes. It had to be done before the afternoon winds came up, and I had to be comfortable swimming in the bay in the dark. That’s why I had to leave Crown Memorial Beach at 3:16 a.m. Every yard of the swim had to be independently observed by Ranie Pierce on the support boat piloted by Steve Waterloo. Ranie is a world-class open-water swimmer who recorded all of the conditions of the swim in order for the Marathon Swim Federation to certify the swim.
Finally, the amount of physical training necessary for this kind of swim is very intense. In the last few months, I would have as many as three workouts per day. That would include up to two pool workouts under the direction of the Enthusiastic Masters of Oakland club swim coach Marcia Benjamin, the best coach for marathon trainers, along with precision weight training by Ron Callo of Concrete Body here in Alameda. I got so lean that my final body weight finally matched the weight that’s listed on my driver’s license.
Tell us about your personal background.
I was raised in Spokane, Washington, where I swam competitively in high school, but not with any distinction. I came to the Bay Area in 1978 to get a biology degree from Stanford. I have two adult sons from my first marriage, and a wonderful 13-year-old son with my wife, Tricia Emerson. We’ve lived in the Gold Coast of Alameda for the last 14 years. It’s a wonderful place to raise a family. For the last 30 years, I’ve been a regulatory affairs consultant for medical device companies. I’m responsible for developing the plan to show that a company’s medical device is safe and effective for the health care problem they’re trying to solve, and getting approval from the governmental regulators around the world, including the U.S. Food and Drugs Administration, for those devices so the companies can commercially distribute their health care solution.
What are you doing nowadays?
I’m maintaining a scaled-back workout schedule, one that allows me to maintain much of the fitness level I’ve achieved. With time restored to my schedule, it’s a delight to be with my family more and be more alert for my work. I don’t have any big swims planned at this time, but who knows what the future holds.