Dolphin Club Members Brave the Cold to Swim in San Francisco Bay

Tucked away at the end of Fisherman’s Wharf, amid a flood of tourists, stands a white wooden house with blue trim. It’s the home of the Dolphin Club, San Francisco’s historic swimming and boating club, whose members have been rowing and swimming in the notoriously icy water of the bay for over a century.

Inside the clubhouse are magnificent antique boats and walls lined with black-and-white photographs of monumental races and portraits of lifetime members. The Dolphin Club was founded in 1877, originally as an all-men’s club with a limit of 25 members. The club began to allow women in 1976, and now has more than 1,400 members.

Club members often swim early in the morning as the sun rises or late in the afternoon as the sky turns red. The middle of the day tends to draw a dedicated cohort of older lifetime members. The swimmers, who rarely wear wetsuits, often come eye to eye with birds and seals, and they adore entering the hot sauna after a frigid swim.

Many members extend their membership year after year. After 25 years, members become "life members" and their pictures get put up inside the clubhouse.
Many members extend their membership year after year. After 25 years, members become "life members" and their pictures get put up inside the clubhouse. (Anya Schultz/KQED)

“It’s a way to feel fully alive in your body,” says Katie Harrington, who has been a member for three years. “When else do you get to feel your quads rippling in the sauna because you are cold to the core?”

Recently there has been a surge in new members, likely due to this winter’s exceptionally warm water temperatures. The temperature of the water in the bay generally averages 54 degrees Fahrenheit during the month of March, but this month it has been reaching 60 degrees. In cold water without a wetsuit, swimmers can feel the difference of every degree.

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Last Saturday marked the end of this winter’s Polar Bear Challenge, an annual Dolphin Club competition in which members race to swim 40 miles over the three coldest months of the year. The board where competitors log their miles in tiny squares is covered in color, a testament to the swimmers' dedication to coming to the club year-round.

During the annual Polar Bear Challenge, Dolphin Club members attempt to swim 40 miles from December 21 to March 21.
During the annual Polar Bear Challenge, Dolphin Club members attempt to swim 40 miles from Dec. 21 to March 21. (Anya Schultz/KQED)

“If you really like to swim in this water, you forget about the cold,” says Sidney J.P. Hollister, who has been a member for 27 years. “It’s always cold, but you just don’t think about it.”

Social activities, such as happy-hour gatherings with the neighboring South End Rowing Club, group boat-building and member competitions, give the club a small-town feel. Some members just come to swim or row, and leave without socializing. But many become enveloped in the club’s tight-knit, intergenerational community — a refreshing haven amid a bustling city.

For Hollister, who lives alone and swims every day, the club has become a second home.

“There are days when I look back on the city and I think, ' How did I get so lucky?' ” he says.

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“To tolerate cold water, which doesn’t bother me too much, to have this place to swim in, and to have this place in San Francisco — that is just a trifecta. You can’t get much better than that.”

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