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Affinities: The Longest, Coldest Lap

Our monthly pictoral study of uniquely Bay Area tribes.

John Davis

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Walt Schneebeli

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Members on the shore

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Dolphin Crew, 1913–1915 (from left): D. Wallace, G. Pera, J. Kenniff, L. Delucci

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Swimming across Aquatic Cove

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Lou "the Glue"

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Club president Ken Coren

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Phil Sancimino, Kevin Sancimino, and Steve Sancimino on the deck

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See all the Affinities here.

Twice a week, Todd Oppenheimer strips down to his Speedo, tugs on a neoprene swim cap ("like a wetsuit for your head"), and plunges into Aquatic Cove. The good news, he says, is that the brisk surf—which ranges in temperature from the upper 40s to the mid-60s—only really hurts for the first 30 seconds or so. The bad news is that if you’re not used to it, it’s almost unbearable. "Your feet hurt, your head aches, you can’t breathe," he says. "It’s as though you’ve jumped into an arctic sea."

Oppenheimer, 61, is one of around 100 bay swimmers in the Dolphin Club, a storied contingent of water enthusiasts in existence since 1877. It’s a diverse group, to put it mildly: “Judges, Muni drivers, lawyers, cops, longshoremen...the works,” says Oppenheimer. Most crawl the cove in small groups, each swimmer clad in only a bathing suit, goggles, and a swim cap. The club’s core is a handful of big-bellied older men, affectionately referred to as the "old goats."

They’re depicted here by Wendy MacNaughton, an illustrator who was inspired to visit the club by her uncle, a former member. (It’s where he took his wife on their first date.) MacNaughton shadowed 17 under-the-radar communities for her new book, Meanwhile in San Francisco (Chronicle Books). After two weeks of palling around with Dolphin Club members, some of whom are in their 80s, she says, “I can never complain about aging again.”

 

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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