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Swimming With the Enemy
Andrea Powell | Photo: Brett Walker | March 4, 2015
The rivalry between the Dolphin Club and the South End Rowing Club spans over 100 years—that’s a long time to hold a grudge.
Bill Wygant is nervous. Wearing only a Speedo and an open warm-up jacket, the president of the South End Rowing Club paces around the crowded boathouse at Aquatic Park, stopping often to urge on his comrades. “We’re defending the cause of freedom,” he says excitedly. It’s barely 8:30 a.m. on a warm fall Saturday, but swimsuit-clad athletes have been filtering into the club since before dawn. Today is the 37th annual Dolphin–South End competition, a five-hour event in which the only two open-water swimming clubs in San Francisco, the South End Rowing Club and the Dolphin Club, face off in three events: a 2.75-mile row, a 2.5-mile swim, and a 10K run. Forget the World Series. Forget the Super Bowl. For Wygant and the other 200 or so men and women in attendance, this is the biggest sporting event of the year. And today the stakes are particularly high: If the South End pulls off a victory, it will take home the “plaque” (a massive wooden slab detailing past wins) for the 10th straight year.
Proclaiming their fealty in red (South Enders) or blue (Dolphins), the racers grow more jittery by the minute. Despite being packed like sardines in the tiny clubhouse, the two teams don’t intermingle much. One participant, asked earlier if he knows where Wygant might be, sneers, “I don’t know—I’m a Dolphin.”
The South End lost ground in the rowing leg earlier in the morning, but they aren’t dwelling on it. Instead they’re prepping for the most crucial event of the day—both for points and for bragging rights—the swim. “This is a secret briefing, for South End members only,” shouts Jeff Everett, swim commissioner of the club, which is hosting the event this year. The Dolphins exit, and the remaining crowd grows quiet, all eyes on Wygant. Hopeful that they can take back the lead in this leg, he does his best to spur them on: “If you have a Dolphin on your left, and you’re on the right, you’re going to beat him to the beach!” he instructs. When a woman asks how her belongings will be returned from the starting line to the clubhouse, Wygant barks, “This is the South End Club! Don’t worry about your fucking clothes! Just get your ass back to the beach!”
The Dolphin Club and the South End Rowing Club are the oldest aquatic enemies in San Francisco—perhaps on the entire western seaboard. Traces of their rivalry go back to the late 1800s, when both were part of the city’s burgeoning waterfront rowing scene. At one point, nearly half a dozen clubs were located near the bay’s Central Basin by Mission Rock (the South End was at the south end; hence the name). Over the years, rowing became less popular. Some clubs shuttered, others moved, and eventually there were really only two left to thrash it out in Aquatic Park. Theirs is a classic sibling rivalry: The South End is older (and, some might say, wiser) by four years; the Dolphin Club is “more popular,” boasting about 550 more members than its neighbor.
The Eddie Haskell of the duo, the Dolphin Club tends to play down the long-standing rivalry. “It’s relatively civilized between the two clubs now,” says Dolphin Larry Scroggins. South Enders, on the other hand, revel in it: “It’s the best rivalry on the West Coast, bigger than Cal versus Stanford!” contends swimmer Sarah Mehl, who bristles visibly when asked which club she swims for: “Oh, South End all the way!” The clubs’ constant competition—both for wins and for members—is intensified by the fact that the clubs are housed in adjoining buildings, their members constantly bumping up against one another. There’s even a locked passageway between the clubs, though it rarely gets used.
From the outside, the animus between the Dolphins and the South Enders might look like just another example of like-minded San Franciscans one-upping each other physically, economically, and socially. But in this age of class anxiety in San Francisco, there’s something refreshingly egalitarian about the clash. It’s not a story of man against tech, or man against corporation: It’s man against man (and woman—and vice versa). It’s the ultimate anachronism, a 19th-century throwback in an age of Crossfit gyms. The clubs’ joint polar-bear lunacy (the bay water averages between 53 and 60 degrees) and their pride in being part of an old-school San Francisco tradition give them a bond that transcends their Hatfield-versus-McCoy rivalry. Except on the day of the competition. Then there’s blood in the water.
With the swim due to start at 9:15 a.m., the South End members pile into what they’ve dubbed “the Mexican Party Bus,” a spectacle of a school bus painted bright orange and yellow, with the moniker “Lola” above its windshield. It will ferry them from Aquatic Park to the parking lot of the Saint Francis Yacht Club, where approximately 220 swimmers will plunge into the 60-degree water (sans wetsuits) to swim two and a half miles back to the clubs’ shared beach. Points are awarded based on each swimmer’s place at the finish: The first person receives 20 points; the second, 19; and so forth. After the first 19, finishers 20 through 100 receive one point each. As the South Enders board the bus, one member in a Speedo stands outside banging a drum, and everyone shouts wildly. If it weren’t for all the swim caps (and the advanced age of some of the participants), this could easily be mistaken for a frat party.
There aren’t enough seats on the bus, so Wygant volunteers to transport a couple of carloads of swimmers in his Prius—some jump into the trunk. On the way over, he contemplates his team’s chances. “We have a lot of good swimmers, and we’ll probably take them in the run,” he muses. “It will probably be pretty tense by the time we’re done.” But as he pulls back into the parking lot after a second trip, his face drops. At the far end stand two enormous blue tour buses—the Dolphin Club’s answer to the Mexican Party Bus. Wygant is incredulous. “We can’t afford a bus like that! There are two of them! We’re in trouble.” Clouds have gathered in the north, ominously making their way east of the Golden Gate Bridge. Wygant takes a deep breath. “This year’s going to be tough.”
For all of the back-and-forth between the clubs, they look and act almost identical. “Somebody outside wouldn’t have a clue as to what the difference is,” says Scroggins, who used to be a member of both clubs. But they love to assert their differences. For starters, “the South End is just less civilized,” he says. “They do birthday swims in their birthday suits. That’s not really a Dolphin kind of thing.” Then there are the facilities themselves. “It’s possible that the slums of Calcutta are worse than the South End’s women’s locker room,” he says, referencing a long-held and well-known complaint of South Enders. “I don’t know, I’ve never actually been to Calcutta. But it’s probably a toss-up.”
Suzie Dods started at the Dolphin Club nearly 24 years ago and later joined the South End in order to participate in its sponsored swims (she now swims for the Dolphins and runs for the South End, which is technically allowed, if casually frowned upon). “I had heard that the South End were the feral neighbors,” she says. “Always the wild ones. But then, South Enders say the Dolphins read the Wall Street Journal in the sauna.” The truth, Dods says, is open to interpretation. “They’re exactly the same and completely different. I tell people before they join, ‘Hang out at both clubs for a day—one of them will speak to you.’”
“It used to be much more contentious,” says Kim Peinado-Howard, former president of the South End. She believes that the overt rivalry masks a larger feeling of gratitude that the clubs share but don’t like to admit. “We’re the last two of our kind,” she says. “So yes, there’s a natural rivalry, but there’s also an affinity for each other. And when there’s a common threat, we come together.”
And the clubs have faced numerous threats, specifically with regard to their habitat, Aquatic Park. The original plan for the 2013 America’s Cup involved turning the entire waterfront into an amusement park, with its pièce de résistance, a floating, diesel-powered Jumbotron, parked smack-dab in the middle of the clubs’ cove. The clubs’ presidents and board members jointly contested the plan at a Board of Supervisors hearing, and race organizers were forced to dial back the extravagance. After the 2007 oil spill dumped 54,000 gallons of fuel into the bay, the clubs worked fastidiously to document the damage and present their evidence to government officials in order to expedite the cleanup. But their alliance isn’t limited to environmental battles: When longtime Dolphin Club caretaker Lou Marcelli, a man well known throughout the waterfront, passed away in 2013, the South End lowered its flag in a show of respect.
Barely 20 minutes after taking off, the first swimmer arrives at the finish—a Dolphin. Two more, a South Ender and a Dolphin, leap from the water and break into a sprint to the finish marker—the South Ender finishes ahead. But many more Dolphins appear soon after. It’s a raucous scene, with so much cheering and hollering that supporters can’t hear themselves talk. Several swimmers emerge from the water in an apparent stupor, struggling to stand up—some so relieved to make it to shore that they don’t seem to notice the finish line and wander off in the other direction.
As it slowly becomes apparent that the South End did not win the swim, Wygant emerges from the water, heartily striding up the beach. “We’re not doing too well,” he says quietly. “But we just have to keep going.” With gustatory sportsmanship, the South Enders offer up a feast for all race participants, regardless of club allegiance: salad, bread, chili, chicken noodle soup, two kegs of Lagunitas, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and even a cake in honor of Wygant, whose birthday was the previous day. “It’s for everybody who walks by,” says one of the kitchen volunteers. “That’s the way it works here.”
Athletes spill out of the kitchen and onto the deck, contemplating possible outcomes as they prepare for the final event: an unmarked out-and-back 10K to the Golden Gate Bridge that relies on the honor system (there are no race officials to watch the runners). After refueling, nearly 200 runners assemble at the start line (not every participant competes in all three events). This is it, the last chance for one team to triumph over the other for another year. Most runners will earn only one point at best, so a strong team is essential. Wygant stares at the crowd of contestants. “I think we’ve lost. They have more runners than we do.” He repeats his line from earlier in the day: “It’s going to be a tough year.”
Back at the Dolphin Club, members are giddy as they await the run results. Their turnout this year was a record breaker—about 175 members competing, while the South End entered only about 125. “We’re prevailing today—and we like that,” says Dolphin president Diane Walton. For Walton, whose term will end at the beginning of 2015, the thought of winning this year is even sweeter: The Dolphins have won only 4 of the last 36 competitions. “I might get to be the one to bring the plaque back,” she says. “That was not something I set out to do in my presidency, but now I’ve done it…maybe. Not to be presumptuous.”
Standing near the finish line, Wygant is silent. As he limps his way back to the clubhouse, his South Enders console him. “They had a big turnout,” they tell him. “If they got it, it’s because we gave it to them.” Wygant nods and walks upstairs to his office. On his way, he passes the plaque hanging on the wall, celebrating nearly a decade of South End victories.
In the end, it’s a massacre—the Dolphins win the rowing competition by a whopping 190 points, the swim by 40, and the run by 84. Sitting in Wygant’s office overlooking Aquatic Park, Walton laughs with relief. “I’m just so happy,” she sighs. Wygant is cordial. “You guys did really well. That swim was amazing,” he tells her. “You guys did a hell of a job today.”
After a few minutes of discussion, Wygant and Walton make a decision that epitomizes the salutary effect the two clubs have when they come together. From the balcony they address the masses, fanning the suspense with witty banter before turning somber. They inform the crowd that only a month before, the 43-year-old son of two Dolphin Club members died suddenly. His parents weren’t able to make it to today’s event. “Today is for them,” the leaders announce. “We dedicate this race to our partners.” A momentary silence falls, hundreds of heads nodding in mournful understanding. Then Walton smiles, nodding to Wygant to read the results. “What’s the total?” she jeers. “Give ’em the total!”
“Because this stuff doesn’t have to matter, it can,” Wygant says a couple days before the competition. “People put more energy into this than they do their jobs. So there must be something to it.” Walton also sees value in the fraternal relationship between the two clubs—and knows that what they have is more than a petty rivalry. “We’re friends 364 days of the year, and then today we’re vital enemies,” she says on the big day. Then she clarifies: “But we’re all good.”
After reading the results, Wygant turns around and slinks back into his office. Later that day, the plaque is moved a couple hundred feet, from its home for nearly a decade to its new resting spot at the Dolphin Club. It’s a seemingly insignificant change, unnoticed by most of San Francisco. But in the ramshackle buildings at the end of Aquatic Park, it’s both an affliction and a celebration. Of course, there’s always next year.
Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco