|Robert Drake: Swimming, God, and the San Francisco Bay|
On any given day, you can find Robert Drake swimming through the cold Bay waters off the shores of San Francisco in nothing more than goggles, a swim cap, and a swimsuit. His first experience with cold-water swimming was 31 years ago, when he came across a sign at San Francisco’s Dolphin Club that marked a jump-in point for swimmers.
“I just dropped in. I was living in the East Bay, working in San Francisco, and I came across a sign… so I swam half a mile in the 48 degree mid-winter water. It was wild, choppy, cold, and exhilarating.”
When asked why he subjects himself to such extremes, Drake’s answer is simple: it brings him closer to God.
“The spiritual practice [of cold, open-water swimming] is indescribable. It’s such an intense contact with reality, with nothing buffering the interface between you and nature: no wetsuit, no protection…not even civilization – it’s incredible.”
The shock his body experiences each time he wades into the cold waters never goes away. “It always hurts,” says Drake. But over time, he has accustomed his body to the pain of entering and staying in the cold waters for up to an hour at a time. Drake has made the “impossible” swim from Alcatraz, and has even swum Scotland’s Loch Lomond in temperatures just 6 degrees above freezing.
Drake is the first to acknowledge the extreme nature of his sport. He describes his co-swimmers as “amazing and unusually interesting people,” especially in light of the sport’s daily struggles which, in addition to the cold, include wild waves, tides, currents, and sometimes even propellers from huge shipping boats. But his love for the sport and what he calls “My Bay” keeps him coming back for more.
“I have always found a connection to Spirit through nature. And that’s really what it is – when you’re out there, you’re with the elements and you’re with other creatures, with Creation. I’ve even had seals swim between my legs…and for me, the more physical something is, the more spiritual it becomes.”
Drake is a third-year Masters in Divinity student at San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS), currently completing his internship as a Chaplain Resident Intern at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center. Drake also holds a Master’s degree in Conflict Resolution and volunteers at San Quentin Prison in the Restorative Justice program. After graduating from SFTS, Drake hopes to become a hospital chaplain.
“I want to be there for people during the most critical and challenging times in their lives,” Drake explained.
In addition to studying at SFTS, he is also a member of the San Francisco Dolphin Club, a public-access athletic club with more than 1100 members who swim and row classic wooden boats on the Bay waters. It’s through this membership that he found out about a fundraiser called Swim for the Bay, which benefits the nonprofit San Francisco Baykeeper. Baykeeper is the only pollution watchdog in the San Francisco Bay Area that keeps a boat on the Bay to monitor pollution levels.
On October 20, he and two teammates will swim the distance from the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge to Emeryville, which depending on currents can be up to 11 miles. So far, Drake has raised more than $1,200 through his online, but hopes to reach his goal of $2,000 by the day of the race.
Drake fondly recalls his experience as a support person in the relay last year, which happened to take place right before a Biblical Greek exam at SFTS. Throughout the day, in between helping relay swimmers in and out of the water, he shuffled his flash cards, memorizing Greek vocabulary. “It was such a beautiful experience, just being there for the team, and I knew I had to swim it myself,” Drake recalled.
Through all of these experiences, the Bay has come to have special meaning to Drake. “I just really love this Bay. It’s beautiful. It’s magnificent.And when you swim in it, you’re immersed in it, you really come to love it - it represents life and it becomes a part of you.”
To help Drake meet his fundraising goal, please visit his fundraising page at http://bit.ly/145QPkD.