Craig Coombs contributed to this story.
Alameda resident Craig Coombs, 57, has set a personal mission to be the first person complete a swim around the Main Island. Coombs plans to start his swim from the jetty on the east side of Crown Beach (in front of the bowling alley) at 3:15 a.m. this Sunday, Sept. 9. He then intends to swim clockwise around the Island City. If all goes as Coombs expects, the entire swim will take eight hours, give or take 30 minutes.
What Coombs really hopes will happen is that he beats the existing record of 7 hours, 38 minutes and 39.5 seconds. If that’s the case, he will return to the east end of Crown Beach sometime before 11 a.m. The water temperature should be in the high 60s. Coombs expects to set up a website to track his progress in real time.
Preparing to Make History
Coombs worked with a number of his swimming friends to perpare and learn the course over the past two years. They’ve swum every portion of the Island at least twice.
“It’s a complicated and demanding swim,” said Coombs. “To be successful, one must swim only during certain phases of the moon and accommodate two tide changes. You must be done before the afternoon winds kick up. This swim is a real joy, though, because every mile has interesting and beautiful views of our island.”
The swim will be conducted following the rules of the Marathon Swimming Federation (MSF), which will certify the swim if successful. Coombs will be allowed to wear a competition swim suit, cap and goggles. He will not be permitted to wear a wetsuit or listen to music, which he could use as a pacing aid. Every part of the swim will be documented by MSF observer Ranie Pearce on a tracking boat.
During the swim, Coombs will be thrown a bottle of liquid food every half hour by his manager, Danielle Ruymaker. At no point can Coombs touch the boat or any support or stand on the shore to rest. He is not permitted to touch anyone else or even draft off anyone swimming nearby. The entire swim must be accomplished with only his own unaided physical ability.
The first record of the Island being circumnavigated by a swimmer appears in an Oakland Tribune article of May 31, 1927. In a contest sponsored by Neptune Beach with a $1,000 first prize, 30 swimmers entered the water and three finished. The winner, Bryon “Flying Fish” Summers, beat the second-place swimmer by more than an hour in a time of 7:52:30.0. The swim, estimated at 14 miles, was conducted prior to the landfill that created Alameda Naval Air Station and South Shore.
The next time any newspaper noted a swimming circumnavigation of Alameda’s Main Island occurred on Aug. 19, 1951, when 47-year-old Al Kallunki successfully completed the swim on his third try. He set a new record at 7:38:39.5. This swim was conducted prior to the landfill that created South Shore and was determined to be 14.66 miles long. The current distance necessary to swim the perimeter of the Island is 15.8 miles.
There has been no documented swim around the Island since 1951. Locals contend that Jim Barry may have done so around 1980, but this was never properly witnessed or documented, according to Coombs.
“I spoke with Barry’s swim coach, Alamedan Ashley Jones about his observation of Barry’s swim around the Island,” said Coombs. “Ash said that the whole swim was very informal and that Barry was accompanied only by a sailboarder ... with no nutrition, so it is not known how Barry would have eaten.” Jones observed the swim, noncontinuously, from the land at various vantage points, but did not see him complete the swim. Jones thinks Barry may have rested at times on the sailboard.
MSF conducted its own research into potential Alameda Island perimeter swims in preparation for Coombs’ record-setting attempt. Its research, along with the eyewitness testimony from Jones, led MSF to determine that “Jim Barry’s swim would not meet the standards of a recognized swim, even by the standards of the early 1980s.”
MSF director Evan Morrison, concluded Coombs has “a solid foundation for claiming the first Alameda Island circumnavigation swim since 1951, and the first-ever of this particular configuration, which is the longer than the previous configurations.”
Coombs swam in high school and then picked it back up again when he turned 49. He has become an experienced open-water swimmer and has completed the following swims:
n Straits of Gibraltar from Spain to Africa
n Hawaii channel swims: from Maui to Molokai and from Molokai to Lanai
n Pennock Island circumnavigation near Ketchikan, Alaska
n Arizona Challenge Swim that includes 42 miles on four lakes in four days
n Bay Bridge to Ocean Beach (i.e., Bay to Breakers) four times
n Alcatraz to San Francisco, 26 times
Coombs trains with the MEMO Masters group at Laney College under Marcia Benjamin and gets strength and conditioning training from Ron Callo of Concrete Body on Bay Farm Island. His open-water support comes from the South End Rowing Club of San Francisco.
Coombs has lived in Alameda for 15 years with his wife, Tricia Emerson, and son Colten. He is self-employed as a regulatory affairs consultant for medical device companies.
Craig Coombs contributed to this story.