Swim Feat Leads to More Swim Research

Craig Coombs’ record-breaking swim around Alameda (“Local to Attempt Setting Record for Swimming around the Island City,” Sept. 6) prompted me to investigate my grandfather’s record swims. As I looked through my grandmother’s belongings, I came upon several newspaper clippings documenting my grandpa’s records.

In the fall of 1939, America was emerging from the Great Depression and the Bay Area had two newly constructed iconic suspension bridges, the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge. To celebrate, Treasure Island had been created in the middle of the San Francisco Bay to serve as the venue for the 1939 World’s Fair, the Golden Gate International Exposition.

A young man named Fred Breckenridge, who happened to be my grandfather, became the first person to swim from Alameda to Treasure Island on Sept. 8, 1939. He was 29 years old. At the time, the Bay Area was getting a great deal of national attention, Grandpa decided to attract a little publicity for Alameda’s Washington Park Beach where he swam daily. “It’s a swell place for swimming,” he said.  

The difficult eight-mile open-water swim took Grandpa just four hours and 35 minutes, though he had to contend with very strong currents and saltwater burning his eyes. Grandpa’s coach, Jack Owens, and official time keeper, Henry Johnson, followed him in a row boat. When Grandpa climbed onto the dock at the Port of the Trade Winds on Treasure Island, a welcoming committee from the World’s Fair was on hand to greet him. After chatting with fair officials and reporters, Grandpa took a brief break and showered at the Treasure Island fire house.

When Grandpa returned to the row boat for the trip home, he saw that Owens and Johnson “looked a little tired” so Grandpa rowed back to Alameda. “That’s what made me tired,” Grandpa said.

In addition to several swims to Treasure Island, on Sept. 9, 1940, Grandpa swam from Pier 35 in San Francisco to Washington Park Beach. He completed the challenging 12-mile swim in an astonishing four hours and 20 minutes.

In 1941 Grandpa began swimming around Alameda in preparation to break the record set by Byron Summers on Memorial Day in 1927. The route Grandpa swam was estimated to be two miles longer than Summers’ route because he had to swim around the infill that the U.S. Navy created for its air station. The training Grandpa began for his record attempt was interrupted by World War II, when he was deployed to the South Pacific to fight in the war.

After the war Grandpa never again made any record attempts but he remained a vocal advocate of Washington Park Beach, and later after the South Shore expansion with Crown Memorial Beach where he was something of a local celebrity. In his retirement, Grandpa swam at Crown Memorial Beach nearly every day.

 

Courtesy photo    Fred Breckenridge was the first to swim from Alameda to Treasure Island.

John Berg is a contributing writer for the Alameda Sun.