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October 2, 2009 5:07 PM

Off The Clock: Swimming with the Sharks

Posted by Brian Baxter

Jon&WalterBunt

Eligible to Compete Walter Bunt, Jr. (above, right)

On the Clock Commercial litigation partner with K&L Gates

Off the Clock Swimming in open waters

Maritime Mission Steering clear of great whites

Some lawyers have the reputation of being sharks. Walter Bunt, Jr., just swims with them.

Bunt, a partner in K&L Gates's Pittsburgh office, took up swimming several years ago after years of running took its toll on his knees. He started doing laps at his local YMCA and going for extended swims outside whenever he got the chance.

Then came a summertime challenge, issued by his younger son, Jonathon, to swim across San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz Island to a beach near Ghirardelli Square.

Jonathon, an amateur triathlete who lives in the Bay Area, knew his father was disappointed when he couldn't run in a marathon with both of his sons. (Bunt's older son, a military doctor who served in Iraq, ran a marathon with Jonathon the same week he returned stateside.)

Hoping a swim would get his father's mind off the missed marathon, Jonathon, 29, raised the possibility of an aquatic adventure from Alcatraz, trying to gauge his father's interest. Bunt readily accepted.

On September 20, the 61-year-old commercial litigator strapped on a wetsuit for the 1-1/4 mile leg across the frigid bay. Ten other accomplished swimmers joined the father and son team on the mission organized by Swim Art, a San Francisco group that produces nautical-themed athletic events. 

The distance across the bay wasn't the hard part. Bunt had swum double that length before. And the event was scheduled in the early morning hours, when the weather is usually clear. "When you swim point-to-point, you need to be able to see where you're going," Bunt says.

Along the way, they saw porpoises and seals. But there were no man-eating sharks. Despite popular depictions of the treacherous waters surrounding Alcatraz, people have been swimming from the former prison island for years without becoming bait. (San Francisco Bay is home to smaller breeds of sharks, mostly bottom-feeders, while those of the great white variety tend to lurk off the California coast.)

The real danger comes from the water temperature, strong currents, and the ships and ferries crossing the busy channel. For safety reasons, Coast Guard regulations require that a rescue boat follow those attempting the Alcatraz swim and groups must remain together. 

How was the water temperature?

"Even in the fall it ranges from 57 to 59 degrees, and that's pretty cold," Bunt says, adding that the water grew colder as the group swam toward the city.

After 40 minutes of swimming, Bunt and his son reached the finish line, scrambling onto Aquatic Beach Park to bundle up and get warm (Jonathon swam without a wetsuit).

Bunt, without any hesitation, says he's ready to jump in the water again.

"We're already thinking of doing another one where you swim from one side of the Golden Gate Bridge to the other," he says. "Although I have to admit I'm also thinking about my alternatives!"

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