The owner of the kayak-rental stand in Sausalito furrowed his forehead. Four in the group of eight people standing before him were going to swim the mile across Richardson Bay to Belvedere Island? Why? Though it was a gorgeous November day, with hardly a cloud obstructing the view of San Francisco’s jagged skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge, the green water was a chilly 53 degrees.
Wilton’s father, John, explained matter-of-factly, “Alex was attacked by a shark, and this is his first time back in the ocean. We’re going to kayak next to him as he swims.”
The owner’s face blanched and contorted slightly, but he didn’t ask more questions. Instead, he pushed play on a safety video about how to navigate Richardson Bay’s currents and boating channel.
As Wilton and his three swimming companions—friends from childhood, college, and business school—wrestled on black wetsuits, Wilton thought of a message he’d received the day before from Kendrick. “It’s okay to feel things like apprehension, excitement, fear,” Kendrick had written. “Know that I am right there beside you in spirit.”
Pulling on a neoprene hood and mirrored goggles, Wilton gathered his friends for a hug and pep talk of his own. He thanked them for their support and assured them that, though he hoped to finish the swim, he didn’t want any of them to feel uncomfortable. If they got too cold, or scared, or their legs began to cramp, he urged them to be vocal. “This experience is a first for all of us,” he said, before they awkwardly waddled to the water in their fins.
“Stay close, OK?” Wilton’s mother, Deborah, urged. “Don’t die,” his father deadpanned.
Grimacing as he entered the cold water, Wilton broke into a quick freestyle, with his friends rushing to keep up. When crossing the channel that boats travel to reach the wider San Francisco Bay, he was loath to stop for the oncoming traffic. “Alex is motivated to do it as quickly as he can,” Wilton’s dad explained from the back of a yellow kayak.
Studies of veterans with PTSD have found peer support networks to be just as therapeutic as clinician-led support groups. One study has found that online versions of these groups, like Bite Club, can also provide some sense of connectedness and belonging.
Wilton’s childhood friend, Erik Osterholm, stuck tightly by his side. Once, Osterholm swam too close for comfort, and Wilton winced. But when they paused to regroup after about 15 minutes, bobbing like otters as sailboats jutted from the water behind them, Wilton told him, “I like having you next to me.”
When the group was about halfway across and out of earshot, Wilton’s father muttered, “The scary part is there are sharks in the bay.” Shortly thereafter, he noticed a flock of pelicans, gulls, and other seabirds land on the water not 40 feet from the swimmers. “I wish those birds weren’t so close. That’s a fish run,” he said, as the birds dove underwater, reappearing with full bills. “You don’t want to swim through that.” Baitfish sometimes attract larger, predatory fish of the sort the Wilton family would be happy never to encounter again.
Wilton’s father inserted his kayak between the birds and the swimmers. “Stay on the left side of my boat,” he yelled. As Wilton swam over and grabbed onto the kayak, a fishing boat cut its way toward the birds. “I’m not psyched about that fishing boat,” he admitted, panting to catch his breath. Fishermen will sometimes chum the water to attract fish, which, once again, can attract larger fish.
“All right, let’s get going, the fish are moving this way, and then there’ll be seals,” Wilton’s dad said with urgency. Sure enough, slick brown heads began popping to the surface nearby. The men began swimming again, a little quicker than before.
After a tense few hundred yards, the group pulled farther away from the birds, and Wilton’s dad relaxed. It would only take a few more minutes to reach land.
“Enjoy the last bit, Allie!” he shouted.
“That’s right,” Wilton agreed, turning onto his back to take in the glittering bay, the hills of Sausalito, and San Francisco’s towering skyscrapers.
Later, after the adrenaline rush of his first time back in open water had subsided, Wilton would sit down at his computer and peck out a message of gratitude to the Bite Club, along with photos of his swim. He would hear back from both Pearson and Kendrick, who would call the Bite Club a “family.”
But for now, Wilton just floated, alone with his thoughts. Then he flipped over, swam his last few strokes, and pulled himself onto the rocky shore.