Polar Bear Hall of Fame corrected with inclusion of Laura Merkl

This short entry is to note that the recent post on my personal Dolphin Club Polar Bear Hall of Fame has been revised – the major change in the corrected version is the inclusion  of Laura Merkl in the Hall of Fame.  My apologies to Laura for publishing the original entry while omitting her, which I attribute to insufficient research on my part.

My thanks go to Mary Cantini, a fellow Dolphin Club Life Member and Escape from Alcatraz Legend, for her tip on Laura’s accomplishments.  Thank you Mary!



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My Polar Bear Hall of Fame

(An earlier blog entry on the Dolphin Club‘s Polar Bear provides some background on the event and may be accessed here.  Also, this post is subject to revision as outlined in the P.S. near the end of the post.)

Asked of mountain climber George Mallory in 1923: “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?”
His answer: “Because it’s there.”

Over it’s 42 year history, the Dolphin Club’s Polar Bear (“PB”)has attracted a set of people with a range of swimming skills, ages, body types, etc.  Some, perhaps many, of the participants demonstrate a need to climb their own metaphorical mountain, evidently “Because it’s there.”  In a low-keyed way, in this blog, I’d like to give some visibility to PB participants whose exceptional performances are especially noteworthy by naming my personal Polar Bear Hall of Fame.

Bill Powning's locker, attesting to his robust participation in the swim program, is now assigned to his son.

Bill Powning’s locker, attesting to his robust participation in the swim program, is now assigned to his son.

Bill Powning –  In 1974, a founder of the Polar Bear.

A graduate of Yale, sharp dresser, and gentleman, Bill earned a Polar Bear in 23 straight winters, a record at the time, until he reached his late 70’s and “retired” from the challenges of the tradition he started.  His son, a Dolphin Club Life Member, is carrying the family flag and is a multi-year Polar Bear.




George Kebbe – A native of Syria, this now legendary PB arrived in San Francisco in 1972 and soon took up swimming in Aquatic Park.  At the age of 41, in the 1993-1994 PB season, Kebbe swam 255 PB miles, a record.  Nine years later his record was topped by Suzie Dods (See below).  So, the following season Kebbe took on the challenge and topped Suzie’s record by 100 miles to set the PB record at 356 miles, truly uncharted territory.   His unique asymmetrical windmill-style stroke is known as “The Kebbe” and, during that record breaking PB, was often visible along the buoy line in Aquatic Park.  (A down and back on the buoy line is the gold standard for mileage in Aquatic Park.)   Lou Marcelli, the Club’s longtime Commodore who was not known for hyperbole, called Kebbe’s completion of the 356 PB miles “one of the greatest feats of all time.”

George K. is one of the few Dolphin Club members to have an Aquatic Park marker named after him – formerly known as the can off the starboard quarter of the Balclutha, it’s now the Kebbe.

For more on Kebbe and his PB, go to SFGate.com.

Ralph Wenzel – Born in East Germany, low-keyed and modest Wenzel owns and manages the renowned San Francisco bakery, Schubert’s.  In the 2006-2007 PB season, Ralph swam every day but one to achieve his goal of 356 miles, to tie but not exceed George Kebbe’s record!  According to famed San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carl Nolte in a laudatory SFGate.com article, on the last day of PB, “With a chance to break the record and set a new mark, he stood up and walked out of the water. It was clear he could have gone back in the bay, taken another lap around the Aquatic Park lagoon and torn up the record book.

“I don’t feel like going back in again,” he said. Asked why he didn’t break the record, he shrugged and walked away to take a sauna.

In times when records are made to be broken and winners are hailed as superheroes, Wenzel seems to be a throwback to some other age. “

Pete Perez – By day he was a programmer at the Walt Disney Museum.  But in the 2012-2013 PB he could be found in Aquatic Park every day at 5:15 AM and again at 6:30 PM, striving toward his goal of tying the PB mileage record of 356 miles– tying, not breaking the record, out of respect for the cold-water pioneer, George Kebbe, and Ralph Wenzel, who also chose to tie.  During Perez’s quest, he figured that if he too were to tie the record Kebbe set, a tradition would  be forming and, according to SFGate.com, “if there is one thing the Dolphin Club honors, it is tradition.”  Perez developed an insider’s knowledge of Aquatic Park’s tides, currents, and micro-currents and used them to his advantage, fully within the PB’s guidelines.  Perez even coined a name for a 356 mile Polar Bear, “a George.”

Perez’s “George” came a year or two after he set the record for a new PB tradition begun a few years ago, the “First to Forty.” (Forty miles is the minimum for a standard PB, and Perez’s record of 48 or so hours stood for only a year or two.)

Suzie Dods –In the 2002-2003 Polar Bear, Suzie set the PB mileage record at 256 miles, topping PB Hall of Famer George Kebbe’s 1995 record by 1 mile.  That makes her the only woman to hold the Polar Bear single season mileage record.  Evidently her record put a challenge in front of and accepted by Kebbe – Dod’s record lasted just a year until the next season when Kebbe did what has become known as “a George,” 356 miles.  In addition to her PB exploits, Suzie has completed many challenging open water swims, operates a teaching/coaching business, and each November offers a free “Learn to swim in SF Bay” class at the Dolphin Club.

Joe Illick – Professor of History Emeritus at San Francisco State University and all-around renaissance man, Joe Illick joined the Dolphin Club in 1995 when he was 60.  Soon thereafter he was dominating the Polar Bear, achieving the most mileage of any participant for 5 or 6 seasons (to be researched further!).

Joe Illick, near one of his haunts, the PB mileage charts.

Joe Illick, near one of his haunts, the PB mileage charts.

A strong advocate of double-dipping (swim-sauna-swim), Joe’s swim speed may be slower than his undergraduate days on the swim team at Princeton, but he makes up for it with commitment and time in the water.  An author of several books, an artist, poet, and Club leader, Joe also invented the Joe Illick Award – it goes to the PB participant who has the highest “Illick score.” Illick score = (Age of participant – 40) x (PB miles of participant -40).  Besides Joe, only Pete Perez (in his record setting year) has won the Illick Award.

Wall near Joe Illick's locker has become a gallery of Joe's art creations.

Wall near Joe Illick’s locker has become a gallery of Joe’s art creations.

Laura Merkl –Laura is true Hall of Famer.  She is believed to be the first woman to win Polar Bear, which she did in 1993-1994 with 174 miles.  She won a second time in 1999-2000 when she tied for first with Scott Haskins at 150 miles.  Other metrics easily convey Laura’s affinity with the PB: first, she’s completed 29 PB’s, putting her high, possibly 2nd only to Vince Huang, on the list of PB’s done; second, she’s probably swum more Polar Bear miles than anyone, with 2865.75 career miles to date (according to her records, which the author certainly doesn’t question, Laura being a career corporate financial executive!)*. Averaging almost 100/miles/season over 29 seasons, and future PBs in front of her, Laura’s career mileage mark will be very hard to top.

*official Club records are lacking, but Laura conveyed she welcomes an audit! :-)

Vince Huang – Vince, a well informed student of water temperatures in SF Bay, has earned Hall of Fame status because of his multi-year participation and Club record of 37 straight PB’s.   Plus, he’s still going strong and will certainly lengthen his streak of consecutive PBs.  Whenever it ends, it will be a monument of consistency and persistence, a string of consecutive PB’s that will be very hard to surpass.

In summary, as the reader may perceive, the Polar Bear is quite a tradition, a 3-month event and challenge that can capture the mindshare of participants like none other.  In a future post I’ll report on the 2014-2015 PB.

Finally, the most recent issue of the Dolphin Log contains two articles on the Polar Bear, more evidence of its importance!  When the Log is posted online, I’ll provide links.

P.S. Dear Reader, while I’ve strived for accuracy of course, this post may contain factual errors and/or omissions.  If/when such information comes to light, I’ll make appropriate corrections and/or additions in this post and, if they’re major changes, I’ll note them in a future post.  So, if you see what appears to be an error or omission, please bring it to my attention, thank you.

Revised: May 14, 2015

Club's entry with a member diligently recording her PB miles.  Note the large wood carving of a dolphin.

Club’s entry with a member diligently recording her PB miles. Note the large wood carving of a dolphin.

Posted in Non-profits, Outdoors, San Francisco | Leave a comment

Selections from San Francisco Int’l Ocean Film Festival #12

In an earlier post I offered my impressions on the 12th annual San Francisco Int’l Ocean Film Festival, which took place last month.

The 12th festival, like those before it, screened over 40 films, each with a direct connection to the ocean.  And, as was the case with prior festivals, a good number of the films are truly meritorious but lack the distribution they deserve (at least in this writer’s opinion!)…a business opportunity?

In any event, below, in alphabetical order, I’ve outlined a subset of the 12th Festival’s 41 films that I found particularly appealing.   The format is film name, filmmaker, length in minutes, country of origin, my comment:

Into the Mind of Greg Long, Patrick Trefz, 5, US.  Nicely filmed, well-edited, interesting script.  A not so subtle branding/pitch piece on the mind’s owner.  Sponsored by Cliffbar.

June Gloom, Adam Warmington, 4, US.  Random but appealing clips of coastal pleasures held together by the narrator’s selections from Jack Kerouac’s poem, The Sea.  Sponsored by Reef.

Whale shark as a beautiful creature.

Whale shark as a beautiful creature.

La Nuit Des Geants, Rene Heuzey & Daniel Jouannet, 6, Fr.  Wonderful art piece which leans lightly on deceased filmmaker, Jean Panleve.  Featuring whale sharks, they’re shown to be beautiful moving sculptures. Lighting, music, filmography combine for an outstanding short.

Learning to Float, Brendan Calder, 20, US.  Heartwarming story of how a teenager from South LA hooked up with a senior surfer and developed a life-long

It's really about learning to surf as a way out...

It’s really about learning to surf as a way out…

relationship.  The teenager learns to surf, improves his lot in life remarkably, and inspires creation of a non-profit to repeat it with others.



Lost Gear, Ken Fisher, 8, US.  There are stories right in one’s own backyard – this film is a lively report on how fishermen in Eureka are working hard to retrieve lost crabbing gear.

Realm of the Oceans, Marc Jampolsky, 52, Can.  One of the best, most informative science-based films in the ocean film genre.  Innovative graphics along with smart talking heads convey how everything is connected and more.  Don’t miss this one!

Six Months at Sea in the Merchant Marine, Martin Machado, 22, US.  A fairly typical civilian goes to sea with his camera and intelligence and creates a very watchable first film that conveys life in the merchant marine.

Sweet Sea Breeze, Thomas Hessmann, 20, Gr.  For this festival, a rare screening of a fiction film.  A salty, crusty and elderly mariner is matched up with a young caretaker who starts out feisty but crosses over.

Tales of the Sand, Elodie Turpin, 20.  Spain.  Excellent script, filmography, and music all contribute to this stimulating film on the bottom of the near sea.

The Big Pick, Byrony Stokes, 6, UK.  Creative treatment of a volunteer team’s day at the beach picking up and inventorying the plastic they find.  Visuals allow it to persuade without preaching.

A small beach's yield from one day of picking.

A small beach’s yield from one day of picking.

The Last Ocean, Peter Young, 50, New Zealand.  Eye opening, moderately blistering info-editorial on the Ross Sea and the Patagonia toothfish aka Chilean seabass.  In the spotlight are the complicated politics along with the business practices of the once-respected fisheries judge, Marine Stewardship Council.

The Odd Couple, Omar Badr, 5, UK.  In the spirit of Jean Panleve, Omar Badr reports on the codependency of the Goby fish and Pistol shrimp.  In this first effort, he did it all:  precise filming & editing, a lively script, and wonderfully droll narration.  A favorite.

Goby fish guarding the homestead.

Goby fish guarding the homestead.








Thule Tuvalu, Matthias Von Gunten, 96, Swiss.  From Hollywood’s periodical, Variety: “A handsomely lensed, fascinating portrait of two communities on opposite sides of the planet undergoing irrevocable changes thanks to global warming.” The filmmaker lets the natives show and tell how, just as Bob Dylan sang, “…the times they are a-changin'”.

Beautifully filmed portraits  of two cultures under siege by changing weather.

Beautifully filmed portraits of two cultures under siege by changing weather.

Tierra de Patagone, Julian & Joaquin Azulay, 76, Argentina.  Genre: Guys travel, surf, and film it.  It’s a 6 month trip by the Gauchos del Mar brothers across Patagonia.  Linear story line made interesting by protagonists’ spirit, folks and new friends met along the way, patagonic culture, unique animals and the final leg to Staten Island in search of untouched waves…

Many other films in the Festival are also of merit, and their omission from the above list isn’t to be interpreted as a slight or criticism. The Festival program may be downloaded here.

Posted in Non-profits, Outdoors, San Francisco | Tagged | Leave a comment

3 Ocean-related Executive Director job openings

Over the last few weeks, largely through happenstance, I’ve become aware of 3 searches for executive directors (EDs) by well established, California-based, ocean/marine-related non-profits.  Normal turnover at the ED level of non-profits is low, so for there to be searches underway for 3 such positions in the small niche of California marine non-profits strikes me as really unusual. I thought this coincidence worth noting in this blog so it’s there for everyone to see.

Also, since one of my business interests is the employment marketplace, specifically job boards, I was curious to learn more about the role of job boards in the recruitment process for each position and, more generally, how the non-profits were going about their public efforts to generate candidates.

First I did a Google search for “executive director jobs” which resulted in several high ranking, unsponsored links for the popular job aggregator, Indeed.com.  At Indeed I searched on “executive director” several different ways but got generally poor results – just a few non-profit ED positions surfaced and they were mixed in with a large number of for-profit and staff jobs that had one or both of the key words, depending on my filter. No matter how broadly or narrowly I searched, I couldn’t get any of the 3 positions to turn up in the first few pages of results.  I didn’t feel I was on the right track and my opinion of Indeed did indeed sink!

I then tried SimplyHired.com, an aggregator generally perceived to be slightly behind Indeed in use.  However, I found SimplyHired searches provided cleaner, better results.  Nonetheless, the results were empty until I searched very narrowly with terms and locations very closely associated with the targeted jobs.

At Simply Hired I eventually found these listings:

Executive Director
San Francisco Baykeeper – Oakland, CA
Baykeeper uses advocacy, , San Francisco Baykeeper is seeking a visionary and … strategic and operational responsibility for Baykeeper’s personnel, programs and…
30+ days ago from idealist.org

Chief Executive Officer
San Francisco Maritime National Park Association – San Francisco, CA
the members of the Association and other maritime-related organizations Excellent … Association s Board of Trustees, the Chief Executive Officer provides overall leadership…
29 days ago from Doostang

As noted earlier, SimplyHired is an aggregator which scrapes content from other job boards, which include Idealist.org and Doostang.  (The Baykeeper position, in slightly different words, eventually surfaced at Indeed as well, having been scraped from OpportunityKnocks.org)

In brief, Baykeeper is 26 years old, has revenues of approx. $1 million/year, monitors San Francisco Bay, and takes action if appropriate. The San Francisco Maritime National Park Association was founded in 1950 and has revenues of approx. $2 million/year. It is a supporting organization to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and provides youth and adult programming.  Since Baykeeper and the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association are likely to be known to readers of this blog, I won’t go into further detail on their activities which are of course explained on their websites.  

To go to the Baykeeper ED job description on its website, click here.

To go to to the SF Maritime National Park Association CEO position description on its website, click here.

The third ED job opening is quite fresh.  It is for the ED role at the Ocean Institute, which is on the water in the southern Orange County community of Dana Point (whose tagline is “Harboring the Good Life.)”    Evidently the opening hasn’t yet been posted on any job board or even, as of the date of this post, to the Ocean Institute website. I noticed the news in an article a few days ago in the local paper.

For those not familiar with it, the Ocean Institute is a significant non-profit with revenues of approximately $8 million/year.  It offers hands-on marine science, environmental and ocean education and maritime history programs. More than 115,000 K-12 students and 8,000 teachers annually participate in the Institute’s award-winning, immersion style programs. To learn about ocean facts, sea creatures, oceanography, science, and California history, students voyage onto the ocean, study in labs and live aboard tall ships or in the chaparral, where they can feel and taste the salty sea spray, sort through live specimens, observe migrating whales on our Dana Point whale watch cruises, collect scientific data and investigate the culture and world around them. On weekends, OI opens its doors to the public for a peek into how ocean science, history, and literature are used to inspire life-long learners.

I started this process to get a sense of the recruiting efforts for 3 visible but niche jobs, as seen by someone in the general public using standard tools.  Although the sample size is probably too small from which to draw definite conclusion from, I was surprised at how much work it was to find job postings for positions I knew were open.  This suggests the job market, even for “good” jobs, remains a bit haphazard and perhaps inefficient.

I do plan to continue this project and see what shows up on social media sites such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.  Also, because recruiting efforts can and should include other channels, such as the entity’s newsletter, staff, and board of directors members, perhaps I’ll contact the non-profits to learn more of their (non-public) efforts to source good candidates.  Such contact may also reveal the use of one or more recruiting firms.

At this point, I can offer just a few practical tips on the use of job boards:

For job seekers: First, try different search approaches: narrow & wide & use different but relevant keywords.   Second, try different job boards, especially those oriented toward your industry, profession, or location.

For hiring companies: Post often.  Otherwise, since search results are stratified at least partly by date, as time goes on you’ll get buried.

If you care to make any comments on this blog post, please do so below.

Finally, if you’d like to be notified of future posts by email, sign up through the Follow button in the lower right hand corner.

Posted in Non-profits | Leave a comment

Polar Bears at the Dolphin Club

Yesterday was a red-letter day at the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club.  At midnight the window closed for completing this season’s Polar Bear Challenge, aka the “Polar Bear.” (sometimes shortened to “PB.”)  Since the PB captures major mind share of many Club members including the writer’s, and also might be interesting to others, I thought it worthy of a couple of blog entries.

Polar Bear FAQs:

What is the Polar Bear Challenge?
It is an annual Dolphin Club tradition (since 1974) during which a member may strive to swim, over the 91 or 92 day period from December 21 through March 21 of the following year, 40 miles in San Francisco Bay.

Around the Dolphin Club, what is a “Polar Bear?”
Reaching 40 miles during the season. i.e. “I got my Polar Bear.” Or “I’ve done 24 straight Polar Bears.” (as the author has, as of Feb. 22nd).  A Polar Bear may also refer to a person.

Who keeps track of miles and how?
The 40 mile goal is tracked by each member marking squares, 4 to a mile, on a chart posted near the Club’s front door.   The honor system is in effect with each member responsible for posting his or her mileage.

One of 9 charts turning into art.

One of the 9 mileage charts that become art during the course of a PB.

Why is called a “Challenge?”
In a normal winter most humans find the San Francisco Bay water temperature to be cold*.  In the Polar Bear Challenge, for miles to count toward the 40 mile goal, they need to be done without a wetsuit or swim aids.  The cold water makes the mileage required a challenge.

*Typically, the water temperature is in the low 50’s F in late December, drops into the high 40’s for January and returns to the low 50s in February and then rises to the low to mid 50’s at March 21.

How many members do the PB?
In a typical year, hundreds of the Club’s 1400 members put their name on the mileage chart, some just for fun.  Usually 100-150 members complete the Polar Bear.

What apparatus is allowed?
Swim cap, neoprene cap, goggles, and ear plugs are all allowed.   Pretty much everyone finds the cold water more tolerable and enjoyable wearing the aforementioned.  Wearing a wetsuit or fins during a swim precludes  any of it from counting as PB mileage.

Neoprene Barracuda cap, silicon cap, goggles, & ear plugs.

Neoprene Barracuda cap, silicon cap, goggles, & ear plugs.

To pursue a Polar Bear, at any one time how long can one swim in the cold water?
Wearing the above apparatus, most participants can, using some willpower, swim for 30 minutes plus or minus.  Some may swim 45 minutes or more.  At 60 or so minutes almost everyone will become at least mildly hypothermic.

What about hypothermia?
Mild hypothermia is fairly common and each winter (except this past one) at least several members push themselves to severe hypothermia, which can result in a call for emergency medical help, an evacuation by ambulance, and a big bill ($2000 or so) for the emergency medical services.

Are there other risks?
While hypothermia is the most common risk, other known risks include heart and panic attacks, collisions with fixed objects or other swimmers, and being bit by a seal or sea lion. In the winter of 2008-2009 there was an unusually large number of brown pelicans in the area – when the herring were running in the bay, dive bombs by pelicans were an

The Dolphin Log is the Club's exceptional chronicle, outlet for original articles, and publication of record.

The Dolphin Log is the Club’s exceptional chronicle, outlet for original articles, and publication of record.

additional risk; there were no reported stabbings but many close calls, as this Dolphin Log cover attests.  (the entire Log archive may be accessed through the Dolphin Club website , http://dolphinclub.org, or by clicking here.

What about this year?

As of the date of this post, results are being tabulated and will be made public in a week or two. One thing everyone knows is how warm the water was this winter, never below 53F. This is easily the warmest winter water in anyone’s memory. Reasons postulated for this very abnormal year include: a) lack of precipitation, especially snow in the Sierra Nevada, which melts to make for cold water flowing into SF Bay; b) unusual ocean winds and/or currents preventing normal upwelling. Given such a warm winter, an expected result would be greater participation with more members reaching the exalted status of “Polar Bear.”

Is the Polar Bear enjoyable?
Generally speaking, yes – otherwise it wouldn’t be as popular as it is. Even so, for some participants, especially late in the winter, the PB takes on a more tortuous persona, especially if the 40 mile threshold is within reach and the March 21 end date is approaching. As March 21 approaches, many members have been known to double or triple dip (swim 2-3 times/day, sauna in between) or even sleep at the club to ensure the time to reach 40 miles by midnight, March 21.* However, even if there are real hardships in completing a PB, there are major rewards: the satisfaction, the health benefits, the joy  of immersing oneself in a natural environment shared with others and the camaraderie when recounting it with others.

*some double or triple dip routinely. Joe Illick, PB champion at least 5 times (as a senior!) double dips during PB season almost daily. Another recent PB champion, John Nogue, resided over an hour away and had to fully utilize his 2-3 visits/week by swimming (or warming up) much of each day he visited the Club. See http://dolphinclubchronicles.blogspot.com/2012/03/2012-polar-bear-results.html

What can you say about those who choose to participate?
First, some people just can’t resist a challenge.   (At least for certain things like the Polar Bear, that includes me.)  Second, PB seems to provide a “rush” of sorts, which seems to become addictive over the season. The rush may be physiological and it also may be related to the pleasure one gets from marking one’s miles on the chart.

There is a very fine discussion of the PB and some of its mental effects by my fellow Dolphin and good friend, Larry Scroggins, at http://dolphinclubchronicles.blogspot.com/2012/03/jonesing-for-squares.html

Do participants cheat or mark up imaginary miles to get to 40?
In my opinion, not much if at all. From discussions in the sauna, which in season almost always touch on water temperatures and the Polar Bear, my strong impression is that aspirants make all kinds of sacrifices to reach 40 honestly. They may swim before first light in order to be at work in time. They may drive an hour or more each way each day to get their mile.

What I find interesting about Polar Bear is the interrelation of the honor system used to track miles and the hardship some willingly endure in March to get to 40 miles. It would be easy to “cheat” and just mark up miles but I don’t think that happens very much. Instead, people push themselves to do 40 honorably, and push they do.

Is there competition within a given Polar Bear?
My view is that, except for a few, most participants are competing with themselves. Their goal is to get to 40 miles or their personal goal of x miles. However, as one might expect competitions involving others do take hold. One goal pursued by at least a few swimmers each season is to be PB champion by swimming the most PB miles. Another public competition was established a few years ago, “first to 40.”

Beyond the psychic rewards, are there any other?
Yes!  Each successful PB participant receives a small, rectangular slap of marble with his/her mileage noted on an attached plate.  The first such piece has a small polar bear token attached.

For each PB season the marble trinkets are distributed in conjunction with an awards dinner, which occurs just a couple of weeks before the next PB, thereby providing a psychological prod to put one’s name on the chart that will be going up December 21 @ 5AM.

Stack of PB "trophies" earned by the author.

Stack of PB “trophies” earned by the author.

Coming soon: Selected PB records and my Polar Bear Hall of Fame.

Posted in Outdoors, San Francisco | Leave a comment

Impressions – San Francisco Int’l Ocean Film Festival #12

The 12th annual San Francisco Int’l Ocean Film Festival wrapped up earlier this week.  Beginning last Friday, I attended all eleven films screenings and, as has been my goal in previous festivals, saw every film.

Below are my impressions on various elements of the Festival.  In a future post I’ll discuss the films.

Opening Gala  – Excellent.  In San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, the Maritime Museum is the quintessential venue for an ocean film festival.  Fine cocktail hour with a variety of hors d’oeuvres including oysters from Hog Island.   User-friendly short lines for drinks.  The sit down dinner was ordinary but the speeches were, thankfully, short, leaving more time for mingling afterward until the witching hour of 11.

Silent & live auctions – Featured attractive, thematic items and experiences.  Live auction auctioneer Chad Carvey was excellent.  Whatever his fee, he surely earned it back in incremental revenues; he was a unifying and entertaining  presence as well.

Printed program – Very attractive.  Sufficient information.  A good marketing piece.  Download of the program is available here.

Film screening venue – The 437 seat Cowell Theater, the Festival’s original venue, is as ideal a venue as you’re likely to find for an ocean film festival.

Taking a break between film programs just outside of Cowell Theater.

Taking a break between film programs just outside of Cowell Theater.

Many guests commented on how much they preferred Cowell to the last few festivals’ site, the Pier 39 auditorium.

Attendance – Appeared to be about the same as it’s been. Plenty of vacant seats for all programs, with the Friday evening surfing program the closest to capacity.

Film program schedule – Only Ok.  Given the dearth of dining near Cowell, a little more time between programs would have been nice.  Also, start times for panels weren’t honored because film programs ate into the panel windows, inconveniencing some customers.   Finally, scheduling programs on Monday evening, the night after the very festive wrap party, was perceived by some to be odd.

Films, production quality – Good, probably better than any previous festival.  Technology advances are evidently fueling improved production qualities.

Films, variety – Only fair.  Subject matter seemed to be skewed to plastics and other ocean problems, and underwater subjects.  To the dismay of some including this writer, very little in the way of exploration, adventure, or sports. (Even though such films are known to be crowd pleasers as shown by the successes of other geo-film festivals such as Banff, Mountainfilm, Waimea).   Also there was no film even remotely connected to the Navy, Marines, or Coast Guard, all meaningful ocean-related employers.

Films, editing – In the history of SFIOFF, few films have suffered from being too short, and this pattern held at #12.  Many, if not most, films screened were too long for the way the subject was treated.  Redundancy.  Drifting off point.  The feeling of padding to get it to TV length of 52 minutes.  Film makers who may be reading this, please take heed and use the scalpel more.

Operations – Volunteers were numerous, visible in very attractive long sleeve T’s, and working enthusiastically.  Selling tickets, flagging down attendees in front of the Cowell building, taking tickets, ushering inside Cowell, and so forth, volunteers made a great impression and conveyed responsibility and professionalism.

Emceeing – Excellent. Returning for the role he has so ably filled for festivals #2-#11, Andy Thornley* was the on-stage host for most programs.  For almost all programs, a SFIOFF director was onstage first to make an announcement and introduce Andy, a very nice touch.

Customers – Appearances were generally consistent with previous festivals.  Also, as has been the case at earlier festivals, an apparent inconsistency between the demographics of Opening Gala attendees and Cowell Theatre film screening attendees.

Lobby tables – As at past festivals at Cowell, approximately 8 tables were set up for aligned non-profits, and occupancy rotated amongst a longer list of exhibitors.  Tables were “manned” by each non-profit’s staff or volunteers.  It would have been helpful if there had been a directory with short descriptions of the exhibitors.

Youth program – Four screening slots on Friday and Monday were available free of charge to students from local schools.  With their teachers, hundreds of students attended.

Student film competition – With middle and high school divisions, it was apparent this competition is embraced by a wide variety of schools.  The Sunday morning screening and awards program was a huge hit with those in attendance – an audience far more enthusiastic and vocal than any other program’s.  Finalists were present from Michigan and California cities including Long Beach.  Contestants in Turkey presented themselves in a video.

Wrap party – At the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club, it was festive for all.

The Dolphin Swimming & Boating Club clubhouse

The Dolphin Swimming & Boating Club clubhouse

Located an easy walk from Cowell, the Club’s feel, boat collection, and connection to the Bay made it the ideal venue.  A door charge of Zero made it even better!


Close up

Close up




*Andy and his wife, Tracey, were instrumental in the creation of SFIOFF, putting in many, many volunteer hours before #1, while working on graphics, stationery, web design, brainstorming, etc. Tracy and Andy were the first and original Volunteers of the Year.  At Festival #1 Andy was the Festival’s equipment manager, projectionist, and all-around handyman, limiting his ability to MC.


Again from just outside Cowell, later that day...

Again from just outside Cowell, later that day…




Posted in Non-profits, San Francisco | Leave a comment

Mountainfilm in Mill Valley

Mountainfilm is an annual international film festival that focuses on adventure, culture and the environment.  It has taken place annually since 1979 over Memorial Day weekend in Telluride, Colorado.

In addition to screening films (mostly non-fiction), the festival offers a full-day symposium on a large issue (such as energy, food, or climate), and includes art exhibits, author talks and book signings, student workshops, and serves as a meeting place for other nonprofit organizations that are aligned with Mountainfilm’s programming and mission (“dedicated to educating and inspiring audiences about issues that matter, cultures worth exploring, environments worth preserving and conversations worth sustaining.”)

In 2000, Mountainfilm started a traveling program, screening films in locations other than Telluride. This program now reaches 125 international locations including last weekend’s visit to the community of Mill Valley, CA for the 3rd annual Adventure Documentary Festival.  Co-presented with the Throckmorton Theatre, the Festival featured 3 days’ of films along with filmmaker Q & A led by Mountainfilm Executive Director, David Holbrooke.

It was an outstanding event – I spent much of the weekend in Mill Valley, attending 7 of the 8 film programs with over 40 films. Following are comments on several of the films:

14.C  (9 mins).  A warm portrait of a skilled teenage rock climber, Kai Lightner, who happens to be black and lives where challenging rocks are rare.  His mother’s comments illuminate the choices they’re facing.

64 MPH (4 mins).  Just outside of Telluride, a local “ripper” is challenged by a backcountry couloir.

A Life Well Lived (4 mins). Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mt. Everest (in 1963), reflects on what makes a life well lived.  A personal favorite.

Catch It (10 mins).  Surfing in northern Norway?  Yes, made attractive in this modest yet compelling film featuring nomad surfer, Lea Brassy.

Emptying the Skies (78 mins.  Q&A with a protagonist in Milan was Skyped in).  Chronicles attempts to slow the rampant poaching of migratory songbirds in Europe, where millions are taken (illegally) annually.  The film follows an intrepid squad of bird-sympathizers who are waging a semi-secret war against poachers.  By turns, disheartening, educational, and encouraging.  For more, see CABS – Committee Against Bird Slaughter and/or The New Yorker.

High Tension (36 mins, Q & A with co-director Nick Rosen).  Balanced presentation of the unfortunate and ugly 2013 incident in which Sherpas who were fixing a line became infuriated with an independent climber.  Rocks and punches were thrown and an ambitious climb was truncated. The incident also spawned New Yorker articles and took on a new dimension the following year when an avalanche killed 16 Sherpas.

Spice Girl (25 mins, Co-director Nick Rosen in attendance). Portrait of Hazel Findlay, a youthful, lady climber, as she strives to summit a vertical seaside cliff in the U.K.

The Fortune Wild (22 mins). Three surfing buddies interact joyfully with the coast of Haida Gwaii, a chain of beautiful islands off the north coast of British Columbia.

The Grand on a July morning, beyond a lifting fog, from a vehicle about 8 miles away heading south to the airport.

The Grand on a July morning, beyond a lifting fog, from a vehicle about 8 miles away heading south to the airport.

The Grand Rescue (53 mins, Q & A with co-director Meredith Lavitt). Story of a 1967 rescue of two climbers on the Grand Teton. Archival images and credible re-created scenes lend authenticity. Contemporary footage of the participants, featuring the now very accomplished rescuers, conveys the 3 day effort with unabashed candor.



Toy Train in Space (3 mins). Dad & son send a personable toy train 18 miles into space and then recover it.  Cute train, boy, & story line have led to over 4.7 million YouTube views!

Valley Uprising (98 minutes, Co-director Nick Rosen in attendance for Q&A). This film presents a history of climbing in Yosemite Valley – it combines archival photos and moving images with contemporary interviews to illuminate the legendary climbers who found irresistible challenges in Yosemite’s granite.

Wedge (4 mins).  A visually arresting film narrowly focused on Newport Beach, CA’s famous coastal configuration, The Wedge.  Footage of irrepressible surfers, bodyboarders, and bodysurfers finding challenges in the big and fast breaking surf.

I can safely say Mountainfilm patrons are already looking forward to its next iteration.

Posted in Non-profits, Outdoors | Leave a comment