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Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Farallon Islands To The Golden Gate Bridge

This slice of history about swimming from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge is provided by Ted Erikson.

This story, resurrected from old dusty files, is updated to include details of open water marathon swims that are generally unknown to most of the public (even some swimmers) particularly tidal current problems caused by floods and ebbs.

The first (and only to date) swim from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge was accomplished on September 16, 1967, a distance of 48.9 km. (~31.5 miles) in 14 hours and 38 minutes. This effort, through frigid and shark-infested tidal waters stands for 46 years.

Several previous, and 2 failed attempts in 1966 emphasize the challenges of this open water marathon swim: hypothermia from water temperatures about 50°F (10°C), frustration of progress from ebb tidal currents up to 4.5 knots (8.3 km/hr or 5.2 mph), and fear of attack by shark sightings (shootings to avert). And for those who fear drowning in deep water (as I do for a childish reason), a lesson on the sine qua non of anyone who swims (inhale above, exhale below).

In 2008, Vito Bialla and Bay area swimmers formed the Night Train Swimmers with the mission, "to raise awareness and money for charities around the world through swimming". Now, since 2011, the Farallon Island Swimming Federation (FISF) sanction attempts to dethrone this aging record. With solo attempts unsuccessful to date, two 6-person relay teams (one male and one female) of Night Train Swimmers validated Island to Bridge swims, however the best effort was 8 minutes shy of the time that has stood for nearly a half-century. Gulf of the Farallone crossings from island-to-bridge, bridge-to-island and (less so) island to mainland require special attention; to current and swimming vectors, time and positions for each, and co-ordination to make best use of ebb and flood tidal currents in situ. A swimmer needs the flood to enter the Bay and arrive at the Golden Gate Bridge, or be resigned to swim: the nearest mainland by onset of the ebb, or ~6 more hours to gain the next flood!

INHALE ABOVE...EXHALE Below © 1966,1968, 2006, 2013 by Ted Erikson

PREFACE: 2013 (updated)

This story, drafted after the swim in 1967, has resided in dusty files, forgotten and unpublished. It is here updated, to include details of open water marathon swims that are generally unknown to most of the public, particularly tidal current problems.

In summertime, as a child growing up on a ranch in Montana, my stepfather, brother, and I would occasionally wash and splash in a nearby reservoir. My brother (seven years older) had a perverse streak of repeatedly submerging my head under water in efforts to get me to say "Uncle". Yelling,"No, stop!", wasted a chance to breathe above water as he would push me under the water again. I gulped water when below until I nearly drowned. I learned to scream into the water and was then able to quietly gasp air above water, finding that I could win the game because my brother became bored and would stop. Thus was imprinted the sine-qua-non of swimming...inhale above, exhale below.

While enjoying the laurels of a successful non-stop England-France-England swim, I became aware of the Farallon Island swim in late September of 1965. Hawaiian swimmer Ike Papke of the San Francisco Dolphin Club, became another failure in an attempt to swim some 28 miles from the Isles to the California coast. A research associate coaxed me to swim to the Golden Gate Bridge. Part 1 reports the 2 failures of 1966. Part 2 reports results of the next year. In August 1967, Lt. Colonel Stuart Evans accomplished Papke's attempt in 13:44. Focusing on the original goal, I made the 48.9 km (30.5 statue or 26.4 nautical miles) in 14 hours and 38 minutes.

In 2011, Night Train Swimmers turned their attention to these events of nearly a half-century ago by forming the Farallon Island Swimming Federation (FISF) to organize and sanction such attempts. Crossings from island-to-bridge, bridge-to-island and, (less so) island-to-mainland, require very special attention to frigid waters, tidal currents, and denizens of the deep, unlike English Channel crossings. The Golden Gate Bridge as a goal was proven in 2012 by two 6-person Night Train relay successes (one male and another female). However, their best effort was 8 minutes shy of the 1967 individual record.

To plan for a specific time to arrive at a position to gain a free ride on a maximum flood current into the Bay to the Golden Gate Bridge is a complex tidal current vector problem. Such factors to make use of tidal currents in any open water marathon make up this update in Part III.


After my double English Channel crossing of 1965, a friend in California, Paul Girard, then bureau chief for the Vallejo Times Herald, flattered me in a congratulatory letter, "...bet you can't do the Farallon swim that has been tried by so many others." With past successes up to 60 miles, the distance seemed trivial and I replied to Mr. Girard that swimming to the majestic Golden Gate Bridge would be a more challenging goal - three more miles than all past attempts. This statement ended the year of 1965 and became a consuming and ominous vow.

The winter of the following year found me busy researching the particulars of this swim. My enthusiasm waned as I read Mr. Girard's "...not many people swim in this area because the water is too cold, currents are too strong, and fear of sharks..." Three rather disturbing bits of information became apparent: First, the water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean between the Farallon Islands and San Francisco rarely exceed 55ºF, and can drop below 50ºF, making these waters quite colder than the famed English Channel. Secondly, tidal currents directly oppose progress into San Francisco Bay for about six hours of every 12. English Channel currents are generally parallel to shore forcing swimmers sideways to miss any of nearest shore goals. Finally, I learned that occasional Great White shark sightings occur in these waters and there had been two fatal attacks recently documented.

Nonetheless, in early April, I began my training with short plunges into the barely thawed waters of Lake Michigan. Added to these ice baths were extensive weight training (high-repeat, low-load) and 13 miles of biking to and from work. Plus, the many hours of rote kicking, pulling, and swimming during the following four months are too boring to describe. The object is to rally, and place on tap, all of one's bodily resources. The amount of effort required for a marathoner who desires success is simply defined by a guiding paradox: Train each day until exhausted, but not so much that it cannot be repeated, or surpassed, on the next.

With physical conditioning in the final stages, financial requirements began to trouble me. Then, fate intervened. My propellant contract with the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (I was a Senior Chemist at the IIT Research Institute) required a research report at a contractor's meeting at UC Berkley nearby in mid-August. With travel expenses paid, and by adding some vacation time, a Farallon swim was realizable.

My research report at the Berkeley meeting was not my best, since I had became so preoccupied with the details involved in the swim. After the session on Friday the 13th, 1966 with my work obligations retired, I called Paul Girard about the swim.

Over the weekend we checked the U.S. Coast Guard and Geodetic Survey tidal charts. For maximum hours of daylight to approach the bay on the flood, the lunar cycle required an attempt within three days. Seeking a mother boat at Fisherman's Wharf, we found fishing Captain Bill Brittain who (subject to weather and fishing party conflicts) consented to escort our party. He dampened my enthusiasm with his vagueness about details for this precarious "fishing" trip. Nonetheless, it was agreed to rendezvous at two o'clock on the morning of August 16 so as to make for the Farallons at an early dawn start. My apprehension grew over the weekend.

The crew included Paul Girard, his wife Nancy, my stepfather Fred Kluck, and nurse Betty Davis who lived next door to my mother's house where I was staying. Arriving in the dimly lit harbor we began unloading supplies when Captain Brittain appeared and announced: "I cannot take you because of radio difficulties", he said, adding "but I have found you an alternate boat called the Evie-K, captained by Dave Kinley".

Jeez! This seemed like a lame excuse, but compared to the touristy appearance of Brittain, this new gritty skipper looked to be a real fisherman. As he extolled sea-faring capabilities with his 45-foot, twin diesel yacht, I was looking over an untidy deck strewn with fishing gear. The gunwale, four feet above the water surface, bothered me as I tried to figure out how I could board from the water? Since no one assembled had any real "swim" experience, Captain Kinley suggested a trial run. The trip to the islands began an hour later than originally planned. We set out across the bay toward the yellow lights of the Golden Gate that were barely visible through misty darkness. The erratic throb of diesel engine punctuated the stillness. As we approached the bridge, the violent rip tide swung the Evie-K, banging into the structure. My only thought was, “What have I gotten myself into?”

But recovering, Captain Kinley steamed out into the open ocean. The receding city lights of San Francisco, the bubbles of the boat’s wake, and occasional sea gulls provided the only sources of visual stimulation. I went into the pilothouse where the Captain held the helm, glancing at charts and compass headings. Seeking some reassurance, I asked, "What do you know about sharks?"

"Sharks? Unlikely", he replied calmly without taking his eyes off the steering compass, continuing, "We'll watch. They usually circle prey. If one decides to dive under the boat and hit you from underneath...no charge."

His drollness was discomforting and I retreated into my cabin to wonder if this venture should continue. After some time, repeated blasts of a diaphone pierced the air. Going topside, I hoped there was a mistake, we had returned and that it was the bridge horn. The dawn's light outlined a dreary desolate sight of the Southeast Farallon Island. The sea was perfectly calm. "Lets see how it goes", I said, figuring that it would be a valuable rehearsal for all.

Paul awkwardly slapped a light coating of grease on my body as a very silent crew watched this bizarre scene. I made a final adjustment to my goggles and entered the water near the marker buoy about 7:45 A.M. The water was 52ºF. Too cold I thought, yet an hour or so in the frigid water would be good training. An overhanging fog shrouded progress. But as I stroked on, the sun rose higher and slightly warmed the surface waters. The sea was still and except for minor encounters with an occasional jellyfish, all was going well.

So well in fact, that I decided to follow my plan of feeding at three hours, to be repeated every hour. I quickly gulped a cup of warm tea and glucose and stroked on. Each breath captured flitting views of crew watching and scanning the horizon...Skipper was tapped on his shoulder...Arm pointed...All looks in that direction...Captain handing the helm to his mate...Withdrawing a long barreled .357 Magnum pistol from his suit jacket...Leveled it across one arm and fired once...Then, another…

"Problem?" I asked, stopping to tread water and question the happenings.

"Keep swimming!" he ordered. I returned to task, avoiding confirmation of my suspicions. Fear can drain energy. But his concern with my safety indicated a degree of trust inasmuch as he wanted to be paid. This scene was repeated in similar detail for two more shark sightings.

By afternoon, things were progressing so well that, with an evening finish possible, we pressed on. But as the sun dropped below the horizon, the water temperature fell below 50ºF. With darkness descending, the wind began to raise bothersome wave-crests. A Coast Guard boat was summoned to lead us through the heavy shipping lanes into the bay. My senses were numbed from nearly 13 hours exposure to the cold waters when I again heard more gunshots. I barely comprehended someone saying, "We must rev the engines to charge the battery for communication… we'll circle back and return.... FOLLOW THE LIGHT!"

Light? A few hundred yards ahead, a powerful search light from the Coast Guard boat illuminated the scene, as the Evie-K turned away. Looking ahead I saw a blinding half-circle of brilliance, but no point of origin for this illumination. Looking back, 180º of darkness. Veering in aimless circles, I sought the security of the mother boat. I screamed and gulped ocean water as I sank under. Then I remembered the lesson I learned from my brother years ago and cried screams below, gasping for air upon every surfacing above. Overcome by cold and weariness, I sank into a weird world of oblivion. To this day, I consider this experience as a rehearsal for my imminent death. It tends to replay as a frightening memory whenever I swim in cold waters.

The next day, I listened as various crew described my actions for three more hours. They had tried to steer my erratic circling toward a nearby Bonita buoy or the shoreline less than a mile away. But as my stroke rate decreased sporadically down into 20 strokes per minute, the situation became hopeless. Ike Papke on the Salmon Queen volunteered to retrieve me from the water. Upon touching me, he said I jumped away. I became barely aware that he was not a shark, I was pushed into a Zodiac. They hoisted me with a towel under my armpits up the four-foot gunwale to the deck. I continued involuntary stroking until tightly wrapped in blankets. Nurse Betty Davis could find no pulse and asked for immediate transport to hospital. My wife in Florida heard a radio report that I had "expired". It was reported that I was pulled at 12:40 a.m. after 17 hours and 5 minutes in water no higher than 55°F (12°C).

Partial return to the living came in the ambulance at dockside. Colonel Donovan, my AFOSR contracting officer was saying something. Mumbling incoherently, I attempted to read his badge but could see only a blur. I was taken to Marin General Hospital in Sausalito. There was no reading on a standard rectal thermometer. By now, more conscious, I requested immersion in a tub of warm (I emphasized, not hot!) water. As heat absorbed into my frozen limbs, I made a pass at a pretty nurse. Her slap did much to restore complete circulation. A week later, I was recovered but not yet fully appreciating the vagaries of these ocean waters. I met sportsman Joseph Minutoli at the San Francisco Press Club who offered to finance another attempt if I so chose. Support for marathon swims are very rare, so I accepted. Although somewhat better planned, the second try was also ill fated. A long wavelength, rolling sea caused my first case of mal de mar. After three feedings were thrown up, by the 7th hour I was weakened and could not continue. Taken on board and given a seasick pill returned my strength almost immediately, but alas, it was another failure. So ended 1966.


It took the greater part of another year to establish the real secret of success...more careful and methodical preparations. My training was intensified with both morning and evening workouts. Further evaluation of geodetic survey records indicated highest water temperatures in mid-September was a better time. Returning to San Francisco in 1967, I learned that Lt. Colonel Stu Evans had just reached the mainland at Bolinas from the Farallones, a first crossing of the Gulf of the Farallones, 28 miles in 13 hours and 46 minutes. To trump this swim, it had to be the Golden Gate Bridge or nothing.

The two veterans from previous attempts, Paul Girard and Captain Dave Kinley were again brought together. Doug Lathrop of the Matson Lines was brought aboard to provide technical help and navigational assistance. I placed the responsibility for making best use of the flood currents on Captain Kinley who saw no problem, provided that I maintained an even pace. Frank Drum of the Dolphin Club was assigned as official observer. Radio station KSFO assigned Jerry Thompson in a whaler to relay information. Duncan Mcleod and John Parents volunteered to be intermittent pacers. I hired Ted Moffet to film the venture. The nurse and my aged stepfather refused to participate in another ordeal. Together with my Mother, they all agreed that I was crazy. A welcomed late addition to this entourage was Captain Hank Schram of the yacht Salmon Queen. He would bring Colonel Evans for moral support by offering to pace a finish to the bridge.

We assembled again in pre-dawn darkness. In early light, I saw a first clear glimpse of these barren knolls with squawking gulls...the wail of the diaphone...a lone white building...seals and sea lions cavorting on the reefs. The weather was clear and the sea calm. The whaler took me near the East Landing for a quick island shore start. Barnacles cut my leg climbing onto the rocks. Damn! Sharks sense blood in the sea. I slipped into the water at 7:24 A.M. on September 16, 1967. There was a red tide. Water temperature hovered about 56ºF, nearly 60ºF in the afternoon! In the water I saw an occasional Portuguese man-o-war drifting long entrails just beyond my stroking arms. A few minor jellyfish encounters. First Duncan Mcleod, and then John Parent each paced me for an hour or so. I noted they chose positions nearer the mother boat, leaving me outside as shark bait. But this swim was uneventful, as my two-mile per hour steady pace brought me to Point Bonita near dusk, exactly on the flood. Water temperature dropped a bit to mid 50's. As the flood current carried me into the bay while stopped for a final feeding, I was elated to see the shore at Point Bonita whizzing by! Even if I died, I thought, my body would still make it!

Colonel Evans jumped in and we double-timed some of the remaining distance. My mother worked at Travis Air Base and had cajoled their military involvement. Rocket pyrotechnics were set off as we went under the Golden Gate in a wonderful firework display (compliments of Brigadier General M.F. Casey, USAF Commander of the 80th Military Airlift Wing). An enthusiastic crowd at the bridge railing dropped flares from the bridge. The Coast Guard thought ill of the jubilation and issued a radio alert for mariners to disregard the flares.

Two minutes after 10 P.M. became the official finish time. While still in the water someone invited me to continue onto an unnamed restaurant at Fisherman's Wharf, I asked, "How much would it be worth?" No takers at that time, so I was taken to the Dolphin Club for a sauna and clean up. Afterward, while enjoying a free meal, I was told they would have paid $5,000 for the publicity by arriving there, as a destination. Damn! They declined my offer to swim in now from the bridge...immediately after desert.

This last record from the South East Farallon Island to the middle span of the Golden Gate Bridge, 48.9 km (30.5 statute or 26.4 nautical miles) in 14 hours and 38 minutes, still stands after 46 years. Later, my responses to a reporter from the San Francisco Examiner were "time was respectable...water conditions unbelievable...it could stand forever...It was a lark". On Monday, September 18, 1967, their headline read, “New Farallon Conquest...’ It was just a lark'" With increases in seal population nurturing more sharks, no one has even tried to challenge this record before Night Train Swimmers and Vito Bialla.

Swimming in cold water still frequently reminds me of the hypothermic "death" experience of 1966. The Farallon swim is my swimming finale. Yet Umbra, a black Labrador stray, motivated me to put on fins in later years to tandem swim with her, setting several "canine" records on the Guinness files. In 1997, National Geographic Explorers covered our swims from Asia to Europe in Turkey's Bosporous competition, followed by a last one, a Dardanelles crossing to celebrate the legend of the star-crossed lovers, Hero and Leander.

After Umbra's death in 2006, with age taking its toll, I still swim although less far, less fast, and less often.


Water runs downhill. Earth's rotation and moon/sun gravitational effects raise and lower the water levels that cause respectively, flood and ebb tidal currents. Tide changes are as regular and predictable as motions of earth, moon, and sun. But currents are affected by other oceanographic and meteorological parameters, including wind speed and direction, water current speed and direction, air and water temperature, barometric pressure, bottom contours and obstructions, and salinity changes caused by river in-flows or rain. "By gum, by gosh, and by luck" arises in most open water tidal swims as appears evident in Diana Nyad's recent Cuba to Key West swim.

English Channel and Gulf of the Farallone swims are considered here. In the Channel, tidal velocities as speed and direction are measured and tabulated at many positions in the Straits of Dover. Cape Griz Nez and Shakespeare Beach (or St. Margaret's Bay) distances are shortest (~21 miles) and specific, while other start and finish positions on English or French coasts are longer (~30 miles) and general. To swim between the two shores encounter currents that make crossing wider for a recent swim this year. In contrast, a swim from the Farallone Island to any mainland shore would generally be the shortest distance (~28 miles), while a route to the Golden Gate Bridge as a specific finish point makes for a longer journey (~31.5 miles)

The influence of tidal water currents became evident in my unsuccessful 1964 English Channel double attempt. The goal of Cape Griz Nez as a shortest distance from England to France, came tantalizingly close, but missed due to unanticipated flood currents. Carried eastward to a finish at Calais added several undue miles and caused a delay that forced a later abort. This experience motivated my first (only?) evaluation of tidal current variables with a computer. The Straits of Dover bounded by shores of England and France are a river where ebb current flows between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean for roughly 6 hours and an equal time for floods in the reverse direction.

With the assistance of Tony Dundzila of the Computer Science Division of the IIT Research Institute and the blessings of their IBM 7094 computer, this problem was pursued in 1964 to early 1965. Navigational help in the Channel at 17 locations is supplied by data on British Admiralty Charts, a sampling of 5 shown above. Each location tabulates normal spring and neap tidal velocities (speed and direction) at all hours referenced to high water Dover (HWD). Together with expected swim velocities, all data were placed on punch cards for computer iterations. This was done for 13 start times (with respect to HWD) and several start positions from England's Dungeness to Ramsgate. This evaluated conditions for possible advantages from ebb spring tides (from the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean). Working backward to arrive on slack waters there identified the best start position as St. Margaret's Bay and start times that depend on the HWD reference.

Two runs were selected for evaluation, assuming "normal" conditions. The first began at 1:25 P.M. on September 12, 1965 to rehearse operating procedures. For 5-1/2 hours, remarkable free rides were gained but difficult-to-maintain on the rapid flood velocities and terminated. Three days later, at 2:28 A.M. a second attempt was begun which proved very successful for 9 hours. However, at this time the ebb flow ceased nearly an hour ahead of input data, making a shortest distance landing at Cape Griz Nez, France impossible. Captain Peter Winter decided my goal unmet and stopped swim at 11 hours. (Afterward, analysis showed corrections that I could have made had I had my slide-rule in the water.) The modern benefits of GPS and "SPOT" plots of time/position accuracies used by the Night Train Swimmers can certainly resolve such complex pre-calculated analyses in situ.

Computer analysis requires positioning closer than the "by gum and by gosh" estimates at that time. Captain Winter threw out the computer, and selected 8:10 P.M. to begin the successful swim on the neap tide of September 19, 1965. Calais on French Coast was achieved in 14:15. The return journey of the double almost retraced forward coordinates in 15:48, for a total time of 30 hours 3 minutes. Antonio Abertondo’s first double crossing was lowered by over 13 hours.

Joe Locke's "SPOT" trace of his latest June 10, 2013 Farallon attempt actually is a near duplicate of my 1967 course up to where he stopped. With ~75% of swim completed, something ("don't feel good") overcame Joe after ~11 hours in 53ºF water temperatures. My 1967 position on this chart was in the same area (~SPOT # 46) with a beginning flood (i.e. currents running into the SFO bay). A maximum flood from this position employed for roughly 6 hours provides over 25% of the journey (i.e. the distance is reduced nearly 8 miles). In 1967, thanks to a knowledgeable Captain who knew the ways of the ocean, Point Bonita was passing by when taking my last feeding. Swimming was not even necessary to finish!

Success of a swim from the Farallon to the Bridge depends on maximum use of the flood tidal currents entering San Francisco Bay. But water currents are complex and the "fisherman" knowledge of Captain Kinley of the Evie-K was instrumental for the 1967 success. Backed by Doug Lathrop of the Matson Lines for navigation and Paul Girard of the Vallejo Times Herald providing liaison, my insistence that the finish must make maximum use the flood was met. Physical training, luck keeping body parts, and a bit of help from the man upstairs by calling Quincy 7734 (on old dial-ups) was also helpful.

Farallon swims to the mainland are comparable to the English Channel but going into the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge encounters roughly 6 hours each of directly opposing ebbs and favorable floods. Of interest are the following four figures that identify the variables to be considered. (Source: http://www.co-ops.nos.noaa.gov/tp4days.html)

To coordinate all conditions favorably becomes a problem in chaos. Weather (wind and storms) and water depth contours that influence tidal velocities (speed and direction) are ignored.

Figures 3(a) shows ebb (outflow) currents up to 4.5 knots leaving the harbor under the Golden Gate Bridge, while Figure 3(b) shows flood (inflow) currents at 3.3 knots maximizing under the bridge. With roughly 6 hours of ebb and flow, it is obvious that the goal is to employ a maximum flood and minimum ebb for an approach to the bridge. If improperly selected or executed, a bridge goal is thwarted.

Figure 4 displays a typical table of tidal height with respect to date and time (at San Francisco harbor) as available for several positions in the area of the Gulf of the Farallones and the California coast. Not readily available are current velocities at these positions, necessary to use and predict resultants when adding swim and tidal velocities to achieve positional advantages. The object here is to select conditions from tidal tables for times of maximum flood preceded by minimum ebb. Tidal velocities (speed and positions) would be helpful for making such selections.

Figure 5 displays a typical tidal speed with respect to High Water Gate (HWG) time at the bridge. The flood current here as a desired aid for a swimmer occurs during ~2 to 7.5 hours, i.e., -4 to +1.5 HWG. A bridge finish must occur at (or before) the 1.6 hour lag of time or else onset of ebb current begins to retard progress and begin sending one back into the ocean.


I love water. It is ubiquitous. In the open waters, it is influenced by the moon's gravity rises and falls due to atmospheric pressure changes and influenced by moon's gravitational attraction; it moves at different velocities (speed and direction) in attempts to level the surface; Waters motion is governed by gravity and is a slave to it. Like a swimmer, a body of water large or small, can be moving in efforts to explore the boundaries of its containment. Encountering such motions while swimming in any body of water is like meeting and journeying with an old acquaintance. Should we both intend the same goals for our existence, our journey combines. If not, so be it. Going separate ways should not govern the other’s aim.

Sea level changes occur with respect to the moon’s gravitational influence as it circles its position around earth. When above water, it raises the water surface, i.e. flooding, and leaving this position, sea level lowers to normal, i.e. “ebbing”. These “sea levels” are measured at various locations as high and low water, respectively which influence tidal flows (sometimes also measured that identify velocities as normal gravity returns sea levels to normal. Weather conditions such as atmospheric pressure can add or subtract this phenomena a bit.

In a philosophical vein, consider that water can move and cluster. Anabolic plants do not move, but grow and supply oxygen to catabolic animals which move and grow while supplying carbon dioxide to plants. Water is a critical media for both to exist and pursue their transient lives.

INHALE ABOVE, EXHALE BELOW © 1966, 1967, 2006, 2013 (WIP Draft) by Ted Erikson

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