Monday, September 10, 2012

Alcatraz Invitational Swim

The Alcatraz Invitational Swim 

(Event #4 of 10)

If you live in the SF Bay, the former prison island of Alcatraz is visible from all shores. So secure by its island location, it’s presumed that in its day, no one ever survived trying to escape by swimming to freedom.

Alcatraz was the siren swim challenge. Not for wannabe swimmers. Crossing the SF Bay, with powerful currents, and often-unpredictable winds and fog beckoned.

Saturday, September 8 finally arrived. I set 3 different alarms for 4:00 a.m. to be sure to wake up on time, but somehow I looked at the clock at 3:45 -- and immediately got up to begin my day.

Prepared my usual strong morning coffee, plus 2 bowls of hot oat cereal. By 4:45, gear thrown in car and off to San Francisco. Empty freeways and local streets, until approaching Aquatic Park -- and then the incredible contrast of nearly a thousand swimmers, all heading to check-in or getting ready.

The commaderie of people about to embark on the same swim journey was universal. People starting conversations with anyone nearby -- everyone open and willing to converse, jabber, release some nervous energy. First time? Bay conditions? Suits or Skins?

Skins are those who are regular open water swimmers without wetsuits, and generally faster swimmers (as time spent in the SF Bay’s cold water is key). From what I saw, I’d guess 10-15% were without wetsuits, but most wore wetsuits (i.e. the 'Suits' -- including myself).

Race check-ins closed at 6:15. At 6:30, still dark out, all swimmers gathered in front of the South End Rowing Club’s entrance, where ‘Sharko’ the race Director gave last minute rules, tips and mandatory procedures to a mass of swimmers for the venerable (founded 1873) South End Rowing Club's 17th Annual Alcatraz Invitational Swim.

Moments later, around 7 am, the trek to the ferries (about half-mile) through Fisherman’s Wharf began. If a Suit, nothing other that what you'd hit the water with was permitted en route. (Skins could bring some clothing and check a second bag for later pick-up.) Shoes, clogs, flip-flops piled up as swimmers abandoned them as they boarded the ferries.

Equipment needed, 8 items: wetsuit, goggles, favorite swim cap, yellow race cap (mandatory), ear plugs, waterproof timer chip, colored ID band to get on the ferry and a watch. A mustached man in full plaid kilt was playing a welcome on bagpipes as we approached the ferries -- nice touch to calm the jitters. It was amazing how fast the 2 ferryboats filled up, top and bottom decks -- packed with expectant and excited men and women swimmers.

During the ride out, lots of chatter. Some were sitting on the floors, some seated, most standing. But a buzz everywhere, with positive vibes. Lots of nervous but positive energy with ‘can do’ attitudes conveyed to anyone in need of encouragement, especially first-timers (like myself).

By 7:30, both ferries arrived to the east of The Rock, and pointed their bows to the SF destination.  On each side of each ferry, there were two gangways. With 2 boats, that meant 8 exits. Swimmers lined up at each in 3 lines, as 3 jumped off simultaneously into the cold water, from each of the 8 exits. When it came your turn, there was no time for second thoughts. Jump and immediately swim away from the boat. Within 5-6 minutes, nearly a thousand swimmers were on their way.

After the shock of the cold water (water temp around 59-60 F degrees ), I checked to see that my Blue70 Vision goggles and my 2 caps were on OK -- and it was time to head to San Francisco! The waves were heading to the east, constantly slapping against my face, as I took in air to my right. I needed to find a swim rhythm, which I fortunately found shortly after starting.

I was watching the Rock as I swam, noting how little progress I seemed to be making….but soon I forgot. My watch vibrated at my 880-yards-preset (1/2 mile) 23 minutes later. There I forced myself to stop and look around. Quite amazing views to enjoy: the SF city skyline, the gleaming Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito hills, the San Rafael and Bay Bridges….and lots and lots of bobbing yellow caps!

The Balclutha, with Alcatraz at the rear
Slower swimmers were advised to aim for the SS Jeremiah O'Brien (a still functioning World War II Liberty Ship), farthest to the east of the entry to Aquatic park -- given slower swimmers needed more time in the water and the currents by then would be heading out to sea. Faster swimmers initially navigated off of the Balclutha (a three-masted ship of 1886 vintage) closer to the entry to Aquatic Park.

Scores of kayaks headed out to The Rock manned by volunteers, with safety and communications equipment to help swimmers if needed.

After the first 10-20 minutes of swimming, it was the rarity that another swimmer was nearby.  Visible if one stopped or looked, but the feeling was mainly swimming alone in my quest to cross the Bay.

My Blue70 Reaction swimsuit kept me warm and buoyant, with just my feet and hands initially feeling the chill. But constant movement was the counter – with strokes and kicking to make it across.

By my next ½ mile alert, I could see progress, though still a ways from the SF shoreline.  I stopped again to ‘smell the roses’ and take in the views. My confidence was building, as Aquatic Park was now visible.

Home Stretch -- with Golden Gate 
Steady but slow, I continued, but now aiming for the Balclutha until I was nearing the entrance to Aquatic Park. The currents were definitely pushing past the entrance and west towards the ocean, and when I came nearer the entrance, I poured on what I had to get into the calmer Aquatic Park waters. After entering I had just 400 yards to go, so I continued my ‘sprint’ to the end.

As soon as I could stand, I raised my right hand as a signal to friends and family waiting that it was me -- and raced                                              under the Finish Line arch and over the mat recording my time. 

Breathless, I barely noticed a Volunteer removing my Velcro-attached timer chip above my ankle, but I did remember the Volunteer placing a Finisher’s Medal around my neck.

My 2 teenage sons, wife and several friends were there to greet me. Great feeling, all smiles!

Checking-in, putting on my wetsuit, boarding the ferry and jumping off the ferry into the Bay all required mini-leaps of faith -- as I had never done any swim event prior, much less one in open waters such as the SF Bay.

My watch recorded the distance I swam at 1.67 miles (vs. 1.25 miles as ‘the crow flies’) in just under 1 hour 14 minutes (@ ~44minute/mile pace).

Given that less than a year before when I started swim training (3 months after my accident) and found it trying to do just 100 yards (4 pool lengths), I had much for which to be grateful.

What’s Next?
The Dipsea Race, the Double Dipsea, the California Death Ride and now the Alcatraz Invitational Swim. 4 Events, 4 finish lines crossed. No complaints.

With 8 months left in my 65th birthday year, 6 more to go:


Sequencing and spacing the dates for each Event, pacing during each Event, and avoiding injury will all be key to my crossing the 6 finish lines remaining. My coach friends are being consulted, and I hope to have the revised Event schedule ready soon. You're invited to follow the blog and @fitatallages on Twitter.

Now, finally, back to my early morning runs!

Yes You, You Are Next
If you are reading this and by chance still just thinking about getting fit, it’s time to get started – even if it’s just a brisk walk around the block.  Fitness at all ages is a choice we all can and should make for ourselves. 

Also, do share your stories & comments. 


  1. Congratulations Eric! Amazing feat!
    Keep up the good work!

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  3. awesome -- you "escaped" the rock! i'm enjoying reading along with you on your journey.

  4. Wonderful story, Eric. Brought back great memories of my 3 Alcatraz Triathlons. Recently concussed for the 11th (?) time while trail running, I'm pretty discouraged about future adventures. This cheered me up. I will enjoy yours for now. Courtenay