Escaping from Alcatraz with Only a Wetsuit
Bobbing in the middle of San Francisco Bay, I panted as I treaded water. My arms were turning to rubber and the wetsuit was chafing my neck. I needed to stop for a rest. My friend and kayak pilot, Kevin, paddled over and said, “Good job, you’re almost a third of the way done.” Really? Only a third? From my water-level view, the marina looked at least as close ahead of me as The Rock did behind me. A chill colder than the 58-degree water ran up my spine, and that’s when I felt that I might not be able to make it.
I must have watched Clint Eastwood’s moody Escape from Alcatraz ten times when I was a teenager. More than Clint’s cleverness and the usual prison-movie shenanigans, I was struck by the haunting foghorn, the searchlights and the men’s uncertain fate as they pushed off from the island in the dark cold water. Never did I imagine then that I would be jumping off a boat at that very spot on a chilly October morning and swimming to the city across the bay. But having done the usual bucket-list items like climbing mountains, running a marathon and diving with sharks, I was looking for a new challenge. Swimming across San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz seemed like a good one.
Alcatraz was once America’s most dreaded prison, where all of the most dangerous criminals were sent. The Rock was thought to be escape-proof. Once a prisoner got out of his cell, past the guards, over the wall and the fence, he faced the long swim. No one is sure if Frank Morris, the man Eastwood played in the movie, survived his escape attempt. I’d like to think he did.
Looking to my left, I saw the sun coming up behind the Bay Bridge, turning the choppy water to blinding gold. To my right, the lower ramparts of the Golden Gate Bridge were shrouded in fog and as I turned back to look at where I started, I caught a last glimpse before the island prison disappeared in a cloud. The slack tide was starting to move, pulling me out of the bay and into the Pacific. It was time to get swimming.
On paper, swimming from Alcatraz isn’t that daunting. The distance amounts to about a mile and a half, the equivalent of about 90 lengths of the pool at your local YMCA. Spend enough lunch hours putting in your laps, and the distance is doable. But factor in a strong current, waves, cold water, shipping traffic and San Francisco’s chilly weather, and Alcatraz is considerably more formidable. And then there’s the psychological challenge: what lurks beneath you in that dark, cold water?
Twenty-seven miles outside of San Francisco Bay lay the Farallon Islands, a favorite haunt of great white sharks, who are drawn to the area by the abundance of food in the form of elephant seals and California sea lions. Some say that San Francisco Bay is too polluted or too brackish for great whites. But there have been sightings. Only a year ago, a research group picked up a satellite tracking signal from a great white in the bay. And then, virtually overnight, all of the sea lions disappeared from their smelly perch at Pier 39, deserting the area. No one knows why. A new predator nearby? If you’re going to do the swim, you need to remember that shark sightings are very rare, and no one in the history of bay swimming has ever been attacked by one. You might get bumped by a 400-pound sea lion, but not a shark. Put it out of your mind.
As I got closer to my goal, the opening in the breakwater at Aquatic Park, I could see the effect the current was having. I was warned to aim for a landmark well to the left, since the current would get stronger, in the 90 minutes I would be swimming, and try to pull me past the breakwater opening and out to sea. I had to continually correct my trajectory, guided by Kevin in his kayak. If I missed the opening, I would be forced to swim directly against the current, a virtual impossibility near the end of the swim. Many swimmers almost make it and then have to surrender and get towed by a kayak the last quarter-mile.
If you’re going to do the swim, you need to remember that shark sightings are very rare, and no one in the history of bay swimming has ever been attacked by one. You might get bumped by a 400-pound sea lion, but not a shark.
The Alcatraz crossing is not something you just go do with your buddies on the weekend. There are swim clubs and organizations that train swimmers and organize regular crossings. I signed up with Water World Swim, headed by Pedro Ordenes, a legendary open-water swimmer whose passion for bay swimming is contagious. Pedro organizes a monthly crossing, taking care of passage across the bay to Alcatraz, kayak-safety pilots and Coast Guard clearance. He keeps track of the tides and schedules swim “jumps” to coincide with the slack period between ebb and flow. We boarded Water World Swim’s boat, the Dauntless (how apropos), before dawn for a 7 a.m. jump. The boat dropped us close enough to The Rock for bragging rights.
Pedro limits the number of swimmers to eight and makes sure there are experienced volunteer kayak pilots to be in the water alongside the swimmers. My friend, Kevin, an experienced bay swimmer, offered to be my personal pilot for my crossing, and his presence was invaluable and reassuring. He was always a few strokes away, calling out encouragement and directions to me along the way.
My training for the Alcatraz crossing was simple: lots and lots of swimming. Living in Minneapolis, I couldn’t train in San Francisco Bay so I put in my time in a lake near my house. It is important to get as much time swimming in open water as possible. Pushing off of a wall every 25 yards in an 80-degree pool just doesn’t prepare you adequately. Kevin, coaching me over email, told me that by a couple weeks before my crossing, I should be swimming 90 minutes nonstop in open water. So, all summer, I faithfully swam three days a week across a weedy, dark lake, building up to my 90-minute goal. In early October, I was ready, and my last training swim was done in 55-degree water with snow falling — and my wife patiently paddling alongside in a kayak.
Besides the training, you need to be prepared for cold water. Fortunately for me, my Minnesota lake training prepared me well. But I still made sure I got the right gear. A 5mm Xterra triathlon wetsuit provided buoyancy and warmth, and I bought a polar swim cap from multi-sport gear maker, Quintana Roo. My feet have a tendency to cramp when they’re cold, so I chose to wear tight-fitting neoprene swim socks from Blueseventy. I brought webbed swim gloves as well, but opted not to use them at the last minute. Suiting up on board the Dauntless, it was humbling to see the hardcore open-water swimmers jumping in, wearing nothing more than a Speedo and cap.
When I reached the opening to the Aquatic Park breakwater, Kevin was shouting at me to dig hard. I was at risk of not making it in. I fought hard and sacrificed my good swim form for sheer effort. I pulled and pulled against the current. Above me on the breakwater, I saw weekend fishermen casting their lines, chatting, drinking Starbucks. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally crawled into the shelter of the marina and saw the beach ahead. I could finally relax, and felt my hamstrings and calf muscles start to cramp up. It took every last bit of energy to pull myself up onto the beach, and despite my agony, I was elated. It was my biggest accomplishment to date — physically and psychologically — and I swore I’d never do that again.
Later that day, after a hot shower and massive breakfast, I walked out onto the breakwater with my wife. It was a warm, sunny fall day, and the fog had cleared off, offering postcard views of a colorful regatta under the Golden Gate. I looked out at Alcatraz, still looking ominous despite the tour boats encircling it. Turning to my wife, I smiled and said, “I think I’d do that again.”