My Escape From Alcatraz
My brother, Jake, and I have been wanting to swim Alcatraz for quite a while. This year we decided to do it and to bring the whole family along to spend a few days in San Francisco. There are several Alcatraz events throughout the year, but we chose to do the Swim With the Centurions race which is organized by Water World Swim. Part of the allure of this event (besides being a really convenient time to take a few days off of work) was that there were several Centurians, people who have crossed over from Alcatraz 100 or more times. Pedro Ordenes, who was one of the event organizers, has done the Alcatraz crossing over 500 times.
Neither my brother or I really had any experience with ocean swimming other than body surfing near the shore and a little snorkeling. Tides, currents, salt water and large swimming animals were all foreign to us. Luckily, the event organizers put together a practice/clinic on Thursday night where they explained what the currents would be like, what to sight for and generally what to expect during the swim. We were also able to get in the water and swim about a mile around the Aquatic Park. Getting in the water and having some instruction from people who had swam the course over 100 times definitely helped to calm my nerves and make me feel more comfortable with an unfamiliar environment.
The water was fairly cold at about 64 degrees and it definitely made my face sting when I got in. I chose to wear a wetsuit for the practice swim as well as on race day. If I were doing the swim again I would choose to swim "naked" (without a wetsuit). I had issues with the neck of my suit the whole race and, despite BodyGlide, I finished the swim with a really sore and really chaffed neck. After the practice swim I pulled my wetsuit halfway down and got back in the water and felt fine.
We woke up early on Saturday morning and drove down to the Aquatic Park. We got there way too early and had to sit around for a couple hours waiting for the race to start. Talking to some Alcatraz pros, we learned that the conditions were going to be as good as they could possible get. We were told that if we did the swim 100 times, we wouldn't get conditions as good as they were that morning.
The event finally got underway and we got dressed and ready to get on the ferry that would take us out to the island. It was quite a site to see almost 400 swimmers, most in wetsuits, walking down the streets near Fisherman's Wharf. We saw more than one group of absolutely baffled tourists.
The ferry had three levels and was pretty crowded on the lower level (where we would later jump into the water). Jake and I went up to the top level so that we could enjoy the view. On the way out we saw a few seals swimming in the water (we talked to a swimmer on Thursday night who was actually bitten by a small seal).
The "naked" swimmers got to start first and we watched them jump in from our seats on the upper level of the boat. About two minutes later, the wetsuit swimmers started jumping into the water. We moved down to the lower level to where we would jump off of the ferry. Before we even made it to the lower level, we heard the fog horn sound which signaled the start of the race. It took us about five minutes from the sound of the horn until we were even able to get in the water.
I have heard horror stories about getting salt water in your goggles and having your eyes swell shut so I was sure to hold my goggles to my face when I jumped in. I had my GPS in my cap so that I could see my exact route after I finished. I also had a waterproof camera around my neck so that I could take some pictures from the water in the middle of the bay.
I swam for a while before stopping to take some pictures. One thing I don't like about wetsuits is that it really keeps your from feeling the water. I found myself falling into bad stroke habits because I couldn't feel the water.
It was interesting to swim in the tides. I could see Alcatraz on my right side and it seemed to stay in about the same position but got further away. What was happening was that the tide was pushing me east, away from the island and away from the entrance to the Aquatic Park. As I got closer to shore, I found myself kind of far away from the entrance to the park because of the tides. Pretty soon I felt myself catching another tide in the opposite direction, just as the organizers explained would happen. This current pushed me right to the entrance of the park where I wanted to be. The water was fairly choppy out in the open bay, but once I got back into the Aquatic Park, the water calmed down and I was able to really pick up my speed.
I finished the swim, and despite being once of the very last off the boat, was able to pass quite a few people before I got to shore. My official time was 46:31 and the distance was about 1.39 miles. My real time was actually closer to 41:29 because of the timer starting before I got in the water. Although I wasn't really competing in the race (I stopped several times to sight see and take pictures from the bay), I ended up finishing in the top quarter or so overall, in the men's division and in my age group.
Overall I had a great time and was able to cross one more thing off of my list of swimming to-do's.