Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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In the wee hours of Father’s Day 2010, I was not home fixing coffee, wearing an apron and slippers, rollers in my hair. I’d been up since 4.37am – but really it felt like I’d been up all night – waiting for the signal to jump off a ferry at Alcatraz with hundreds of other swimmers.
After my attempt at escaping from Alcatraz last year (with goggles full of water and overtime, here’s the story), I was eager to try it again. For the adrenaline kick, for the thrill. Also to know if I could do better. So there I was at it again, Alcatraz XXX Escape from the Rock 2010.
Going to the opera the night before was probably not the best idea swim-wise. Wagner’s Valkyrie is beautiful beyond words but it is also wagnerian-long as in 4 hours and 40 minutes long. So in bed by 1am, up at 4.37am, the night was short. I met my swim buddy Becky at her house at 5.30am and her husband dropped us off at Aquatic Park shortly after.
Registration took place at the Maritime Museum from 5.10 to 6.10am. They crossed my name off a list and I received an ankle bracelet, a yellow swim cap and a plastic bag for my belongings.
Since I knew the drill from the previous year, anticipation overcame apprehension in my head. Shockingly, I’d rather have it that way than feeling I’m going to the slaughterhouse. I casually walked to the west end of Aquatic Park in my flip-flops, waited in the “Swim only” designated area on the dew-covered grass, and listened to the opening remarks and with relatively few words on what currents to expect that day.
As we all proceeded from Aquatic Park to the ferry pier, I savored catching tourists in their winter jackets watch us with jaws dropping. Here come the locals in wetsuits and speedos! Once in front of the ferry, I got in line and hopped onboard.
Last year I climbed to the top level to enjoy the views. I had only my sleeveless wetsuit and to be perfectly honest, it was on the chilly side. This year I wore a surf shirt on top of my sleeveless wetsuit and stayed indoors, thus staying nicely warm until the big jump. I grabbed a spot on the bench by the door that would be facing east for an early exit. I sure didn’t want to jump last. The ferry ride was quiet and smooth (check out the suspiciously flat sea behind me on the picture), pleasant even.
Given how crowded it was, people weren’t warming up much or anything. Not too much space to move around. Pros were adjusting their sponsored gear and chit-chat fleeted over the humming of the engines.
I guess tides and currents were different this year because rather than circumnavigating Alcatraz Island from west to east to face San Francisco going forward, the ferry stopped on the east side of the island and turned around. I snapped a shot of sunny Alcatraz and marveled at the nice weather.
What would out-of-towners think, no legendary summer fog? Believe me, nice days like that are not the summer norm. Fortunately the water still hovers around the mid-50s, a quick reality check as far as water temps.
All of a sudden, the conversation level hiked up a few notches. People looked jumpy. Most had their goggles tightly adjusted so I hastened to put mine on. Engines off, the ferry sort of floated there and nothing happened. I watched the kayaks paddle around and in front of us. Was it time yet?
When you’ve been training in the cold San Francisco bay all winter long, when you’ve attended Swim Art’s open water swims after work during the week in the spring, when you’ve gotten up every weekend all year to come swim before breakfast, you’re ready to jump when they tell you to jump. Such was the anticipation that I just needed to jump and get it over with.
I squeezed in the tight line. Feet on the ready, sprinters were eager in front of me. I turned my camera on and got ready to film the jump. That’s the short film at the top of this blog post. I heard “Jump and swim!” and then a splash. I jumped. The camera got turned off somehow. I turned it back on once I resurfaced. This is the scene.
I re-adjusted my goggles (here is Becky adjusting hers). Gosh I love my Aquasphere Vista Lady. They’re leak-free, just like it says on the box! I was glad I bought them a month prior to trial run them before Alcatraz though. I pointed the two sighting landmarks to Becky (SS Jeremiah O’Brien and then Ghirardelli Square) and we wished each other good luck. Swim time!
Much to my surprise, I got to the kayak line before the long horn that signaled the official start of the race. No struggle this year? The real struggle came closer to shore and snuck on many swimmers. The first half of the swim was smooth. Hardly any waves, nice temps verging on the warmish side. In my taste, more choppiness would have been more fun but hey, I was making good progress so I was not going to complain that there wasn’t enough to fight against.
As last year, I followed Swim Art Leslie Thomas’s suggestion to sight for the Jeremiah O’Brien for the first two thirds of the swim, then cut to Aquatic Park. A reader told me he followed the same advice and was glad he did so. The idea is to over-compensate for the westward tide as you near Aquatic Park. Indeed, Alcatraz swims are 1) usually planned to start when the tide is slack (neutral) and 2) timed so you can finish before the slack tide changes to an ebb tide (water going towards Golden Gate). It’s very hard to fight against the ebb tide to get into the roughly 500-foot-wide opening of Aquatic Park. On June 19, 2010, the slack tide was announced at 8.35am and by that time, we were all in the water.
So here I was, swimming my way back to San Francisco. However as I got halfway through, I started noticing how much farther west a lot of the swimmers were. Not to worry I thought initially. I kept breaking the non-waves, stroke after stroke, with the occasional mouthful of fishy green salty water for good form. Another sighting check a little bit further. Crapola, I was really way off everybody’s course! Though I was still within kayak boundaries, I was a couple hundred yards east of the closest swimmer at least. Had I been too conservative? I changed strategies and shot westward. Time for a reality check!
On this photo by my friend Greg – who’s a fantastic swimmer and member of the South End Rowing Club – you see a spread out patch of swimmers west of Aquatic Park. Greg stood on the fishing pier when he took this photo so the swimmers are all already way past the opening. In real life, that sucks. The swimmers are trying to make it back towards the entrance of Aquatic Park. Becky’s husband who was also on the pier described how two thirds of the swimmers missed the opening. Some clung to the concrete pilings of the pier to fight the current and make it to the next piling. Man, these pilings are covered in seaweeds, starfish and whatnot. Other swimmers were swimming against the ebb and going nowhere.
Being way east, I didn’t see that crazy scene but did notice that it was challenging to keep a straight course. As I was getting closer, I heard a voice yell at me “Get on the boat! You’ll never make it!” I looked around and saw a private rescue boat. They were telling me to get on the boat. Had I been that slow? My heart sank. I so wanted to swim a better time and feared my swim was over but there was no time to argue. Four other people were already on the boat. I climbed the ladder. We fished a couple more and a guy who had been scooped out by a boat from the San Francisco Fire Department climbed onboard too.
It dawned on me that perhaps there was something unusual going on. I scanned the water. So many people past the opening. Jet skis, private boats, the Coast Guard too. The Envirosports guy on the boat was on the radio giving instructions to reposition swimmers because they were not going to make it. By the looks of it, he was right.
Much to my relief, we were allowed to get back into the water east of the Hyde Street Pier and pretty close to the pier so we could cut through the ebb and get inside Aquatic Park. Once inside, it was just a matter of aiming for the big inflatable gate that indicated the end of the swim with an electronic timer on top.
Since I hadn’t had to fight too much, I put on my best Raquel Welch smile to get out of the water and even waved to my family – who didn’t recognize me because I made it in an unexpected record time for me, 49 minutes. So much for arriving “early”! I had to go around and knock on my husband’s shoulder before he realized I was out.Now I’m left wondering: what would have been my real time without repositioning? I can only imagine over an hour since Becky, who is a faster swimmer than I am, got moved by boat later (she was ahead of me, west of the opening) and finished in 57 minutes. I got lucky that I was in the initial batch of boat pick-ups. Despite the ebb tide detail, I had the best time swimming from Alcatraz. So glad I did it again. Swimming on such a sunny day, wasn’t it a dream?
Last detail for aspiring Alcatraz swimmers: I trained all winter and spring in the bay. I only went to the pool once and hated it. For me it was a matter of working on my endurance and it worked. Swimming in the ocean beats any pool any day. Pools can’t offer you resistance, waves, or the sardine aftertaste. Not to mention the views. Next on my list: Angel Island – Tiburon.
* Thanks to Greg Kling for letting me use his photos.