This is the first blog I ever wrote. In 1997 nobody was calling it a blog. But there was a website called SF Stories and the editor encouraged others to contribute. Reposting here because I still love it.
“Why did you swim to Alcatraz?” everyone asks me. “I didn’t swim to Alcatraz, I swam from Alcatraz.
“Why would anyone swim from Alcatraz?”
Pedantic discussions aside, I’m not always sure why I made the swim.
Before you dismiss me as a streamlined mega-athlete possessing super-human ability that you can’t attain, I have to point out that you clearly don’t know me. Without a doubt, I am certainly the last person picked for the team in any sporting endeavour. With the one exception, (obsession?) of swimming.
But I only joined the swim team in high school to escape P.E. And, even then, I only won one race in the whole three years I swam for Long Beach Polytechnic. Least Likely to Do Anything Athletic — if there were such a title.
Then there was Alcatraz.
Alcatraz, by the way (if you haven’t seen all the Escape movies), is a former federal prison a mile and a half off San Francisco. Supposedly nobody ever escaped because of the sharks, the cold water and the fact that it’s impossible to swim. I heard somewhere that they didn’t let the prisoners take cold showers because it would help them train for the swim. Now it’s just a tourist spot and an inspiration for action movies.
Not being imprisoned there, I swam Alcatraz because I didn’t have enough time to come up with reasons not to. I tried. But my friends and relatives were annoyingly helpful.
“But, I couldn’t possibly swim Alcatraz” I protested, “it’s bound to be too late to sign up.” The flyer clearly said register early, spaces are often filled a month in advance. This brilliant idea hit me just two weeks before the swim.
“No problem,” the nice people at Sharkfest said, “of course you can still register.”
“Hmm, but it costs money, I’m not sure it’s really worth it….” My mother was happy to sponsor the swim. After all, I’m swimming Alcatraz.
“But, I don’t really trust my car to make that big trip over the bridge from Marin and won’t I be too tired to drive home?”
“Hey, if you’re going to swim Alcatraz, the least we can do is give you a ride.” Now I had my chauffeurs and a small cheering squad.
“But, I couldn’t possibly swim Alcatraz” I protested, “after all, I don’t have a wetsuit.” “You can borrow mine” a friend insisted. He wasn’t exactly the same size. You can’t exactly roll up the cuffs in a wet suit and there was that unnecessary bulge spot. Took on way too much water with that one.
Never fear. Another obliging friend. Wet suit #2. Much more appropriate, even had handy indentations (or whatever the opposite of indentations are) for boobs. Still took on water. All my friends are taller than I am. Decide to rent.
Next stop, some really cool surfer-dude store off Highway 101. I arrived after work feeling hopelessly un-hip and surprisingly old. Cute little surfer boy with long blond hair helped me find a rental. At some point in the conversation I mentioned what a wuss I am. “You’re not a wuss” he said with all seriousness, “you’re swimming Alcatraz.”
Yeah, I guess I am. Swimming Alcatraz. Wow.
Next thing you know, I’m slathering on Vaseline at the Maritime museum way too early on a Sunday morning.
Everyone else seemed really big and really sleek.
My small cheering squad made a great video of the event. There’s this image of my curly blonde ponytail bouncing along a foot lower than the heads of a sea of giant black seal people thronging towards the ferry. I’m smiling. Must be in denial.
The ferry took a long way to get out there. It will be the same distance back. But without a ferry. That’s a long way.
Ferry stops out in the water next to the island. They just open up the doors on the side of the ferry and everyone jumps out. I couldn’t see the water because of all the big plastic people in front of me. When the row of lemmings ahead of me dropped, suddenly there was the water a long way down. Sort of like the Titanic but without the ice. I didn’t have time to re-think this decision, besides the big people behind me were pushing me along. I dropped.
A tremendous amount of really cold water passed by my goggles as I submerged a long way under water. Haven’t I seen this in a horror movie before? I spluttered to the surface. Staggered to the beginning spot, so tired when I got there that I really began to wonder how this possibly could be done. The cold zapped me immediately and the wet suit was a major liability. Super slow-mo.
Perhaps I should have actually trained for this in open water as recommended. But I hate being cold. I complain if the pool’s less than 80. And even though I was swimming a mile and a half in the pool each day, it’s a little different in the ocean.
Too late. They fired a gun and everyone was suddenly horizontal.
Breathe. Move. Breathe. Move. Kick. Kick. Swim.
Did I mention that I hate being cold?
Fortunately the cold water stopped me from thinking.
Breathe. Swim. Breathe. Swim.
Salt and waves and swallowing dirty water.
A particularly challenging part of this swim is that a very strong current will pull you away from the most direct line and try to deposit you somewhere around the Bay Bridge. Ironically, the fastest swimmers have the easiest time because the swim is carefully timed for the best currents. The longer you’re in there, the more likely you are to end up going in a big wide arc.
Most people pick something big to head for like the Transamerica Pyramid. A survivor of this swim had given me other advice. “Don’t look at the land. Find a kayaker and don’t let him out of your sight.” The kayakers are there to guide and help. They watch the currents and find the most direct path.
So I stuck to a kayaker.
Breathe. Swim. Breathe. Swim. Watch the kayaker.
I had planned some inspirational songs to sing to myself as I stroked but my brain had other ideas. Mmm bop bip be dip be dip (are there even any words to that?) flowed embarrassingly through my mind. Perhaps it was the wet suits. The surfer kid? And where did I learn this song anyway? They certainly didn’t play it on my radio station.
Blame it on the cold water.
Breathe. Swim. Breathe. Swim.
I kept my head down. Watched the kayaker out of the corner of my eye. Then I decided I should get a sense of where I was so I popped my little head up.
Swivelling around, there was Alcatraz behind me, the Golden Gate Bridge to my right and in front of me, those streets of San Francisco that go straight up, like a kid drew them on the side of the hill. I almost stopped breathing. I was a very small speck in a very big and quite awesome world and here I was moving from one icon to another. Wow.
I wasted some valuable seconds on this awesome moment.
There’s something very vulnerable about being that far out in the water. And cold.
Breathe. Swim. Breathe. Swim. For a long time.
Someone doing the back-stroke crashed into me. At first there were tons of people around but they dispersed. Hard to tell if the three or four people in sight were the only ones left or not. My goggles were fogged. My brain was fogged. Pretty oblivious really. Auto pilot.
Finally got into the last stretch. Land was in sight. It was a long way away.
By this time I started to realise my neck really hurt. Well, lots of things hurt but my neck got my attention. And did I mention that I was cold? How could I want water so much when I was surrounded by it? My mouth was filled with salt.
Before the breakwater there were lots of waves. Not really fair having to go up and then down. Twice as far. Hard to breathe without swallowing water.
Then there I was. My feet were on the sand. Well, technically my knees. Everything sounded funny. I was pretty spacey.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if I was the last one to finish. I wasn’t. I actually finished somewhere in the middle. It was a great finish for me. “Look, other people are still in the water. I’m not the last one out.” “Look, look I’m done.”
Swimming Alcatraz was about what I expected. That’s because I expected it to be hell. It’s a big ocean out there and it’s really cold.
I had slathered myself with Vaseline™. Not enough as I ended up with a raw, bleeding spot on my neck that later inspired comments about hickies, vampires and recreational hanging. All of which seemed more believable to people I know than the fact that I actually swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco.
From the Golden Gate Bridge, you can see how far away Alcatraz is from the land. When I go over the bridge, I always look over to the side and smile.
I figured out why I swam from Alcatraz. I like to think of myself as someone who takes risks, someone who will just jump in there and do it. And, yet, most of the time I just go to work and go home and don’t do anything worth noting.
Ultimately, I swam Alcatraz to remind myself of who I am.
(If this actually inspires anyone to give it a shot, it’s probably not too late to sign up. You do have to be a strong swimmer to do it. There are several organizations that sponsor swims. I went with SharkFest — Envirosport: www.envirosports.com.)
Me? Well, now I’m swimming with real sharks in Australia.