My Escape From Alcatraz
EVER SINCE I watched The Rock as a kid, with Sean Connery & Nicolas Cage, Alcatraz had always been a name which conjured up an ominous image, the oppressive cold grey walls and high fences surrounded by icy, choppy water. It’s one of those places that conjures up a feeling in you instantly and the 1.2-mile distance from “The Rock” to San Francisco Bay has to be one of the most iconic swims on the planet. The icy cold water, the potential presence of Great White Sharks and choppy turbulent currents make for one hell of a tough swimming test.
I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to visit San Francisco with work late last August and knew that I had to seize the chance to do the swim, it was too good an opportunity to miss. There were 3 key elements for me that were going to make the swim especially hard:
The cold - the average water temp in August is about 13-14 degrees
I would be swimming alone
I’d never swam anywhere before with the chance of meeting a Great White Shark
I was concerned about the first one as after the summer swimming in England I was used to around 18 degrees, so I knew would need to acclimatise as much as possible. I’m also used to swimming with Jack and Robbie for big swims so it was certainly going to be a psychological test to do a big swim on my own. For me though, the 3rd one was the biggest one playing on my mind. It used to be believed that the Great Whites didn’t really come up into the bay, that they kind of just stopped at the Golden Gate until in 2015 a tourist on Alcatraz filmed the below video of a rather large Great White eating a seal right next to Alcatraz. Ever since I was a kid I’d always been terrified of being attacked by a shark and thought that seeing a fin in the water was just about the scariest thing possible. I must have watched the video 100 times and whilst the chances of seeing one or being attacked were incredibly slim to zero, for me, it was going to be a serious psychological challenge knowing that they might be there;
After arriving in San Francisco on the morning of Sunday 13th I knew I needed to immediately get to Aquatic Park and dive into the ocean, this was crucial for me, no hesitation just get straight out there for a swim to get used to the temperature and atmosphere. I got a cab straight from the airport to the bay and was greeted by an extremely foggy day. I got changed right there on the beach and stashed my stuff under the bleachers. It was lovely to see a few other swimmers out there and Aquatic Park is a beautiful place for a dip, straight from the city into the bay in minutes. I donned my goggles, looked out to the Golden Gate and dived in. The water was icy cold and I swam out to the first buoy, even though I knew I was being ridiculous I could hear the Jaws theme tune in my head, banish that thought I said to myself and cracked on with the swim, getting out after about 20 mins I realised I was pretty chilly, this worried me as for the average Alcatraz swim you’re going to be in for around 40-50mins!
Over the next 4 days, Monday through to Thursday, I made sure I swam at Aquatic Park after work every day. Each day I increased the time I was in by a few minutes but the water was hovering around 13 degrees and I was coming out pretty cold after each swim. The locals at the famous Dolphin Club are one tough bunch! On one training swim I had a bit of a spook when a large shape passed beneath me, panic stations for sure, I screeched like I’d never screeched before and my eyes frantically scanned the water. I was incredibly relieved to see about 15m away from me a sea lion bobbing up and down, phew!
It was also important to me to immerse myself in the city and draw strength for the swim from its people and history, I walked the streets of the Castro, explored the Haight Ashbury and dined out in Little Saigon and Chinatown. Everywhere I ate I would try and strike up a conversation with someone and tell them I was doing the swim, it might seem like boasting but to me the more I talk about a swim out loud the more I believe in myself and the enthusiasm I was greeted with reminded me of how lucky I was to be even attempting it. Thursday night rolled around pretty quick and I tried to get an early night for the morning ahead. Whilst I knew my fears of Great Whites were irrational all I could think about was the video of the shark attacking the seal by Alcatraz and the water pulsing with its deep red blood.
After waking up and scoffing some porridge I walked down early doors and I could feel the adrenaline rising, I popped in my headphones and listened to some Viking Death Metal to psyche myself up, you’ve likely not heard this type of music before so have a listen - here. That should give you an indication of the mood I was in, it might seem ridiculous but I felt like I was heading into battle! I’d arranged the swim through Leslie Thomas at Swim Art and met her outside the Argonaut Hotel. As you can see from the picture below we had a pretty detailed plan for the day ahead;
After boarding the boat, I felt the crucial moment of any big swim, the moment when you realise that you need to embrace the nerves and fear. As the boat chugged out into the bay, the fog was pouring in, the Golden Gate was shrouded in mist and I could hear the ship captain on the radio “We have a swimmer entering the water by Alcatraz in 10 minutes”, hearing those words and taking in the scene around me I felt the adrenaline course through me. “5 minutes to the drop”, I got the go-ahead to get ready, kit on, mind racing, “2 minutes to the drop”. This was it, because of my goon grin I always look super happy before any swim and to be honest, I am, that’s the moment right before I jump in that I just love.
I gripped the rails and leapt out into the water, I looked up at Alcatraz, took a deep breath and started my swim. The water was cold but I was ready, the visibility was very poor so I couldn’t really see anything under the water but with the boat on my left and Golden Gate on my right, I was being shepherded into the bay. After around 15 mins I was feeling strong, finding my rhythm and growing into the swim, I could hear Leslie on the boat shouting encouragement and the waves were swelling around me. We hit a rough patch after about 30 minutes and I picked up my pace, arcing through the waves and crashing down between the troughs. I did think about Great Whites a couple of times but there is always a mundane thought which distracts you, the sunlight gleaming off the water, am I too close to the boat, oops I just swallowed too much salt water, ah my arms are aching, oooo doesn’t the bridge look beautiful, I wonder how that hotel got planning permission it’s mighty dominant on the skyline. It sounds stupid but there are so many thoughts which come into your mind and interrupt the irrational fears.
After about 30 mins a huge current is meant to sweep you back into the bay but unbeknownst to me it was running incredibly weak that day so I had to swim in an upside down L rather than the natural C, after about 45 mins I felt that I was a long way off and rather off course, the cold was rattling through me and I was fighting against the current. I could see the beach but it just wasn’t getting any closer. I knew I needed to dig deep and that there was absolutely no way I wasn’t going to finish the swim. I picked up my pace as I knew I needed to press on to beat the cold. With Aquatic Park very close, I took one deep breath and powered on.
I clawed my way onto the sand stood to my knees and turned around, looking at Alcatraz and the mighty Golden Gate Bridge, I took a deep breath and pulled my goggles off, let out a small whoop of joy around turned around. I thought to myself that San Francisco has to be one of my favourite cities in the world. At the time I was there for the swim America was in the grip of the Charlestown riots and couldn't have been more divided by racism, bigotry and hatred. Yet here lay a city which wore its diversity, peace, acceptance and tolerance on its sleeve. The Castro has the rainbow coloured blood of some of the most inspirational LGBT icons of all time painted across its streets. To stroll down any of its sweeping roads is a lesson in multiculturalism and the melting pots of many cultures criss-cross in Little Saigon, Chinatown and Little Italy. This is truly a city which celebrates its varied and shared history and I couldn't have felt luckier to be stood there on that beach overlooking the bay.
How lucky and privileged I was to be able to swim from Alcatraz, to crash into the icy cold water and do one of the most iconic swims on the planet. How lucky I was that there might have been such a majestic and ancient creature as the Great White Shark beneath me, going on about its business, not at all interested in the stringy morsel clattering it’s way across the bay. Lots of people at work that week had been asking "Is it clean in the bay?" Or "It must be really dirty". Well the day after the swim I went on a trip to the Farallon Islands and from when we left right up to when we got back we saw Humpback Whales, Grey Whales, Harbour Porpoise, Common Dolphins, Northern Fur Seal, Stellar Sea Lion, California Sea Lion, Sunfish, Puffins, Blue Footed Boobies and Jellyfish to name but just a few. If you leave nature alone it will thrive. It was an absolute pleasure to be in San Francisco and escaping from Alcatraz has to be one of the happiest moments of my life. My girlfriend Serena said to me before I left to take a second during the swim to myself to savour the moment. I remembered this about 10 minutes into that swim and slowed my pace and thoughts, I focused on the icy cold water coursing over my back, the salty taste of the water on my lips and the crispy salty sea air filling my nostrils. I tilted my head to the left and could see San Francisco shrouded in the morning fog, breathing to my right I could the might Golden Gate Bridge looming out of mist, I thought to myself that in that moment, right there and then, there was nowhere on earth I’d rather been then crashing through the icy water on my way to escaping from Alcatraz.