Maria’s Alcatraz Swim, September 2011

Me and Jim, ready to swim. My daughter Nina and husband Andy are behind us.

A few years ago my brother Jim convinced me to sign up for the Alcatraz Invitational Swim. A swim event (it may be a race for some but not for me) which consists of taking a ferry to just off The Rock, jumping off, and swimming as fast as you can back to Aquatic Park. Lest you think my brother was hoping to increase the size of his inheritance, he was actually looking for company. Jim had done the event a couple times with our niece Nina and assured me it was good fun.

Although I am a fair-weather swimmer, swimming only when the water and weather is decent in Santa Cruz where I live, I decided to give it a go.  Feeling cautious, I rented a wet suit for the race and was ecstatic to beat my IronMan triathlete brother and my much-younger niece Nina.

It didn’t matter that we were all in the back of the pack. The great thing about swimming Alcatraz is that most people have never done it and never would do it and are just impressed that you did it. Plus you get a T-shirt that says Alcatraz Invitational which makes it appear that you were among a chosen few to be selected to participate.

But I couldn’t help the feeling that wearing a wet suit was cheating. It was so much easier to swim in one and my time was much better than usual.  I admired the “skins”, those hardy souls who swim in just their Speedos. And there were so few of them.  Heck, I was one of them after all—sort of. I don’t usually wear a wet suit at home but can’t imagine swimming without my O-Neil 1.5mm neoprene swim cap. It’s my aquatic bullet-proof vest- but most everyone in the skins uses one.

A fellow swimmer told me that the only people who could swim from Alcatraz without a wet suit were either fast or fat. I won’t comment on the latter (but I’m not!). Anyone watching me swim the buoys at Cowells Beach knows I am not the former. I am routinely passed by a man with one leg and a couple in their eighties. Rather than submit to arduous lap swimming to improve technique and time, I just decided to train myself to get used to being in the water for an hour—the maximum length of time I’d given myself to swim the distance. I find swimming rather boring –face in water, face out of water.  Lap swimming is just torturous. At least in the open water I can stop and enjoy the view from time to time.

The day of the race I was apprehensive and brought my wet suit just in case conditions proved unfavorable. But the day was beautiful with no morning fog; a rarity in San Francisco. This year the host of the event, the South End Rowing Club, had two boats, a large boat for the wet suits and a smaller ferry for the skins. Jim and Nina were swimming with the suits. I was loath to surrender my sweats before entering the ferry, but they’d segregated the swimmers just so they could heat the boat for the skins. Once on the boat we were treated to various announcements lauding us for even trying to do this, which made me feel proud yet somewhat ill at ease – worried that perhaps I’d underestimated the difficulty that lay ahead. Most of the swimmers were lean muscle machines synchronizing their waterproof watches and flicking swim caps with logos from various races and elite swim clubs. I was next to a contingent of former members of a Minnesota university college team and some folks prepping for IronMan Canada (which Jim did earlier this year). My ego was taking a bruising. I was certainly out of my league and I started to have doubts about what I was doing.

During the ride to Alcatraz we listened to instructions for the swim. Well some of us listened. At least one of us was too dazed to pay attention, as you will see soon. We were to jump off the ferry and start swimming slightly west of our destination – aiming for Fort Mason rather than Aquatic Park. When we saw the pumping station we should start aiming East, or left.

Our start time was delayed while we waited for a barge to pass and then were given the order to jump. And it is an order. They have a short window – 4 minutes to get about 200 hundred people off the ship and will give you a friendly push if you dally at the door. This is a good thing for me — there is simply no time to think about it although I tend to hold onto the handle at the doorway a bit too long when I jump in. It feels like you’re underwater a long time before popping up, though watching people jump on YouTube shows it’s actually instant.  The mammalian reflex kicks in and I am fitted with nature’s own wet suit, not feeling cold at all but put off by the slosh. I am always amazed at how no one ever complains about the waves. The water temperature isn’t the problem, it’s the height of the waves that’s a hassle. I know you elite swimmers are going to tell me that if I took some masters classes I’d learn how to deal with it.

I swim a ways and then have to stop to check out the scenery. Treading water as people fly past, I look around. It is a beautiful day—one of the rarest of perfect SF days. The Golden Gate bridge sparkles, the city is white and crisp.  But by staying still I am an obstacle and so I flail ahead trying to keep up with those around me. Lost in the steady back and forth I see the pump house and realize I am getting close to the end. Time has flown by—it seems only a few minutes have passed. But no one is around me. I keep going ahead thinking the pump house is inside Aquatic Park. Where is everyone I wonder? Can I be that slow?  A kayak comes by and tells me to go left. Left? That doesn’t make any sense. He stays with me and I feel silly being babysat. He points his oar far to the left of the pump house by a pier—you need to go to the left of the pier he says. I utter profanities realizing that the pump house is not inside Aquatic Park and I have gone off course and should have turned a ways back. The kayaker then paddles off to talk to another waylaid swimmer.

It seems only a short time before I am inside Aquatic Park with other swimmers and can see the finish line. I try to go as fast as possible but the finish just seems to get farther away. I hate this part of racing- so close and so far. But finally I am out of the water running across sand in my wet bathing suit in front of hundreds of strangers. I can tell I am once again way in the back of the pack. Nina has already come in but another few minutes pass before Jim appears. He lolls in the water and pulls out his underwater camera to take another photo. He walks across the finish line. My victory seems hollow given he didn’t even try to race but stopped to take photos along the way.

Jim, Nina, and I are going to sign up for 2012. We’re trying to get our brother Chris to join again and I am trying to convince them to skip the wet suit. If they do, I’ll bring the camera.

When Maria is not swimming, she is a senior staff writer at Phoenix Technical Publications. Phoenix Tech Pubs has been providing complete technical writing and content development in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 25 years.