Alcatraz Swim

Alcatraz.  The name conjures up thoughts of dark, cold water, strong currents, shark infestations.  So I wonder why the Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim has been on my to-do list for sometime?  It was also on my friend Tim's, and a casual suggestion at masters swimming had another three swimmers from my town signed up.  No turning back now!

(obviously not my picture...)
The idea is simple.  Put wetsuit on, get on ferry, arrive at Alcatraz Island, jump off, and swim 2.4 km to San Francisco.  It was also fairly intimidating, and I'm not sure why as it's not a particularly long swim. Something about the dark cold strong currents etc etc...  I wasn't particularly concerned with sharks, however.  I knew the San Francisco Bay was home to leopard sharks (but they are little and their diet consists mainly of benthic - bottom - species), 7-gill sharks (bigger but like deep water - although there are some reports of attacks on humans), and a variety of other small shark species that aren't very concerning to me.  Of course I know the mythology: white sharks (AKA great white sharks) patrol the bay looking for elephant seals (their favourite food), and humans can look a lot like a seal to a shark.  I would have argued vehemently against this, stating that yes, white sharks can be found off San Francisco's west coast - the Farallon Islands are their hunting grounds for elephant seals and they're only about 40 km away - and I was pretty sure a white shark wouldn't enter SF Bay.  Plus, everyone knows their Farallons season is August-September, and of course the swim was taking place in July (July 28), so pfffttt... no problemo.

I was searching for some academic evidence to back me up, when I found this article: turns out some tagged white sharks have been picked up on acoustic sensors under the Golden Gate Bridge.  Hmm.  Still, not particularly concerning as let's face it, we just don't hear about a lot of shark attacks on humans.  Globally.  It was riskier to drive a car to the airport for the trip!

Tim & I arrived at Aquatic Park the morning of the swim, and met the rest of our group.  Amanda, Rachel and Jenn (from my town), Liz (from Tim's) and a couple of other friends of Liz (from SF I believe).  Once in our wetsuits, we walked over to the ferry taking us out to the island and boarded.  It was a fairly surreal ferry trip with hundreds of wetsuit-clad swimmers (and a few sans-wetsuit) and that's it.  We had to jump off the boat, and I'd built this up in my mind thinking it would be scary to jump into the black, cold water.  But it wasn't, it was actually pretty fun!  

Cowichan Valley girls getting ready to swim!

I stole this picture from the results email from
the race organization because it looks so cool!

Once in the water, we had to find the start line and it was a bit chaotic as swells made it really difficult to see the line of kayaks off the SE tip of the island.  There were some good swells and surface chop, but otherwise the water was greener and colder than I expected.  Once at the start line, we waited for a few minutes for the horn to signal the race start, then we were off.

The start was a total gong show.  People everywhere, smashing into everyone.  The swells and chop didn't help as it was just kind of a washing machine.  Also, the fact that the majority were strong swimmers meant it didn't spread out very quickly.  After about ten minutes of getting pummeled, I decided to go a bit to the left in some open water and swim on my own.  That was much less frustrating, I got into a rhythm and soon enough the swells disappeared.  It was too foggy to see the Golden Gate Bridge, but it was cool seeing the city get closer and closer, and I turned over a couple of times to see Alcatraz receding into the distance.  To avoid getting slammed I ended up swimming quite a bit on my own, but that was ok even though I usually try to work in a group.  Soon enough, I was rounding the corner past the breakwater into Aquatic Park.  The breakwater looked closer from shore, but turned out there was still about 600 meters left to swim (so much for my idea to sprint from there).  
There were heaps of spectators lining the beach, and when I hit the shore and saw the clock, I was pretty surprised to see just over 38 minutes.  Thank you nature for the push!  I figured I'd be 41-42 minutes and I wasn't working particularly hard so I knew there was a current going with us.  Turns out everyone in our group was faster than they anticipated, and the woman who won last year repeated this year, and 2 minutes faster.  So there you go.  Everyone in our group placed really well in our age groups: Amanda 2nd (and under 30 minutes!), Jenn 2nd, Liz 2nd, Rachel 6th, Tim 7th and me 8th.  Islanders represent!

Islanders (minus Liz) post-race celebration!

Overall it wasn't nearly as hard as I'd thought it would be.  Not that cold, not dark, no dorsal fins in sight, no fighting a current... I've done harder swims, but nothing as iconic.  So now I can say I've swam from Alcatraz.  One and done.


  1. Awesome report, and congrats on a great swim!
    That race looks like a lot of fun, although I think I'd be really creeped out!

  2. I need some of your mental toughness and a bit less imagination.It doesn't matter if I know sharks aren't there, my mind will make me see shadows of them there lurking below me. Great job getting out there, getting it done AND crossing that off your bucket list. That leaves space now for you to add something else. Hmmmmm....what to add??????

  3. I'm a friend of Tim's and am impressed by all of you. Great showing! Too bad it was foggy, but I agree with you that San Fran is a beautiful, energetic, diverse city. Fun to visit. congratulations on knocking off one from your bucket list. Liz SJ


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