Courtesy: Erwin Williamson
Here it is, an early San Francisco morning in late September, still dark, and I find myself and a hundred other poor souls shivering barefoot on the cold steel deck of the Harbor Princess, one of the famous Red & White Fleet ferries. We are about to leap ten feet off the deck into the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay and swim about a mile and a half from Alcatraz Island to Aquatic Park, just west of Fisherman’s Wharf. Everyone is cold and jittery. Most are fit, well-trained open water swimmers, but a few are being watched closely by the race organizers. An official-looking man dressed in blue sport coat, regimental tie, and shiny black dress shoes is moving through the crowd reassuring everyone. We reach Alcatraz Island and the Coast Guard clears the way. Moments later the ship’s air horn blows long and low and off we go, two at a time, into the water below. It’s the annual “Swim with Pedro” Open Water Swim, one of a number of different Alcatraz swims including Sharkfest, Escape from Alcatraz, and Swim with the Centurions. This one is the brainchild of Pedro Ordenes – one of the great patron saints of open water swimming.
Just a few days earlier I was practicing early morning outdoor laps and the pool temperature was down to 76 degrees F. (24 C.). It was before dawn, the surrounding neighborhood cloaked in sleep and darkness. The pool was brightly illuminated by overhead spotlights and its underwater lights glowed green in the pre-dawn light. Turning my head to breathe I glimpsed nighthawks dipping and wheeling through the spotlights, chasing fat moths and cicadas. As I plodded along the eastern sky grew slowly brighter, turning from deep purple to poppy red to soft orange.
Swimming laps is pure, zen-like monotony. A mile is 33 laps if you’re swimming lengths, or “long course.” Your mind wanders, you zone out, but on you go, mechanically, listening to the cool water burbling by – looking one moment at the orange morning sky and the next moment at the blue pool bottom. Orange sky, blue bottom, orange sky, blue bottom. I will do two miles this morning.
One of the tricks to swimming multiple practice laps is not to lose count, so with each lap I review a year of my life. Some contain painful memories while others are pleasant to recall. Some years you just want to forget. Things are going pretty well until I get to age/lap 19, then I lose count thinking of a distant girlfriend and have to go back to the eighth grade and start over again. I pass over a number of interesting objects on the pool bottom: a drowned cicada, an earring, a ball-point pen, a band-aid, a quarter, a penny. I swim a lap underwater holding my breath, my chin zooming along just an inch or two above the bottom and the miniature underwater Lost & Found. I had to stop collecting earrings after my wife starting asking questions.
To pass the time I count the little ceramic tiles that mark the lanes along the bottom. Width-wise, there are 22 lanes, each with 1620 blue tiles, or 35,640 total. Length-wise there are ten lanes marked by black tiles. Each of these has 11,088 tiles or 110,880 in all. If my mental math is correct, the pool is lined with a total 146,520 tiles.
On I go, the mechanical swimming robot.
Back in San Francisco and just off Alcatraz Island the starter gives the signal. I leap off the boat, hit the water, and shoot deep into the murky depths. The water is brackish, dark green, and unbelievably cold. Just below lies an inky black abyss while far above a dim green glow marks the surface. Huge pelagic fishes and cetaceans roam these waters, along with eleven species of sharks, a multitude of benthic creatures, squid, octopuses, and jellyfish. Wicked currents and shifting tides compete for control of the Bay. Today the water temp is 50F degrees (10 C) at the surface, warm for the Bay, and much colder at depth. The opaque, forbidding water was one reason the first prison was built here in 1868, followed by the infamous Alcatraz federal penitentiary, “The Rock,” in 1933. While much of the Bay is fairly shallow, beneath the Golden Gate Bridge the water plunges to almost 400 feet and giant nuclear submarines pass in the darkness, swimming silently among the great fishes.
The night before the race there is a briefing near the Presidio, attendance required. We get timing chips to wear on our ankles and bright orange swim caps. The event organizers tell us that the harbor police will be out on patrol boats and jet skis, and that the Coast Guard will halt shipping traffic during the race. In light of the terrorist attacks during the 2013 Boston Marathon, Homeland Security will also be around.
The two old and venerable swimming and rowing clubs of San Francisco, the Dolphin Club (1877) and the South End Rowing Club (1873) will help out. Their members, the rarified movers and shakers of San Francisco society, will paddle along in ocean kayaks – helping guide swimmers across the Bay and pulling the frozen out of the water.
Meanwhile, out at Alcatraz, the race is now underway. I kick hard to the surface and swim quickly away from the ship and other swimmers jumping from above. The water feels like the Arctic Ocean, only colder. Not ten feet away I spy the guy in the coat and tie flailing around in the water, intent on swimming to San Francisco. A police officer on a jet ski with blue flashing lights and a siren is on him in no time, “You in the suit! Out of the water! Now!” After all, it is San Francisco….
I turn and strike out, aiming for the old WWII Liberty Ship, SS Jeremiah O’Brien, docked near Fisherman’s Wharf. It lies to the east of the Aquatic Park finish line, but with strong currents running west out under the Golden Gate, it’s necessary to swim a long arc towards the O’Brien. In seconds I am numb from the cold. I lift my head, take a sighting on the O’Brien, and correct course. The wind, the cold, the chop, and the current are much stronger than expected. Every now and then a kayaker pulls alongside and points the way. A subtle treadmill effect takes over – it seems that I am doing a lot of swimming but not getting anywhere. I try to imagine little blue tiles passing by on the floor of the Bay far below amid the shipwrecks and mermaids. I summon up memories from the eighth grade. A dear friend, herself an accomplished swimmer, told me, “Swim like the wind.” My mind wanders. For some reason, Elton John’s “Rocket Man” begins to play in my head:
Rocket Man, burnin out his fuse up here alone…
After a while, I have an epiphany – this is a unique time and place to be – churning merrily along in the middle of frigid San Francisco Bay on a bright early morning in late September. I stop for a minute, roll over on my back like a sea lion, and have a look around. The early morning sun is just coming over the Berkeley Hills, lighting up the Golden Gate Bridge in stark relief against the azure Pacific sky. To the south, the great city built on seven hills is ablaze in the bright California sunlight of a new day. Magnificent. I take a mental picture that I still have. A mover and shaker in a sleek ocean kayak comes alongside; “You OK?” he calls. “Yep, just enjoying the view,” I tell him. He looks around, smiles, gives a thumbs up, and paddles away through a line of choppy whitecaps.
Consider this: the water in most indoor swimming pools averages 80 degrees F. If the temp falls just five degrees it feels decidedly cold and your middle ear and sinuses begin to hurt. In San Francisco Bay, waters from the cold California Current and icy snowmelt from the Sierras meet and conspire to keep the water cold year-round. The race is held in the fall when the water is at its warmest, usually between 45-55 F. In some years the race is cancelled due to heavy fog, cold temperatures, and high seas – the swimmers can’t tell where they are and the kayakers can’t either.
About halfway across the Bay, the O’Brien looks closer now, so I make a turn to the southwest and aim for the Balclutha, an old square-rigged schooner with 145-foot masts docked at Maritime Park. The water is noticeably colder out here in the middle of the Bay, or “The Slot.” We crawl past huge ships stopped in mid-channel by the Coast Guard. Their crews line the railings pointing, laughing, and shouting in twenty different languages, “Hey Huang, Hey Hans, Hey Mario, look at those idiot swimmers!”
The swimmers gradually separate and I go along by myself. The kayakers have dropped back and are busy shepherding wayward members of the flock. Hundreds of bright white seagulls wheel and dive overhead while below I can barely see my hands as they pass beneath me in the murk. As I take a breath a wave smacks me in the face so I try breathing on the other side. Something shiny and silver and much bigger than me flashes by and is gone. What was that? I try not to think of the Farallon Islands, just off the coast and the prime mating ground for the Great White Shark, Carcharodon carcharias. Great Whites average 15 feet in length and can weigh well over 2000 pounds. A few years ago a 13 foot sturgeon was caught in the Bay. And as everyone reminds me, three Alcatraz inmates escaped their cells on a cold, dark night in 1962, entered the frigid waters, and were never seen or heard from again.
Open-water swimming has a long and colorful history. Lord Byron swam the treacherous Hellespont in 1810 with a club foot, Matthew Webb first swam the English Channel in 1875, and Richard Halliburton swam the Panama Canal in 1928 after paying 36 cents in displacement fees. The first successful swim from Alcatraz was not completed until 2001 by Pedro Ordenes. Ordenes has swum Alcatraz many times, the English Channel, and the Beagle Channel from Chile to Argentina – round trip. Today’s race, “Swim with Pedro,” is his baby.
I plow ahead.
Nearing Aquatic Park, the current picks up speed and I swim harder to make the turn into the little harbor there. Too close and you end up on the rocks or under a pier. Too far out and you can miss the entrance altogether and be in Honolulu in time for lunch.
The iconic Ghirardelli sign over the waterfront is dead ahead now. Tourists along Municipal Pier stop and gawk, “Hey, look at those swimming idiots!” A few people smile, some yell encouraging words, and a handful actually applaud. A gang of raucous seagulls struts back and forth on the pier, laughing and cawing at us. I redouble my efforts not to freeze and drown in front of this small but appreciative crowd.
Once inside the breakwater the water is calmer but just as cold and there is still some distance to go. I’m feeling the cold now as my body core burns through the last of the pancakes, peanut butter, and bananas I had for breakfast. My arms feel like heavy, soggy logs and my feet, hands, and face are completely numb, except where a passing jellyfish has stung me on the neck. I trudge through the water past sailboats bobbing peacefully at anchor in the early morning sun, thinking of Ghirardelli chocolate. My left calf begins to cramp so I let it trail along, resting, and kick harder with my right. I am no longer swimming like the wind.
Being near-sighted I can barely make out the hundreds of people lining the shore and grandstands, but I can hear them. I suddenly realize that I have no idea where the finish line is. I had not thought of this. I keep swimming until my hands scrape the sandy bottom, then standing up in the shallow water, a bit wobbly, I discover that I am still fifty yards away from a huge inflatable arch that says “FINISH” in big, blurry letters. The fuzzy shape of a race official is waving at me, “Over here, over here!” he cries. I stumble along through the shallow water, run up on the beach, go through the arch, and clock in. Through short-sighted near-sightedness, I have lost a minute of official time just looking for the finish line. This is a big crowd pleaser, “Hey, get a load of that half-frozen, myopic idiot wandering around looking for the finish line!”
People cheer and clap and pat us on the back as we weave dripping through the crowd. Not surprisingly a couple of US Olympic team swimmers have won. A pretty lady smiles and hangs a bronze medal with a blue satin ribbon around my neck. I was not the first nor the fastest, but I finish in the top third and enjoyed the view. I count my fingers and toes and head for a big table of fresh fruit and hot tea.
An hour later there are still stragglers coming in. Each is accompanied by a small pod of worried-looking kayakers. The swimmers struggle up to shore, try to stand, and fall down. They sit there in the shallow water, disoriented and hypothermic, wondering who and where they are. Nonetheless, they have endured and prevailed and will get their medals.
Weeks later I happen across a late-night TV docudrama about the three inmates who escaped Alcatraz in 1962. After an hour of suspense, the producers announce their definitive verdict – it would have been impossible to swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco.
And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
Before touchdown brings me round again…
Erwin Williamson is a life-long swimmer and scuba diver living in a small town in the American South.