Did any prisoners ever escape from Alcatraz, the famous prison on the island in San Francisco Bay? I do not believe so. Why? I have done the Escape from Alcatraz Swim three times with the advantage of swim training and a wetsuit in the fifty-three-degree average temperature water. It is very easy to get hypothermic (life-threateningly cold) swimming 1.5 miles from the island to the city. A prisoner, without the benefit of training and a wetsuit, probably could not survive.
Swimming from Alcatraz is dangerous alright. A man died of a heart attack during the last time that I swam it. There are also sharks in the Bay – a cheerful thought. On the Ferry Boat over to the island, the race organizer always announces, “You will line up at the doorway in groups of three, and jump in without hesitation. If today is not your day, stay on the boat. Or if you figure that out once you are in the water, raise your hand, and a boat will pick you up. Swim to the start line and the starting gun will go off in two minutes.” There is not much time to think, which is good. If you can swim 1.5 miles in choppy, open water, I believe that the primary difficulty is mental. I have to stay positive, especially to leap off the Ferry Boat one story down into the ocean below. I think, “The quickest way to get back to land is to swim strongly now,” as I put my face in the frigid water and begin to count my strokes. I do not look up until I have counted twenty strokes. I know my tendency is to look up to see where I am going too often when I am nervous, which slows me down. I divide the mileage into 6 quarter miles and estimate how far I have gone, with Aquatic Park ahead representing the last quarter mile. The problem is that you begin so far out in the Bay that you cannot even see Aquatic Park or even the tall buildings behind it, upon which to sight. I do not let this discourage me; I count strokes. Soon, there are no swimmers or kayaks around me. Everyone is spread out. I keep going and can gradually sight the tall buildings. I remember what someone experienced on the Ferry Boat ride said about the flood tide and so, I aim to the right, assuming I will be blown to the left of the mouth of Aquatic Park. I do not want to miss the opening and have to swim further against the tide! I keep counting strokes because I am likely to get anxious to finish as I near the last half mile.
Finally, am I hitting the opening of the Park? Yes, I have navigated well! I can see the people on the shore and hear the music over the loudspeakers. They are announcing names of swimmers finishing. My hands, feet and face are numb. I cannot hold my fingers together as I swim, but I will get warm soon. The adrenaline is rushing through me as I touch the beach with my hand, then feet, and stand. I jog through the finish line and receive a finisher’s medal. I never let myself entertain the thought that I could not do this swim or that I could not finish.
Martin Luther said something like, “You cannot keep a bird from flying over your head, but you can keep it from nesting in your hair.” So, I kept the negative “birds” from “nesting” in my brain. I never fondle negative thoughts prior to or during the race. From time to time now, however, I look over the distance between Alcatraz Island and Aquatic Park and think, “Wow! I did that?”
Stay tuned for Part 2