Spectacular! Photo by Joe as he piloted us across the channel
Every Alcatraz swim differs from the others. Water temperature, currents, wind, shipping traffic, marine life, and route make each crossing one of a kind. This week’s swim introduced me to a new route – swimming from San Francisco’s Aquatic Park beach to Alcatraz.
Swimming across the currents and trying to land on a small island a mile and a quarter offshore creates a complicated swim. Imagine landing a dart on a dartboard with a really stiff cross breeze. For some, just hitting the board would be good enough. Good enough today wasn’t going to be ‘good enough.’ Our plan targeted the landing just off the south-east corner of the island. We wanted the bullseye, not just scoring points on the board.
As the dawn and first light overtook San Francisco’s darkness, we set off on our adventure. Often, swims start by hurling ourselves overboard from the safety boat. Today, we walked in the water at the South End Rowing Club’s beach and started swimming.
We anticipated a 2-knot flood – a west to east current entering the bay. Water moving at 2-knots exceeds my speed, and creates a significant risk of me missing my mark.
When I cleared the Aquatic Park Cove’s opening into the San Francisco Bay, I intercepted our Cove Chaser pod-mates faffing by the Muni Pier. They said the currents actually had no impact on their swim, describing it as ‘slack-o-liscious‘. As they continued along the break wall to complete an impressive swim coined the Chas Lap, I gained confidence from their slack-o-liscious current report.
Unprotected from the cove’s safety, my adventure began in earnest. I sighted on Sausalito and headed north-west. I swiftly moved towards the shipping lane hardly noticing the current. Had I seen the harbor seal following us for the first half of the swim, I might have moved more swiftly. We speculated he may have been trying to join our Alcatraz pod. We’ll know for certain if he returns next week.
Yellow buoy being placed mid-Bay with Alcatraz in the background, Photo by USCG
For San Francisco Bay’s Fleet Week, a shiny new yellow buoy sat mid-channel. Our pilot told us to stay left of the buoy. Keeping a conservative north-west line minimized overshooting Alcatraz and the ensuing embarrassment. About 200 yards south of the yellow buoy, the flood’s full strength kicked in. the adrenaline kicked in and I swam harder, struggling to keep the buoy to my right. I sighed in relief as I inched passed the buoy on my right. (Full disclosure – I had to crab. My pod-mate did a gentle backstroke while she waited for me to round.) After rounding the buoy, we continued to sight on Sausalito. Eventually, shifting north toward Tiburon. At this point, our pilot encouraged my pod mate to pick up her pace, leaving me to swim on my own.
Perhaps it was the uncertainty of swimming on my own or the anxiety created by the harbor seal I never saw when I got my first swimming cramp (ever). It was a massive charlie horse. I couldn’t move. There I was, floating on my back in the middle of the bay, writhing in pain. I had a decision to make. Ignore the cramp and keep on swimming, or hail the pilot and get in the boat. It was a no-brainer. I returned to swimming and 30 seconds later, the cramp was gone. I continued swimming and finally, the Island drew closer! I estimated I had another 10 minutes of easy swimming.
I could not have been more wrong.
Suddenly the chop kicked up and I felt like I swam in place. I had just entered the River of Doom, formed from currents creating eddies in front of Alcatraz.
Our pilot came over and redirected me to sight on Alcatraz’s lighthouse. I kept swimming and eventually broke through the river. After clearing the river, it only took me a few minutes to complete the swim. An hour and seven minutes in 59ºF waters.
It’s 4:33 am and I’m 3 minutes late to the park-n-ride. My buddies are in the car after tying down the kayak and other preparations, and we’re off to San Francisco. The good news, we get front row parking at this hour.
As much as the streets of San Francisco are quiet, much is underway at the club. Many volunteers are preparing for our adventure.
An iconic aspect of the club are the Woodens, as they are called. Some of these vessels are over 100 years old, and still, they all are used out on the Bay regularly. They are so beautiful, and parts of their beauty are the many adventurers they have supported. Many before us, who’ve invested time and energy into keeping them seaworthy for previous generations and many to come.
Every swimmer has a kayaker and every kayaker must prepare their kayak for radio-communication with the swim chief, and each other, as well as the coast guard. The kayakers also bring feed for the swimmer, and themselves. They are essential for our safety and successful swims. Thanks David!
It’s a diverse bunch of folks who do this, all with a strong streak of adventure in them. Sometimes it’s hard to get serious, even where safety is concerned. Joe has spent a bunch of time making preparations with many other South-Enders, and not the least of which is coordinating with the Coast Guard along with the shipping schedule in the Bay during our planned swim. During the briefing, he finds a number of swimmers have not made adequate preparations for kayak coverage. He quickly pods them together with other swimmers their speed, to make sure all will be as safe as possible. This is so important for our safety and enjoyment, thanks, Joe. Time for another dinner on the Peninsula I think.
Sarah doesn’t forget to get a selfie of us as the kayaks head to the Hyperfish. Although this is just a tapering swim for her, she knows it is my attempt at my longest swim ever.
The Hyperfish has been hired to bring swimmers and kayaks the 4 miles to Angel Island. Captain Brent McLain has supported many of our swims on the Bay and beyond. We’re in good hands as the Tetris game of loading kayaks is completed.
And we’re off!
Ryan, Jeff who gets credit for many of the fantastic photos), along with Sarah (also taking many of these fantastic photos) and I in the back, with none other than the famous Christine ‘Bucko’ piloting us across to the north side of the Bay and Angel Island.
Amazing photo of the JO’B as we call her.
It’s about 6:30 am and we’re halfway out to Alcatraz. It’s unbelievably beautiful, as it often is. Every single time out, it’s a whole new adventure. I love the pelicans skimming the surface.
I don’t get to see the back of Alcatraz often. It’s an amazing view. We’re not quite halfway and Bucko says what I think is, ‘Hey, there’s a whale!’ I try to spin around even as I’m embedded in the boat, and finally, I see a splash and a fin. Wow! It could have been a dolphin, but this photo (thanks Jeff Cooperman) looks like the tail of a whale, albeit at a distance.
I can’t quite tell, but it looks like a dolphin as best as I can see. I’ve seen the seagulls track whales like that, so I’m not sure. Regardless, it’s an omen I take as a positive.
It takes so many to make one of these swims happen. For every swimmer, there are around two volunteers supporting you. I’m feeling a tremendous amount of gratitude. How did I get so lucky? That’s Steve with his reflection in the water.
The swimmers are all arriving on the beach, from the Hyperfish and the zodiacs. We had 19 swimmers and 26 support people in the water. San Francisco is looking like a long ways away by now. I collect a couple of stones as souvenirs from the beach and shove them in my suit, along with my overabundance of gu packages, just in case. The water is particularly calm at the beach, and feels warm by our standards, around 60 degrees.
I appreciate our support, especially at this moment. Thank you David! He’s carrying carbo drinks and gu for Sarah and me, as well as for himself, and a radio and stuff. Looking pretty calm to start. I’m excited.
And we’re off. Sarah captures the moment. Hi David!
We are underway, the water is beautiful so we take a minute to capture the moment. That’s the Golden Gate bridge on the left, Sausalito or Tiburon over my head and I think that’s still Angel Island over Sarah’s head. Do you think she enjoys this?
We took a westerly tact because Sarah said if we touch Alcatraz, we can count it as two Alcatraz swims. I’m feeling great and am glad to add to our adventure. Again, the water calms by the island. Love the reflections in the water.
Here we are! I’m taking in some liquid feed, as much as I can drink in. I’m feeling good but can tell I’m slowing down. Each time we start again, I can’t quite keep up with Sarah, who seems like she’s actually going faster.
As much as this freighter seems like it’s off in the distance, it soon becomes an issue. I don’t see it because by now, I’m head’s down just keeping going, but Sarah sees it and started picking up speed. David gets my attention and says, ‘Sprint as hard as you can for 500 yards, we need to get out of the channel.’ So, I do my best, am feeling my lungs heaving and my heart racing and I’m thinking, I have to keep this up for 10 minutes?! After about 2 minutes, David comes over and says, Tim! Get in the Zodiac, NOW! I’m not thinking completely clearly but do as I’m told. After slithering in the boat, and wrapping in a blanket, I’m thinking, hey! We’re not done! What are we doing? And then in the next instant, I can see we are heading backward, to Alcatraz, and again, I’m thinking wha??? After a few minutes, that freighter way over there shoots by us, and we jump back in to finish.
Sarah captures the freighter, just in front of where we are headed. From this angle, it doesn’t look that big or fast, but trust me, they are huge and fast. Remember how close it was to clearing under the Golden Gate? Look how big the buildings are behind it. We made the right move getting repositioned and out of harm’s way. Once we jump back in the water, I’m starting to really feel my pace drop. Sarah keeps herself entertained by taking pictures as we swim in. I’m 100% head’s down, let’s get inside the opening and finish this up.
Absolutely amazing day. I’ve been basking in the whole thing since we finished yesterday. We were welcomed with Irish Coffees, thank you Vanessa. And a delicious breakfast and celebrations, thank you Lucy, Darlene and sister, Vanessa and all the other cooks. Wow. So many people come to mind, I want to thank. Steve Walker for the tips, and Tagaderm. Robert for the carbo mix. All the people prepping and tearing down the boats, cooking and cleaning the dishes and getting the club back together. What a great day. I can’t wait to help someone else for their next swim or boat or run or boat night or any of the great opportunities the South End Rowing Club offers.
It’s been my goal since I kayaked for my swim buds, Laura and Tim. Could I do this too? As I go through life, I’ve set myself goals, but then those evil little voices start, darn it! Can I really swim that far in cold water? Can I deal with my nerves? Can I deal with the lumpy seas? I hear so many voices, and each time my answer, after a slight pause is…. of course, you can! I set this goal for 2017. I trained but then leg cramps and a bike injury put insurmountable obstacles in front of me. OK, I decided, Kirby Cove isn’t going anywhere so I’ll postpone swimming it to next year. It wasn’t just about the swim, it was about believing in myself, not giving in to the little voices and just embracing the pure joy of swimming.
It’s 2018 and I signed up! It’s like a lottery ticket; you won’t win unless you buy a ticket. The same thing goes for a swim. Sign up!!
Could I swim that distance in open water? The pool is just not the same. It has two ends, and lines, and lanes, and places to stand up, and virtually no chop. It’s a great place to train, but it wasn’t going to give me the confidence I needed. I started by swimming to Fort Mason, Gas House, and Creekers, and then progressed to Chas Laps, and yes, 5 Coves was on my resume from last year. What else could I do to prepare? My swim bud Laura gave me the perfect answer, Donner Lake rim, 3.5 miles at elevation, no current and continuous.
I worried about swim cramps, which continued to bug me 1 mile in on every swim. “Easy”, says Laura in her happy,-life-is-a-blast,-so-don’t-overthink-it voice; “Buy this special soft bottle, stick it down the back of your suit, and drink your favorite sports drink throughout the swim.” It turned out to be a glorious swim and Laura stayed with me the entire distance and helped me beat the cramps and voices!
I’m a planner, and I planned well in advance as requested, to swim solo with my kayaker, Sarah! It was not to be. We were required to pod up at the last minute. I was matched with Gary Emich.
Yes that Gary, the man who has done 1,049 Alcatraz
crossings, are you kidding me?! Hmmm, I have no clue about how Gary swims but Sarah and Neil assure me we are well matched. Funny thing is, he’s saying to himself, “Isn’t Vanessa a swim coach? How can I keep up with her?” As life would have it, we turned out to be a match made in heaven.
Getting To Kirby Cove Beach!
Now, with all my obstacles gone, August 11th dawned with perfect, calm water, a slight fog and a forecast of blue skies. Sarah, my happy kayaker, photographer, and friend extraordinaire was ready. I knew she would make sure we swam straight and fast, as well as digitally capturing every second. Now I just had to swim! Gary and I pegged the perfect seats on the boat ride to Kirby Cove, we kept dry and out of the wind. We were both quietly watching the City, Golden Gate Bridge and our soon-to-be-crossed ocean
spin by us as we motored to our jump spot. All is well, then it turns out we’re 45 minutes too early! Hmm. There we all were, swimmers, kayakers, and crew (including Sarah who had a mighty hard paddle to get around the point), bobbing around waiting! Just as Ben and I were dancing and jiving to some tunes to pass some time, [as that’s what you do when waiting for a swim], the captain came over the loudspeaker, “1 minute to jump, 1 minute to jump”. Yikes! We were jumping early! Then there was a last minute direction change from Neil (our Lead Pilot) coming over the radio “Head towards Baker Beach,
keeping South Tower at 9.00 o’clock, not 10 o’clock”. Roger that. I pull on my swim cap, goggles, stow my gear, and I’m ready. ‘Okay, swim to shore NOW!” I hear. No time to get nervous, or get cold as we hit Kirby Cove beach and turn around for our photo opportunity. Next, the horn sounded for wave 2 and we were off!!
I remember kayaking for Sarah around the Golden Gate Bridge for her training, and the kayaking was harder than swimming, and this proved to be the same today! While the kayakers struggled, it was simply perfect for me, with a few lumps, bumps and eddies. I just kept my head down to follow Gary who had a perfect line. He ignored the 9 o’clock direction and turned early to pass under the Golden Gate Bridge. We stopped under the bridge for the ritual WOOO HOOO YEEEAAHHH look-at-us yell. But then the flood kicked in. I felt like I was literally flying, can I really be swimming this fast? The Warming Hut, Chrissy Field, and Marina all flew by. ”Turn in, turn in” yelled Sarah, you are getting swept back into the channel! OK, I thought; Listen, follow, swim, breath, stroke…relax, sing, peace, enjoy, stop for your anti-cramp drink, carry on the swim, count, sight on Gary! “Turn in, turn in more…yikes, that flood is just pushing us, I have to up my pace, not just to keep up with Gary, but to try to get into the Francis Yacht club. And suddenly we were coming up fast on Fort Mason…really, here already? But I could feel the flood still pushing me and I needed to get in fast.
Ok, I have the yellow buoy to my left, easy, I got this, head down…. TWHACK! I swam head first into the buoy. It’s as big as a small car! Ouch, that hurt! “You ok?” shouted Sarah with a concerned giggle. Oh, sure. I just hit the only thing out here for miles! But now I really have to swim hard, I am getting swept along and if I don’t watch out Muni Pier will be an afterthought!! Gary is ahead of me as I make my last push avoiding
the Muni Pier fisherman. And then it was over, the flood stopped, it’s all calm, and I swam peacefully through the opening.
I made it! Kirby Cove is in my history book! I hit the beach and literally ran to the Irish Coffee cart where David was waiting with my Irish coffee, ok 2, ok, I admit it 3!! I can do it, I did it, and I can always do it! Thank you, everyone, for helping, supporting and believing in me, you all make a huge difference in my life and I am thankful. Thank you ocean, where I find my peace.