Sunday, July 12, 2009

The One Way Ticket to Alcatraz

I've lived in the SF Bay area for a few years now but never made it to Alcatraz - the famous island with the federal penitentiary, also called "the rock".

When the prison was in operation, rumor had it that no one could possibly escape from it, due to frigid, shark infested waters with strong currents. "Escape From Alcatraz" with Clint Eastwood tells the story of the one and only attempt that was made - but in reality, the escaped criminals probably never got to shore.

Today, I bought myself a one-way ticket to Alcatraz to visit in style and experience this impossibility first hand. Here is the setup: The ferry carries us - hundreds of swimmers - to Alcatraz. We jump into the water and swim to shore, as the current carries us toward the Golden Gate Bridge.

To make my escape realistic, I limit myself to goggles, speedos, plugs, and a bag for the car keys. No pictures, so this illustration will have to do for conveying the situation.

Since this swim was an adventure for me, a bit more prose. Safety briefing; the measured water temperature is 62 degrees F. People cheer. Most of them wear wetsuits and neoprene caps. Instructions: which landmarks to look for depending on the speed. Fast swimmers should swim towards Ft. Mason, slow swimmers towards two apartment building towers behind Aquatic Park. Once in sight, swim towards the Palace of Fine Arts. By the standards they provide, I'm very slow and wonder whether they'll need to reposition me to compensate for the drag by the current.

The ferry takes off to the rock, filled with swimmers to its brim. Just before 8am, a countdown begins and then we jump into the water, 3 people at a time on either side of the boat. It's warmer than I expect. One of my worries was that by jumping into the water there is no way to ease into it, but it's a non-issue.

Many people are way faster than I am, but I'm not the slowest. Everyone I see swims freestyle - I must be the only breast stroke swimmer in this swim and breast stroke is generally slower. However, it's also more stable in choppy conditions - I know where I'm going and can more easily synchronize my strokes with the waves. Compared to some swimmers who come towards me at a 90 degree angle when the destination is up front, breast stroke looks good to me.

I swim towards the towers. A while into this, other people get repositioned with a boat close to where I am, which gives me confidence - I must be on the right track. However, I then overdo it a little bit - I get close to shore perhaps 10-15 minutes or so before the finish, which makes my path slightly longer and takes out some of the beneficial current. A fish jumps out of the water in front of me. Wish I had a picture - I'd love to know whether it was a cute baby shark. I arrive all in one piece and happy not much later, 1 hours 4 minutes after jumping off the ferry.

To summarize, even though probably nobody survived a proper escape from Alcatraz back then, the rumors suggesting an escape is impossible were entirely wrong. If a software engineer can do it with breast stroke and no wetsuit, anyone can.

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