Escape from Alcatraz – with nothing but a wetsuit

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Only one prisoner was known to have survived a swim from Alcatraz Island to the mainland: he was found the morning after, washed up to shore and hypothermic, then shipped immediately back to “the rock”. Three others – made famous by Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz – escaped on a makeshift raft and were never found; they were presumed dead. Watch any documentary about prison escapes from the notorious maximum-security prison and it won’t be long before you hear mention of the cold waters of San Francisco bay, the strong, unpredictable currents and powerful tides, and rumours of man-eating sharks. You might wonder what the appeal was for a holidaymaker.

Heading to California in April, I asked friends for recommendations for San Francisco. I was expecting restaurant and sightseeing suggestions, not a prison escape. My friends clearly know me too well. I sent off a couple of website enquiries to see if a small group might want an extra person, and went back to considering the restaurants. Two days later, a company got in touch: Water World Swim. Their monthly group swim coincided with the weekend I was there. And what’s a holiday without a bit of escapism?

Alcatraz island

The morning of the swim involved a very early start and a drive across San Francisco under the crimson glow of a total lunar eclipse. With light slowly creeping over the bay, I met the other 20 swimmers and our leaders; one of them, an upbeat man with a big smile and a fondness for clapping, introduced himself as “coach Mike” and initiated a round of applause. We applauded the early start, we applauded those swimming from Alcatraz for the first time, and we applauded those returning to swim Alcatraz once more. As we approached the vessel that would take us across the bay, I remembered the man-eating sharks from prison folklore and quietly joked: “You’re going to need a bigger boat.” I think it’s the only thing coach Mike didn’t applaud.

According to the website, there was nothing for me to worry about: the majority of sharks in the bay are “bottom-feeding” species, such as leopard sharks. Though the next day, I read an article saying great whites had been tracked in the bay at certain times of the year; maybe that’s why we weren’t clapping.

The briefing from our coaches was reassuring. Perhaps I’d watched one too many of those documentaries but I think I was expecting more hype: perhaps some background information on the prison, ideally with some incidental music piped in to unnerve us. Instead, a representative from the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon, which takes place every June, gave us tips on open-water swimming and the best landmarks to “sight” as we made the crossing. The only real hint of peril came from our boat captain who had concerns about the start of salmon season in the bay that morning: boat propellers were our worst enemy and we were told to listen carefully to his instructions once in the water.

It had often puzzled me why the prison was placed where it is. Only 1.5 miles from shore, it’s in plain sight from the city: hardly an enticing view. And of course the mainland, and sights of San Francisco, are in plain sight of the island, which likely caused more torment to the prisoners incarcerated there. The island’s history goes back further than the prison, with its development including the west coast’s first lighthouse, a garrison and military prison, before becoming a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. Today, the island is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, though the abandoned prison still creates an imposing outline on the island.

The boat stopped 100m short of the island: Alcatraz is a protected bird sanctuary and swimmers can’t jump in from the rocks. Instead, shortly after sunrise, we dived in one by one from the stern of the boat, under the watchful eye of a flotilla of kayakers, all there to check we weren’t fished out with the salmon. The famously treacherous waters of the bay were kind to us that morning; organised crossings are timed to take place around the slack tide and we were just catching the very end of the morning’s ebb. With very little wind, the conditions were perfect. The cold water was salty and green, but what it lacked in visibility under the water was offset each time you turned to breathe: the Oakland bridge on the left, and the sun reflecting off the magnificent Golden Gate bridge on the right. Occasionally, I’d turn on to my back to take in the view of the iconic island from which we were “escaping”.

The bay waters were reckoned to provide the ultimate barrier to escape for the prisoners but when a swimming coach calmly talks you through a safe crossing, it seems hard to understand why it was so daunting for escapees. But with the wrong tides, the crossing would present a different challenge altogether; couple that with the lack of exercise undertaken by your average Alcatraz inmate – and lack of wetsuit – and you can see why we had an advantage.

The swim finished in an enclosed area of the bay known as Aquatic Park. On dry land, following some more clapping, our group leader explained that bay swimming to and from Aquatic Park is currently under threat by the proposed rerouting of the Alcatraz ferry. One of the main reasons I love to swim outdoors is how detached it can make me feel from everyday life. For the people of San Francisco, a former prison on a nearby island is only part of the history of the bay, and the waters of San Francisco bay offer swimmers an entirely different type of escape. I think that’s something worth applauding.

Read more:http://www.theguardian.com

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