Swimming from Alcatraz – Special Report

It’s hard to say where it all began. To cut a long story short, quite literally cut down to here *** otherwise keep reading… so the beginning…

Was it when my father taught me how to swim in the local swimming pool in Armagh, Ireland? I can’t remember how old I was, but judging by the fact that the “wee” (referring to small, as opposed to urine, though it’s hard to be sure) pool is only 3 feet deep, and I was out of my depth, I’d say I was about 6 years old. What I can remember, like a video clip in my memory, is propelling myself underwater, about a foot from the floor of the pool and feeling free.

I can’t ever remember feeling afraid of water. Sure I respected it, was scared by it rushing past in fast rivers or crashing on rocks on the coast. The forces that drive water should never be underestimated, but the still, deep, calm water of a lake or ocean bay in summer, beckons like a long lost friend.

So, I guess I’m saying I love the water. As I went through life, the sports that I grew passionate about were not necessarily those I excelled at. In my opinion there are 4 classes of people – those who are  are competitive and excel at things, those are not competitive and yet excel anyways(my sister!), those who are not competitive and don’t excel, (they of course don’t care) and then there are the poor unfortunates like me, who don’t excel but who are competitive (and are constantly disappointed)! I was that kid in school who tried out for every team but was never selected, who entered every event on sports day and never won anything. In fact, I even went so far as to break my leg practicing for the high jump in my back yard. Won nothing that year except a day off school on sports day – well, what was the point in going to school on sports day in a cast from my toes my knee?

When I did a lot of kayaking, in my twenties, I seemed to spend nearly as much time swimming as I did in the boat. I provided my buddies with a lot of rescue practice! But I did love kayaking, for the camaraderie, for the adrenaline, for the smell of neoprene – seriously, my heart rate increases when I smell a wetsuit, for I know that adventure beckons.

In my thirties, I realized that I was more comfortable in the water, and I switched to scuba diving. I was fortunate to be traveling around the world during this time and I spoiled myself by diving in exotic, warm water in such diving meccas as the Great Barrier Reef, Fiji Islands and the Red Sea. Still my love of the sport went a long ways to making up for my lack of skill. I once so infuriated an Italian dive instructor by sucking up too much air during dives that that he told me I was like a Ferrari – I looked good on the outside, but I used far too much fuel to be practical. I’m sure there was a compliment in there somewhere but I was deflated – pun intended!

Even my love of skiing involves water – albeit frozen.

Last summer I realized that now that I’m now in my forties,  I needed to do something to keep in shape. My friend Mareese, an extreme athlete who falls easily into the “competitive and excels” category, encouraged me to try running. Under her tutelage I trained for and finished a 5K then a 10K, but like Hans Christian Anderson’s little mermaid with her new legs, every step was painful and I never quite got the zen that many true runners experience. After the 10K what loomed next seemed to be a very unattractive-to-me half marathon… until that fateful conversation with my friend Christal.


“So, I think we should swim more,” Christal said over the phone.
“Great, let’s join a gym then,” I said. There are no swimming pools here where you pay as you swim. You need to join a gym that has a pool. It would be nice to have a buddy to swim with.
“So I feel like we need a goal to work towards, ” Christal said. “I feel like we need…” is how polite Californians say,”We must have…”
“Em, okay. So I’ve swum a mile in a swimathon before, so we could work up to something like that,” I said helpfully.
“Or we could do the Alcatraz swim?”
“Isn’t that impossible?”
“Nope they do it all the time – there’s a race in July,” Christal said. It was the end of February. As she talked I surfed the internet trying to find the race she was refering to.
“What about the currents? Wouldn’t we be swept out to sea?” I asked. This was to be a series of questions I’d be answering a lot over the next five months.
“They time it as the tide turns, so the current is at it’s least strong.”
“What about the cold water?” I’d been gutted when I moved here to discover the Pacific’s water temperature here was even lower than the Atlantic and Irish sea.
“We wear wetsuits.”
Finally I hit on the website for the swim event. It was titled, “Sharkfest!”
“What about the sharks?” I asked.
“They’re just the little ones. The great whites don’t like the silty water in the bay.” Christal had the answer for every question.
“Well, it says here that unless you can swim a mile comfortably in the pool in 40 minutes that you shouldn’t sign up. How about we wait and sign up once we can swim a 40 minute mile?” I said, fairly confident that by the time I could swim a mile that fast (if ever) the race would be sold out.
“Deal,” said Christal. “Let’s meet up tomorrow and find us a pool to train in.”

With a mixture of surprise, pleasure and dread, I discovered that we both were only a few laps short of a mile  in 40 minutes on our first try in the pool. And a deal is a deal. So, we signed up for the Sharkfest Alcatraz swim – 1.5 miles in 60F (15C) open water, with fierce tidal currents – how hard could it be?

If you don’t want to read about our approach to training for the event skip on through to **. Otherwise read on…

Cristal introduced me to a surfing buddy of hers, Sumika, who wanted to do the swim, and then we were three!

I took a two pronged approach to training – at least three swims a week in the pool, working on distance and speed combined, and we aimed to do an open water swim together at least once a week.

The pool work was fairly straightforward. I used youtube videos to look at perfecting technique since I’d never had formal lessons. The gym had didn’t have swim coaches but they claimed they had a personal trainer who was a swim coach and so I booked him. Turned out they had a perfectly good personal trainer who knew how to swim, but I was never convinced that he really was a coach. Still, he gave me one good tip – swim with my hands relaxed and my fingers spread apart – contrary to popular belief that the fingers must be squeezed tight together to get purchase on the water. It worked better and in one step my lap time decreased.

But the best fun was the open water swims. Each swim seemed to tackle a different area of concern. And there were many concerns – cold water, waves, current, fear of sharks, other swimmers jostling for position, jumping into the water from a height… the list felt endless.

The first swim was borderline traumatic. At the end of March, Christal and I went up to Aquatic Park in San Francisco. This would be where we would finish the Alcatraz swim, provided we weren’t swept out to sea or eaten by a shark!

It was a grey morning in San Francisco; the sky was grey, the water was grey, the sand on the beach looked grey and our faces were definitely grey. The water temperature was a frosty 52F. (That’s 11C in real money, folks.) We found it nearly impossible to get our faces into the water, and absolutely impossible to keep them there for any length of time. I got an immediate ice-cream headache. We sort of doggy paddled and breast stroked our way from one end, along a line of buoys, marking the swim course and back, a total of a third of a mile a mile, that took us a staggering 40 minutes to complete. We were disgusted with our time – more than twice as long as it took us to do in a pool. And to add insult to injury other bathers were doing it without wetsuits!

The women from the Dolphin Club, where we paid $6.50 to use their changing rooms, showers and sauna, were swimming in just a swimsuit and thermal cap. I was totally inspired by this. (But not to the extent were I would take off my wetsuit! At least not yet.) One of them said that she swam because of the cold, not in spite of it, and that suddenly gave me a whole new perspective on it. Yeah – the cold water was invigorating and not to be feared. I’d also read that it would take quite some time to get hypothermia in that temperature of water whilst wearing a wetsuit. Sitting in the heat of the sauna, it all made sense.

While we were there we met Suzie, an open water coach whom we booked a couple of sessions with in May and June.

Before our session with Suzie we tried our second open water swim, this time in Santa Cruz. We entered at the steps by the cliffs at Cowells beach. Many surfers use this entrance to the water. I was nervous getting in. The waves scared me as they crashed against the rocks. Christal held my hand getting in the water and although it was cold, this time I wore a neoprene hat and ear plugs.

After the initial gasping  for breath we settled down into a semblance of a swim and covered more ground more quickly. 

The pool sessions were paying off. Christal, still ahead of me, was not having to wait as long or as often for me to catch up. The water was clearer and you could see the bottom far below us. And it occurred to me that I was actually enjoying this, enjoying it in a way I’d never experienced when jogging. I loved feeling the stretch in my muscles as I reached forward in the stoke, gliding for a moment in the “Superman” pose before I initiated the “catch’ and pulled my arm back. Such a pity I had to interrupt the rhythm to breath. But each breath gave me a beautiful view, cliffs framed by sea and sky on one side, yachts breaking the horizon on the other.


This was the life, my inner mermaid sang.

Buoyed by the success of that swim many demons were cast out. Cold water was not our enemy. We swam at Coyote point one windy afternoon to banish our worries about swimming in waves. The other two surfer babes loved it, but I hated being tossed around so much. Still, I knew after that that if I had to do a mile and a half in waves I could.

Our sessions with Suzie were inspirational. She taught us how to squeeze the most efficiency from every stroke and most importantly how to sight. Under her supervision we had a safe harbor-enclosed experience of swimming in a current.

We did a couple of races in local reservoirs in order to get a feel for swimming with lots of other (faster) people. Of course we didn’t win, but we didn’t come last. Christal beat me in the first one and then shock result, two weeks later I beat her in the second one. My training really was working. I was catching up with Christal and we could both see a difference. Sumika, who lived up near Aquatic Park was swimming up there in the evenings too. We were getting there. It was the Great Escape equivalent to spreading the dirt from the tunnels in the prisoner gardens!

Less than three weeks before the race, a demon rose up from the deep that really tormented me.  Approximately 3 miles from where we swim a great white shark attacked a kayak at Pleasure Point, Santa Cruz. Christal and I decided to swim anyway, knowing that the sharks are always there and that attacks are rare. 

We entered the water from the kayak platform on the wharf and swam east (towards the shark attack area.) As I watched my hands enter the murky green water in front of me and scoop back amid a flurry of white bubbles, I didn’t reach my zen place that usually accompanies my stroke count. Instead, I began to imagine two piercing soulless black eyes above a row of jagged teeth lunging towards me. A touch of kelp against my foot made me yelp and and jump up. Christal, swiming nearby asked me if I was okay. I selfishly admitted to being a bit freaked out about the shark. Grim and determined we pushed on.

Christal, always the fearless leader kept us going with, “Let’s just go to the next buoy.” We where half-ways between the forth and fifth buoy when I caught a glimse of something from the corner of my eye. I could have just been a wave, the yacht in the distance or a large sea animal breaking the surface of the water. At this point I was so wound up that if I’d seen a two-inch goldfish my heart would have stooped dead!

Christal, seeing my panicked expression, said, “What? What did you see?”
“Nothing. I think,” I said, scanning around.
“Shall we go back?”
It took us 18 minutes to swim out that far (0.4 miles) and about 10 to swim back!

The following week another shark was photographed nearby from the air.

However, it was a smaller organism that made us change our last training swim from Santa Cruz to Aquatic Park – E.coli! The water quality report for the beach was dire. We did our final practice 1.5 mile open water swim at Aquatic Park, nearly 5 months after our very first try there. We covered three times the distance in the same time as it had taken us to do that first difficult swim back in March. We had made great progress but was it going to be enough to really swim from Alcatraz?

On the morning of the swim I was nervous about even looking out at the water. What if there were white cap waves? How would that affect my time? Mercifully the bay was as flat as a pancake.
We got changed and tried to focus on being excited and not frightened. It was easier with Sumika and Christal, and we kept telling each other how glad we were that the other two were doing this with us. Christal described it best as we sat on the ferry out to the Island.
“I feel like I’ve got that ‘I love you, man,’ thing going on even though I’m not drunk.” 
We totally agreed and had a good laugh about it. And it’s those those warm fuzzy feelings I’ll remember, more than the cold water, for the rest of my life.
I wasn’t sure how the 5 foot jump off the ferry into the water would feel. It was ridiculous to be apprehensive since I’d done it many times scuba diving – the giant step where I usually tripped over my fin tips and landed face first, nearly driving that same Italian instructor insane!
We lined up to jump in. People were shouting, “Go, go, go.” The line moved so quickly that I was at the door and at the edge before I knew it. I at least had the presence of mind to hold my nose and hold on to my goggles, took a deep breath and stepped out. 
As soon as I hit the water, the havoc ceased and the world was quiet, then I broke the surface. I focused on catching my breath and swimming breast stroke to carry me away from the ferry. San Francisco looked very far away.
Since the majority of the 1133 participants wore the exact same black swim wetsuit and mandatory yellow hat,  I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to see the other two “Charlies Angles” as we three now dubbed ourselves, primarily because there were three of us, and with Sumika being Asian and all, it fit!
I heard Christal call me and she was about 15 feet from me. She’d recognized the sliver of red hat peaking out from under the other two hats I wore. Her wetsuit was sleeveless, so I was able to spot her quite easily. We kept the same pace, and she checked that I was okay and then we set off. Sumika, always the first to get into the water and get her head head down swimming, was away, somewhere in the midst of all those yellow hats!
At the start we were told to head for the old WWWII ship known as the Jerimiah O’Brien. You can see it here on the left. Alcatraz is on the far right.

For some reason I wasn’t concentrating on my sighting, and when I looked up I was staring out at the Golden Gate Bridge. Cristal called over to me, asking me where I was going. Fortunately, I hadn’t strayed too far, and I straightened up on the Jerimiah and plunged onwards.

The swim was great. We kept a steady pace. I wanted to keep plenty of juice in the tank in case we had to fight the current that we were told runs across the mouth of the opening to Aquatic Park. At no stage did I feel too tired nor wanted it to be over. I was comfortable and in the zone. With every lift of the eyes to sight, the Jeremiah got bigger. We stopped a couple of times to take in the view and discuss our navigation. Yet, all the while I was expecting the current to kick in and start tugging at us, sweeping us past the opening to Aquatic Park and out to sea beneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

I couldn’t completely relax until we got through that opening, but once we were in, it felt like we were on our home turf. We stopped again and watched the other swimmers around us. It was such a thrill to see the area behind the beach crowded with people, good to see colors other than black, grey and yellow! We’d done it, the hard part at least. We agreed that we should hold hands across the finish line then with a contented sign I said, ” Lets wrap it up!” and we launched in to the last half mile, headed for the shore. It’s harder to stop the water from getting in your mouth when you are grinning!

The sand beneath my hands surprised me. We’d trained hard for 5 months for this race, and now here it was, over, and we were safely ashore. I stool on wobbly legs and reached for Christal’s hand. 

Together we crossed the finish line completing the course in 1 hour and 4 minutes. We found Sumika straight away and reunited for a group hug before splitting up to go hug our friends and relations who had come down to cheer us on.

Thanks for reading – I know it was a long one, but I really wanted to share the experience of a lifetime.

Byddi Lee

5 replies to Swimming from Alcatraz – Special Report

  1. So glad you made that inner mermaid happy, as for mine, she rejoices in your experience. 🙂

  2. I saw a number of your training photos on FB. I truly admire that you did this, there's no way I would have had the courage. I have had my fears of water, despite learning to swim at a young age, never mind swimming across the SF Bay in chilly waters with stiff currents. It's good to know if you ever found yourself on Alcatraz, you at least could swim to freedom 😉 Congratulations, and I truly mean that!

  3. Wow, that is just toooo amazing. Congratulations, I can't even imagine it.

    (Sorry, I've been too busy to leave comments recently)

  4. Byddi, What an adventure! Congratulations on rising to the challenge! -Jean

  5. You swam from Alcatraz? Crazy!! The bay is full of sharks!! I would have freaked out. You're one brave lady! Congrats!

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