Escape from Alcatraz, June 8th 2008.

I volunteered to help with this annual swim event. This year 2000 swimmers jumped off a ferry boat near Alcatraz Island and swam to the east end of Crissy Field, near the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. The shortest distance from Alcatraz to San Francisco is about one mile. But this race was scheduled to happen at the maximum ebb tide! The water would be moving out the bay at around three miles an hour and the swimmers would land two miles west of the shortest crossing. That is where volunteer kayakers come in: We hover around the edge of the pack of swimmers, tell them when they are going the wrong way and let them hold onto our kayaks if they get tired.

Most of the swimmers foolishly wanted to head directly toward their goal and they could see the dome of the Palace of Fine Arts. But with the tide moving them sideways the correct thing to do was point almost sideways to the desired direction of travel. We could not convince many of the swimmers of this. Didn’t they get a lecture on the tides before they were allowed to jump in? As a result, many swimmers were swept past the finish line. Some were picked up by the support boats and others landed farther down the Crissy Field beach and ran back to the finish.

To ride heard on 2000 swimmers, the organizers wanted 100 kayaks to volunteer and offered to pay us $50 each. Even with that incentive, only 59 people showed up. The kayak wrangler, Marc Paulson, sent out an email to all the volunteers warning them that we each had to have the skills and equipment for paddling on the open bay. However, there was no enforcement and several of the kayaks paddled around without spray-skirts or other essential pieces of equipment. There was a big flap the previous year about safety and some BASK members vowed never to volunteer for this event again. My response to this is to suggest that one kayaker has to be the “Safety Nazi” who has the power to reject anyone who doesn’t have all the required equipment. No $50 payment until the Safety Nazi says you are OK. Perhaps I should volunteer for that position next year.

Despite the unsafe looking boats we had only one incident that I know of. While following some of the straggling swimmers down Crissy Field Beach, one of the kayakers got too close to Anita Rock, a wave broke over the rock and capsized the kayaker. I rushed over and performed a “T” rescue to get the guy back in his kayak. To my surprise, all the cops and other safety boaters ignored us. They seemed to expect us kayakers to take care of our own. Now that I think about it, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

All text and images Copyright © 2008 by Mike Higgins / contact