Escape from Alcatraz, August 18th 1996

Just before we left for two weeks to go to my family reunion, I heard about an event loosely affiliated with BASK (the Bay Area Sea Kayakers). They were looking for volunteer kayakers to escort swimmers from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco on the second leg of a triathlon race. I was unable to contact the organizers before I left, and didn't get back from vacation until the 17th. But when we got back I picked up the kayak and brought it to Berkeley just in case. Then I finally caught someone on the phone, and heard that they were a little short on kayak volunteers, only 22 kayaks to herd 100 swimmers, and would be glad to have me.

We met at 7:30 Sunday morning at Aquatic Park to get organized. Aquatic Park is a pretty little harbor on the northeast corner of the San Francisco peninsula. The Hide Street Pier with many historical boats lies directly to the east. A sandy beach and bleachers lead up to the National Maritime Museum. On the west side, the Black Point Municipal Pier curves around to the opening of the harbor. All this on the edge of a large metropolitan city. With water that you can swim in, if you have the stamina to put up with the temperature!

After an orientation talk and some work helping set up buoys marking the finish line, we eventually headed off across the bay (2 kilometers) to Alcatraz around 8:45. The island is a state park now, but the only way to get to the island is on a ferry boat. They will not allow any other boats to land, even kayakers who do not arrive by motor boat. I was hoping that we would be allowed to land as part of this official race, but it turned out not to be true. Even the swimmers would be jumping off of a ferry boat directly into the water just offshore from the dock. The swimmers were due to be ferried out by 9:20, and when I arrived at 9:10, I figured I didn't even have time to paddle around the island. There is another swim in September, I'll leave earlier then and give myself time to explore the shoreline.

Alcatraz was always supposed to be escape proof, but if you hang out in Aquatic Park, you see these people who swim in the bay water every day wearing only a normal swimsuit. The water in the bay is the same temperature as the ocean and averages around 50 degrees F. (Hypothermia City). So I expected to see a bunch of people swimming from the island to Aquatic Park in swimsuits, but was relieved to see that most of them were wearing wetsuits. Most of the wetsuits were the farmer john types to free up bare arms for swimming. The doors opened and 100 people jostled each other to jump out into the water. Some climbed out along the gunwales of the ferry to jump in away from the maddening crowd. They all treaded water for a minute until everyone was out of the boat, then a toot of the horn signaled the start of the race.

Us kayakers spread out in two lines on either side of the swimmers to help guide them in. A fleet of jet ski's (natural enemies of kayaks under normal conditions) buzzed around us. A few sheriffs boats completed the outer perimeter. A lead boat kept ahead of the first few serious swimmers who were expected to make the trip in 40 minutes or so. They lead everyone far to the right of the goal under the expectation of the turning tide pulling them back to the left. But most of the later swimmers turned and went straight for the opening to Aquatic Park. The tide washed them farther to the left and then they had to swim upstream to get into the harbor and into the beach. A little of the tidal current washed through the pilings even inside Aquatic Park and pushed the last few swimmers east again even inside the harbor. It was painful to watch and see that the slowest swimmers, who could have used the most help, had the most trouble with the tidal current. But everyone eventually made it to the goal, and the last two swimmers got the largest cheer from the crowd.

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All text and images Copyright © 1996 by Mike Higgins / contact