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Swimming from Alcatraz

Invitational draws hundreds who accomplish the supposedly impossible

Sunday, October 06, 2002

By Jennifer R. Accettola

SAN FRANCISCO -- Welcome, swimmers! Don't worry, it's gonna be easy!" enthused Pedro Ordenes in his Chilean accent to nearly 500 swimmers aboard a ferry heading to Alcatraz Island, barely visible through the heavy fog that darkened the early-morning sky.

After diving from a ferry at Alcatraz Island, swimmers in the Alcatraz Invitational swim to shore -- disproving the legend that the feat is impossible.

Challenge helps swimmer defeat all self-doubt

A low collective chuckle bubbles up from the swimmers from Chile, Japan, Mexico, Russia and 25 U.S. states who are about to embark upon the supposedly impossible task of swimming from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco.

On Sept. 14, for the seventh year in a row, the South End Rowing Club sponsored the Alcatraz Invitational, drawing hundreds of swimmers. The crossing from Alcatraz can be from 1 1/4 to 1 3/4 miles, depending on the currents. Swimmers range in age from 10 to 85.

Registration opens nine months before the swim and often closes three months before the event as it fills up. Other events, such as the Alcatraz Challenge, the "Escape from the Rock" triathlon, the Sharkfest duathlon and the Alcatraz Triathlon, also close registration months before the event date.

"What makes this swim unique is that there is a mystique about Alcatraz. Anyone who has heard of San Francisco has heard that prisoners could never make it off the island," says Lynne Cox, open-water swimmer and master of ceremonies.

"It's a beautiful city. Nobody else could hold an event like this. It's one of the most beautiful bays in the world, and one of the most challenging swims with conditions unfamiliar to most people -- the wind, the cold and the fog. This is no Southern California pier-to-pier swim in a warm flat ocean with a blue sky. This is a whole different story."

Once the swimmers quieted to a dull roar, SERC Swim Commissioner Dan Needham spelled out the race instructions in the chilly, foggy post-dawn. "We expect good conditions, with a 3-knot flood -- that's water coming into the bay, going to a slack for a few minutes and then a 1.5-knot ebb moving out of the bay. Aim for the Fontana towers -- the pair of white apartment buildings by the Maritime Museum. As you get closer to Aquatic Park, aim for the masts of the tall ships Balclutha and CA Thayer. Faster swimmers should aim just to the left of the opening."

"When you jump in, move away from the boat. Now is not the time to adjust goggles, cap or swimsuit. If you get a wedgie ..." the crowd erupts in laughter, "If you get a wedgie, keep moving and unwedge it away from the boat! Pay attention to the pilots, and if you need to get out or rest, do not hang onto the side of the kayak, or you will have a very upset kayak pilot."

At 7:45 a.m., swimmers started to move toward the side doors of the boat for the 10-foot jump to the chilly waters of the bay, patchy 59 to 62 degrees, just on the east side of Alcatraz Island. As swimmers jumped, it was obvious that the current was stronger than predicted and the boat drifted away from the island, leaving some swimmers farther from the start buoy than others. At 8 a.m., the ship's horn blast signified the start of the race, but at 8:20, some swimmers were not clear of the island and were, in fact, being pushed back in the opposite direction.

Gary Emich, however, is one swimmer who decided against this morning's jump. A nine-year member of the South End Rowing Club and second only to Ordenes in his number of Alcatraz swims (138 and 140, respectively), he says, "My mother would be proud of me."

A full moon rises over Alcatraz Island in the SanFrancisco Bay. (Frederic Larson, AP)

A veteran bay swimmer, Emich noted the way the current was moving the boat back around the island. "I saw the push sweeping swimmers around the island and decided to save my strength. I've been there, done that, and I can swim another day. For a lot of these swimmers, this is their first and maybe only chance to swim from Alcatraz."

And swim they did. David Thomas, 42, in a wetsuit, was the first swimmer out of the water in 31:27, followed by 43-year-old Bob Placak, a former Olympic swimmer who wasn't wearing a wetsuit, about 10 seconds later. All swimmers get an Olympic-style medal, long-sleeve T-shirt and hot lunch. Early finishers add to the supportive audience.

Over the P.A. system that can likely be heard as far down as Fisherman's Wharf, Ordenes announces, "At the South End Rowing Club, it is our tradition to applaud louder to the last swimmers who come in, because they are the swimmers who have had to work the hardest and who have had the toughest swim, but they keep going until they are done, so they get the most applause."

For the last half-hour of arrivals, a false alarm is issued every five or 10 minutes. "Here comes the last swimmer! Everybody put your hands together." And then, "Here comes the last swimmer, for real this time!" Finally, the last swimmer comes through and, laughing and stumbling her way up the beach, accepts her medal and heads for the dry sauna in the women's locker room.

Among the earlier finishers, a trio of 19-year-old swimmers from Chile's Los Delfines swimming club returned to conquer the swim for the second year, again placing in the top 100 of the race. Coached by Chilean swimming legend Victor "El Tiburon" Contreras Sr., these young men -- Victor Contreras Jr., Elias Rabi and Dionisio Marchant -- have competed in open-water swim competitions. "We like San Francisco the best. This is the only place we can do this kind of swim in a city," said Contreras Jr.

Participant Thomas Olsen of Florida independently turned his swim into a fund-raiser. He organized 21 separate donations totaling more than $2,500 to the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and also personally contributed to the club's building renovation program.

For nearly 100 years, the U.S. Army and government maintained that it was impossible to escape from Alcatraz. Nearly every tourist to San Francisco has seen the "Alcatraz Penitentiary Swim Team" T-shirts, towels and key chains that help perpetuate this myth. Without the modern concepts of marketing and "spin doctors," the impossibility of the swim has persisted.

Sharks, distance, temperature and currents are the main obstacles cited. The truth is that there are a lot of sharks in the San Francisco Bay. In fact, there are several species of sharks who survive by eating small fish off the ocean floor. None of these sharks are the type that eat or attack humans, and although a Great White shark breeding area exists north of San Francisco Bay, sharks larger than 4 to 5 feet long are rarely seen in the bay.

Swimmers also share the bay with numerous other creatures such as moon jellies, a small jellyfish about the size of a dinner plate that rarely irritates human skin and skitters quickly out of the way when it encounters a human hand. Curious sea lions and seals often follow alongside swimmers but steer clear of big swim events and the entourage of boats, kayaks and paddleboards that fill the bay during large races.

The distance is the least of a swimmer's concerns. Depending on where the swimmers jump into the Bay, it ranges from 1 1/4 to 1 3/4 miles. Most master swimmers cover twice this distance in a 90-minute workout. The bay's temperature is fairly stable and averages between 58 and 62 degrees. Ordenes, 59, spent nearly two hours swimming the 39-degree waters of the Straits of Magellan without a wetsuit. Cox swam the Bering Straits, without a wetsuit, in water that plunged from 42 to 38 degrees.

A well-trained and conditioned swimmer with knowledge of the speed and direction of the current can easily ace the crossing from Alcatraz. Prisoners, however, had no control over their diet, no opportunity for exercise and little if any knowledge of tide conditions.

Another factor is traffic on the bay. Without notifying the proper authorities, fugitives had to contend with ships and sport fisherman. Swimmers who cross in races and club events obtain clearance from the bodies that manage traffic on the bay.

"Any swimmer can do this," said Cox. "The most important thing is to gradually start conditioning in the cold. There is a huge difference between swimming in a pool and being in open water. If you try to do it all at once, the shock of cold water can be very discouraging."

"Safety is very important for all open-water swimmers. Make sure you have someone keep an eye on you, and always ask the harbormaster or other local authorities about sharks, potential submerged hazards and other conditions before just jumping in. This was one of the more difficult swims in recent memory because the currents were more challenging than anticipated and made the swim longer than usual [1 3/4 miles]."

Originally the home of Miwok and Costanoan tribes, Alcatraz Island was named "Isla de las Alcatraces" (Island of the Pelicans) by the Spaniards, who claimed it as part of Mexico in the 18th century. In 1861, it was converted to a military prison, where deserters and thieves were weighed down with chains bearing 24-pound iron balls.

The U.S. Army rebuilt the prison just after World War I, and in 1933 the island was turned over to the U.S. Department of Justice and was converted into a federal penitentiary for high-profile criminals and "incorrigibles," such as Al Capone and "Machine Gun" Kelly.

Washington officials were under pressure to improve the public confidence in prison security and selected Alcatraz as a gangster prison. The deep water and strong currents around the island formed the basis of the "100 percent escape-proof" claim touted to the public.

Private boats were prohibited from getting within 300 yards of the island, making it difficult for outsiders to test the waters. One of the earliest recorded swims was by Mabel Green, who reportedly swam out to Alcatraz and back in 1923, touching the island with her hand.

On Oct. 18, 1933, Anastasia Scott, 17, made the crossing from Alcatraz to the Dolphin Club in 43 minutes. Her father was stationed on the island, and she made the crossing with two pilots in a rowboat. About a week later, two more San Francisco women swam the route from the "escape-proof" island in protest of the decision to turn the island into a federal penitentiary. Doris McLeod swam from Pier 45 to the island and then around it and back to the South End Rowing Club in two hours. Gloria Scigliano, a national junior champion, swam to the island in 57 minutes.

Dozens of prisoners attempted to swim from the island, but none were confirmed successes. In 1962, the Anglin brothers led the most famous escape from the island, using inflated stolen raincoats. Their fate is unknown.

In 1963, USP Alcatraz closed after 29 years of operation because it was too costly to operate. An estimated $3 million to $5 million was needed for restoration and maintenance, excluding daily operating costs.

Alcatraz was nearly three times more expensive to operate than any other federal prison because of its isolation. All food, supplies, water, and fuel had to be brought to Alcatraz by boat. Because the island had no source of fresh water, nearly 1 million gallons of water had to be barged to the island each week. It was cheaper to build a new penitentiary than to keep Alcatraz open.

Jennifer Accettola is a San Francisco-based photojournalist and open-water swimmer.

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