Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Alcatraz Challenge

This time, I will try to add some context to my photos!

So, yes, back in January or so, when I found out that I would be in the Bay area last week for work purposes, I started trolling the internet to find out what events would be taking place in and around the city while I was there. Lo and behold, I happened upon the Alcatraz Challenge, a 1.5 mile swim from a ferry docked just off the famous island's shores back to the mainland. I went back and forth over registering many, many times, though I started hitting the pool three times per week so I was definitely interested. Finally, the night before the registration fee was due to increase, I bit the bullet and signed up.
There are three reasons why swimming from Alcatraz was once thought to be impossible. One, the cold. The water was 54 F the day we swam. Two, the current. The Bay fills and empties once every 25 hours and the water runs pretty fast. They time the swim so that it begins just as the fill tide switches to an ebb, and the current does push you in the direction you want to go. But even though we swam at slack tide, the water was still moving at 4.9 knots and you could really feel it trying to tug you out to sea. They say if you jump off the ferry at Alcatraz and do nothing but float you will be swept under the Golden Gate bridge within 45 minutes. I believe it! Three, the sharks. There are sharks in the Bay, and this was the thing that made me hesitate most about signing up for the swim. Despite the fact that great white sharks generally don't come into the Bay (because the water is brackish) and the last time one was sighted in the Bay was in the 1960s, I still hesitated, because it isn't all that far to the open ocean and who wants to be eaten by a shark? In fact, there used to be a rumour at Alcatraz that the prison system had bred a one-finned great white shark named Bruce who swam in circles around the island. There are other shark species in the Bay, though they are bottom dwellers and generally don't bug people too much. Once I finally discovered that great white sharks tend to hang out in Hawaii rather than off the California coast at this time of year, I finally felt OK about the shark thing. Luckily my swim was on Sunday, because on Tuesday there was a great white shark spotted at Ocean Beach, just a couple of miles past the bridge. That might have been enough for me to throw in the towel had it happened a few days earlier!
Anyway, I signed up, and I swam several times a week until I could comfortably swim a mile and a half. Sloooooowly, mind you, but I could do it. I knew I was not about to break any records but was hopeful I would at least not finish last. A couple of weeks before the event I got my trolley assignment. I had to be ready to leave Crissy Field at 5:15 a.m. on the day of the swim.We got into town around 4 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, caught a cab to our hotel, checked in, tried on the rental wetsuit I had shipped to the hotel to make sure it fit, and then headed out to pick up my race kit at a sporting goods store about three miles away from our hotel, close to the swim finish. En route we hit the waterfront and took our first look at Alcatraz. It didn't look too far from shore, though the swim finish was not directly across from the island but rather quite a ways west of it:Anyway, I kept humming the "Just keep swimming" song from Finding Nemo under my breath and was still pretty sure I could do it, guessing my finish time would be around an hour or so.

Sunday morning brought a 4:30 a.m. wakeup call which thankfully wasn't too bad, since we were still on East coast time. We caught a cab to the beach, got checked in, and I was ready to board the trolley to the pier at 5:15. (Trolley assignments were done by lottery and I had the misfortune of getting a very early slot - the ferry didn't leave until 7 a.m.)

At least I was on my way to do something. Poor Chad was then left to sightsee alone in the dark for several hours!We boarded the ferry and had to wait an hour or so until it left. It circled the island, docked, and then the support boats moved into position. When they were ready, at 8 a.m., they threw open the doors to the ferry and attempted to push all 271 of us off within 3 minutes. The current was moving so fast that they had to do this quickly since the kayakers etc. were fighting to stay in position.The water was not as cold as I expected, but it took about 10 minutes before I could put my face in the water. Up until then I was not doing much more than dog paddling. No wonder that one of the kayakers started to tail me to make sure I was not in over my head! I took my time swimming and tried to enjoy myself. It was a pretty scenic swim and I knew I wouldn't get another view from that vantage point again. Just when I started to get lost in my own private moment with San Francisco though, I started thinking of the sea creatures, and that got me moving again. I was originally sighting way to the left when one of the kayakers told me I was being too conservative and to take more of a direct line to the finish. I followed his advice and then totally overshot it. The current was moving too fast and I was in the water too long to have been able to come ashore at the right spot.
Chad waited patiently on shore. The water was starting to clear of swimmers when finally I hit the beach at about 51:30, quite downstream of the finish line but at least on dry land. I had to run a few hundred meters back up to the finish chute and timing mat.
And, there were at least a few people still in the water after I got out. Phew. Trying to get a swimming pool stroke down in the Bay is no easy task.
More running. Who wants to run when they are freaking exhausted? Note the boaters packing it in for the day. Like I said, I was close to the end. However, there are always a few people fished from the water who cannot finish... I was just relieved not to be among them.
When I finished I had some kind of sludge on my face. Chad was like, dude, you swam through some mud. I think it was probably radioactive fallout from Japan, but whatevs.
So there you have it... I swam the Alcatraz Challenge! Definitely one of the crazier things I have done in my life, but totally worth it. It just goes to show that if you put your mind to something, you can pull it off.


megan said...

looking good in that suit Carrie! Happy Birthday!

dad said...

Hey - what's with the wet suit? I told all my friends you were swimming San Francisco Bay in a bathing suit! It was 50 degrees at the baseball game Friday night.
Congratulations and Happy Birthday!
Thirty-six - - Wow!

Anonymous said...

can't wait to see what else is on your bucket list!! i am very proud of you- hope you had a fabulous b'day -aunt sue

Dawn said...

Woot woot! You are my hero! Belated birthday too btw! I suck!