“Don’t you know there are sharks out there?”
is the top question people ask upon learning I have swam from Alcatraz Island to Aquatic Park, San Francisco.
Other common queries are about the water temperature, distance, and the simple question of why anyone would do this. I asked these same questions the first time Earle Conklin approached me about taking on this challenge as a pang of fear coursed through my body.
Earle, a Vietnam Vet, wanted to organize a swim for all Veterans and their families. When he explained that he had led boy scouts across the 1.3 miles cold water channel in San Francisco Bay I felt my manhood being called into question. If those kids could do it then of course I would try it out.
This was early 2013 and though I had been abalone diving and spearfishing in cold waters for about six years, I did not have any experience with distance swimming in open water (or pools, for that matter). Before I could let my doubts convince me otherwise, I committed to the swim.
Friend and coworker, Maurice Delmer also pledged to swim and we joined Earle at Aquatic Park the next week. Donning our wetsuits, we swam laps between the buoys near the shore. It was impossible not feel the effects of the flooding (incoming) tide push me eastward as the Pacific filled up the San Francisco Bay. I was exhausted after the swim, but felt a calming “body high” that I have gotten from free-diving or surfing. I was hooked.
Saturday mornings became our training days. We would swim for approximately an hour, coached by the Nadadores Locos open water swim club members. The “crazy swimmers” were appropriately named. One had swam the distance of Lake Tahoe from north to south- about 23 miles long. Another swam from Santa Cruz to Monterey in open ocean and some of the team completed a relay swim from the Farallon Islands.
Most of the club members swam from great distances around the San Francisco Bay and all of this without a wetsuit. They patiently taught us the skills needed to succeed in the water.
One of the most important skills was mental: the ability relax in the water. Stiff bodies and flexed muscles aren’t as buoyant and will quickly drain one’s energy. A relaxed body is closely linked with a relaxed mind. Just as in war, panic can be deadly and lead to poor decisions.
Learning that no swimmer had experienced problems with sharks in the history of swimming this distance calmed me considerably.
Taking time to get comfortable in the water was the first priority of our training. With added buoyancy from the wetsuit, anyone could rest or take a break by simply bobbing in the water without the need to tread.
Since distance swimmers, like all other endurance athletes, attempt to use the most efficient means to get from point A to point B, good technique is key. The Locos taught us how to stretch our bodies long in order to have a better entry and catch, the parts of the stroke where the hand enters the water and begins to then continues with the pull and push, where the arm propels the body forward by forcing water back.
Since kicking was not mandatory with a wetsuit, paralyzed and amputee swimmers could easily keep up.
As opposed to pools, there are no lane markers in open water swimming. Sighting is crucial to staying on course. Every few breaths, the coaches made sure swimmers would intentionally lift their head forward to “sight in” on a landmark to make sure we had not drifted off course. This can happen because of strong tides or current, as well as from an imbalance in the stroke between the two arms.
To show we were ready for the swim from Alcatraz, each swimmer had to complete three qualifying swims in the three months of training. The first was simply demonstrating comfort in the water by swimming back and forth between the buoys during one practice. The second qualifier was finishing two loops inside Aquatic Park. Each loop was nearly a mile, giving swimmers the confidence of being able to go the distance and then some.
Finally, every swimmer had to complete the “Inside/Outside” swim. The Locos and safety kayakers escorted the group around the jetty inside the park and then outside into the open waters of the bay. Most of us tasted a couple of the rolling waves and got our daily sodium intake. The swim taught us how it felt to be in the open water and how to breathe mindfully without inhaling water.
When the day arrived to “take the rock” we met in a small parking lot behind Fisherman’s Wharf to sign in, fuel up with coffee and bagels, and to get a safety brief by the Locos. The Vietnam Veterans of Diablo Valley sponsored the entire event. They provided the insurance, swim caps, breakfast, as well as the post-swim celebration and barbecue.
Swimmers were marked with numbers to make sure everyone was accounted for. The safety kayakers explained how they and a couple safety boats would be following us across the channel in case anyone needed to stop or had a medical emergency.
We loaded onto a couple different sailboats captained by volunteers and crossed the water to Alcatraz Island through a slight breeze as the sun crested the peaks of Mt. Diablo and surrounding East Bay hills.
The dilapidated sign on the dock of Alcatraz Island warning against “aiding the escape of prisoners” added to the feeling of anticipation and excitement. I was ready to jump in and make my own getaway towards the mainland.
Some dove head first, others jumped feet first, and I cannonballed to kick this shindig off. We were off and I was full of the game-time adrenaline that blended exhilaration with the fear of the unknown.
Stroke after stroke, I settled into a rhythm. Every three strokes I took a breath. Every few breaths I sighted in on a landmark in the city.
The tide was ebbing, pushing water out of the bay. We sighted in on landmarks slightly eastward to compensate for the outgoing tide. As I got closer, my sighting adjustments changed from the TransAmerica building to the city of Oakland as I continued to get pushed with the ebbing tide.
I passed the entrance to Aquatic park on my unintentional seaward journey and found myself on the “treadmill” – how swimmers refer to the experience of swimming into the current and making little to no forward progress. I dug deep to power out the last 100 meters towards the entrance to aquatic park and was relieved to feel the protection of the jetty as I made my way towards the shore in the home stretch.
Family members, the Vietnam Vets of Diablo Valley, and bewildered tourists watched and cheered. Both Maurice and I had finished at the same time and congratulated each other. We had just taken the rock!
A twenty minute sauna improved morale quiet a bit and the proceeding barbecue capped off a great day of swimming. Certificates were given out by the Vietnam Vets. We thanked them and the Nadadores Locos for making everything possible. Little did I know this swim would lead me to try my hand at triathlons.
Some motivation to join me in 2016:
More information about Take the Rock, including registration for the swim can be found on taketherock.com.