Shooting for the Bullseye

Spectacular! Photo by Joe as he piloted us across the channel

Every Alcatraz swim differs from the others. Water temperature, currents, wind, shipping traffic, marine life, and route make each crossing one of a kind. This week's swim introduced me to a new route - swimming from San Francisco's Aquatic Park beach to Alcatraz. 

Swimming across the currents and trying to land on a small island a mile and a quarter offshore creates a complicated swim. Imagine landing a dart on a dartboard with a really stiff cross breeze. For some, just hitting the board would be good enough. Good enough today wasn't going to be 'good enough.' Our plan targetted the landing just off the south-east corner of the island. We wanted the bullseye, not just scoring points on the board.

As the dawn and first light overtook San Francisco’s darkness, we set off on our adventure. Often, swims start by hurling ourselves overboard from the safety boat. Today, we walked in the water at the South End Rowing Club’s beach and started swimming.

We anticipated a 2-knot flood – a west to east current entering the bay. Water moving at 2-knots exceeded my speed, and created a significant risk of me missing my mark.

When I cleared Aquatic Park Cove’s opening into the San Francisco Bay, I intercepted our Cove Chaser pod-mates faffing by the Muni Pier. They said the currents actually had no impact on their swim, describing it as ‘slack-o-liscious‘. As they continued along the break water to complete an impressive swim coined the Chas Lap, I gained confidence from their slack-o-liscious current report.

Unprotected from the cove's safety, our adventure began in earnest. We sighted on Sausalito and headed north-west. We swiftly moved towards the shipping lane hardly noticing the current. Had I seen the harbor seal following us for the first half of the swim, I might have moved more swiftly. We speculated he may have been trying to join our Alcatraz pod. We'll know for certain if he returns next week.

Yellow buoy being placed mid-Bay with Alcatraz in the background, Photo by USCG

For San Francisco Bay’s Fleet Week, a shiny new yellow buoy sat mid-channel. Our pilot told us to stay left of the buoy. Keeping a conservative north-west line minimized overshooting Alcatraz and the ensuing embarrassment. About 200 yards south of the yellow buoy, the flood’s full strength kicked in. The adrenaline kicked in and I swam harder, struggling to keep the buoy to my right. I sighed in relief as I inched passed the buoy on my right. (Full disclosure – I had to crab. My pod-mate did a gentle backstroke while she waited for me to round.) After rounding the buoy, we continued to sight on Sausalito. Eventually, shifting north toward Tiburon. At this point, our pilot encouraged my pod mate to pick up her pace, leaving me to swim on my own.

Perhaps it was the uncertainty of swimming on my own or the anxiety created by the harbor seal I never saw when I got my first swimming cramp (ever). It was a massive charlie horse. I couldn't move. There I was, floating on my back in the middle of the bay, writhing in pain. I had a decision to make. Ignore the cramp and keep on swimming, or hail the pilot and get in the boat. It was a no-brainer. I continued swimming and 30 seconds later, the cramp was gone.

My progress continued and finally, the Island drew closer! I estimated I had another 10 minutes of easy swimming. I could not have been more wrong. Suddenly the chop kicked up and I felt like I swam in place. I had just entered the River of Doom, formed from the currents creating eddies in front of Alcatraz.

Our pilot came over and redirected my sighting to Alcatraz's lighthouse. I kept swimming and eventually broke through the river. After clearing the river, it only took a few minutes to complete the swim. An hour and seven minutes in 59ºF waters.


#AlcatrazSwimmingSociety #SouthEndRowingClub #ColdwaterSwimming #OpenwaterSwimming #Alcatraz #FleetWeek


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