Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Alcatraz to Treasure Island Swim

The following is a first-person account of an attempt by three
Bay Area swimmers to swim from Alcatraz to Treasure Island on
23 April 2006. A report of this event appeared in the San Francisco
Chronicle on 24 April 2006, as well as Inside Triathlon magazine in July,
containing numerous errors, so I'd just like to set the record
straight and provide advice to others who might
be contemplating such activities in the San Francisco Bay.

As reported by the SF Chronicle:

> (04-24) 10:59 PDT SAN FRANCISCO -- Four exhausted swimmers
> attempting to make it from Alcatraz to the city waterfront were
> pulled from San Francisco Bay by the U.S. Coast Guard and the San
> Francisco Police Department's boat unit about 9:30 a.m. Sunday.
> Accompanied by two chase boats, the four swimmers were training for
> a triathlon scheduled for later this year. During the swim, they and
> the chase boats encountered a strong current, authorities said. The
> current prevented the chase boats -- a sailboat and a rowboat --
> from keeping up with the swimmers.
> The swimmers were picked up by the authorities just west of
> Alcatraz, at a point about a mile from land, Coast Guard Petty
> Officer Stephen M. Kelley said. He said the police picked up three
> swimmers and the Coast Guard picked up a fourth, based on an alert
> issued by someone aboard a passing ferry boat, the Solano.
> None of the swimmers required medical treatment.

The small blurb that appeared in the July 2006 edition of Inside
Triathlon repeats many of these details, and further wrongly claims
that the swimmers "could not make their intended landing near the
St. Francis Yacht Club."

Now here's what really happened...

Sometime around Feb or March 2006, some swimming friends invite me to
do an open water swim they are organizing from Alcatraz to Treasure
Island in April or May. As I'm planning on participating in the Escape
from Alcatraz on June 4th, that sounds like a perfect training
opportunity. I ask a few questions about support crew. They plan to
have a kayaker and a sailboat. Seems reasonable, so I say, "Sure".

Here's a rough timeline of events that occurred on the day of the
swim. The times are approximate.

6:15am: I meet my friends in the parking lot at the Berkeley Marina
and we wait for our kayak pilot to show up and our sailboat pilot to
let us into the dock so we can start loading up the sailboat.

6:45am: We disembark from our dock at the marina, powered by the
sailboat's motor, into the seemingly calm Bay on a gray morning, with
the distinct possibility of rain from the looks at the cloud cover
(and the NOAA radar site I checked before leaving home).

7-8am: Sailboat motors us out to Alcatraz. As we go, we take note of
various buildings and other structures to use as landmarks to sight
during the swim. The tall buildings in Emeryville seem to be the most
obvious. We plan to hit TI near a jetty that is close to the turn
around point of the run portion in the Treasure Island triathlon,
which all of us have done before (we're just approaching it from the
other direction this time ;-).

A distinct case of the chills sets in me, despite the fact that I've
been wearing my snug wetsuit, wool hat and wool socks all morning. I
tend to think the chill was more from nerves than temperature, as the
gravity of the feat we are about to attempt slowly sinks in.

We contact the Coast Guard via cell phone and notify them that three
swimmers, a kayak, and a sailboat will be making a crossing from
Alcratraz to TI. They acknowledge, and don't indicate that this would
in any way be a problem.

I'm heartened to observe the expected flood current as we close the
distance towards Alcatraz on the sailboat. That should give us a
decent push towards TI. We consult the tide charts and see that
there is a current that goes from Alcatraz Southeast towards the
suspension portion of the Bay bridge and decide we should therefore
avoid getting too close to that channel. That seems to be our
overriding concern.

Another interesting observation was a natural boundary line in the
water running North-South that occured somewhere in between Alcatraz
and TI. To the East of this line, the water was sort of brownish; to
the West of the line, the water was blue-green. Our sailboat pilot
explains that this is where the ocean water meets the runoff water
draining into the Bay from the land. I wonder what it will feel like
to swim across this boundary (though I don't know how close we actually
came to it).

8:30am: We jump from the sailboat into the water just off the East
coast of Alcatraz. We swimmers help our kayak pilot get situated in
the kayak. One or two curious sea lions are noted checking us out.

We start swimming and it takes me the usual minute or two to get
acclimated to the coldness of the water on my face, but soon I'm
crusing along. Our kayaker hangs by our lead swimmer who gradually puts
a sizable gap on the others. Over time, I lose sight of the lead swimmer,
and even the kayaker is hard to sight. I carry on, sighting on the
large Emeryville buildings and appreciate having the whole cityscape
of San Francisco on my right side, even on such a gloomy gray day.

9:45am: The first time I check my watch we've been swimming for an
hour and 15 minutes. I glance back at Alcatraz and it seems like I've
put a good amount of distance behind me, but TI still seems like quite
a ways off. We originally expected it might take us a bit over an hour
to swim the 2.2 miles between the two islands. However, at 1:15 into
the swim, it seemed like we might at best be half way there.

10:00am: Our kayaker manages to paddle over to me and the other
swimmer, who is decently separated from me and also a good ways off
from the lead swimmer. He instructs us to head towards a red buoy,
which I've been sighting off of for quite some time without making
much progress towards. Then the kayaker heads back towards our lead
guy who, to me, seems fairly close to TI (but was still a ways off).

It was around this time that something switches in my head and I
become concerned about sighting and my energy level, accepting that it
would probably be at least another hour before arriving at TI. The
Emeryville buildings don't seem like such a good landmark. My progress
towards the red buoy seems very slow despite a concerted effort. My
last open water swim was the 2005 Treasure Island tri (Olympic), and
my indoor training since didn't include many long distance efforts.

I try some backstroke to relax. Then I resume the crawl, but am still
concerned. I seem to be sighting excessively, trying to locate our
kayaker and the other swimmers. This, plus the current, slows my

The sailboat has been right behind me the whole way, so there's no
worry about becoming lost in the Bay. However, I become aware of a
fuel-like funk in the water, possibly from the proximity of the
sailboat motoring near me, but possibly from the tankers that use this
channel, or just accumulated pollution from the runoff from the land
around the Bay. Whatever the source, it's somewhat nauseating. (Note:
In the dozen or more previous swims I've done in the bay, I've never
noticed any such persistent, unpleasant flavors in the water.)

10:10am: I can see a large blue and white ferry boat near TI that
seems stopped. It then moves in an arc towards me, stopping around
150-200 yards ahead of me. I and the other slower swimmer nearby me
stop swimming. I look in awe at the large airspace in between the two
massive hulls of the ferry and think: "Our swim is over (thank heavens)."

Turns out that someone on the ferry spotted our lead swimmer and the
ferry pilot eventally ordered him to board the ferry, being concerned
that another ferry pilot may not spot him. They lowered a plastic
ladder to lift him onto the ferry. He did his best to amuse/impress
the ferry passengers, while explaining our expedition and the fact
that there were two other swimers and a support sailboat behind him.

When the ferry stopped in front me, a US Coast Guard boat was visible
with its flashing lights near it. At that point, our lead swimmer was
being transfered from the ferry boat to the Coast Guard boat. He says
the captain joked, "We're throwing this one back. He's too small."
The other swimmer and I continued swimming towards the action. Soon
after that, the Coast Guard boat approaches us and we hear a stern
voice call, "Swim to your boat, now!"

10:20am: Adrenaline is powerful stuff. I never swam stronger in my
life after receiving that directive. At that point, we'd been in the
water for an hour and 50 minutes, fighting a relentless current for
the last thirty minutes or so, and my arms were pale shadows of their
former selves. Yet somehow, I transformed into Michael Phelps for
about 60 seconds as I motored back to the boat. Now if I could only
tap into that energy during a triathlon...

There were boats from the Coast Guard, the SF police, and some women
on jet skis who were from the SF Search and Rescue wing of the SF fire
dept, all convening on our location. The Coast Guard boarded our
sailboat, searched it, checked all of our IDs, and talked things over
very calmly and rationally with us. Some of the emergency personnel
seemed almost grateful to us for giving them a good training opportunity.


The main problem was that we were swimming through a shipping channel
without a permit. The ferry pilot didn't expect swimmers in the
water. We were not flying the special "swimmer in the water" flag that
is required for the support boats. Also, they said, a kayak is not
sufficient as a support boat. It's too low in the water to be easily
sighted by boats. You need to have one of those large, red, inflatable
craft. The support boat (or Coast Guard) also makes announcements
every 15 minutes while swimmers are in the water. While we technically
didn't violate any laws, we put ourselves at risk by not following
proper procedure. Lesson learned, thankfully without any bodily harm.

One complication particular to this time of year was that the Bay
currents were not so predictable using the standard tide charts due to
the run-off from a very wet rainy season. The week previous to our
swim was the first dry week in a long time.

A confounding logistical issue was that we swimmers didn't stick
together. Our kayaker was amazed at how fast we became separated,
caused by a combination of different swimming speeds (which
arent'actually that different in a controlled indoor environment),
different tacks, and the resulting exposure to different currents. Our
lead swimmer stayed further South and managed to avoid the brunt of
the Northerly current that stymied the other swimmer and myself, who
ended up getting pushed towards Angel Island. The end result was an
unmanagable situation for a single kayaker.


For anyone considering doing a Bay swim, please follow sage advice and
limit your swims to protected areas near the shoreline, such as the SF
acquatic park, the Albany shoreline park, or Coyote point. Never swim
alone and have adequate boat support when attempting long
routes. Swims in shipping channels should only be attempted as part of
organized swimming events such as the Escape from Alcatraz, Alcatraz
Shark Fest Swim, Round Trip Alcatraz, Tiburon Mile, and other Bay
swimming events.


Blogger Steve said...

To put some perspective on our story, check out the workouts of Jessica Sullivan who is training in the SF Bay area to swim the English Channel: http://followmetofrance.blogspot.com/.

On 5/19/07, for example, she is planning to swim from the East side San Francisco city
limit around the entire peninsula to the West side SF city limit in around 6 hours.

I am truly humbled. Go girl!

12:17 AM  

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