Escape from Alcatraz

Catherine Berner/Courtesy

The hardened and grizzled old men around me stared calmly out of the ferry window as I anxiously adjusted my goggles for what felt like the 100th time. The man over the intercom announced that the swim would begin in 90 seconds and reiterated the importance of the “jump and swim” technique for disembarking the boat.

“You all are about to start the swim from Alcatraz, and after today, you will never be the same again! Remember to jump and swim and follow the orange lead boat!”

Some 800 swimmers crammed onto two ferries began to hoot and holler as a countdown reminiscent of New Year’s Eve broke out. When the count reached zero, the ferry sounded its horn, and the first swimmers were in the water.

I looked around and realized I was uncomfortably close to the exit doors. All the athletes around me were a good 40 years older and had a look about them that suggested they do this swim daily before their morning coffee. But the time for being intimidated by these gnarled veterans had passed. I was funneled towards the exit doors by both the stampede of antsy swimmers behind me and an increasing need to empty my bladder.

“Jump and swim, GO! GO! GO!” shouted volunteers by the door.

Limbs were flailing, neoprene was everywhere, and before I knew it I was flinging myself off the boat, hoping to avoid my fellow swimmers as I reached the water. A wave of adrenaline hit me, and the butterflies I had been battling all morning vanished. I began to simultaneously swim and pee, a skill I gained from years spent swimming laps in the pool on swim team.

I looked to my left and saw the distinct outline of Alcatraz. I looked to my right and saw the Golden Gate Bridge. I looked behind me and saw hundreds of yellow swim caps and swimmers headed my direction. I stuck my head in the water and began swimming like I was, well, a prisoner escaping from Alcatraz.

Prior to this race, I thought my swimming days were long behind me. I never expected to end up swimming in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. I signed up for the race after being aggressively encouraged to participate by a friend of a friend, who insisted that I would love it. I wasn’t so sure, but the thrill of doing something new enticed me. The “Alcatraz Invitational Swim” is hosted annually by the South End Rowing Club — a boathouse near Fisherman’s Wharf that’s home to a group of borderline crazy people who like to get together and go swimming in the bay. The Alcatraz Invitational is a 1.25-mile race that gives the rest of us a taste of what drives San Francisco’s open water swimming community to spend their mornings and weekends swimming in the frigid bay waters.

As I swam closer and closer to the city, I felt utterly and completely alive in a way that only new and uncomfortable experiences can make us feel. I began to understand how the members of the South End Rowing Club became addicted to open water swimming. The unseasonably warm water — shout out to climate change — felt cool on my exposed skin, and the taste of salt water permeated my mouth. I wish I could say my senses were heightened, but my goggles were foggy, and I couldn’t hear anything through my layers of swim caps, making it impossible to tell if I was headed in the right direction, let alone how far I had gone. I just kept turning my arms and glancing around to make sure I could still see yellow caps ahead of me, occasionally running into a fellow swimmer.

I expected the swim to drag on and feel tedious like my training swims, but I swam with an adrenaline-fueled frenzy that made the minutes fly by. Whenever I felt my stroke count drop, I imagined there were prison guards chasing me and picked up the pace.

Despite the vastness of the bay, I managed to swim into a probably unacceptable number of people. But I was at the mercy of my competitive spirit, and I had no time to worry about collateral damage. As I approached the shore, I was feeling stronger than I had expected. I picked up my pace. In the final 400 meters I gave it my all, powering through my strokes as I overtook — ran into — swimmers at an increased pace. Finally, I crossed the finish line. I was awarded a medal, and the announcer yelled my name over the loudspeaker.

On the other side of the finish line, I was still surrounded by leather-skinned vets, but I was no longer intimidated. I was exhilarated, and my fatalistic prerace nerves were replaced with giddy endorphins. I dashed over to my friends and began babbling about how “incredibly awesome” the swim was.

My first open-water race was a daunting and overwhelming task that was a good pool-length outside of my comfort zone, but the exhilarating feeling of crossing that finish line is what drives me to challenge myself to do anything and everything I think I can’t do.

Contact Catherine Berner at [email protected]