Swimming From Alcatraz To Shore With A GoPro On My Head

Swimming From Alcatraz To Shore With A GoPro On My Head

On July 20, I rode in a cab from my apartment to San Francisco’s Aquatic Park; struggled into a wetsuit; took a ferry to Alcatraz; jumped off the boat into the Bay; and swam the 2.4km back to shore. I also wore a GoPro on my head for good measure. Here’s what it was like.

This was the 34th annual Escape From the Rock, an early morning athletic event where hundreds of freestyle-loving nutzos decide it’s a good idea to attempt a choppy course that only three prisoners at the maximum security prison ever managed (yep, I believe that Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin made it safely in 1962 and are sunning somewhere in Mexico with margaritas right now).

I signed up for this year’s Escape-capade in January, thinking it would a) get me moving and into some semblance of shape, and b) be something to look forward to. “And hey,” I thought. “I can film the whole thing for Giz.” (Spoiler alert: I did not train, and wasn’t exactly excited.)

The Route

The main thing I was concerned with — aside from a several less rational fears — was actually making it into Aquatic Park.

Enhance! Here’s the direct route:

But because the current is so strong towards the Golden Gate, you have to spot either Coit Tower or the Bay Bridge.

Eventually you’ll be swept enough to the right that you’ll be able to thread the needle between the two curved piers that mark the entrance. Once past that threshold things get calm as hell, but the worst waves and strongest pull are right before you get in there.

In 2010, I missed the mark — went wide by about 3m, then swam in place what felt like an eternity (and in reality was only a few minutes) next to a piling that was moving about as much as I was (i.e. not at all). I was like Ralph Wiggum tethered to the deck of one of those weird personal practice tubs you might see in SkyMall, until a dude on a JetSki rode in and nabbed about six of us at once, trailing on the back of a floating stretcher for a ten-second ride into to Aquatic Park. I did not want to do that again.

The Gear

On a sunny and warm morning about a month before the big day, I unfurled my old Speedo suits — lycra and rubber crunchy from years of sitting in my closet — and went for a dip in the local Mission Pool. This would be one of two times I did laps to prep. The week before, I found my wetsuit, which had been preserved like this since 2010.

I also unboxed a GoPro Hero+ Black — my very first action cam! It came with a head-strap. I tried it on and wore it around the house. I tried it on and wore it around my friend’s house.

Would it stick to my noggin well enough to make the journey across the bay with me? This was something I should have considered earlier on in this process! But I had faith.

The day before, I went to a friend’s house and did my first — and only — fully submerged GoPro water test in her bathtub, head-only but swim cap and all. I was relieved and pleasantly surprised that I could hardly tell I was wearing it; in the 30 seconds I did a bit of side breathing, it didn’t feel awkward or heavy and I felt a little less nervous about giving it a game-day go. I also got a manicure in a neon green shade that we dubbed The Rock in honour of the VX-gas balls featured in the Nic Cage classic.

Apart from the GoPro, everything else I used was already kicking around in my apartment: Zoot Wetsuit; TYR Socket Rocket goggles; Mac’s Pillow Soft Silicone Earplugs; Glide Skin Protection Balm for Her (prevents rubbing and rash around the neck and upper-boobs and underarms).

Getting There

The morning of the swim was very grey and very foggy. I set eleven alarms (in addition to my light-up) to ensure I was awake by 5:15am so I could be on-site by six. I called a cab, and as we drove down Van Ness there were sprinkles on the windshield and I knew the clouds were not going to part.

I registered at the Maritime Building and went to sit on the concrete stands crusted in an artful, Pollack-style smattering of bird poop, finding a spot next to another gal about my age who was also on her own.

It took me eight-and-a-half minutes to wedge myself into my wetsuit. Look how proud I am.

The walk through Fisherman’s Wharf to the ferry smelled of salty air and old fish. Nothing was open and no one was around except for the parade of neoprene-clad folks.

Everyone was chatty and a little amped up. A man I didn’t know tapped me on the shoulder.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Did you mean to put your wetsuit on inside out?”

No. Noooo. “Is it?”

“Yeah, I think so,” he replied.

It was! HOW EMBARRASSING. In my defence, my Zoot suit has a logo on the inside, and when I took it off in 2010 it was inside-out, so it was also inside-out when I unwrapped it in 2014. I am also an idiot.

The ride over was windy and crisp with low visibility to the city skyline and the bridges bookending the way across the Bay. Approaching Alcatraz feels ominous on a good day, so on a morning as dreary as this the gloomy mood is surprisingly potent. The vibe on the boat was upbeat, though, everyone buzzing with a lot of anxious energy. After a slow spin around the island punctuated with the deep clanging of a lonely buoy bell, the ferry stopped a few yards from where visitors usually file off onto the island, in the shadow of the “Indians Welcome” sign.

A man’s voice came over the loudspeaker. “You’ll hear two horns,” he said. “After the first, jump off the boat. After the second, start swimming.” Everyone started shuffling towards the small gap on the lower deck where people took the six-foot leap to the 62-degree water. There was just enough time to get butterflies before all of a sudden the guy at the door ushering people off yelled — “Hold onto your goggles!” — and then: Splash.

The water was cold — bracingly, take-your-breath-away cold. A few deep inhales and exhales slowed down my racing heart, and I tried not to think about what was below in an attempt to relax my racing brain. The water was green and cloudy, with visibility that didn’t extend much beyond my the span of my arm. From that vantage point San Francisco looks very far away, and I wished I had my glasses on because it also looks a little blurry. I floated towards the group and the second horn sounded. Hundreds of legs started kicking and arms start pulling, and we’re off.

Swimming in open water is not the same as swimming in a pool. Keep your head down for too long and it’s likely you’ll end up in the wrong direction; swim head-up for too long and you’re not going to move quite as quickly. You have to find a balance, which can be tough when the current’s pushing you one way and you’re trying to go another. I touched my hand to the GoPro on my forehead to make sure it was still there, because I’ll be damned if that thing doesn’t feel completely invisible — I honestly couldn’t even tell I had it on. And then I aimed towards shore and hoped for the best.

The last two times I did this race it was bright, beautiful, clear, and sunny outside. The feeling of being water-level in the middle of the bay was incredible, with a view of the Golden Gate you’d never, ever get in a boat. On this day, the weather could not have been any crummier, which was a bummer considering I was recording the whole thing and would have liked to have shown SF in its best light. Then again, I had no idea how the footage would turn out — if at all. Every so often I gently touched my fingers to the high-tech gadget on my head mid-stroke, and every time it was exactly where it was supposed to be.

By the time I neared the Aquatic Park piers, I had swallowed a hell of a lot of water, inexplicably sang Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home” approximately one million times in my mind (interspersed with this jingle I hadn’t heard since the 90s), and imagined over and over and over how happy I’d be when my feet finally touched wet sand.

My shoot-for-the-Bay-Bridge strategery worked, and I swam through the entrance to the calm zone, no problem. There was someone moored on a boat who was cheering us on, and I could not stop laughing when I finally stood up on solid ground.

It wasn’t until I got home and downloaded everything off my GoPro that I realised it’s tough to get a smooth shoot with a head-cam when you’re breathing side to side, but it’s fun being able to share what it’s like to escape from The Rock.

There’s an edited version at the top of this post, but if you feel like swimming along for the whole shebang, here’s the entire race:

Thanks to Nick Stango for editing the footage together into something fun.