On 4 December 2012 I met Gary Emich, an intriguing man who will record his 1000th swim from Alcatraz on 11 June 2013, at the entrance to Pier 39 in the Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco. It was our first morning in the city and the family had been hauled out of their beds to have a private boat ride across the famous San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz. It was to be a much slower ride back with an opportunity to see the infamous island up close, see the sun rise over the Bay bridge, view the Golden Gate Bridge in the early morning fug and have panoramic views of the San Francisco skyline. As an added extra they got to watch me escape from Alcatraz by swimming the 1.5 miles from the rock to the mainland in 43 minutes. The water was unseasonably warm at around 13C and the weather was kind with little wind and some warmth even in the early daylight hours. Perfect swim conditions for a December day in the northern hemisphere. 24 hours later it was raining hard and much cooler!
It all felt a bit odd – meeting a stranger at dawn, handing over some cash, getting on a boat, stripping off and then jumping overboard and leaving the family behind. The swim itself was surreal. Used to dark peaty water of the Highland lochs or the clean clear seawater of the Moray Firth, the waters of San Francisco Bay were a murky cloudy grey; bright but with zero visibility. A shark could have been within inches of me and I would never have known.
What the underwater visibility failed to provide, the views above the waterline delivered – the stern rocky outcrop of Alcatraz behind me (although once I started swimming this was only visible during a swift couple of backstrokes), the impressive skyline of San Francisco to the front and the iconic Golden Gate bridge to my right, my predominant breathing side and visible with virtually every breath. The boat and the family were to my left and so I did remember to turn my head towards them occasionally if only to see what they were up to.
The swim itself was straightforward and just a case of sighting on the twin tower blocks pointed out to me before the start. I could feel the current taking me out towards the Golden Gate bridge, but it wasn’t with such force I risked being swept offline significantly. It was just a factor to work into the sighting adjustments. Since there was no particular rush, I took time to enjoy the private swim in such iconic surroundings. Who knows when, if, I will ever have the opportunity to visit SF again.
Getting close to the city shoreline there was an increasing smell of fish but I didn’t dwell too much on whether it was a waft from shore or from debris in the water with me. As I approached the end of the swim I was so comfortable in the water that I was wishing I had had the courage to swim a two-way. Ah well. There will have to be a next time!
I hadn’t been taken as far west with the current as Gary had expected and found myself not far from the Aquatic Park entrance. In the end I landed at an old disused pier and it was only on my return to the boat that Gary pointed out my choice of finish was the point from where prisoners used to be shipped out to Alcatraz. It seemed a fitting location to complete the swim, but it wouldn’t have been a good exit point for any prisoners that were trying to make good their escape.
I must revisit SF one day to actually see inside Alcatraz itself – and maybe I could swim there and back when I do.