Sunday, August 31, 2014


Until three weeks ago, I did not have a prison fantasy. I can’t get past the idea of an open toilet in a cell. There’s nothing sexual about that. Not for me, at least. I hold onto my soap. Tightly.

But then on one of my flights in August, I came across an airline magazine article about swim vacations. Not the bake-by-the-pool-and-drink-bottomless-margaritas sort. Can’t do that. I get antsy. And I burn. Sitting by the pool is not swimming. Neither is taking a quick dip—don’t mess the hair!—and reapplying baby oil. No, this article featured ocean swim tours. And, suddenly from 30,000 feet in the sky, I wanted to take the plunge. Well, in due time.

Alcatraz offers the prison element. There are monthly swims from Alcatraz to shore. 1.25 miles. Piece of cake, I thought. My regular swim exceeds that at 3K and I’ve been swimming 4-5K all summer. This is the kind of unique travel adventure that I must do. We don’t actually tour the prison, we might not even touch foot on the island. I think we just jump out of a boat and make our getaway. Good enough. I want to say, “I escaped from Alcatraz.” Yeah, I’d throw away thirty bucks on the silly t-shirt, maybe buy a license plate frame with that phrase just to put the Mounties on alert. (I may have a police officer fantasy. Oh, who am I kidding? My big fantasy involves the pizza boy. He delivers the pizza and leaves. I don’t like sharing. Not even the crust.)

The next Alcatraz swim is in two weeks. Just do it, my mind says. Otherwise, it may never happen. My brain knows how sidetracked I get. (E.g., See above paragraph.) And so, to increase the likelihood of going, I mentioned the idea to a colleague of mine, Nora.

Everyone needs a Nora. She’s a sixty-year-old go-getter. Mention something and she’ll see that it is done. “You must go!” she enthused. And that’s when I found myself backtracking. I’ve never done an ocean swim. Sure, a little body surfing in Malibu, but I stopped that after getting all that sand in my shorts. And I have a fear of sharks. I’ve never seen a certain movie. Just knowing it’s out there is enough. Forget the “no sharks in these waters” reassurances. Great white sharks can wander off course, can’t they? Heck, it’s not just sharks. I’m afraid of seaweed. That kelp can wrap around you and drown you, right?  Maybe I’m not an ocean swimmer at all. And didn’t a lot of people die trying to escape from Alcatraz?!

“I’m outrigging Saturday morning,” Nora said. “You come. We’ll paddle out and then you jump out and swim. We’ll be your escort. How long you want to be in the water?”

Uh, well, umm…

Nora was already texting her paddle mates. Done.

I tossed and turned the night before. (Incidentally, I sleep in freestyle formation, on my stomach, arms and legs shifting from side to side, stroke to stroke. Guess I was a born swimmer.) I was so excited about the inaugural ocean swim. But also worried. What if I freaked out? What if I’d overdone my Friday night exercise? (The 24K bike ride got cut in half when I turned around and the tires gave out. I’d had to hide the bicycle in the blackberry bushes, jog home and retrieve it with my car. So much for fresh legs.) If there weren’t any sharks, what about crocodiles? Piranhas? And that seaweed?!

The outrigging voyage was wonderful. This is enough, right? It’s unseasonably chilly. Why not stay in the boat? But I knew Nora would have told other colleagues what we were doing. Expectations were set. And no one would accept a bunch of gibberish about restless sleeps and piranhas.

Once we cleared the point of the nearest island, Nora, Inga and Diana stopped paddling. “Jump in.”

“Is this it?” Aloud, it sounded innocuous, but in my head it came off as ominous. Is this IT?

No answer. The only satisfactory response had to come through action. I took the plunge.

Wow. While the water had felt fine—even warm—each time I’d dipped my hand in while paddling, it proved far colder as a full-body experience. I’d thought I’d immediately start swimming, but my body was startled, if not shocked. I waded around, wondering if I should say, “I made a mistake.”

But they stared at me. Three hardy women, each with that look of anticipation and expectation. It was a good kind of pressure. What I needed. I swam under the boat, readjusted my goggles and swam. And swam. And swam. No freaky, prehistoric creatures approached my face. No sharks. No crocs or piranhas. No seaweed. Just one piece of flotsam, a teensy piece of bark.

The outrigger escort proved essential. Due to the currents, I apparently kept swimming out to sea. The boat presented a visual block to right my course. We reached the turn-around for my 1.5 mile swim in twenty-three minutes. But then Diana decided to jump out and take a dip. Apparently, she does this at least once every month of the year. Silly woman.

I had to wait.

I’m not good at stopping during any kind of workout. It throws my rhythm. It makes me think I’m done. And I don’t like the idea of my toes dangling in one place as fish food. “Your lips are blue,” Inga said. “Really blue.” I’d suspected as much. I was shivering, too. I grew colder waiting.

Finally, I spoke up. Must swim now. Too cold to wait. They summoned Diana back in the outrigger and I resumed the swim. I only got in another fifteen minutes, but due to the change in the current, I covered more distance. (Huge difference!) I stopped and, swallowing my pride along with a mouthful of salt water, declared an end to the day’s swim. I am no Diana Nyad.

The ocean swim was exhilarating, yet humbling. No fatigue, no cramps, just menacing chills. I raced home for a hot shower and a full pot of coffee. Once recovered, I wondered if open water swimming was for more foolhardy folks. Why did I need a prison fantasy anyway? Couldn’t I just order a pizza?

But I am undeterred. I must make my jailbreak. Today, I headed to Vancouver and bought a wetsuit. It looks like I may just do this.

Alcatraz awaits.


Rick Modien said...

You have a LOT more guts than I do, RG. I would have had all the same misgivings you did about swimming in the open ocean (okay, truth be told, I can't even swim).

That you faced these fears and achieved what you did tells all of us you are becoming someone quite different from who you were–different, courageous, and what's-the-word-I'm-looking-for? Expanded?

All part of becoming the new and improved you. I hope you're proud of yourself. You should be.

Rural Gay said...

I booked the Alcatraz swim tonight. I've got my flight to San Francisco and tomorrow I'll get my hotel reservations.

I am doing this. It's exciting and empowering--far bigger than a chilly swim. Seems like I am living life more fully, not waiting around for things beyond my control.

Can't believe how fast this is happening. The even is less than two weeks away!