Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Two drowned and five are listed as “missing and presumed drowned”. That should have deterred me. But I yearned to escape.

For two nights, I barely slept. Part excitement, part self-doubt. Both feelings manifested in a single thought: I can’t believe I’m doing this!

I told everyone I know about my pending adventure. Heck, I even blabbed about it to the U.S. Homeland Security officer at Vancouver Airport. Main purpose of my trip to San Francisco? Castro cruising? No. A search for BarbaryLane? No. A ploy for a free hug at some impromptu love-in at Haight and Ashbury (or at least a scoop of Cherry Garcia)? No.

“I’m swimming from Alcatraz to shore.”

Remarkably, the officer let me through. No psychiatric examination. Not even a cursory round of Rorschach testing. Clouds. More clouds. Blood splatter from a murderous crime scene.

Swimming from Alcatraz. Why? Well, why not? I’m wanting to shake things up these days. I need to feel alive.

I’d gone to considerable expense for this previously unknown bucket list item. Airline ticket. Hefty registration fee. Wetsuit purchase. Hotels (including one to stay overnight in Vancouver as I’d miss the last ferry home when I returned).

Why hadn’t blindfolded hopscotch made the list instead? Sidewalk chalk, bandana, large bandages,…done.

By 6 a.m. Saturday, I knew it was time to discontinue the charade of sleep. I got up, showered, dressed and walked the two blocks to Fisherman’s Wharf. The morning was overcast, a tad chilly with grey skies. The Pacific would be cold. Would the wetsuit be enough?

Another chance to talk myself out of it. Why not just hop on a bus tour and see the city the normal way? Warm sourdough bread seemed more enticing than cold ocean water. Neither the seagulls nor the homeless folks stirring at this hour offered anything to counter my exit strategy.

Do it. Do something. For once. You’ll remember this more than a loaf of bread.

And so I went back to the hotel. I slowly consumed a banana and a cup of coffee. I unpacked the wetsuit and stuffed a change of clothes in the plastic dry cleaning bag that always hangs in hotel closets. I fretted over the fact I’d left my swim goggles in a backpack in the trunk of my car back in Vancouver. How much would the salt water sting my eyes? I’d know soon enough.

When I couldn’t wait any longer, I headed back to the meeting place, one block from the Wharf. On the sidewalk, two dozen adults milled about in various stages of wetsuit dressing. I asked the obvious: “Is this the place for the Alcatraz swim?” And suddenly I was not the only crazy one. I had my flock of crazies.

Milling about lost its appeal. Ten minutes felt like an hour. I wasn’t in the mood for chitchat. I wanted to get aboard the boat and head out to sea. I didn’t want any more opportunities to talk myself out of this. Finally, we boarded. Our numbers had grown to forty. One woman graciously loaned me an extra pair of swim goggles. My last excuse disappeared. Our “coach” gave last-minute instructions. “We may have to reposition some of you,” he said. Apparently the currents might take some of us off course. Or we just might not be able to handle the waves. “If you experience distress, float on your back and raise your hand. A boat will come by to pull you out. If at any time we determine that you need to stop, you must board a boat. The Coast Guard requires that you comply.”

“Any questions?” I thought of raising my hand then and there. So much easier than while floating on the ocean, swallowing salt water. But the boat pulled away.

No backing out.

I happened to stand beside a very good looking man, shirtless and buff. Coach told us we needed to be smiling. We needed to say hello to our neighbors. Swim coach and dating coach. I chatted briefly with a Frenchman, Pierre. His first time. Nervous and excited. Then Bonnie. First; nervous; excited. Trent. Fourth time. Still nervous; still excited.

At last, Buff looked my way. Nineteenth Alcatraz swim. La di da. Infatuation ended. I wanted to push him over. But he’d have liked that. Something new this time ‘round.

I stared out at the water and at my foe. No, not Nineteen. Alcatraz. You wicked slab of sand. Just as the captain cut the motor on our boat, a small passenger ferry pulled alongside the island. Here was a taunting reminder of the more obvious way to experience Alcatraz. Coach played the theme from “Rocky” and one by one we jumped ship. Walked the plank.

“Wetsuits first,” said Nineteen. There he stood in just a swimsuit. Of course. The only surprise was that he didn’t have his arms and legs bound, too.

Treading in the water, I quickly adjusted to the temperature. It wasn’t as cold as my practice ocean swims back home. Not exactly bath water, but tolerable. I glanced around at the kayakers and paddleboarders that surrounded us. They would be our chaperones, staying close by just in case. I glanced at the passenger ferry with its tinted windows. Were people still aboard, gawking at us?

We counted down from four and then we were off, a green-capped school of fish hoping to beach ourselves. Within thirty seconds, I’d swallowed a large mouthful of ocean water. I quickened my stroke until my arms tangled with another swimmer.



We stroked onward. After a few minutes, we’d spread ourselves out. I didn’t have to keep putting my head up to navigate around green buoys. Every thirtieth stroke, I peered forward to ensure I was on course, with two towers and a small strip of beach directly in front of me. A rower shouted that I was too far to the right. I tried to alter my path. After ten minutes, I glanced back. Alcatraz didn’t shrink in the distance. I wasn’t making any headway.

Why the hell are you doing this?

I miss the pool. I miss the lane ropes.

I miss my towel.

Self-doubt doesn’t leave when you set sail. It stays with you even after you jump ship. It swells with the waves. Float on your back. Raise your arm.

You don’t need to prove anything. Lie if you must. Tell them you did it. They’ll never know.

But I swam on. Another five minutes. I looked back again. Alcatraz loomed just as large. And the rowers and kayakers weren’t anywhere near me. I may not have to surrender. They’ll force me aboard. Against my will, of course. Bloody Coast Guard.

I started looking up every twelfth stroke. I glanced at the number they’d written on the back of both my hands. 29. So they could ID me in the morgue weeks later when my body washed up. If the sharks passed on me.

Stroke, stroke, stroke. I became annoyed. Where had all the escort craft gone? I glance about and saw a green cap a short distance away. Stroke, stroke, stroke.

Eventually, Alcatraz did fade. Instead of looking back, I glanced ahead at the towers and the small opening between piers that would get me to the beach. I continued on.

“You’re too far to the left,” an approaching paddler said. An ocean companion! But two minutes later, he was gone. Eventually, I glanced up and saw tourists watching from the pier. Gawking, no doubt. Taking over from the ferry folk.

At last, I swam between the piers. I saw the beach more clearly. I needed to swim past a pirate ship replica and then I’d reach shore. Easy. Five minutes more. I swam on. Foreign heads bobbed on the water’s surface. No green caps. Apparently some other fools craved an ocean dip.

I swam until my right arm touched sand. I stood up in two feet of water, took a second to right myself and then trudged onto the beach where a guide with a clipboard congratulated me and checked me in.


No. Make that Done!


Finally, I smiled.

I felt a burning sensation on the back of my neck. I feared it was an intense sunburn. As I have skin cancer issues, I don’t go out in the sun during the day. Barefoot and in my wetsuit, I dodged tourists on the street as I headed back several blocks to the boat near Fisherman’s Wharf. But it, along with my change of clothes remained at sea. I raced to the hotel, begged them to open my room, showered and changed. The burn wasn’t from the sun; instead, it was chafing from the wetsuit. Proof to take home with me. I’d done the swim.

I smiled again. This time, that grin remained plastered on my face the rest of the day.

For the rest of the weekend, I eyed Alcatraz from so many vantage points. The island represents so much more than a piece of history or a tourist stop. It inspired me, it challenged me and ultimately it strengthened me.

Mission complete. I escaped Alcatraz.


Rick Modien said...

And that grin is plastered on my face too, RG. In recognition of you and your achievement.

GREAT BLOODY JOB! You must be so proud of yourself.

What I love about this essay is how it put me there. I was swimming with you. A sign of terrific writing.

What courage and guts. Who are you becoming? Life isn't going to pass you by, that's for sure--not when you do things like this.

Thanks for sharing.

Rural Gay said...

Thanks as always for reading, Rick. My goal here was to chronicle the full experience, hopefully in an entertaining manner. I appreciate the writing comment!

I think my next big adventure might involve reading.

Jack Urquhart said...

I expect that for many of your readers, certainly this one, *you* are an inspiration. Congratulations.

Rural Gay said...

Thanks, Jack. I'm not sure I would have done this six months ago. I'd have talked about it and considered it as an option for Someday. Based on what I went through this past spring, there's a greater urgency to experience life. Execution and exhilaration can come after profound darkness. I am as surprised as anyone.