With Alcatraz only 6 months away now, my excitement for the event has been fuelled by the new TV series with the same name (Alcatraz) which features real footage of the island and builds on the mystery of what really went on behind the walls of the “ROCK”.
I have watched hundreds of videos on you tube and read an equal number of blogs written by people who have completed, and failed, in their attempts to make their swim ‘escape’. Each time feeling a mix of excitement and fear in anticipation of my own upcoming attempt– and it seems this is normal for everyone.
What’s the biggest fear? Missing the entrance ‘chute’ to the aquatic park. It’s the trickiest part of the swim, that is, after you’ve already battled the current, chop, and quite often-large swells of the frigid San Francisco Bay. Because the tide shifts half-way through the swim, by the time you are getting close to the entrance to the park, the current is moving swiftly out towards the Golden Gate Bridge and Pacific Ocean. Misjudge your trajectory, or sight incorrectly, you will need to be rescued as fighting the current at this point is impossible. In fact, event organizers clearly state that if swimmers "aim too far to the right" they will "end up west of the entrance, swimming in place against an unbeatable current and need to be rescued".
The other bits of advice I have gleaned from the all-knowing Internet are to NOT follow the swimmers in front of you, as this will put you in the unwanted scenario mentioned above of “too far right”. While in other events (like triathlons) it is common to use other swimmers as guides (while doing your own sighting of course), doing so in this event is a no-no. Why? The rationale is that these swimmers have already fought the current to be in the position they are in and because the current is so strong, even if you ‘think’ you are on course by following them, you are most-probably to the ‘right’ of them, taking you off course and threatening your chances of finishing the race. Good advice.
Having swum in some fairly nasty ocean conditions here at home, I know too how difficult it can be to sight in choppy and swell-y (is that even a word?) water. Sometimes only being able to see a foot in front of you, learning to swim in more or less a straight line is of huge value (for this I swim laps in the pool with my eyes closed and draw an imaginary line from my head to my destination, and imagine I am on that line). I have swallowed what seems like an unhealthy amount of sea water trying to move through one wave/swell to the next forcing me to hold my breath for juuuust a little longer while I duck and swim under or through endless crashing walls of power. There too have been occasions, where I have become so incredibly nauseated in the water, suffering from what I can only describe as sea-sickness – from being tossed violently from side to side in especially turbulent conditions. I have had my lungs seize mid swim and had to ‘talk myself out’ of an asthma attack, had moments of panic where I am convinced I am being stalked by a seal (or other mythical sea-beast with big teeth). I have been startled by rogue sea weed and other random ocean debris that have brushed past my face, stuck to my goggles, toes, or fingers forcing under water screams followed by many recovery minutes of breast stroke while I get my head, heart rate and breathing back under control. And even after all of these experiences, I am still in LOVE with ocean swimming.
For me, ocean swimming (like running) provides complete freedom. Like a long run becomes less about running, and more about rhythm - breathing and movement combine to create the ultimate meditation resulting in complete immersion into my environment. There are no thoughts, there is no time, and I am alive, completely living in the moment. Additionally, there is LIFE in the ocean, and I always emerge from it with a sense of awe. No two ocean swims are ever alike, and nothing can be taken for granted there – EVER. Mistakes made in the water can easily result in death, and because of this I respect its power.
But, ocean swims for now are dreams of the near future, as we are still a number of months away from being able to get back into the water. Instead, my training partner and I reunited today after 4 months of being apart due to her injury. We hit the pool first thing when it opened this morning and did our ‘thing’. It was a fantastic swim, probably the best I’ve had in months, and I’m sure it was because we were back in the water together. There is something about having a training partner that makes workouts more fun, more relaxed, and I’m convinced more efficient. We discussed our strategy for the next 6 months, one of which we hope will include some ‘current crossings’ in West Vancouver. Where the Capilano River meets the Pacific Ocean is notorious as being ‘difficult’ to navigate due to current. So, its there we will make our attempts to cross (repeats if possible!) – with full boat support of course.
Until then, if you see someone in the pool swimming with their eyes closed, its just me imagining my ‘line’ from Alcatraz to the entry ‘chute’ in the San Francisco Bay.