That Time I Escaped from Alcatraz


When I told my good friend that I would be writing this week, I promised a tale that would include a diaper and CPR.


Without further ado, I’d like to tell you about the time I escaped from Alcatraz.  Yes, I joined the likes of that (in)famous Bird Man and other brave escapees.

How did it happen?

My escape from Alcatraz was part of my 40 year old swim odyssey, but I didn’t get to plan it in advance. On my actual 40th birthday in September 2014, my family arranged a surprise party. I don’t normally love surprises because I’m a complete control freak, but this one was simply awesome, unexpected, and welcome. After a lovely dinner, I walked into my house to find my friends all dressed up as characters from my favourite movie, Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic. We had Zissous, Klauses, and even a convincing Alastair Hennessey.


And my present (as if the party wasn’t a giant present in itself) – my present was a trip to San Francisco to do the Alcatraz Swim. This is an annual event organized by Water World Swim (who organize many other cool destination events). The swim itself isn’t particularly long at 1.5 miles, but the chilly waters and finicky currents of the San Francisco Bay make it a challenging one.  I was so excited and freaked out. I thought I’d completed my 40th year challenge, but I was pumped to add one more fabulous destination swim to cap off an amazing season. And best of all, my parents would be joining us in the city I grew up knowing as the inspiration for their “Song“.

Jimmy and I flew down (with flowers in our hair) to meet them and spend a few days sightseeing and soaking up the city before the event on Saturday, September 27. I could write a whole other blog about my favourite travel destinations, but San Francisco is definitely one of them. In typical fashion, we crammed a lot of stuff into our days, including the Golden Gate Bridge bike ride, beers in Sausalito, strolled the Castro, Fishermans’ Wharf, a food truck festival….and much more.


If you’re going to San Francisco, make sure to wear a bike helmet with flames in your hair.

We went to Alcatraz for the tour (highly recommended – the audio tour is guided by Steve Buscemi!), and as our boat approached The Rock, I tried to imagine what it would be like to jump off into the dark, rough waters. A freaky, queasy feeling. Come over for the slideshow and I’ll splash you with cold water for effect.

The day before the event, I went down to Aquatic Park to check out the surroundings and sneak in a training swim in the salt water. I pretended I was a member at the Dolphin Club and used their beautiful facilities to change into my wetsuit. Aquatic Park is really cool – with fabulous facilities if you’re a good actor, lots of scenic space to swim, and seating to watch swimmers. However, I did notice a sign on the beach warning of a water quality issue due to some sort of spill or contamination. No biggie, right?On the night before the swim, I went to a briefing session and check in at Sports World. I learned more about the currents and what strategies I should think about when I hit the water. The topic of sharks was rather glossed over, IMHO. The highlight of the check in was meeting the legendary Pedro Ordones, a “Centurion” who has done the swim several hundred times. What a guy!


Me and my buddy, legendary Centurion Pedro Ordones.

And then, it was THE DAY.

The pinnacle of my summer of events. The destination swim of my dreams! I arrived at 7 am for check in and body marking, and the ambiance didn’t disappoint.

The atmosphere was busy and happy, which helped to calm my nerves and my churning stomach. After singing the national anthem, we swimmers walked in our wetsuits to Pier 39.5 to board the Red and White Ferry, which would take us out to the notorious, looming, grey Rock in the middle of the Bay. I peed myself at least twice on the walk there. That’s par for the course.


Not looking nervous at all.


There is pee in my suit in this photo.

Then we were on the ferry. Then I could see Alcatraz. Then I was in the line, waiting to jump off into the water, which was much calmer than when we’d taken the boat out for our sightseeing tour a few days earlier. Then I was in the water, looking up at Alcatraz – we were literally just off the rocks that surround this formidable island, and it’s fucking huge and scary. Then I said a tiny prayer for the Bird Man, and the starting gun went off, and then I was swimming! My customary underwater squeal (scream, really) kicked me off and I was headed for shore. When you’re in the water, in an event, with adrenaline coursing through your veins, you don’t really notice the water temperature. You do notice the pace of your fellow swimmers though, and this pace was fast! I was in good form and my stroke felt strong. I wasn’t swallowing as much salt water as I thought I might, but I’m quite sure that I did swim past a diaper at one point when I was getting close to the finish. San Francisco Bay is fast, cold, and a lot dirtier than most of the bodies of water I swim in.

None of this matters though, when you climb out of the water and run across the finish – into the arms of your Mum and Dad! My Mum licked her thumb and wiped sand off my forehead, just like the good old days. Even my Dad (always reticent with big praise) was proud and excited and determined to buy me a commemorative hat.  We settled on a new pair of flip flops, since I left my sandals on the ferry.


We celebrated on the beach and basked in the glow of a sunny Saturday down by the Bay.  About 25 feet away from us, paramedics were performing CPR on a man who had suffered a heart attack during the event. I checked in later to learn that he lived.

The morning after the swim, I woke up with my throat completely closed shut and my eyes weeping with some sort of diaper-esque contamination, and I felt like I was not going to enjoy bar hopping very much. I remembered the warning sign I’d seen on the beach during my training swim. What was that??

(Of course I went bar hopping after all. Who do you think I am?)

I swam the event in 36:04 and placed 100 out of 275. Not bad! But remember, it’s not about the competition and the times and the placement….it’s about the destination! Doing the Alcatraz swim really inspired me to build as many destination events into my life as possible. Flying somewhere cool to swim is pretty much my ideal vacation, and the reason that I work so hard (well, that and my kid’s university is coming up in a few years, unless she makes good on her threats to become a roadie). This year I’ve got a big destination planned with the London Swim Serpentine in September for my birthday, and I’m eyeing a few others through the winter. Greece, anyone?

“This is an adventure.” – Steve Zissou.

NOTE: A Go Pro hasn’t made its way into my swimming arsenal yet, but if you want to experience a swimmer’s eye view of what it’s like to swim from Alcatraz, here’s one that I watched several times before I did it.

One comment

  1. Sandy Bowers · June 15, 2018

    It really was the best time…we didn’t have to do anything but await your arrival…such proud parents on the shore with three hundred other proud people…and then “there she is!!!” We’ll always wait for you❤️‼️


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