Escaping Alcatraz | Bridget Quinn

Bridget and friends preparing for the iconic swim.
Bridget and friends preparing for the iconic swim.

San Francisco Bay touches all of our lives, but how many people spend time swimming in the Bay? This the second guest blog from the 2015 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. Meet Bridget Quinn, an avid swimmer and local athlete. 

On June 7 at approximately 7:30 am – a pleasing symmetry of lucky numbers – I leapt from the deck of a 300-foot sternwheeler idling alongside Alcatraz into the San Francisco Bay.

Lucky me.

I wasn’t the only lucky one.  Nearly 2,000 fellow triathletes hit the water with me, emptying the charming San Francisco Belle in less than eight minutes.  That’s a lot of flying neoprene.  That’s a lot of bodies piling up near each other.  That’s an astonishing number of swimmers to mostly disappear from sight.

It was a foggy morning.  So I was glad to be on familiar terms with this mythic body of water.  Siting was nearly impossible from water level, every shore shrouded in fog, but I’ve swum the Bay enough that my body feels safe there.  Once I’m in and going, I trust all will be well.  My biggest fear had been people landing on top of me after jumping off the boat – especially men, who outnumbered women at least four to one.  The jump went fine, but I struggled near the start behind a wall of men I couldn’t pass or swim through for long minutes.  Circumnavigating the wall at last, the Bay opened up like a gift.

It was choppy at times, but the water was much warmer than usual.  Rumors on the boat varied, but consensus hovered around 59- or even 60-degrees.  Lovely, if you’re from around here.  Harder if you’re from, say, almost anyplace else.

I’ve had difficulty with the Bay’s strong currents in the past, swimming more than two miles over the same 1.5 mile route after being pushed off course, but this year it was a straight shot in to the Saint Francis Yacht Club, where I happily staggered onto shore, not too cold and not too tired, smiling at the screaming spectators lining the rock wall.

In international polls of triathletes, Alcatraz is the #1 bucket list race in existence.  No doubt the iconic swim is the reason for that.  In June 1962, three prisoners escaped The Rock by attempting their own swim to freedom.  They were never seen again.  In the popular imagination they were eaten by sharks (unlikely to impossible) but the cold or currents could easily have taken them down.  Then again, maybe they made it?  Staggered up into North Beach and got lost in the crowd.  The mystery and outlaw history of that original swim are part of the race’s appeal.

As is the real challenge of the swim itself.  The Alcatraz swim is famous for its rigorous conditions – cold water, true open water swimming from point-to-point, and strong currents – and a certain fear factor that comes from those formidable trials, as well as the course bogeyman: sharks.

I was thrilled when my number was picked in this year’s Escape From Alcatraz lottery.  As congratulations, my husband found a two-page spread of the iconic dive from the boat into the bay – a gorgeous image – and, Sharpie in hand, inserted a fin cresting the surface of the water.  Funny.

Except to most people, it’s not.  Sharks are the first thing I’m asked about when I tell folks I swim in the Bay.  The fear is ubiquitous, and irrational: sharks big enough to actually hurt a human can’t live in the shallow, not-terribly-salty Bay.  But irrationality knows no bounds.  One acquaintance told me that her biggest fear on moving from Chicago to San Francisco was that she’d be on a bridge when The Big One hit and would end up in the Bay.  Scary, right?  Except her fear wasn’t plummeting some 250-feet through midair and hitting water.  It was that once in the water, she’d be attacked by sharks.

This level of madness cannot be reasoned with, of course.  But let’s at least say that in the 35 years of the Escape From Alcatraz triathlon, there has never been so much as a single shark sighting.  There’s been seals.  Pelicans.  Other wetsuited humans.  Pretty tame stuff.

I’ve been swimming in the Bay for fifteen years and consider the proximity of such liquid majesty one of San Francisco’s greatest gifts.  Raised on the high plains of Montana, I’d never put a toe in the ocean until I was thirteen.  The thrill of open water has never left me.

In my wetsuit and neoprene cap (no, I’ll never be one of those hearty Dolphin Club types), I feel a special kinship with the sleek-headed seals that sometimes bob nearby.  A real creature of water, just as they are.

As I swim, breathing one side then the other, I love taking in the city skyline looming white on one side and the dappled hills of Marin to the other, the rocky jetties lining the shore, to the soundtrack of calling gulls, clanging buoys, and sometimes the foghorn’s punctuated groans.  And when there is no foghorn, there’s the Golden Gate bridge, a red kiss against the blue of sky and sea.

Lucky, lucky me.

Lucky, every single one of us.

Bridget Quinn is a sports-obsessed amateur living in San Francisco. She is also a writer. Her Narrative Magazine memoir on swimming and sibling rivalry was included in The Best American Sports Writing 2013: Her book of essays on women artists, Broad Strokes, is out Spring 2017 from Chronicle Books.