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.

Escaping Alcatraz | Anthony Esquivel

Anthony Esquivel IV recently completed the Escape from Alcatraz Triathalon.
Anthony Esquivel IV recently completed the Escape from Alcatraz Triathalon.

San Francisco Bay touches all of our lives, but how many people spend time swimming in the Bay? Meet Anthony Esquivel IV, a triathlete who recently completed the Escape from Alcatraz Triathalon. 

The chill in the air, the low clouds covering the tops of buildings and the top of the Golden Gate Bridge, the mist and the smell of the San Francisco Bay.  My stomach a little tied in knots thinking about my first attempt at the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. The event consists of 1.5 miles of swimming in the ice cold waters of the Bay, cycling a grueling 18 miles of San Francisco hills, running 8 miles of trails to Baker Beach and crossing the finish line at Marina Green Park. It is considered to be one of the most difficult and most memorable triathlons, and now I know why.

At 6:30 a.m., the San Francisco Belle departs Pier 3 heading toward Alcatraz.  It stops a few hundred yards away from the island, and as 7:30 approaches, the triathletes slowly stand and walk toward the edge of the boat ready to begin. The national anthem ends, a horn blows, and the pros jump from the railings of the boat. Immediately afterward almost 2,000 triathletes swarm to the edge of the boat, and we all jump feet-first into the icy waters to begin our 1.5-mile swim to shore located near the St. Francis Yacht Club. Swimming toward the shore, as I turn to breathe I see the Bay Bridge on the left of me, the Golden Gate Bridge to the right of me, and ahead of me a glimpse of the shore mostly covered by low clouds. Some parts of the swim are very choppy, and there are pockets of especially freezing water. I’m focusing on swimming, but realize I’m swimming in such a beautiful and memorable scene.

How many individuals really get a chance to do what we are doing?  How many people can say, “I swam from Alcatraz Island to the shore San Francisco?” The experience is everything I could’ve imagined and more.

I’ve been a triathlete for 5 years and I have loved every second of it. In 2006, at the age of 19, I was diagnosed with liver disease. My liver was almost twice the normal size and was compared to the liver of a 100-year-old man. Doctors told me I had 5 to 10 years until I would either require a liver transplant or die. I weighed 275 and was living an unhealthy lifestyle. The doctor said losing weight, exercising and changing my diet might help me, but there were no guarantees. After about a year of pain, feeling sorry for myself, and being angry at the world, I decided to stop drinking completely, I became vegetarian and started working out.

By August of 2009 I had come to terms with my fate and accepted that I would most likely not see my 25th birthday. But that month I had a blood test and the results showed that I no longer had liver disease. My liver had completely regenerated itself and its size was back to normal. Doctors say as long as I keep up my healthy lifestyle there is no chance of a relapse.

Today I’ve raced in over 25 triathlons, and this month I completed the Escape from Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. The swim in the bay was tough, but it’s an experience I will never forget. I’m happy to have crossed that finish line, and I hope to return to the bay to conquer Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon once more.  Experiences like these are why I race.

Anthony Esquivel IV is a 28-year-old liver disease survivor, vegan and triathlete. He plans to complete his first full Ironman Triathlon in Arizona this November.

Board Spotlight | Donnie Fowler

Donnie Fowler
Donnie Fowler has been a member of Save The Bay’s Board of Directors since 2011.

Meet Donnie Fowler, a Public Affairs and Technology professional originally from Columbia, South Carolina. Donnie joined Save The Bay’s Board of Directors in 2011.

Do you have a favorite Bay site or experience?

I love being outdoors, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since I moved here in 2001, I’ve continued to discover new places from Healdsburg and the Sonoma Coast to the Santa Cruz Mountains that back up Silicon Valley and down to Santa Cruz. One of my favorites has been participating in the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, which includes a mile-and-a-half swim in the Bay. How lucky are Bay Area residents to be able to experience all this in our backyard?

How did you get involved with Save The Bay?

I was invited by Wade Crowfoot, who was a Save The Bay Board member at the time. He and I worked together in 2010 to successfully defeat California’s Prop 23 which was sponsored by a bunch of ideologues and Texas oil companies to overturn our State’s climate and clean energy laws. Our “No on 23” effort was an a broad coalition of Republicans and Democrats, environmentalists and clean energy entrepreneurs – a great way to build a coalition to solve problems.

What is the best thing about being a board member at Save The Bay?

The great legacy we follow and bring to every issue. The prestigious reputation of the organization and respect from the community is inspiring. I also feel honored working with dedicated board members and the really talented staff of Save The Bay.

If you could be one Bay plant or animal, what would it be and why?

The California Sea Lion. How could anyone not envy how happy they look in the water and lying in the sun. They feel as comfortable in water as on land (and never seem to be cold!).

Who is your environmental hero?

Al Gore. I have worked for him four times, including as his national field director during the 2000 presidential campaign. I also helped drive the marketing efforts for the documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” that brought attention to the climate change issue to so many for the very first time. Al Gore walks the walk and talks the talk. Some Californians that I really admire include Tom Adams (California League of Conservation Voters), Mary Nichols (California Air Resources Board ), John Doerr (venture capitalist), and Nancy Pfund (venture capitalist).

What is your favorite thing about the San Francisco Bay Area?

The breathtaking beauty and diversity of the landscape and its waters.

What is one thing you do each day to protect the environment?

Serving on the board of Save The Bay and working closely with their policy and public advocacy teams. I also have spent a significant amount of my professional life supporting the growth of the clean energy economy in the United States, especially the solar and wind industries.