At 8:50 a.m. on a foggy, chilly Saturday at the end of June, I jumped into the 57-degree waters of the San Francisco Bay in anticipation of a not-too-frigid 1.5-mile swim to Aquatic Park. I’d traveled almost 2,500 miles to participate in the 16th Annual Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim, which I had to sign up for in November. After months of intense NOVA Masters’ swim practices and open water training, as well as 3 weeks of cold-water-only showers, I was ready.
Two ferries transported us 800 swimmers to a makeshift “starting line” of 50 kayakers in front of Alcatraz Island. Two or three at a time, the swimmers hopped out of the boat and into the water. It was only a 6-feet jump, not 30, as some swimmers speculated before the race. Because I’d practiced in the San Francisco Bay with Water World Swim two days before the race, I was prepared for the cold shock to my body. It took just a few minutes for me to adjust, versus Thursday’s ten and thoughts of “This feels like needles have been inserted into every part of my body! There is NO WAY I’m doing this in a sleeveless wetsuit!” Most racers wore full wetsuits, but some donned only swimsuits and the race’s bright yellow caps. I adjusted my goggles and focused on ingesting a GU (conveniently hidden in my wetsuit) to distract myself from the cold. At 9 a.m., the race official blew the horn, and all 800 swimmers ducked their heads into the water and took off.
During the first 1/3 of the race, waves continuously crashed into my face and I encountered feet and arms from all directions. I didn’t see any sharks, though. It was a fight to move forward — without knowing whether I was actually going in the right direction or simply being led by the blind. I took short, quick strokes. I swallowed a lot of water. The waves, higher and rougher than what I was used to, made it difficult for me to sight, and I was often tossed on my side when I did attempt to glance up. Before I got too far away from the island, I didn’t forget to take a moment to turn around and enjoy the breathtaking view of Alcatraz from the water. As I got closer to shore, the scenery changed to the spectacular San Francisco skyline.
In the pre-race meeting, we were told we’d be starting during a slack tide. This would become an ebb current, which would carry us out toward the ocean. To get to shore, you had to swim through a narrow opening into Aquatic Park; if you missed it, you’d have to backtrack and swim against the current to get in. If this was the case, you likely wouldn’t make the 1 hour and 15 minute race time limit and would be picked up by a support boat.
In fear of overshooting the park, I’d actually been fighting the current more than necessary and had swum too far to the left. Once I realized this, I let the current carry me to the right until I reached the park entrance. I’d made it! Once I got through the opening, I sprinted the final 1/3 of a mile to the finish chute. After my hands hit the sand, I stood up, dazed, and ran through the chute, flashing a smile for the photographers. I was ready to replenish my calorie stores and warm up with some of Blue Mermaid’s nationwide-famous crab and corn chowder. I checked my watch. I’d finished in 47:20, which was far better than what I’d expected — something above 50 minutes. I later learned I placed 307/635 in the wetsuit division. I was thrilled to be in the top half, considering I’d just started open-water swimming two years ago. I’d savored the whole experience despite feeling like I’d been battling current for what seemed like eternity.
I’d later heard that quite a few swimmers had chosen Sharkfest as their very first open water race. Those are some brave (crazy?) souls!
My swim from Alcatraz was an incredible experience. If you can tolerate cold, salty water and lots of waves, I’d recommend the race. Would I do it again? You bet, but I’ve got 46 more swims to complete first…