In 1934, the prison on Alcatraz Island opened its doors as a federal penitentiary, and some of the most hardcore American criminals were shipped in to serve out their sentences. To boycott this, a teenage girl, whose name I can’t for the life of me find, swam to the island and back, just to prove that it’s possible. And if she could do it, escaping criminals could do it. She had no wetsuit. She had no boat support. She just did it. Various other women (apparently) followed suit, all to demonstrate that the swim was in deed very feasible, and that these hardened criminals were not as far from San Francisco as The Rock seemed to be.
The escape attempts from Alcatraz have literally become the stuff of movies, but the swim has captivated swimming enthusiasts for generations. Swimming from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco, about a mile as the crow flies but you are no crow flying, believe me, is a legendary challenge for open water swimmers. There are races all of the time, local swimming clubs like the Dolphin Club lead guided swims regularly, people in their 70s and in their teens accomplish the feat. It’s not no big deal, but it’s also, as that teenage girl proved 76 years ago, very possible.
So, when my friend and author Jaimal Yogis called me up on a Friday night, asking if I wanted to swim from Alcatraz with him two days later for a story he was writing, I didn’t think twice. Absolutely. I was game. It was going to be epic. We surfed at Ft. Point the night before and picked up our swimming wetsuits, and met at Aquatic Park on a beautiful Sunday morning to go for it.
We were not alone. We had arranged to meet Jaimal’s cousin Jamie Patrick, who is about as legendary as the swim itself is. He is an ultra-swimmer in the most ultra of ways. He has completed Ironmans, and in fact, once did a Triple Ironman. He is currently training to swim The Tahoe Triple, which would entail swimming across Lake Tahoe, long-ways, three times in a row. That would be a 66 mile swim, and would be a world record. The dude is nuts in the most inspiring of ways. Jamie brought along his buddy Greg Larsen, a respectable swimmer himself who just barely missed making it to the Olympics in 1992. Jamie’s friend Kelly English was also along, as our kayak boat support, and even she looked like she could kick my ass. In short, we were boys amongst men.
I don’t want to labor too much over the swim itself. Jaimal’s narrative story just got published today in The Bold Italic, and he’s an actual writer, so he tells the story much better than I can. A few quick highlights:
-We didn’t have a boat to get us out there, so we would actually be swimming to and from Alcatraz
-We got the tides totally wrong, and went out when the current was really bad
-We did not have a radio on our boat
-The cops showed up, when we were about halfway there, and made us go back for not having a permit
-It was awesome
Beyond this, I do want to point out two parts that really struck me from the swim.
First off, meeting Jamie. As far as I’m concerned, a guy like Jamie is in a class of his own. Very, very rare individuals like Jamie Patrick deserve their own subspecies of humanity, because they operate on a different level. The guy lives and breathes exercise, pretty much constantly. I like to consider myself fairly athletic. I grew up a swimmer and soccer player, and I can go for a 10 mile run at the drop of a hat, or do the length of an Alcatraz swim without training for it. Compared to guys like Jamie, that is nothing. He does this because it seems to be part of his DNA and blood stream. After we swam, we all stood around to shoot the shit, and stories just started pouring out of Jamie….like doing a relay race across the English Channel (his partner was Greg, who swam with us that morning), and open water swims in big surf in Hawaii, and his Triple Ironman. (3x each of the legs of an ironman, back to back….on a closed course! Meaning, for the run, which was after having swam 10 miles and biking around 700, he would run straight out for a mile, turn around, run back, and do that back-and-forth for THREE STRAIGHT MARATHONS). He has two major goals. The first, as I said, is to swim Lake Tahoe 3 times, and after that, he wants to accomplish 7 major channel crossings, which is considered the accomplishment of a lifetime for an open water swimmer.
To hear all of this stuff is sweet, but to shake his hand and look in his eyes as he talks about his concerns that swimming for so long disorients your balance, vision, and even loosens your bones out of their sockets, is a different thing entirely. I’ve been around some amazing athletes before. My father-in-law played water polo in the Olympics, twice. A former colleague of mine Kelly Couch is a top-ranked triathlete. There was something a bit different with Jamie, because not only was he really good at something, he was really good at doing that something for very long stretches of time. I think about the mental focus it takes me to get through an hour long run, and have trouble wrapping my head around the concept of doing that for 20 hours or so.
Are humans meant to do this? I’m pretty sure they are not. Evolutionarily speaking, we are not meant to swim for 35 hours straight. (That’s how long Jamie expects the Tahoe swim to take.) But that’s what’s cool about it. He is proudly pushing human physical abilities to their absolute maximum. There’s something about it all that gets me really excited, damn near giddy.
The second thing that struck me on our swim was a surprising sense of defiance in the face of a clampdown against just being able to go out and do something. We were sternly reprimanded by the Dolphin Club for being renegade swimmers, and were sent home by the cops. For swimming in the San Francisco Bay. For the first time, I found myself thinking back to “the good old days” (which I wasn’t alive to experience) when there were far fewer restrictions on pretty much everything. You could hitchhike, camp on the side of the road, drive without a seat belt, and swim to Alcatraz whenever you wanted. Now we have to hike on trails with our dogs on a leash, we have to get permits to fish, and in general can’t do a whole lot of things without getting permission. I of course get it, and in general agree with restrictions like this, but it was a first for me to be on the wrong side of the police tape that menacingly implied “Do Not Cross,” and I didn’t particularly like it. I was ready to flip off the cop and call him a fascist pig, but he was just making sure we didn’t get run over by a Chinese freighter. As illogical I know it was, I still felt a bit of the old punk-rock, DIY adrenaline surge of going out and doing it, regardless of the rules.
So, read Jaimal’s story about the whole thing, check out Jamie’s website for the Tahoe Triple, go see my flickr photostream for more pictures, and go climb an unchartered mountain or drive the wrong way on one-way street to keep your rebellious streak alive.