It was a thought in passing. Years ago, Craig – dear, burly, crusty, sleeves of tattoos Craig from work – had always told me, as he watched me sign up for my 8, 10 and 15 mile swims: “Remember, Alcatraz is next!”
At the time, I would laugh. Never mind the fact that Alcatraz is three thousand miles from where I live, I knew little about it except for these three things: the currents are strong, the distance is short, and I am (was) slow.
A family emergency was bringing me to California rather suddenly this year. In the couple of weeks before the trip, I am not sure how the idea resurfaced. I had to fly in and out of that general area, after all. Alcatraz is around there somewhere. And whatever the spark was, it needed very little assistance bursting into flame.
“You could do that,” David had said. “You could swim Alcatraz. They have people you can hire to take you across.”
Oh! Really? Great!
I didn’t even think about it until I was suddenly in email correspondence with a guy who did just this sort of thing; Gary. And then it occurred to me that, oh… I still know nothing about this swim. Except the currents are strong, and the distance is short… and it’s February. Do they even do this in February? Compared to here, it’s warm, but…
Gary didn’t seem concerned with the time of year. I checked the water temps – they were in the 50s. That seemed fine. Air temps 45-60. I should be just fine.
FACT: I do own a wetsuit.
CONFESSION: I have never worn it except to try it on.
DISCLAIMER: It was free.
I let the confidences of those around me feed my own and, when the dates aligned perfectly with my travel itinerary, I booked the swim. I was absolutely flying by the seat of my pants. I had not worked out any logistics – how I would get to San Francisco, where I would stay, what I would need for the swim – and just sort of determined in my head that whatever I needed to do, I would do, and just make it work. I did not know when I would ever be so close to the opportunity again; I had to take it while I could. About the only thing I knew I needed was a friend… to take pictures. Not for any safety or confidence reason, no: to take pictures.
I know me. I know I can do this. I know I can. And I will.
I arrived in California, and I watched as it all came together. There is always more to a swim than just the boat and the swimmer, and I was impressed that the logistics were easily resolved, and all of my concerns were alleviated.
So then, all that was left, was the swim itself.
I began to worry that I wasn’t as prepared as I could be for the temperatures or the tides. I worried, again, about being slow. And I didn’t have the usual cast of characters around me to voice my wayward nerves.
To set myself at ease, I thought about the prison. I wondered about those prison walls. I did. I wondered about the bars and the stone. I wondered about the hands that built it, and I wondered about the people who thought of it. I wondered about the men who were sent there. I wondered what they had done to warrant such removal from society. I wondered what they did to pass the time while they paid the price of it. What was it like in Alcatraz? That concrete box so far from freedom? Those prisoners, would they even dare it? Would they chance it? How desperate would they have to be? And how badly would you have to want freedom to try swimming unprepared from here to there?
And then, I was there: shaking Gary’s hand with my friend, Esther, by my side in the gray blue dawn of that February day. It was 46°F air temp. There was no wind. 6:30 saw precious little life on Pier 39 at San Francisco.
We had our briefing. Gary told me exactly what the tides were going to be doing. He told me about the sea creatures I might see, and the sea creatures I was unlikely to see. He asked me if I had any medical problems he should be aware of. I told him no, but that I am allergic to sunscreen. He thought I was funny. He asked me when I last swam in cold water.
FACT: I got into 43 degree Lake Shastina while I was in Weed, CA.
CONFESSION: I was alone.
DISCLAIMER: I didn’t swim! Promise! I just stood in it and dunked myself for 20 minutes and then walked back to my Aunt’s house. (I didn’t swim in freezing cold water, alone, Dad [and everybody else who tells me not to]. I promise.)
Gary looked at me after this confession and called me a F@$# animal. Gosh – what girl could ask for a better compliment than that?! But he did have some helpful advice for jumping into 50º water after I admitted that I typically ease my way in at first. Jumping in was going to be an experience, necessitated by the rocks around Alcatraz.
He then asked me about my speed. I told him that the time I had originally told him (1:35/100 yards) was probably my fastest pace, but I didn’t know if I may swim at my more comfortable 1:45/100 yard pace.
“I think you should just enjoy yourself,” he said. “There isn’t anybody to race, so don’t worry about going fast.”
This made me ridiculously happy to hear. I was going to be just fine! I was. At whatever speed, and despite the 50º … I was going to be just fine.
So we met our boat captain and off we went. It was only 5-6 minutes out to Alcatraz. Gosh, the place was a modern day fortress from the boat, looking up at the cliffs and the prison. Quickly getting ready, we snapped a few photos and I sat down on the side of the boat. I took a deep breath and slid off into the water.
The 50 degrees against my skin felt like the external expression of my internal excitement. Oh yes, I remember! I remember this temperature! I remember the sea like this. I have to swim. That’s all! I just get to swim, now!
And swim I did, into Alcatraz, first. I stood up on a pile of rocks, smiling my ridiculous heart out, and then off I went toward San Francisco.
The sea… oh, she was all stillness. Sleeping, I suppose. Soft and gray like the sky and neverminding my gentle stirring. A friend had told me he had seen the English Channel lay flat, once. Clear as glass, I imagined, like the distance before me. As much as I was trying to be as smooth and silent as I could, I felt that each stroke seemed loud and thunderous in that quiet San Francisco Bay. It seemed I, alone, moved between the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate.
What a day for a prison break! I thought wryly. They’d have me back in that cell in a flash…
The rising sun lit what little fog hung near the Bay Bridge with a red and golden fire. I was undone by the beauty of it. How many people get to see this? Really? How many people ever get to have this moment? Just me, I suppose. For I was the only one in the water just then to drink the moment in.
And drink it in, I did – along with some of the sea. But it only made me laugh. I missed you, I confessed.
FACT: I love swimming in the sea.
CONFESSION: I love swimming in the sea.
DISCLAIMER: I love swimming in the sea.
Mumford and Sons was playing in my head: Hold me fast. Hold me fast. For I’m a hopeless wanderer. The lines repeated over and over. I thought how true they were. Hold me fast, dear home – Vermont, my friends, my family. Hold me fast. I am a hopeless wanderer in the same way I am a hopeless romantic. ‘Tis incurable! I am bound to find adventure wherever I go… and bound to be back home as soon as I have wiped my hands in the victory of the lessons to be learned.
I paused halfway in my prison break and took in the view. Alcatraz was behind me. San Francisco was before me. The Bridges guided on either side. It was all breathtaking. The sunrise lit the silhouettes of Esther and the boat captain and Gary all standing on the boat. I was grateful for their company. I had felt the current pulling me gently toward the Golden Gate Bridge, but once through that, I felt nothing as far as the sea was concerned. It was just as Gary had said. That’s how you know you have a good captain.
I put my face back in the water and kept swimming.
Hold me fast. Hold me fast. I’m a hopeless wanderer.
My toes were numb. My pinky finger decided it didn’t want to be friends with any of my other fingers any longer and would not let me pull it back to the others. I wasn’t getting along too bad at all.
I wouldn’t trade the beauty around me for the mild discomfort I felt; not a chance. The gray and the gold and the company of the bridges and the curiosity of the sea lions and the city before me… It was all freedom. And I suppose that that would be the hardest part of being a prisoner on Alcatraz. To stare at the sea – day after day – and never once be in her company.
I hadn’t been sighting at all, just following the boat behind me and to my left, as Gary had told me to. I had ear plugs in and so, at first, I didn’t hear much of anything. It became apparent to me that Gary was yelling to me.
FACT: I absolutely despise, abhor, and hate being called Beth.
CONFESSION: There are a few people who can call me Beth and I am okay with it.
DISCLAIMER: Chances are, if you are reading this blog, you are not one of those people.
My friend, Esther, would later describe this moment from her perspective – it involved cringing, holding her breath, and shaking her head while participating in a mild thought drama wherein she wondered about the best way to inform him not to call me that. In the end, she decided that it was too late.
I stopped and looked up at Gary. Truth be told, I gave it little notice. Whatever Gary had to tell me was much more important than him calling me by a nickname I didn’t like. I couldn’t think of anything more immature than correcting somebody about your name while you are swimming in 50° water. Besides, I was happy and oh-so-forgiving; swimming in the sea.
“Track to that small building there!”
I looked ahead to where he was indicating. He had already told me about the building in the briefing, so I was able to sight it easily and turn myself on course toward the finish. I continued to sight as we got closer and closer to shore.
At last, I touched the rocks at the place where they used to load the prisoners to take them to the Island and finished the 1.5 mile swim in 39 minutes. Clambering back aboard the boat, my skin was a splotchy, familiar red. I sat down and wrapped myself in a towel as we headed back to the dock.
“Are you feeling okay?” Gary asked as we sped along. “You don’t seem to be shivering.”
I smiled. Just give me a few minutes. I think I said a few words to let them know I was all right. I don’t know what I talked about, though.
When a silence fell, I smiled. I did that, you know. I swam from Alcatraz. In February. I just signed up and then I did it. I didn’t go with a group of friends or bring anybody from home. I just did it because I could do it. Because I was there.
I’d never really done that before…
Hold me fast. Hold me fast. I’m a hopeless wanderer.
Wander I will. But I always know where home is.
And I can always find the sea when I need her.