PERHAPS unknown to many locals, but each year our wonderful home town of Donaghadee is being visited by an ever increasing number of the worlds elite open water swimmers. The reason behind this now annual pilgrimage, is to use the town as their base as they prepare for taking on the mighty challenge of swimming across the North Channel to Scotland.
Besides arrivals from our home nations, we have swimmers quite literally from all over the world, including the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Costa Rica, Austria, Russia, Turkey, Mexico, Israel, Spain, Italy, France, Argentina, Croatia and many more.
Inevitably, as we spend time swimming and socialising with these visitors, friendships are formed. One of those visiting swimmers is Amy, who despite actually being successful at her first attempt back 2018, seems to have made a habit of returning to Donaghadee on a fairly regular basis over the succeeding years. By nature a super friendly and outgoing girl, she has become a well known and very popular figure within our local Chunky Dunker swim group.
On her last visit in May, whilst whiling away some time together down the harbour, I happened to mention how I’d love to have a go at attempting the ‘Escape From Alcatraz Swim,’ which takes place in San Francisco Bay, California.
Amy and the two swimming companions who were accompanying her, Sarah and Gretchen, are all from the San Francisco area and there was virtually an explosion of enthusiastic interest. As three girls all expounded on the merits of the Alcatraz swim, Sarah revealed she had actually completed the swim on no less than 235 occasions.
“Aye but,” I said. “I’m old, I’m unfit, I’m overweight, I’m not a good enough swimmer.” They then went on to explain that there are swimmers who are older, swimmers who are heavier, swimmers who are equally unfit who complete the Alcatraz swim on a regular basis.
We eventually bade farewell to the girls, as they left us to head back home to America. By then though, the seed was well and truly planted. Indeed Amy had gone a stage further, by generously offering safety boat cover should I decide to take up the challenge.
As the days turned into weeks, Mrs S and I realised that we would very soon have to make a definitive decision regarding this most generous offer. Eventually we decided that this was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity, an offer which was simply too good to turn down. So, even though we were filled with fear and trepidation, we decided that we would indeed take the plunge.
We booked our holiday around a date in September, which Sarah had suggested would be suitable for the swim.
On Sunday, September 3, around 4 pm American time, we arrived in San Francisco after a long 11 hour flight from Dublin. Sarah and Amy picked us up at the airport and transported us down to our hotel, via an introductory visit to their wonderful swimming club – The South End Rowing Club.
The arrangement, as we understood it anyway, had been that they would allow us to settle in for a day or two, then look to take on the swim on either Wednesday or the Thursday.
As we spoke about the actual swim day, both the girls seemed to be quite evasive regarding when it would be, but I put that down to the fact that we had a day or two to sort those specifics out. Eventually though Amy said to Sarah, ‘Are you going to break the news to him?’
It seemed that the forecast which had initially been good for midweek had changed, and that we would actually be making our ‘jump’ first thing the following morning, Monday. They waffled round the reasons for and the benefits of this change, but ultimately I would be meeting the girls at 7:30am the next morning for our boat ride out to Alcatraz.
So, somewhat surprised – more like shell shocked – we headed back to the hotel to pack and try to grab some sleep, before our early morning start.
After a few hours of broken sleep and a ridiculously early breakfast in the hotel restaurant, a short walk along the wonderful San Francisco waterfront saw us meet up with the others in our swim team – Gretchen, Al and our boat-pilot Greg.
Pleasantries exchanged, we then boarded our pilot boat, before meandering our way through the pontoons heading towards the mouth of the marina.
However, just to further unsettle my already fraying nerves, we then got to meet one of the marina’s well known local characters. Known locally as ‘Harry,’ he is an absolute monster of a bull Sea Lion. To add to the novelty of the situation, Harry unfortunately now only has one eye and is renowned for swimming or nudging into things. Although apparently friendly, I have to say that I was relieved that our meeting occurred whilst I was in the boat and not in the water beside him.
Leaving the marina behind we made our way out into the open waters of San Francisco Bay, and all of a sudden we were zooming out toward Alcatraz Island. We did a quick but bouncy circuit around the island just to put in a wee bit of time, as the arrangement with the local boating authorities who govern the Bay Area, was that we wouldn’t start our swim until 9am.
Eventually though it was time to put-up or shut-up.
Earbuds in, swim cap and goggles on, and it was just a matter of launching myself over the side of the boat to the ‘whoops and hollers’ of my shy and retiring swim buddies.
Having read extensively about the history of the Alcatraz swim and the escape attempts from it when it was a state penitentiary, the one thing that concerned me was the reputed ice-cold water. Well, to say that the reality is somewhat different from the reputation is an understatement. Certainly at this time of the year anyway the water felt almost tepid in comparison to the North Channel, where I swim on a daily basis. So that was a real bonus.
As with most swim stories, there’s a ‘however’ lurking just below the surface. The inevitable ‘however’ of this particular swim, manifested itself in how we judge what constitutes ‘calm waters.’
My hosts assured me that the conditions in the bay that morning were calm and almost ideal for the swim. At home these conditions carry the colloquial name of being kinda, ‘slappy up the bakey!’ And there was quite a rolling sea swell.
Off the five of us headed in the general direction of the picturesque San Francisco shoreline, leaving the ‘Rock’ further behind us with every stroke. Sarah, who is an Alcatraz swim aficionado and a simply wonderful encouraging swimmer, helpfully plonked herself immediately to my right, enabling me to simply concentrate on swimming beside her, rather than having to lift my head to sight as well.
It’s only when you are actually in the water with swimmers of this calibre that you fully appreciate just how good they are. I am under no illusions whatsoever as to my very limited abilities, but I honestly believe that these folks are made differently to me. They appear to have bodies which are made out of cork, thus enabling them to bob along on the surface. Whereas I struggle to stay afloat, and seem to swim just below the surface of the water they make it look so ridiculously easy.
Whilst they were bobbing about laughing, joking and seemingly having a whale of a time, I simply just kept my head down. Slowly but surely I managed to keep putting one arm in front of the other, plodding on towards the shore.
Swimming in bouncy water frequently makes me feel a bit sea-sick, and unfortunately about three quarters of the way there, that was the case again. However, after a short stop and a wee bit of shortbread supplied by Greg, I was soon on my way again with the shoreline getting ever closer.
Eventually, some 69 minutes after starting out from beside Alcatraz Island, I touched my feet down on a spot known locally as ‘The Coghlan Beach.’ Standing up I pinched myself, as I tried to take in what was an almost surreal moment. Off in the distance to my right was Alcatraz Island, to my left stood the majestic Golden Gate Bridge, whilst bobbing about some 50 metres from the shore was my wife Kathryn in our support boat. Simply amazing.
We then all made our way back out to the boat to be transported back to the marina.
The basic facts of the swim are as follows. A direct line route between our starting and finishing points measured just under 2.5k However, with the benefit of modern technology and tracked swim watches, it seems we actually swam just over 4k, due to the effect of the strong ebbing current.
A celebratory breakfast in the nearby Buena Vista café followed, which amazingly claims to have been the location where Irish Coffee was first introduced to the United States in 1952.
So, in modern day parlance, that’s another iconic swim of the bucket list completed.