Alcatraz Swimming Society

Off the Rock and in the bay before work, there’s no better escape for this group of shivering “snivelers”

Story by Gary Emich

Shriek! Shriek! Shriek!

The 4:30 a.m. alarm catapults me from the deepest regions of sleep. For an instant I am not sure what day it is, or why the alarm clock is screaming at me. Ugh! It sinks in.

Today is ASS Wednesday: the day members of the Alcatraz Swimming Society leave the comfort of warm beds, flannel sheets, and spooning spouses to throw themselves into the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay.

Wondering what abuse Alcatraz plans to dish out today, I struggle upright and stumble to the computer. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website does not reinforce my decision to be up and about at this ungodly hour. The current water temperature is 53F and the air is 47F. One degree less and the ASS faces Sub-100 conditions, when the combined air and water temperature is less than 100. Winds are blowing from the northwest at eight knots, with gusts to 17. To top it off, the forecast calls for intermittent periods of heavy rain. Alcatraz is about to hand us our heads again!

To see us on the street you would not think, “hard-core open water swimmers.” Macho, testosterone-filled, alpha-male types? Not by a long shot! I am in my 60’s, supposedly retired but reincarnated as an aquapreneur. Dianna Shuster, also in her 60’s, is executive director of Pocket Opera. 50’s-something Joe Butler, “Stevie Ray” Hurwitz, and Kristine Buckley (aka Bucko) are a San Francisco architect, owner of Bay Area Herbs and warranty administrator at Peter Pan BMW, respectively. The two babies of the group, Allen Luong (40’s) and Paul Saab (30’s), work for Cisco and Facebook. Hardly Olympic material, but among us we have swum Alcatraz nearly 4,000 times.

We all recall the formation of ASS slightly differently. What do you expect when five of us are old geezers who arguably should be stuck in nursing homes where we won’t endanger the general public or ourselves?

Consensus is that early 2007 found Stevie Ray and me (along with legendary Pedro Ordenes) in a race to 500 Alcatraz crossings. Allen simply had an eye on his first 100. Dianna was piloting the infamous South End Rowing Club’s Sunrisers on their early morning swims, but not really getting in the water herself. Bucko, 2001 English Channel swimmer of the Year, can smell misadventure brewing from a mile away, and was not about to be left out. Joe and Paul posses the right combination of madness and mayhem, and were a perfect fit.

We started swimming Alcatraz each week, taking turns as safety pilot in one of the South End’s Zodiacs. But being a South Ender does not come without cost. There was frequent dysfunction accompanied by a strong penchant for justice. So, we failed to keep the swims low key and below the radar. Recalls Allen:

“There were these weird mornings with such a strange atmosphere in the South End Day Room as all the other Sunrisers discussed the morning’s planned swim, e.g., Fisherman’s Wharf, St. Francis, or Fort Mason. Gary, Steve, Kristine, Dianna, Joe and Paul were strangely quiet, trying to communicate without saying a word. Then all of a sudden they would get up, sneak off to Alcatraz, and try not to let the others know what was afoot.”

Why the secrecy? Ship traffic in San Francisco Bay is horrendous and safety mandates swimmers stay next to the escort boat. Because ASS members swim at a similar pace, it is relatively easy to stay together in a pod, something not possible with the Sunrisers, who are of every conceivable swimming speed and ability.

We kept it a closed swim and let them do their own thing. They called us selfish, arrogant, elitist Alcatrassholes. We became known as the Alcatraz Secret Swimming Society. Over time, the furor died down and we threw out the “Secret” part of our moniker. We embraced ourselves as ASS’s! We were proud to be ASS’s! Bucko even designed Alcatraz Swimming Society patches to sew on our parkas. Five years later, everyone assumes an Alcatraz swim is imminent if they see an ASS around the Club.

But good-natured teasing does not offset the all too familiar ordeal we face this morning. During the 30-minute pre-dawn drive into the City, negative self-talk swirls through my brain: “Tricky currents, choppy waves, gusty winds, isolated downpours, frigid water, numbed body parts … Are you just plain stupid?”

Without thinking I crank the heater up another notch. My mood only blackens as I approach AT&T Park and see the sycamore trees whipping in the wind. I roll onto the Embarcadero and past the Ferry Building. In the distance, I see the lighthouse on Alcatraz. It blinks as if mocking me, and in collusion, the rain begins falling. I pull up to the South End and see Allen’s car in front of me. We get out, look at one another and shake our heads.

“It’s blowing up to 17 knots,” he says.

“I know. I looked at NOAA too.”

I turn up my collar and pull down my wool cap. Alcatraz is about to give us another “aquatic bitch slap.”

We always feel like a million bucks after our Alcatraz outings, but we dread the total body shock that comes with jumping in the water sans wetsuit. This aversion manifests itself in our pre-swim ritual: sniveling.

“Why did I open that second bottle of red wine last night? I feel like crap.”

“The concert lasted until midnight. I did not get to bed until 1 a.m.”

“My tendonitis is really bad this morning. I hope this dermal patch works.”

“I’ve been awake all night: the dog had pre-menstrual cramps.”

No one can top this last one; we fall silent.

Having assured each other we are equally unprepared, we stand up with a collective sigh. It is time to get ready. Right on cue, Stevie Ray rushes in, late as usual, sniveling about being gypped out of snivel time.

Down on the dock, we finalize Zodiac preparations, making sure we have marine radios, air-horns, life-jackets, blankets, a bailer and a “man-overboard” flag. Sunrise over the Oakland Hills is 45 minutes away, but the rain-laden clouds are turning a bright orange. “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning, sailor’s warning.” NOAA is right — the wind is blowing and it will only get worse. Factoring in wind-chill, the air temperature feels like 37F.

We squeeze into the bottom of the Zodiac and ready ourselves for the 15-minute ride out to Alcatraz. We hunker under dank wool blankets that are still wet from yesterday’s Sunriser swim, and try to stay warm. Our salt-encrusted parkas crackle. Long ago we learned it is bad luck to wash them. Mother Ocean has no tolerance unless they are reeking with the scent of her salty perfume. If she detects a clean parka, she punishes all of us with buckets of soaking waves over the bow.

Everyone glares at me; I washed mine this past weekend. I quickly divert attention to Allen. He routinely wears a wetsuit so we reserve a special place of honor for him in the bow where he can take the brunt of the waves. He is our “bowsprit figurehead.” In sailing lore, the figurehead embodies the spirit of a ship and placates Mother Ocean to ensure a safe voyage. With his unflappable nature and highly charged positive energy, we place a lot of confidence in Allen. We just wish he delivered more often.

Author and Stevie Ray completing their respective 700th crossing on June 2, 2010.

Heading out to Alcatraz, we plunge into three-foot seas. Each wave of grey water crashing over our bow brings a fresh chorus of shrieks. Our parkas are water resistant, and blankets cover us, but the water manages to send icy trickles down our backs and chests. Paul quips that we will be so wet by the time we reach Alcatraz, we should count the boat ride as a crossing. Joe opines that nothing can be worse than the “bidet” treatment we are getting from the six inches of water sloshing around the bottom of the Zodiac.

But shame on us! Rather than be so self-centered, we should feel sorry for Dianna who will pilot us today. The wind, rain and waves are going to pummel her as she huddles in the Zodiac, shepherding us on our swim back to shore.

More wet than dry, we arrive at Alcatraz glad the boat ride is over. Wisps of fog encircle the dark prison walls perched high atop the cliffs. Cormorants, murres, and seagulls look down at us from their nests, not sure whether to stay put or to take flight.

Dianna checks in via marine radio with the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic. San Francisco Bay is the fifth busiest in the country and freighters pose a constant threat. She informs them of our intended route, destination and estimated time of completion. In turn, they let her know about any ship traffic that may interfere with our swim. They also advise passenger ferries, barges, dredges and other commercial vessels about our “marine event in progress.”

This enhances the safety of our swim but the myriad fishing and recreational boaters are not required to monitor Channel 14, Vessel Traffic’s exclusive communications channel. Their reality does not encompass swimmers in the bay, thus the need for a vigilant escort pilot and the need for us to swim in a tight pod. On more than one occasion our pilot has zoomed off blowing the air horn and waiving the “Man Overboard” flag to intercede with a boat bearing down on us.

Vessel Traffic communications complete, there is no more stalling, dawdling or procrastinating. The moment of truth is here

“I hate this f___ing part!” Bucko screams into the wind as we take off parkas and make final preparations.

We down Clif Shots, take last swigs of hot Cytomax, rinse off goggle anti-fog drops, adjust swim caps, one person puts on swim fins (the identity of this individual shall remain anonymous but it is not me) and start our Garmin GPS’s.

The ASS’s always give me a head-start because they get much needed pre-swim laughter watching me sprint as if a shark is giving chase. The truth is, I am slow and need the head start. The sprinting also generates a modicum of body heat.

I slide over the side into the lead-colored water. The shock explodes all over me. It is so cold my body feels like every square inch is on fire, stabbed by miniature ice daggers. I am in denial: How can anything be this painful? My body tries to shut down. It is all mental at this point. “Keep moving: stroke, stroke, stroke! Focus on breathing and blow out that last stubborn candle on the birthday cake — exhale, exhale, exhale! Picture yourself swimming above the water not in it!”

After several minutes the ice water numbs my body, I acclimate, and my pace slows to a sustainable speed. My reality shifts to the here and now. “Where are the other swimmers? How strong is the current? Are we on a good course? Do we need to adjust?”
Today, an outgoing current pulls us west towards the Golden Gate Bridge at nearly four knots (over 4½ mph). Juxtaposed with incoming wind gusts of 17 knots (nearly 20 mph), the bay is an aquatic version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Every breath to my right finds a white-capped mini-tsunami rushing to knock off my head.

In the pool, experts preach one perfect stroke at a time. In this kind of water, you adapt your stroke and breath to the water conditions. Done correctly, you surf down the front of the wave while catching your breath. Done improperly, the wave takes your recovering arm, flips you on your back, and shoves salt water up your nose.

In these adverse water conditions, negative self-talk can be a very real issue. On more than one occasion the cold permeates my body, the swim takes longer than expected, and the finish appears to be getting further and further away. “OK, this is not fun anymore, where is the Zodiac? I just want out.”

In response, I get stubborn and reverse the inner monologue: “You cannot get any colder than you are right now — just keep swimming. You can go another 100 strokes, right? Then start counting. Stevie Ray is five crossings ahead of you. It’s going to be six if you wimp out.”

The back and forth argument refocuses me and I usually continue.

"Goat days on the Bay" with Kristine, Gary, Stevie Ray, Joe, Dianna and Paul.

Today, with this foul weather, staying in a pod becomes the overriding concern. Dianna, our pilot, has her hands full. When the intermittent downpours are not obscuring her vision, the waves are playing hide and seek with our six small yellow-capped heads. From experience we know any group of swimmers, including ours, can splinter in an instant. Once separated it is impossible to regroup since the waves limit vision to mere feet. Our collective focus is on battling the waves while keeping one another in sight. We have little time to think of the cold, the currents, or the distance yet to swim.

After nearly 50 minutes, we stumble ashore relieved this one is finally over. We are quite happy we did not do a “double” this morning — there and back.
Dianna maneuvers the Zodiac as close to shore as she dares, since the breaking waves threaten to toss her on the beach. We flop back in the water and sprint to the Zodiac.

Heaving ourselves over the sides, we scramble for parkas and thermos containers. The good news is Dianna bailed out the half-foot of water in the bottom of the Zodiac as we swam. The bad news is our parkas decided to go for a swim first; they are sopping wet. Frozen hands and fingers, misshapen into oddly curved and useless digits, struggle getting the parkas on and zipped up.

Our spastic movements and slurred speech launch Dianna into peals of laughter. It’s contagious! We face a cold, wet, miserable 15-minute ride back to the Club but we are all smiles. Bucko laughs for the first time all morning as she realizes she will be late for work yet again. Allen cracks us up as he analyzes the 87 GPS laps he took during the swim (Are you serious Allen, 87?). Paul makes a grab for the sympathy card complaining how slow he was today (Dude, get real! You are faster than all of us). Stevie Ray and Joe aquatize song lyrics. The