First Darren, David and Al did the Canadian Death Race… then Al won the LOST Swimming – Connor’s Runners Beer Mile... and while Darren was in San Francisco he made good use of his time and made his own adventure… he arranged his private Alcatraz swim! That’s doin’ it right! Atta go, boys… it is that kind of moxie that makes LOST great!
Here is Darren’s swim report from Alcatraz… enjoy!
Swimmers make great friends. Two years ago, I was going to San Francisco for a conference and Madhu hooked me up with some guys at the South End Rowing Club. I had never met these guys before, but because I was a friend of Madhu’s, they treated me like family. One guy, Joe Butler, took me under his wing and helped me through their annual Anita Rock swim. After the swim, we were all going into the club sauna to warm up, and I noticed guys were picking up beer as they passed by the cooler. Joe saw me grab a beer and he called out, “Hey, what are you doing?” Uh oh, I thought. Maybe it was “members-only” beer, or I had to contribute to the club beer fund. “Grab two!” he said. “We’ll be in the sauna a while.” Joe and I were scheduled to swim Alcatraz later that day, but stuff happened, and we did not get the chance.
Fast forward two years. I’ll be in San Francisco for work, so I email my old friend, Joe. “Dude, I’m in town. Want to go swimming?” He emails me back a few minutes later with a cc to his friends, Ned and Andy. In his email, he says he will be out of town but that I am long overdue to swim Alcatraz. He asks Andy to pilot the boat and Ned to swim with me. He lays out the date, the time, the tides, sighting targets – everything. As I am reading this, both Andy and Ned (two guys I have never met) email, “I’m in.” With friends like Joe, it’s that easy.
I arrived at the club the day of the swim, and the weather was perfect. There was a bit of chop in the bay, but the sun was shining, and the water was a balmy 59 (ish) degrees. A few days prior, we had decided to swim early in the day because Ned (who happens to be a local rock star) was playing a concert that afternoon. For me, the timing translated to a stronger tidal current. We were in the club house changing when I started to get a little nervous. I had been worried about the water temperature, so just in case, I brought my wetsuit. I asked Ned if I should wear the wetsuit, and he looked at me the same way the cool kids look at “that kid” who asks if he can walk home with them. “Naw, fuck that,” he said. “Let’s just go.” We strolled out of the clubhouse, down the street and into the harbor–Ned in his housecoat, me in my towel pullover. We met up with Andy and his co-pilot, Kelsey, and headed across the bay.
It’s only 1.6 miles across the bay, so we arrived in no time. Once we pulled up next to Alcatraz Island, it was obvious that the current was very strong. It was the middle of the flood tide which meant the current was coming into the bay. Andy instructed me to sight to my right because the current would pull me left–hard. San Francisco Harbor has a lot of boat traffic, so Andy had to radio Harbor Patrol to inform them that we were swimming across. The patrol replied that there was a sailing regatta about to start so we had to jump now. Before I knew it, Ned jumped and started swimming. I jumped in too.
When I hit the water, my first thought was, “Holy shit, is this water ever cold!” Then I started hyperventilating. “Just calm down and get into a rhythm,” I was telling myself. “Just calm down, get into a rhythm, and breath.”
“It’s too fucking choppy to get into a rhythm, asshole,” I replied to myself. I was less than a minute in, and already I needed help.
I sighted and could see Ned a few feet ahead of me; that was slightly comforting. But the chop was bad, so I defaulted to a one-stroke breath. Boy, did I ever want to get back in that boat. “You look great!” Andy and Kelsey yelled encouragement from the boat. I was still hyperventilating.
After several seconds (or minutes?) I got control of my breathing. I was still very uncomfortable, but I no longer wanted to quit. Twice, a big wave spun me, and I had to stop swimming to get my sight line back. Both times, Andy was great. He would get beside me and point me in the right direction.
When I am swimming in open water, I will sight a point on the horizon and head for it. It might be a lighthouse, the Toronto skyline, or Fort Mason in San Francisco. I think of the point like a compass heading. When you follow a compass you head west, but you never expect to arrive “West.” In a similar fashion, I rely on my sighting point for direction, but I never expect to get there. When I get closer, and it actually becomes a place, I start thinking, “Hey, I’m going to make it!”
In contrast, with this swim, I felt like I was sprinting the whole way. I don’t recall thinking of my sighting point as an actual place until I was right there. I was probably less than a hundred yards from shore when it finally registered that I was going to make it. Ned was a lot faster than me, so Andy flew off and picked him up at the pier, and they all came back for me. I was a few feet from the pier when I just quit swimming. I was treading water, in a daze, when Ned yelled, “Touch land anywhere and it counts!” I swam up to the pier and touched the wall. I had escaped from Alcatraz.
Back in the boat, Ned told me the swim was just under 30 minutes long, and we had drifted about 1 km with the current. When I checked the map, I realized I cut it about as close as you can. If I had swum any more slowly, I would have missed the piers entirely and drifted into the bay.
Big thanks to my friend, Joe, for setting this up, Ned for swimming with me, Andy for piloting, and Kelsey for co-pilot skills and amazing photos. Thanks also to Madhu for hooking me up with the coolest swim club outside of LOST.