In the early 1900s, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was known for holding some of the nation’s most notorious criminals. During the 29 years it was in use, the jail held infamous convicts such as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.”
Located in the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz is surrounded by miles of cold, dark, unforgiving water, deterring most prison escape attempts. The now former penitentiary claims that no prisoner successfully escaped during its years of operation. True stories of failed escape attempts in the shark-infested, frigid waters have contributed to the legend of inescapable Alcatraz and an impossible swim to freedom.
On Saturday, despite 59-degree water and a recent great white shark sighting, I was among 850 people who did what no prisoner ever accomplished. We swam the 1.5 miles of open water that separates San Francisco from the island during the 27th annual Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim.
Full of nerves and excitement, I jumped in the water for my third Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim, which starts at Alcatraz and ends on the other side of the Bay, at Aquatic Park.
They say the start is the worst part. Jumping off the ferry into the murky, freezing bay water is a shock to your system. Alcatraz loomed ominously above me, hidden partially by the fog as I surfaced, trying to catch my breath. The city skyline seemed impossibly far away as I swam to the start line, my heart still racing.
The ferry horn signaled the start of the race and the horizon became obscured with white water and yellow swim caps. I put my head down and swam, careful to watch the kayakers guiding the path so that I would not be swept in the wrong direction by the currents.
Thirty-nine minutes later, my hands touched sand and I pulled off my goggles as I jogged across the finish line.
Crossing the finish line after completing a swim that hundreds of the country’s most hardened criminals wouldn’t dare attempt is a pretty incredible feeling.
After finishing my first race in 2014 in a wetsuit, I upped the challenge in 2016 and registered in the non-wetsuit category with my older brother. I did so again this summer.
I don’t have a particularly inspiring reason for swimming in the event. Perhaps I was seeking a challenge or maybe a good story to tell my future kids, but looking back I truly couldn’t tell you what was going through my 16-year-old head when I registered that first time. After doing it once though, I knew I had to do it again. While the swim is arduous and I spend half of it cursing myself for signing up, it’s also exceptionally stunning.
About halfway through my swim, I lifted my head out of the water and found myself in the middle of the bay, the San Francisco skyline towering in the distance and notorious Alcatraz Island behind me. Dozens of colorful boats and kayaks lined the route as hundreds of swimmers raced to the finish. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
Perhaps that is reason enough.
Emma Spaeth is a Half Moon Bay High School graduate who was part of the Cougars’ swim and water polo teams. She will be a senior in the University of Oregon journalism program in the fall. This summer, she is an intern at the Review.