Cork Leads 96 Swimmers to Alcatraz – 2006

Alcatraz.jpgWrite-up by Liz Buckley

We signed up nearly a year previously, hungry for a new challenge. On the 27th September, 2006, after months of speculation and debate from colleagues, friends and families regarding sharks in San Francisco Bay, we arrived at the Tuscan Inn on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. That evening a group of us hopefuls walked down to one of the piers to suss out the lay of water and weigh up what we were about to take on. When we sawAlcatrazwe had a double take – comments from our weary jet lagged bunch could be heard to say ‘ is that it???’ … ‘jeez, looks shorter than our normal swim around Sandycove island in Kinsale..’ … ‘dunno what the fuss was about’ … ‘I want my money back’. But behind all this bravado we knew that what looked like a meagre hop and jump was once a treacherous crossing and inhibitor to the inmates of that island, the obstacle that blocked some of the deadliest of prisoners from freedom… it demanded respect.

The next day we had an early start and a chilly one at that! The air temperature was similar to a bracing frosty morning in October at home …. No kidding! So much for California beach weather! A large group of us marched off to the aquatic park to put our fears to rest… how bad could the water be after all, we’d been through worse …surely?? It was freezing in the water. If it was as high as 14 degrees Celsius I’d be surprised. We swam out to to the entrance to the aquatic park as part of our plan to circumnavigate the inside park area.

Once a number of us reached the mouth we had to stop to set our eyes on ourMatterhorn- the island … seemingly so close. There seemed no menace in it at all, so much so that one of my swimming mates decided she would go out and take a look at the outside of the breakwater. It seemed harmless enough so off she went, I wasn’t wearing my wetsuit and was beginning to feel chilly so decided not to go with her. A few of the lads had stopped to chat and comment on our surrounds … we all watched as our friend was suddenly being swept at great speed towards the right and towards the shipping channel. One of the lads took off after her – the rest of us watched and observed how we ourselves had also been swept up against the breakwater wall. The couple managed to get back in but not without effort and a lesson to us all. This water was not to be taken for granted. Now we knew what the game was … the ever deceptive short trip was riddled with strong currents.

Saturday morning 5 am, our time of reckoning had arrived. Auto pilot got me to the bay for about 5.30 am. Whilst munching on a banana I think I woke up somewhere mid queue for registration. The water was suspiciously calm. Inviting us to come and play as if to dare. As the sun came up, the fog was creeping over the water … one could almost imagine the ghosts of those who had attempted this escape from years past outlined in the mist, come to observe us? to laugh at us? to warn us?

A few hollers could be heard amongst the small Irish army that had landed in San Francisco to face up to Alcatraz … of course this won many comments from non Irish in the queue who could not believe the contingent from our small isle totaled 96 swimmers. ‘Jeez, I thought I came a long way’ said one lady fromConnecticut. We were made very welcome and were somewhat of a novelty and pleasant distraction for many!

That’s before I mention the boat trip out to the island and the sing song to the Fields of Athenry that went with it! One had to wonder if any Irish had been locked up inAlcatraz, what did they sing on their trip out?? Once we were pinned, marked and labeled it was time for the mighty march down the pier road to the boat. Cars were stopping in awe, not realising what was going on, it was 7 am … and they were met with a force of 600 or so swimmers clad in swimsuits and wetsuits, all donning numbered yellow rubber hats. I have to confess to having been one of those in a wetsuit. That decision was made after my first swim in San Fran Bay, I nearly turned blue. I was very grateful for my cosy wetsuit this morning.

The Irish were requested to go to the top deck for a photo shoot. Wonderful idea but by golly it was cold up there. As inmates, we would have been the real baddies … left to deal with the elements, some wearing a meagre pair of Speedos! No one floundered on this occasion however, and no matter what we were subjected to, the singing got louder and even an octave higher. There were moments when one had to take a deep breath and visualise what it must have been like to be sent toAlcatraz, the dreams of escape, the plans, the preparations, did anyone succeed? It was both an enormous and eerie occasion.

The boat stopped and it was time to queue for our jump. We had been primed to jump 3 at a time into the deep. The rest was up to us.  We were right at the back of the queue, Paddy Last as it where, the Hooter went! It wasn’t supposed to go until the last person has jumped in – panic set in just as if a great escape plan had been foiled by the noise of the prison alarm being sounded!! Some of the swimmers took fright and leapt off the side of the boat, the rest of us just huddled in the queue, not looking conspicuous but encouraging those in front to be swift. We shuffled on…

My turn at last …whoosh! Once I came up for breath I spotted my guiding point in the skyline by the bay and took off! There was a plethora of bobbing heads in the water – one can only imagine a similar image be true of a ship sinking. Some gathered in groups and were nattering and pointing. I wanted to put some distance between me and the island … I wasn’t going back!

Blocking out any flirting notion of having the odd shark for company on the route, I’d swim with a new found swimming buddy for a little while before spotting another to catch up on. We were guided by kayaks and some strong steering boats. Surprisingly, the water was quite pleasant and our wise boatmen had sent us at a time when the tide was due to turn so the currents would not take us to unexpected places. We had been advised to stop halfway to take in the Golden Gate Bridge and the BayBridge. At such an unusual viewpoint and with the island behind us, it was a breathtaking experience. If any of the escapees had got this far, this would have been the moment they felt that little jump in their heart, the first sign of hope for a new start.

I saw a blue light flashing indicating the entrance to the aquatic park and realized I was way over the left of it. I changed direction and many of us swam in with sprat like formation through the entrance. Yippee! Nearly there and now safe for sure! I could see the Bleachers (name given to the steps on the pier) and headed as fast as I could for home. A rosy cheeked, jovial crowd was there to cheer us in! We did it!

Armed with the pride of the achievement, it was a real bonus and honour to be greeted by the Queen of the Channel herself, Alison Streeter (with 43 swims across theEnglish Channelto her name). She gave me my medal and told me to smile for the camera. I was already smiling … from ear to ear.

And yet, our group of Irish swimmers were to receive the biggest compliment of the event. The Mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, invited us to the City Hall to receive a Proclamation. He had declared the 2nd October, 2006 as Cork Masters Swim Club day in San Francisco. I’m still smiling!