Swimming Alcatraz (without a wetsuit)

Posted by Squad Leader on

Swimming Alcatraz (without a wetsuit)

In September, my husband Ethan and I made the swim to “escape” from Alcatraz Island.  
It actually surprises me that so many people do this swim because so many people thought we were crazy for doing it.

There are a lot of organized events held every year for the Alcatraz swim.  We did the event hosted by the South End Rowing Club, The Alcratraz Invitational. But there are several others and here are a few more:

Waterworld Swim
Sharkfest Swim
Alcatraz Challenge (this one has a run attached to it- over the golden gate bridge!)
Odyssey Open Water Swim

I really think that any healthy individual who is capable of swimming 2 miles in a pool in about an hour or less, can do this swim.

In all honesty, we went swimming at our neighborhood pool three (yes, 3) times to train for the event, which is just the way I like to prepare for things like this and create near death experiences for myself. Joking. Kind of. I do know how to swim…

My swimming experience basically consists of childhood lessons, followed by many years on club and high school swim teams, followed by college water polo (CWPA) player and jobs as a lifeguard, swim teacher and swim coach. I spent most of my life as a pool-rat. And growing up in the desert, I basically never swam in open water. I completed 2 other open-water events in recent years, but I still consider myself new to open-water swimming. I know how to swim pretty well, but swimming in the ocean is not something I’m entirely familiar with.

Ethan is a Recon. Marine Corps Veteran. His swimming career consists of being tossed out of a helicopter into the open ocean, miles from shore, forced to swim to safety wearing full camos and carrying gear on his back. He did deep water diving. In the dark. In very cold water.  He was dragged to the bottom of a pool and physically beaten by someone trying to drown him as part of his training. Some of his comrades were even water-boarded, but I suppose that doesn’t technically count as “swimming”. He is truly an elite athlete and isn’t afraid to tell anyone to “suck it up”.

So when my 68-year-old father-in-law “challenged” us to swim Alcatraz with him, we basically had no choice but to accept. There were two divisions to sign up for on the event registration: wet-suit and “skins”.  I had never swam any long distances in a wet suit and found them quite uncomfortable. Ethan had swum in open water in the middle of winter without a wetsuit in water that was frozen on the surface. So naturally, he talked me into registering for the “skins” (no wetsuit) division. Both of us just smiled and nodded our heads to each other, “Yeah, we’ll be fine. Water temperatures in the low 60- degrees is chilly, but not THAT cold for a 1.5 mile swim”.

So we flew out on the day before the event. We picked up our packets that evening and I got to meet Lynn Cox, pretty much the best open-water swimmer ever. If you have 5 minutes, you can see just how awesome she is here.



The next morning we had to be at the pier at 6:00am. It was a chilly 62 degrees outside so I showed up wearing some nice warm sweat pants. I suppose I hadn’t thought about all these details, but we basically had to dump everything that wasn’t going in the water with us at the rowing club. So I stripped down to my suit and cap and goggles and left all my other clothes and other stuff, including my shoes, behind.


At 6:45am, all nearly 600 swimmers walked the 3/4 mile to the ferry boat. My feet got really black walking along the asphalt of the touristy fisherman’s warf area without any shoes. I was also cold because I was wearing nothing but a nike swim suit with spaghetti straps. As we walked I heard people talking about how they took cold showers for 3 months to acclimate to the cold water. I also noticed that there were almost no women without a wetsuit. When I boarded the ferry, someone volunteering at the event said, “You’re only the second woman I’ve seen come through here without a wetsuit on”.

“Great”, I thought. "I AM as crazy as I look"… but I replied, “Go big or go home”.

The boat left the dock and we stayed inside out of the wind to try and conserve body heat (there was also no sun). About 100 yards from where the boat would drop us off, Lynn Cox began talking on the ferry’s loud speaker, “The water temperature dropped a bit and is a nice cool 57 degrees”. You could hear the synchronized sounds of the swimmers gasping and moaning about the news. I sighed and sort of laughed to myself out of nervousness. It was MUCH too late to back out of this now.

We got in line as they started funneling people off the edge of the boat to start their swim. At the last minute, Ethan ducked into the lavatory room in the back of the boat. Before I even saw the latch close on the door, I turned to hear a volunteer yelling, “COME ON, KEEP THE LINE MOVING!” I had no time to think about it and in an instant I was shooed off the side of the boat in what felt like a 10-15 foot plunge down into the most frigid water I have ever been submerged in in my life.

It was so cold it knocked the wind out of me and I couldn’t breath. I immediately began to panic while I struggled to take some breaths. I couldn’t even move. I stayed frozen there by the boat, barely able to tread water. My mind was telling me, “WTF were you thinking Caitlyn!? you can’t do this! This is too cold!” but I stopped myself and regrouped. “This is all in your head. Mind over matter. If you don’t move your A$$ NOW you’re only going to get colder and this is only going to take longer, so GET GOING”.

And so I did. I started to take forward strokes, hoping I would soon feel warmer, but I never warmed up. Every time my face was in the water I felt a very uncomfortable sensation of brain freeze and every time I came up to breath, a choppy wave of salt water smacked me right in the face. So I decided to swim backstroke. I alternated with taking 3-4 strokes on my stomach and then turned on my back for 50 or so more strokes. Before I knew it I could clearly read the sign in Ghirridelli Square (I don’t see very far without glasses) and the pier next to the finish line. I came in with a strong finish and a time of 51 minutes when I ran through the finish line on the beach. Ethan and his dad finished in about the same time.

After I got my finishers metal and reunited with my family, It took me a very long time to warm up. I shivered uncontrollably for about 45 minutes after I finished and it took about that long before I could feel my feet and hands again. Without feeling in my hands I could hardly use them and I felt a little idiotic since I knew these were all signs of hypothermia.  But I did it!  (Ethan was totally fine, by the way. He didn’t get nearly as cold as I did. And his dad wore a wetsuit and said he was “comfortable” the whole time.)

I learned a couple of things in this process and there are things I would do differently if I ever did it again. So if you’re reading this thinking you might do this swim sometime, here is my best advice:

1) Prepare for the cold

If you swim regularly in the ocean or even a lake in 60ish degree water, this may not really be an issue because you could be acclimated already. For those who don’t have easy access to natural bodies of (cold) open water, you may consider planning some sort of acclimation process. I’m no expert, but it seems that more exposure to cold water over time could get you used to it.

The most obvious thing would be to just wear a wetsuit. You can rent them in the bay area. I would recommend training in the one you will do the swim in though. This way you know how much buoyancy you’ll have and you’ll be comfortable with the way you move in the suit. Also, training in the suit will give you an idea about where you might chafe. If you train in fresh water, the chafing will be much less, but you can either fix the problem or prepare for it before the ocean water swim.

If you’re stubborn like me and don’t want to wear a wetsuit, there are a lot of other things you can do to prepare much better than I did. Obviously you could wear a swim suit that covers you more than a basic speedo would and maybe even layer suits. One thing that I completely underestimated was the amount of heat I would lose through my head (hence the whole swim done backstroke). To combat this, what I should have done was to wear several layers of swim caps, and preferably a thicker silicone cap to the keep the heat in. Also, ear plugs can help keep some warmth in, but beware that in open water it is always risky to compromise your hearing since you should always be very aware of your surroundings. 

2) Train a little more than I did

Everyone has different abilities when it comes to swimming. Since my husband and I have two small kids, it was challenging to get our training in, but we were both already pretty good swimmers. I would recommend to do AT LEAST once weekly 2+ mile/1 hour swims the month before and take as long as you need before that to work up to that distance and time.  Erring on the conservative side, you should swim 2-3 times weekly in the 4-6 weeks leading up to the event, making sure at least one swim weekly is 2 miles with a goal time of under an hour.

3) Bring a buddy as a “spectator”

It would have been terribly helpful if I’d had a buddy with a backpack for this event! Someone to come on the boat with me and then meet me at the finish line. You can’t take anything on the boat with you that isn’t going in the water, UNLESS you have someone just chilling on the boat with you that will hold your clothes, shoes and phone/camera for you while you’re in the water. Having a buddy will allow you to wear your shoes and warm clothes until you’re ready to jump. Buddy can also probably take some good photos and be a good cheerleader.

4) Prepare mentally

If you’re like me, there is a high probability that your mind will totally freak out about something before or during an event like this. Have some tools in your back pocket for that. Something, a mantra or cheer to tell yourself when you start going down the mental spiral of fear and defeat.

One thing that gets to me about ocean swimming is the unknown depth of the water under me and all the unseen slimy plants and creatures with teeth and stingers under there. So I just don’t think about it. I paint a picture of my goal in my mind and try not to think about anything else until I’m done. For me, I try to make being in the ocean an experience similar to being in a remote forrest area. There is nature all around you and it’s something to enjoy, respect and appreciate, not to be afraid of.

I truly believe that most physical challenges hinge more on mental abilities than physical. Mind over matter. You can do this!


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