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ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ – How to swim with the sharks, without being eaten alive

By November 23, 2011August 1st, 2018No Comments

What’s the first thing you think of when you think Alcatraz?  Escape!

In June of this year, 2011, Grand Dynamics International secured a new office on Treasure Island in San Francisco to offer unique trainings and events to the San Francisco and Silicon Valley markets.  A couple things occurred when I began to spend time in the office on a daily basis. The first thing was I kept looking out at the skyline of the city.

An impressive skyline and I appreciated San Francisco for all its wacky beautifulness.  Just to the right of that prominent skyline view, is the iconic Alcatraz.  The prison–island most of us associate with Clint Eastwood’s role in the classic Escape from Alcatraz movie



I began to look at Alcatraz every day, I soon began to dream of escaping from it, and swimming to the mainland. Wait. Swim from Alcatraz?

It turns out that that swimming from Alcatraz is quite the iconic challenge for San Francisco. I compare it to the Grand Teton in Jackson Hole, always looming in front of you. You can look at it, or you can climb it.  Same from Alcatraz it seemed.  I could look at it, or I could swim from it.

There was only one problem: I wasn’t quite sure I could swim the 1.5 miles across shark infested open ocean water with huge choppy waves and some of the strongest currents anywhere in the world. Swimming from Alcatraz is no joke and many reports tell of undertow currents so strong in places that your feet literally get sucked down underneath you.  Ocean waves can be three feet high requiring a skill I call troth swimming. Did I mention sharks?

As I reflected on how I did it, I realize that I had “chunked down the change.”   As adventurous as I am, my decision to swim from Alcatraz was based on a series of smaller, incremental steps.  First was the experience of the sprint triathlon on Treasure Island. “Yes, I can do that,” I told myself.  I did the Sprint Triathlon and I had also recently done a ten-mile mountain race (both pretty funny stories actually).  I was pretty fit.

Even so, I still saw swimming Alcatraz as a daunting undertaking.  I had experienced many hectic ocean swims while abalone diving, but I had never swum any great distance before in open water. And I will be the first to tell you that I do things in water because it is challenging, not because it is my element.

But it was Alcatraz! The mystique is just too much to pass up.

I decided at the Treasure Island Triathlon that a week later I would compete in the TriCal Aquathon, which combined the 1.5 mile Alcatraz Swim and a 7 mile run across Golden Gate Bridge.

OK Now what to do with that whole week I had to train?

Preparing to Swim from Alcatraz

I did what most Americans would do first – I watched you tube videos on how to open water swim.  Well that didn’t really give me the skill or courage I was looking for. So two days before the race I called a local expert to set up an “evaluation” of my abilities.

Well I actually missed the expert and the group lesson even though we did park illegally (nice effort Reuben!) but ended up swimming two miles in an effort to check my own ability.  I only choked on water about ten times and ended up getting the worst swim suit rash ever – such that it was a long-standing joke about removing the implant from my neck. For the record there is this stuff called Glide that you put on where the neck is so you don’t get a rash – believe me – don’t leave home without it!

And so with my practice of one 2 hour swim session I deemed myself “ready” to swim from Alcatraz.  Less than 24 hours later I was jumping off the boat and swimming from Alcatraz!


The Swim

3:30 AM wake up, 5 AM shuttle, 7 AM boat launch, and at 8 AM…  the moment came when I stepped up amidst the crowd to the side of the boat, and with a smiling but determined grin, launched into the frigid water.  There were 700 people who swam from Alcatraz that day, and all of us were in the water within 5 minutes!

Once the plunge happened, my world shifted into total focus on the process.  Stay calm, stroke, glide, breathe, twist, site, rinse, repeat!   Quite literally, over and over and going with the flow. Feeling the waves and being in synch with the stroke and my body was incredible. Be the fish.  Nothing else matters.  Just keep going.   And keep going I did.  The luck was with me and the waters were relatively calm.  I could feel the current surging me across the bay on the massive cross bay ferry.  What seemed like a flash was forty-two minutes later. I emerged feeling fully charged up and ready to enjoy the run across the Golden Gate Bridge!

Noteworthy Strategies

A couple noteworthy strategies I learned that are critical for ocean water swimming.


First and probably foremost is a thing called “sighting.” What is sighting?   Yep, you guessed it, ocean water sighting is the basic concept that you need to look where you are going!  Surprising I know. Seriously, it is critical to have your “line” which is your pathway across the ocean to a specific landmark.  And every few strokes you look up and make sure you are headed the right direction. Quite the metaphor for life and business, really.

Reading Currents

Over the mile and a half across the ocean from Alcatraz to the Bay there are several currents that move at different speeds.  If you are swimming with a slow current then you are going to go slower than if you are swimming with a faster current. That said, getting intel, beta, info, etc… about the currents before hand will help dictate the route across the ocean. It is similar to a cross river ferry in a raft, where you angle the boat for optimal flow with the river current. Similar but this river is a mile and a half and there are many changing currents.  For example, if the faster current is flowing on the inland side, then your goal is to get to that stream as quickly as possible.  NOT to swim down and then across.  Make sense?  Basically you’re working the ocean currents to your advantage.

Fitness Matters

Quite simply, be in good shape.  Be able to swim straight for a minimum of one hour. You can mix up the strokes but the bottom line is that swimming actually requires cardio fitness.

Psychology Matters More

Half the battle is getting out of the gate.  Remember that one small step will lead to the next, and the next…. Deciding to do something is 80% of what holds you back in the first place.  As it turns out, Reuben Gibson, a then current GDI West Coast Director also took the plunge without really knowing how to swim, and that’s another story! Get out there, get after it and take the next step toward your next feat of greatness!


Lately I have been thinking about and reminded that I have control of my own emotional state.  If I find myself in a prison, it is the one that I put myself in in the first place. Control the internal and we will master the external.  A philosophy that reminds of a quote from Lao Tzu, which goes something like, “He who controls others may be strong. He who controls himself is mightier still.”

Until next time,

Live Your Adventure!

Tim Walther

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