The Great Escape
An early morning fog floats over San Francisco Bay as the 7:45am ferry leaves from Pier 33, close to Fisherman’s Wharf. Destination: the famous citadel known as Alcatraz, 1.5 miles across the water. The former home of Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly is now a national park and recreation center. Yet this particular ferry is not carrying day-trippers or tourists.
The hundreds of people who line the deck are planning their own unique escape. They suddenly begin to strip, pulling out yellow swimming caps and squeezing into wetsuits. As the boat pulls up close to the island prison known as “The Rock” they all begin to jump in the water, three and four at a time. A noisy gaggle splashes around in the freezing foam with gulls, cormorants, and egrets flying over ahead. The swimmers tread the water, chatting among themselves and pointing in the direction of the Golden Bridge. A starting horn blows and off they go, swimming frantically toward land.
The distance looks deceptively short. One of the reasons the island was chosen as a prison is because the tides that run around it are treacherous. The strong current pulls people west and can move a floater three miles off course in less than an hour. Swimmers are advised to swim against the tide, focus on their land destination and not on the swimmers ahead as they will end up going way off course and beneath the bridge where they will require rescuing. Stewards in kayaks shepherd the group of 700 swimmers toward Presidio Park in the shadow of the famous suspension bridge. The view is unusual and unbelievably beautiful with the majestic bridge connecting two land heads with the city skyline in the distance.
That same view must have haunted the former inmates as it seemed so close yet so far. Alcatraz boasts that it had no escapees in its 30-year history as a prison. There were 14 attempts and 2 drownings. In 1962, three men managed to reach the water with the aid of a drill made from a vacuum cleaner. They were never found and presumed drowned. The island’s history goes back to 1775 when it was discovered by the Spanish and christened La Isla de los Alcatrices after the many pelicans that nested in its rocks. It served as a lighthouse, fort, and military prison before the government decided to make it a prison for some of America’s most dangerous criminals. It was eventually closed because it was too expensive and there were concerns regarding the pollution it caused in the bay. Now it is a popular tourist spot, with haunted dungeons, guard towers, and parade grounds to visit.
The swimmers do their own style of parade when they reach land on the other side. A seven-mile (11km) run across Presidio Park involves negotiating steps, a dirt trail, and brick tunnel. The runners dodge walkers, cyclists, inline skaters, joggers, and dogs as they climb 400ft (120m) in a half-mile. The race must be completed within 3 hours from ferry to finishing line if they wish to be timed. Lots of stragglers run in after the time limit, still happy to have escaped from Alcatraz. —CO’M
When to Go: Second Sun of July.
$$$ Ritz Carlton, 600 Stockton St. ( 415/296-7465; www.ritzcarlton.com). $$ Hotel Rex, 562 Sutter St. ( 415/433-4434; www.jdvhotels.com).