Many inmates wished they could have made the 1.5-mile swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco back in the day when The Rock was still accepting boarders. Several, in fact, died trying.
Too bad they didn't have the shoulders and discipline of seven Rogue Valley Masters swimmers who made the June 28 crossing (with 800 others) at the 16th annual Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim.
"It was cold, windy and choppy, and the first time I swam any distance in the ocean, but now I can say I did it," says masters swimmer and architect Jac Nickels of Ashland, who swam in the 60-to-65-year-old age class.
Finishing 34th overall and swimming in the 50-to-55 age class, David Heller, an Ashland chiropractor, echoed the theme, saying, "I loved it, but it was cold, and I was doubting whether I wanted to do it. The first 10 minutes were a challenge because you're surrounded by 800 people and it's like bumper cars — but now I can say I've done it."
Ashland restaurateur Daniel Greenblatt does the swim every year and, after finishing 142nd, says, "I love it — love to swim in open water — but would never swim by myself, so this is an opportunity to do it with some protection. I like to push myself."
Although the swim is over in 35 to 45 minutes for the better swimmers, there's a bit of danger from currents that tend to sweep swimmers to the right — toward the Golden Gate and out to sea — so swimmers have to work to counteract it, says Greenblatt, who swam in the 50-to-55 class.
"The attraction is to test my skill and endurance, a mental thing," Greenblatt says, "and to deal with how it's a little creepy in the water."
Much of the mystique around the swim flows from the legends of convicts, such as John Paul Scott, the only inmate who is confirmed to have made the swim — though he was picked up at Fort Point, treated for hypothermia and returned to The Rock. Other cons jumped in for the paddle but were never seen again.
Sharkfest swimmers rode to Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay by ferry, then they were guarded by kayakers in the 57-degree water as they swam to shore. Some swimmers who were not up to the challenge were carried off Crissy Beach, the finish line, on stretchers. Most swimmers wore wet suits.
"It takes someone with real goal orientation," Nickels says, "someone who likes to set goals and achieve them — and sometimes be half off your rocker to do it. Sometimes you're surprised you actually did it."
Other Rogue Valley Masters swimmers who conquered the crossing were Todd Lantry, the group's president, June Mather, Geri Mathewson and Lisa Bach.
"I agonized all year about doing it. Why did I do it? I did it for the t-shirt and hat," jokes Nickels, "and that's the last time."
Mathewson, who took second in her 60-to-64 age group, initially joined Nickels in saying she'd swam her last Sharkfest. It was great to return to her childhood home in the Bay Area, she says, but the water was rough and chilly. A few moments later, however, she softens up.
"There is always the possibility" of doing it next year, she says.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.