One-Way Ticket to Alcatraz

I’ve always heard of the Alcatraz swims but never thought I would actually do one. Recently, my friend Corvin, a determined athlete who is losing both his sight and hearing due to Usher’s Syndrome, asked me to guide him for the Escape from the Rock duathlon (swim-run). Impulsively, I agreed to guide him for the 1.5 mile swim leg. About two seconds after I hit send, it hit me that I had just volunteered to swim from Alcatraz, in shark-infested waters, with extremely strong currents, tied to another person. Does this qualify as temporary insanity?

Corvin and I have run numerous times together, but swimming would be a new experience. We prepared for the race with three guided training swims off Cowell’s Beach in Santa Cruz. Our plan was to tether with a bungie-like cord tied to each of our waists with a few feet of slack. Corvin has dwindling tunnel-vision so I wore a bright cap that would help him track me when he turned to breathe. Verbal communication would be near impossible without his hearing aids and a swim cap covering his ears.

Our first training swim was a mess. I was nervous and swam too fast, practically dragging Corvin through the water, which was bad for both of us. Our second and third swims showed huge improvement. I slowed my pace so we could swim side by side and avoid catching Corvin’s hand in the tether. Once we found our rhythm together, our confidence as a team was established.

Race morning (7/20/14), we loaded the one-way ferry to Alcatraz at 7:00am. Amidst overcast skies, choppy waters, and light wind, Corvin approached his 9th Alcatraz swim and I, my first. Though my eyes would be guiding him on the course, Corvin’s wisdom and experience guided me in preparing for this challenge. As the ferry idled next to Alcatraz, swimmers congregated near the steel double doors on the first floor of the boat awaiting disembarkation.

I looked around at my fellow racers. Most of us were decked in wetsuits and neoprene swim caps, with a smattering of “naked” swimmers (no wet suit), but only one man was without both wetsuit and goggles. He wore only trunks, a swim cap, and spectacles. Bewildered, I inquired. He confidently explained that he didn’t need goggles because he would be swimming elementary backstroke with occasional breaststroke to check that he was heading in the right direction. I couldn’t help but smile and wish him the best of luck on his first open water race. I wonder if he was having similar thoughts about Corvin and me, standing there attached to each other with a bungie cord.

Two by two swimmers jumped off the ferry into the turbulent waters. Corvin and I linked arms and took the plunge. Once we surfaced, we swam to the “start line” and treaded water, anticipating the blast of the ferry horn to signal the mass start.

The horn blew and the water became turbulent with limbs flying in all directions. Contrary to our last two training swims, Corvin and I collided frequently, perhaps due to choppy water, poor visibility, the challenge of navigating around other swimmers without tangling them in the tether, or most likely all of the above. At times, rough waters obscured my view of the buoys while simultaneously serving me a mouthful of salt water, but all things considered, I think we managed a fairly straight trajectory.

During Corvin’s previous Alcatraz swims without a guide (especially in recent years as his vision has deteriorated), he had struggled with disorientation and swallowing saltwater. “This time I only had to track Julia. I could really focus on my stroke and breathing, which made all the difference in my enjoyment of racing deaf-blind,” said Corvin.

Entering the calmer waters of Aquatic Park, we accelerated toward the finishing chute. Finally, feeling our fingertips graze the sandy bottom, we pulled our feet underneath us. When I stood up I felt my body sway in search of equilibrium (a common side-effect of open water swimming). Thankfully, Corvin took on the role of guide and grabbed hold of my arm to stabilized me. Together we proceeded forward through transition area.

In the transition area, Corvin’s run guide, Billy, was perfectly positioned and ready to go. He swiftly helped Corvin remove his wetsuit and lead him down the steps onto the run course.

Corvin’s race times clearly reflected his rigorous training and our seamless teamwork, finishing the swim in a personal record of 53 minutes (previous PR: 61min) and achieving his target run pace at 7:29min/mi average.

Racing is fun, but being part of a team is even better. Thank you Corvin and Billy.

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