A Guide to Swimming Alcatraz


This Saturday, I will compete in the famed Alcatraz swim race for the seventh time and will joined by last year's winner and co-founder of InGameNow, Steuart Martens, and Widgetbox CEO Will Price. We will be swimming in the Alcatraz 100 swim race which was recently named one of the ten best open water swims behind other famous events like the Waikiki Roughwater Swim and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. It's clearly not tech related (so if you read this blog for tech news, I apologize), but I am frequently asked about the Alcatraz swim and, with the race a couple days away, I thought it was worthwhile to post a guide to swimming Alcatraz.

Two Alcatraz Courses There are two Alcatraz courses: the most common is from the rock almost directly south into the Aquatic Park beaches. This swim is (if swum perfectly) 1.25 miles long and the last quarter mile is actually protected within Aquatic Park (in a cove near the wharf with a concrete opening for boats). The second course, shown below, is into the beaches of Chrissy Fields. This course is roughly 1.75 miles long and is far more difficult because it requires better sighting and mapping - in addition to better conditioning. The mixture of currents makes the Chrissy Fields swim very difficult. As an example, I swam the Aquatic Park course as part of the Alcatraz 100 race in 2004 and placed 2nd with a time of 28:14. Of course conditions were not equal, I swam the Chrissy Fields course in July 2006 and it took 39 minutes.


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Alcatraz Water Temperatures The hardest part about the swim is clearly the frigid water temperatures which can range from 57-63 degrees depending on the time of year and the city's weather. The first year that I swum the race, the water was around 63 degrees and last summer it was just under 60... I recommend a wetsuit, although Steuart swam the race last year in nothing more than a Speedo. Either way, it's important that you condition yourself for the water temperature and swimming in a wetsuit. Aquatic Park is a great place to get a feel for what the water is like and how different swimming in a wetsuit is. One piece of advice I give is that you will always find Aquatic Park colder because, on race day, your adrenaline is so great that it somewhat soothes the cold.

If you are particularly worried, you can wear swim caps made of wetsuit-like materials - if you don’t have one, you can wear multiple latex caps. Always make sure that your cap is neon colored as its much safer should you need attention or assistance.

If you can’t practice in Aquatic Park, it is recommended that you prepare by showering in cold water (seriously).

Starting the Race Pretty simple and pretty gut-wrenching. Hundreds of swimmers - mostly in wetsuits - stand on the deck of a big cruiser-boat. The race director blows a shotgun and everyone dives in and races to shore. The stronger, more aggressive swimmers dive out first. If you want to avoid the crowds and are doing the swim more for accomplishment than for time, I recommend waiting for the competitive swimmers to dive in first.

Alcatraz Currents Other than the cold, the most challenging aspect of the Alcatraz swim are the currents. On an average day, if you jump in next to the rock and lay back - you will be under the Golden Gate Bridge within 45 minutes! The currents push out towards the bridge, so you must sight east of the landing spot. For the Aquatic Par

Be warned - NEVER aim for the swimmers ahead of you. They will most always be to the your right and, by following them, you will be much further west than they are by the time you reach that point! They have already fought the currents to get to their current positioning - if you must follow a leading swimmer, aim EAST.

Also of note, it is ALWAYS better to overshoot East rather than West. Take a look at the images below used by GPS tracking - you will notice how off course some of the swims are. There is nothing worse or more difficult than having to fight the currents and swim upstream to correct earlier mistakes. It is always easier to swim downstream!