Honorary Mermaid Josie Arden recently swam one of Team Mermaids bucket list swims the short but brutal crossing from Alcatraz prison to San Francisco bay. She spoke to Katie about her experience.
Katie: What inspired you to swim Alcatraz?
Josie: I think there was quite a large amount of ‘I don’t know if I can do that’ which is quite appealing. It was my first ever sea swim which is quite cool – obviously quite ridiculous too but quite cool. It is a swim which since I have learned of its existence has been on the bucket list – it is a really cool swim to do.
It was also opportunity as much as anything. I was in San Francisco because my best friend was getting married and I thought ‘what’s the likelihood of it being on the same day and me being able to do it’.
K: Tell us about the swim?
J: I went to the briefing the day before as well as on the day as I thought I could probably do with hearing this twice. On the day we got there very early at 10 to 6 in the morning at the meeting point down at St. Francis yacht club which is the finish of the swim.
When I got there I met a lady who had tried to do the swim twice before and both times it had been cancelled – once due to high winds and once due to forest fires which affected water quality. It was very windy! We were slightly concerned about that. The organisers were being quite non-committal – not about whether the swim would go ahead or not; just not quite sure what to expect.
The organisers repeated the briefing from the night before and told us what they hoped would happen, explaining the course and the sighting. The sighting was very interesting because of the currents. You cross the most difficult bit first as you swim from the island directly across towards the shore and then once things start moving out of your periphery then you swim perpendicular to the shore for the majority of the swim.
It still wasn’t clear what the swim would look like but we went out on the boat to have a look and see what it was like. The coast guard and the captain were having a nice chat. We weren’t sure what the likelihood was, not necessarily that the swim would go ahead but that we would swim the planned route.
We got on to a yellow school bus from the finish and drove to the start and got on a boat. The most difficult part of the day was climbing down onto the boat! I am not joking; if you didn’t have four points of contact with the boat you would be falling off. There were 40 of us and a couple of crew – it was quite packed and it was pretty windy. As soon as you came out from the shelter of the marina you realised how high the winds were. There was a sea lion just hanging out “Morning!”
By the time we got closer to the island there were three-foot waves and the coast guard was like you are not going to be able to get in and swim from here. I think we could have swum but it would have taken such a long time to do the initial part of the swim that it wasn’t worth it. So what they did was we went out had a look and went round the island and then we came about 400m into the shore towards the Aquatic Park so we didn’t swim all the way from the island. Frankly I wasn’t that sorry. I would have been really disappointed if I couldn’t get in but if they felt getting in closer to shore was the safest thing to do then that was fine with me!
We were basically dumped between the island and the Aquatic Park and told to sight to the first arch of Golden Gate Bridge because that would stop you getting sucked too close to the shoreline. If you get too close to the shore before the landing point apparently you get sucked into a big eddy and get smashed against some rocks. That thought was a bit terrifying especially for my first sea swim!
What I didn’t realise until after we finished was that of the 40 people who were on the boat 11 didn’t even get into the water and I’m glad I didn’t know that as I just blindly followed the person in front of me and got off the boat. I met a kiwi guy at the briefing the night before who was saying he had never swum in a wetsuit before. I think we were both apprehensive about the whole thing but it was nice to have someone to catch the eye of and be like ‘ah we’ll be fine’ even if you are not feeling it you are both joking about it. He ended up winning! While he hadn’t swum in a wetsuit before he had clearly done a lot of sea swimming.
K: So how far did you swim in the end?
J: I think it was just over a mile but it didn’t feel like a fast swim. It took just over 21 minutes. The swim is timed to go with the current but the thing which was making it so difficult was the wind which is what generated so much swell. You constantly felt like you were being smashed in the head. Clearly I was moving at some speed but it just didn’t feel like that at all. I was planning to just jump in and find a nice pair of feet. The day before when I arrived in San Francisco I actually ran quite a lot of the route and it was beautiful sunshine and the water was so calm and peaceful. The kite surfers in the bay on Friday evening should have given me a clue to the wind though!
We all jumped in one at a time and it was quite nice once you jumped in.
K: Did people wait and all swim together?
J: It was a race. I didn’t realise that until the week before either! They have the swims monthly and then occasionally it is a time trial and I just didn’t read that bit. I am not sure where I finished in the grand scheme of things. There were people who finished before me and people who finished afterwards.
K: And 11 people didn’t even get in!
J: 11 people didn’t get in! Of the people that did get in I think 3 didn’t finish. The organisers were so lovely about it though they were like ‘if it’s not your day it’s not your day we want you to be safe first’.
Once we got in it became apparent to me that I was not going to find a nice pair of feet mainly because I couldn’t actually see anyone. You would get a flash of green hat and then maybe a flash of kayak. It was really hard to sight. Mostly because I just couldn’t see. There were a couple of weird moments where I was swimming along and the sea would just disappear beneath me and I would comedy arm pull through air.
The fact that it was the sea and it was salty didn’t bother me at all – I didn’t even really notice. It just was brutal. You know you are in trouble when all the stand-up paddle boarders are sat down. I think twice I stopped to get my bearings but it became clear that I shouldn’t do that as the enormity of what I was doing kind of sunk in. It was just better to get my head down and keep going.
The end of the swim suddenly just happened. As you are sighting to a point which is about 2 miles ahead it just seems like it is never getting any closer. Suddenly a boat was in front of me and I thought I had gone wrong so I asked the kayaker which way I needed to go and she was like ‘no you are done’ and I just need to cross along to the beach. That was the most swimmable bit and it was just in to shore. I was like ‘Yeahhhh!’ It is a weird phrase but mostly it just felt ‘not very swimmable’. I then just ran along the beach, high fived the guy next to me and the job’s a good ‘un.
K: So logistics! Who did you do the swim with and how much was it?
J: I did it with a company called Water World Swim (https://waterworldswim.com/swims-events/alcatraz-crossings/). I booked it on New Year’s Eve before it went up. It cost $241. There are a couple of companies that do it but this was just the date that worked for me. They were so great. I was going from there to a wedding and they were really helpful with providing me information in relation to how to get there. Also they have an optional briefing on the Friday night which is the same as on the day but it is useful to hear it twice. It is a drop-in in a sports store in the bay and you get a massive discount on stuff if you go shopping there! There were three of their coaches who do the swim with you as well as the boat and loads of kayakers. I was within a few meters of someone always. They were very chilled and said if you want to get out then just let us know – if you want to get on the boat for a bit and then get back out that is fine too. There were three kids swimming it as well – one in skins!
The water was 14 degrees so not too bad at all. Of all the things I thought about while I was in the water the cold was not one at all.
K: What was the highlight and the lowlight of the swim?
J: What was the highlight? It was probably the second after we jumped off the boat and it was just like ‘right we are going to do this thing are we?’
The possibility of it not happening was the probably the lowlight. There was a moment when we were out of the boat when it was in question and while I would have understood as it is about people safety it made me realise how much I wanted to do it. Being there at 10 to 6 in the morning was not the best either!
K: We are used to that as swimmers though!
J: Ha yes. The view is sensational. You land in the bay just by Crissy Fields which is right at the start of the parkrun. If I hadn’t had somewhere to be it could have been a swim run kind of morning! It was just beautiful though – views of the Golden Gate Bridge one way and Alcatraz the other.
K: What advice would you do to anyone how is interested in doing the swim?
J: I did the swim on Saturday morning and on Thursday evening you can swim in the aquatic bay with the same people who organise the swim and if I had been there on Thursday it would have been quite a good thing to do to get used to swimming in the bay. It would give you a better sense of where you are swimming from and to. It would have been useful to know that in advance.
Just do it – just absolutely do it. There was a great sense of camaraderie of the swim. People had come from all over to do the swim. It was amazing.
K: I need to edit out the scary bits before I show this to Amanda to try and persuade her to do it! [Katie then edits out the bit where Josie talks about the sharks].