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My 16th Alcatraz Sharkfest was Aug 15th

Posted Aug 12 2009 12:00am

Why Sharkfest? What is the real truth about sharks in San Francisco Bay anyway? Here is what the Federal Bureau of Prisons has to say about sharks in the Bay and escaping from Alcatraz prison:
One of the many myths about Alcatraz is that it was impossible to survive a swim from the island to the mainland because of sharks. In fact, there are no "man-eating" sharks in San Francisco Bay, only small bottom-feeding sharks. The main obstacles were the cold temperature (averaging 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit), the strong currents, and the distance to shore (at least 1-1/4 miles). If a person is well-trained and -conditioned, it is possible to survive the cold waters and fast currents. However, for prisoners - who had no control over their diet, no weightlifting or physical training (other than situps and pushups), and no knowledge of high and low tides - the odds for success were slim.
I also checked for latest data on sharks in the Bay and found that CBS TV San Francisco did a report in 2006 showing that a Great White had been seen in the Bay up near the Richmond Bridge but sightings were extremely rare. The other sharks in the Bay are bottom feeders and/or are very shy and not dangerous to people.

The date of our Alcatraz swim is planned around the tides. The goal is to have relatively slack high tide at the time of the swim which has to be first thing in the morning on a summer weekend to avoid the rough chop and too much boat traffic. The swim distance ends up being about 1.5 miles but Alcatraz is only about a 1.25 miles from Aquatic Park as the crow flies. The extra quarter-mile distance comes from the sloppy, backwards C-shaped course we swim because of the tides.

When the ferry drops us off on the east side of the island toward the Oakland Bay Bridge, Aquatic Park (our target) is straight ahead. Each year is different based on how much flow is coming down the Sacramento river (really heavy in Spring of big snow years) but you never want to aim right for the destination. We might aim for the Transamerica Pyramid building if the current is strong. Or we might aim for a big apartment building on the hill. Navigating once in the water is 1000 times harder than you can ever imagine because just 2" of water in front of your eyes as you look up, will totally obscure your ability to aim for a target.

If one aims directly for Aquatic Park, the tide will sweep you west past the entrance and a boat will have to pick you up and that is embarrassing to say the least. If you aim too far left, the worst that can happen is that you may have swum slightly farther (with the current behind you) until you reach the entrance. I have done this and have lost over a minute this way. If you aim too far right, you'll end up west of the entrance, swimming in place against an unbeatable current and trying to get back. Currents going past the opening of Aquatic Park have been as fast as 6 mph and swimmers tend to swim at about 2 mph so you can imagine how that goes.

A bit past Aquatic Park you can easily see the Golden Gate Bridge. Just out past that in the part of the ocean called the Farralons is a large colony of Great White Sharks so you want nothing to do with heading in that direction.

I have trained well this year. I took my last training swim in Walden Pond today (Wed) and will do a cold water swim just to re-acclimate on Friday morning in the Bay waters. Saturday morning the ferries take us out to the island and have us jump into the water. When all 900 swimmers are in the water and ready to go they blow the horn (approx. 9 AM pacific) and we all start our dash back to the city. My times vary between 36 and 41 minutes.

As with past years, I use this event as a fund-raiser for Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program's HIV team run by my wife Carole. So far this year we have raised about $2,000 for her team.
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