In this guest blog post, MySwimPro Ambassador Michelle Rogalski shares her experience swimming around Alcatraz, the famous prison in San Francisco, California during a global pandemic and a record-breaking wildfire season.
You could not see a thing. I inhaled a small whiff of smoke with every breath. Alcatraz only existed as a little black smudge on the horizon, yet I was supposed to swim around the island in an hour. The fog was thick and the wildfires blazed just a few miles south of San Francisco. Nothing could have prepared me for this.
Open water swimmers train to be ready for any possible scenario, but how can you train for swimming through smoke around an infamous prison during a global pandemic? Were today’s conditions similar to when those prisoners allegedly escaped from Alcatraz more than 50 years ago? This was a scenario only seen in movies.
A Bucket List Swim
I have been dreaming of tackling this swim for ten years. I view it as a necessary stepping stone in preparation for longer and more challenging ocean marathon swims. However, the uncertainty of athletic events taking place in 2020 due to social distancing guidelines made traveling 2,000 miles away risky and challenging, especially with juggling college and a new job. With a packed schedule, I was not sure if I even had time to make it work. On top of that, I have not had access to a pool in 6 months, training only in open water. Despite not being at my best, I knew I was ready. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!
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Exploring Smoky San Francisco
The Aquatic Cove at Fisherman’s Wharf is legendary, making San Francisco a bucket-list-destination for any open water swimmer. Seeing Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Angel Island all while swimming along the beach in the middle of a big city is a unique form of sight-seeing.
At first, the smoke clouding our views of the city was disappointing, but ultimately, it created a spooky ambiance for an even more daunting experience. The day I arrived in San Francisco, the visibility was less than 50 feet. While I was there, a layer of ash covered everything. People and animals were being displaced by wildfires. A raccoon was hanging out on the beach at Aquatic Cove in the middle of the day. San Francisco felt like a ghost town.
Getting My Feet Wet
This was my first time swimming in the Pacific Ocean, so getting a practice session in before the main event really helped ease any nerves. We went over the route and what currents to expect swimming around the island. As we got our feet wet, the 61-degree water temperature felt unreasonably warm. Cold salt water has less of a bite compared to fresh water. What a pleasant surprise!
Aquatic Cove was beginning to feel like home. Fears of what lurked in the deep diminished, and the excitement of the moment took over. As we approached the beach after a short and hazy 1000-yard swim to the end of the pier, a fellow swimmer said, “Did you see that seal swim past us?” And sure enough, there were seals hanging out in the cove the entire trip. This swim should be known as “Seal Fest.” A fisherman even caught two stingrays right next to where we were swimming!
The day before the swim we were notified that the dangerous air quality would be sufficient reason to cancel. When the race organizers said we could back out, 80% of the swimmers did just that. Only eleven swimmers were determined to swim that day in an unrelenting pursuit of their common goal. There was simply no way that I could back out when I was this close!
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Sighting would be the biggest challenge swimming around Alcatraz and back to the San Francisco coastline. The buildings along the coastline are hard to see through the waves even on a clear day. More frequent sighting would be necessary during this swim.
The big day arrived, full of excitement and uncertainty. You could barely see Alcatraz. Angel Island and the Golden Gate Bridge were nowhere in sight. We were told to don our wetsuits, despite the absence of Coast Guard approval. We were in the water waiting to start, still uncertain of whether we were swimming that day. My friend who did photography for the event overheard the Coast Guard relentlessly withholding authorization for us to start. When permission was finally granted, we took the chance, even with the faint outline of a ship appearing in the distance.
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Safety is always paramount; I did not want to stray too far from the group. Getting lost in the fog was a possibility, so I set a compass to my watch face. I wore a wetsuit, since staying warm would be especially important if we got lost. Speed was no longer the focus since it was more important to swim with a buddy, near the support boats, through the smoke and fog-filled haze.
I scrolled down to the open water setting in MySwimPro on my watch, and was off. This was definitely one of those swims you want to look back on, not just to analyze but also to prove it actually happened! About thirteen minutes into the swim, kayakers started shouting. We needed to get out of the way for the ship to pass through. We were all corralled onto a boat; cargo ships do not stop for swimmers! At this time, I really appreciated the long sleeves of my wetsuit barricading the wind aboard the boat. I am still wondering how the two individuals who swam skins didn’t freeze.
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We returned to the water and continued our quest. I found myself sticking around one particular kayaker who guided me to the famous green buoy, around the island, and back to San Francisco. Swimming on the east side of the island was relatively easy with the island blocking most of the current, providing the first opportunity so far to really see Alcatraz. Don’t forget to enjoy the view along the way!
Battling the Current
Once past the island, the current immediately started pulling in one direction away from the finish line. This is why they tell you to get as close to the island as possible before passing it. By the time I reached shore, I was much farther east than expected, and had to swim against the current to finish. Sighting only steers you in the right direction when you can actually see the skyline! I started sprinting as soon as I could make out the entrance to Swimmer’s Cove.
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I could hear cheers at the finish line. As the waves helped carry me into shore, another type of wave overcame me. The magnitude of how much love and support I received over the past few weeks was overwhelming, engulfing me in the moment. We did it! We all swam around Alcatraz during a global pandemic, through the smoke and fog. In my gut I knew this swim would happen. All the risks paid off; we made our dreams come true.
Diving into Cold Water Swimming
I am slowly taking baby steps, warming up to cold water, which included a mini MySwimPro Ambassador training session with Catherine Breed, world record holder for swimming the length of Lake Tahoe. We did an easy swim in the Aquatic Cove the day after the event, no wetsuits. I couldn’t have worn a wetsuit even if I had wanted to since my neck was rubbed raw from the day before. Apparently one layer of body glide is not enough in salt water!
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Nonetheless, Catherine shared some wise words of advice, advising to just go for it and pursue your dreams. Now, I am approaching cold water with a completely different attitude.
Just thinking about swimming around Alcatraz still sends chills down my spine. It is slightly terrifying, but that is also the allure. Choosing to face one’s fears will lead to the greatest possible growth. Hesitating to follow your dreams because of any sort of fear leads to regret. Being cold is scary to me, to be quite honest. The Pacific Ocean is no joke either!
I am finally learning that what is in my own head is the biggest obstacle. Conquering your fears gives you the power back and opens up the mind to think bigger, inevitably presenting opportunities along the way if you continue to apply yourself.
The Smoke Clears
Visibility improved the day of our departure. For the first time, you could see the Golden Gate Bridge and Angel Island from the cove. Today was the first day of the next phase change for reopening with the coronavirus and things just felt a little more serene and carefree. We had picked one of the strangest times in history to visit San Francisco, but we made the best of the trip, devouring delicious food and touring the city by scooter. We visited China Town and hung out on the beach finding sand dollars.
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We pushed through the doubt and difficulties along the way and made dreams come true. In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take. If you have passion and commit to your dreams in everything you do, anything is possible. I am happy to announce that my dreams are leading me to my next chapter in life, the opportunity to be my local YMCA’s Aquatics Coordinator. Believe in your dream and make it happen!
Follow Michelle’s swimming journey on Instagram at @seeshellswim. Get 20% off MySwimPro ELITE COACH with code SEESHELLSWIM.