Alcatraz, San Francisco, Alcatraz Island

How to Escape Alcatraz

Words: Andreas Tzortzis
Photo: Wikipedia / D Ramey Logan    

You too can swim the frigid, shark-infested waters around San Francisco’s famous prison island! First, wear a wetsuit. Then take it off. 

Pedro Ordenes has crossed the 1 mile 25 metre passage from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park on the north end of San Francisco “hundreds of times.”  We’re not saying he was escaping from anything. We are saying his intel would’ve been useful to Ted Cole and Ralph Roe who disappeared into the waters of the Bay during a violent storm after filing their way through prison bars in 1937. Or, Frank Morris, and brothers John and Clarence Anglin, who made rudimentary life preservers and a raft from prison-issued raincoats in 1962. They, too, disappeared and are presumed dead, though Clint Eastwood’s movie left it a bit ambiguous. 

Your fate will be decidedly different. For more than 20 years, Ordenes has organised swim expeditions to Cuba, Costa Rica, his native Chile and Greece through his company Water World Swim. But the San Francisco Bay is where his heart is. Below, Ordenes give his tips for surviving the swim.


Let’s get the shark business out of the way, first

There are so many stories around and that’s one of the reasons people don’t even consider trying. There was a small shark incident last October. A great white shark ate a seal, something I’ve never seen before. The kind of sharks that are usually in the Bay are bottom feeders. Most of those great whites like deep waters and they’re not attracted to very cold water. People talk so much about escape, which creates fear and they don’t even want to try. It’s like taking someone who has never driven before and putting them in a car for the first time. You’re always scared until you try in for the first time. 

Fine but it’s still freezing 

Alcatraz, San Francisco, Alcatraz Island

© Flickr / Lloyd Morgan

The conditions are never the same. it’s ofter very cold, [it averages 61ºF, 16at its warmest in August] and in winter it’s colder. The currents are always different. I’ve been in when it’s very calm, and then the winds come and in changes very quickly. I recommend people swim with a wetsuit the first they go in. Then get out, take it off, and jump in the water again. Let the mind do the work. Take note of everything you feel the first time, and that process is going to improve every time you do it. The cold is 50% mind and 50% physical. Many people don’t get back into a wetsuit. You get a new body when you come out of swimming in the cold. It’s like your blood is circulating in such a different way. The the adrenaline kicks in and you feel renewed. I don’t do drugs, but I imagine that’s the high that people feel. 

Do I have to be an expert swimmer?

Start increasing your endurance in the pool. We tell people to try to swim a distance of a mile in the pool without stopping. You don’t have to be fast, but increase your endurance by checking your breathing and being comfortable in the water. Once you get comfortable, we recommend open waters. But it’s important to swim with a group when you make this change. We offer group swims every Sunday for people at different levels. You need to be introduced to the water with the proper advice. We tell people to not think too much and we try to make the swim fun at first and then improve them once they feel comfortable in the water. 

So, this is fun?

I always tell swimmers: ‘Take a second, when you’re in the middle of the Bay, just a second, stop swimming so hard with your head down in the water. Turn around and think about the beautiful thing you’re doing right there. You are one of the few among the millions of people enjoying nature right in the middle of the most beautiful place.’ When you swim – you’re not in the city. You’re not there in the middle of houses, buildings, or pollution. Especially if we swim at 6 in the morning when you can see the lights of the city. You have the best view in the world when you do that.

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05 2016 The Red Bulletin

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