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. 25-mile 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 a 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 organized 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 tips for surviving the swim.


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

There’s so many stories around and that’s one of the reasons people don’t even think about trying. There was a small shark case last October—one of those rare cases I’ve never seen before, where the great white shark ate a seal. The kind of sharks that are 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, and it creates a scare and they don’t want to even try. It’s like taking someone who’s never driven before, and getting them on the highway. The fear it, until they do it right.

Fine but it’s still freezing 

Alcatraz, San Francisco, Alcatraz Island

© Flickr / Lloyd Morgan

The conditions of the Bay are never the same. Temperature-wise it’s cold, [it averages 61 degrees at 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. For the first time, I recommend people swim with a wetsuit. 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 be improving 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 and you’re driving back home after you’ve been swimming, all of a sudden, 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 when you transition, it’s important to swim with a group. We offer group swims every Sunday and we see people at different levels. You need to be introduced to the water with the proper advice. We tell people don’t think too much and try and complicate your fun time [the first time] We try to make the swim fun at first and then later on comes the correction. 

So, this is fun?

I tell the swimmers all the time: ‘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 6 in the morning, you 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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