Arrived in San Francisco around 5 p.m. All bags arrived except JD & Noah’s. Rented a black Chevy Cobalt and drove to Holiday Inn Express-Fisherman’s Wharf. Big evening plans included walking to Trader Joes and Safeway Grocery Store for reinforcements. We were the first to bed.
Day 2—Thursday, April 8
Most of us woke up around 3 a.m. and stayed in bed, until 6 a.m. We had breakfast around 6:30/7am and left for Muir Woods to see the redwoods. We saw the redwoods, banana slugs, chipmunks and birds. One of us climbed on forbidden trees. We stopped at a gorgeous sight, Muir Lookout, for photos. Next, we played on the shoreline at Stinson Beach and read the warning sign about great white sharks. Karen started her rock collection. It was sunny, windy and about 60 degrees. On the way back we stopped for a 7-11 Slurpee run and Karen wanted to fatten up before the swim. She ate a half pint of cheap chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.
After parking near the Golden Gate, we walked half way across and marveled at the view below, where we would be swimming Sunday. Just a short drive to Crissy Field, we sat and watched the surfers at Fort Point and drove through Presidio. After a quick change, we walked Boadin Bread’s flagship location on the Wharf, for a delicious sourdough slice of San Francisco. Karen, still on her bulk up plan, demolished half a pork porterhouse, Noah tried the halibut, Ben, the sea bass, and JD entertained with the “crab feast,” wearing her bib. After dinner, the four of us walked to Pier 39 and spotted sea lions. Around 8pm, we headed back to the hotel to welcome Jill Domino and Jenna Perry into town. All six of us walked to Ghiradelli Square, where we stood patiently in a line of droolers, for fabulous ice cream and free chocolate samples. If that wasn’t enough hiking for the day, Ben, Jenna, and Karen (expressing guilt about two bouts with ice cream), walked up Hyde Street and down Lombard Street.
Day 3—Friday, April 9
When we sat down for breakfast at 7a.m, we were a minority of swimmers sprinkled in a massive high school choir group and their chaperones. After a quick walk to Pier 33, we boarded the Alcatraz Tour Boat at 9 a.m. There was a group of at least 100 young volunteers heading to the island as gardeners and caretakers on a sister ship. The island was incredible. Workers distributed headsets and remotes for the walking tour. After struggling with trying to be in the right place during narration, the smart ones figured out we could pause the narrator. We learned that if you broke the law, you went to prison. If you broke a rule in prison, you went to Alcatraz. The five of us volunteered to stand in the solitary confinement cell for 20 seconds with some kids. Spooky. We were all glad we didn’t have to try to find the toilet in the dark. Parts of the island were barricaded due to nesting birds. Enjoyed wandering around the recreation field and seeing the inmates’ cells and cafeteria. The well-behaved inmates had a bar of soap, game, books, and possibly an instrument.
While disembarking on this gorgeous Friday afternoon, Ben puked. We walked back and grabbed some food, the car, and drove to Sports Basement (Presidio) for the Alcatraz Swim Briefing at 2 p.m. One of my favorite stores every time I visit, Sports Basement has everything from swim/tri, hiking, ski gear to team sports gear and equipment. This was the first time we met our fellow Alcatraz swim companions from Swim Neptune, an age-group swim team in Arizona. We were there to raise money for The Foundation for Aquatic Safety and Training (FAST), all about Kids Saving Kids. They empower competitive swimmers to be ambassadors of water safety, reaching out to the next generation of young people with events designed to keep water safety and drowning prevention top of mind year-round. We sat in the “community” section and listed to legendary Bay swimmer and race organizer, Bob Roper, question us and educate the parents and swimmers about ebb and flood tides. Karen and I donated about 40 old blue FAST caps to the Arizona team for escort swimmers and to give the kids as prizes. They gave us green beads for 20% off around the store. Our group walked out with shoes, tri shorts, cold weather jerseys, goggles, nutrition, swim socks (not for racing), backpacks, defogger and more.
After the race talk, we went back to Crissy Field to watch surfing. We saw a purple and pink starfish; climbed on the rocks while Ben, still motion sick, slept in the car. We stopped in at the 7 p.m. swim briefing at the Argonaut Hotel to say hi to Jef Mallett, and then walked to dinner at Tiernans Irish Pub for a last chance workout (stomachs) consisting of salmon burgers, meatloaf and burgers. Jerry Sweetland and his wife, Brie, enjoying a childless romantic evening at Ghiradelli Square, met us at the pub for conversation.
Day 4—Saturday, April 10 (Alcatraz Swim)
Saturday brought a change in weather. It was cloudy and cool (low 40s) with 51-56 degree water. Swimmers and swim fans congregated near Capurro’s on the Hyde Street Pier. We set our stuff down on the sidewalk and everyone put on their wetsuits and lathered on the Body Glide. JD’s sister, Jill, friends Michelle & Tom, and Jenna’s mom and aunt were there to assist with wardrobe. We chatted with Jef Mallett and Richard Mull, former MSU swim coach and one of Jef’s coaches, who flew out to support Jef. We checked in and received green hooded FAST sweatshirts and a choice of a yellow or pink swim cap. During the briefing inside warm Capurro’s, Roper told us that in the previous day the water was like glass and during the test swim, a female swam the course in 24 minutes, tying his all-time record. Those conditions would have been too easy for us. Knowing that around 40-50 kids ranging in ages from 8 to 18, and 30 adults would be swimming, Mother Nature sent the mega chop. Roper exclaimed, “We’re going to play the hand we’re dealt.” He explained how he was up early on the phone with the Coast Guard and had gotten a full report of all shipping traffic for that morning. If a vessel was coming, we’d wait.
Jenna’s mom, aunt and Jill carried our bags to Aquatic Park. Michelle and Tom boarded the spectator boat and collected our flip flops for us, once onboard. The swimmers were all jammed into a nice boat, standing on blankets spread across the floor. The perimeter was lined with tables and chairs. The five of us and Jef walked to the back and stood by the counter in the cooking area; most of the kids were up front as they were to jump first with their “escort swimmers” from the Bay area. At one point, a large Ziploc bag overflowing with goggles appeared on the counter in front of Jef. He was still unsure which goggles to go with. After weighing his options, he went with the pair that covered the most surface area of his forehead for warmth. We took a picture of our hands with our race numbers (Jef 1, JD 3, Noah 4, Jenna 30, Karen 33, Ben 41).
The ride seemed around 15 minutes. We bounced to the Southeast corner of Alcatraz for the jump. Armed in neoprence caps hiding below thin yellow TYR latex caps, Body Glide, and wetsuits, we were ready to battle the ebb tide. Roper had told us that if the ebb tide caught us, to shout for help from the Golden Gate Bridge. Encouraging. At 9:30 a.m., the first escort swimmers entered the water from the port side of the vessel. We were last to jump and Michelle/Tom waited patiently with our FlipCam taping everyone. Escort swimmers stayed with 2-3 kids and several escorts swam wetsuitless. Roper promised us the water was “warm as soup,” around 56 he said. When we jumped we were like paratroopers, one after another. They reminded us to “jump and swim away.” When I jumped, I screamed! Wow—the first taste of salt water wasn’t as bad as I remembered. I took about 10 strokes and flipped to my back to wave and yell to the camera. We found our Michigan group and took a few photos after looking backwards at the magnificent sight of Alcatraz Island. With 80 bright pink and yellow caps bobbing in the Bay, volunteer kayaks, and Zodiak support boats, I remember thinking that the scene looked like we had just lost our ship and we were gargling saltwater as we waited for help. Noah had attached our underwater Olympus camera to his wetsuit string. In hindsight, he thinks the dangling silver camera could have attracted angry sea creatures and ate him.
Our game plan was to swim across the Bay, aiming for the huge gray battleship, which was east of the bottleneck into Aquatic Park. By targeting the battleship, the ebb tide would naturally nudge us west to the bottleneck. Roper told us we had about a 30-40 yard opening to aim for, and if we missed, we were doomed (ebb tides would sweep us out to the Golden Gate and then out to sea).
The cold never registered with us because we were slapped with waves in five to seven foot swells. Nearing the battleship, Jenna and I stopped to tread water and were slapped with waves. I said, “Where’s the lead pack?” Jenna replied, “I think we ARE the lead pack.” We both turned to freestyle and swam another few minutes, aiming for a yellow Zodiak, leading us to the opening. After another brief stop and me saying, “I don’t think we’re any closer!” Jenna replied, “We’re taking 1 stroke forward and 3 back.” Noah swam up behind us and took some photos. He joined us for swim into the bottleneck. All of a sudden, we saw a while sailboat gust across our bath and of course, we thought it was going to run right over us. It didn’t.
Swimming into Aquatic Park was exciting. We yelled our race numbers to the officials on the Zodiak. Spectators were lining the walls and it felt like we were in safe waters. We hadn’t seen any “sea creatures” during the swim but we saw plenty of harbor dolphins and sea lions on the boat ride to Alcatraz. About half way into our sprint to shore, I saw a swimmers cut across our path, from the west to east. I later realized it was Saturday morning and they were there for their routine training. Jenna, Noah and I came into shore first, and arrived to hear the celebration beginning. Spectators were clapping and it was a thrill to finish. We felt great. Turning around, we saw Ben and Karen, swimming in butterfly. Karen said she felt lost and blind in the Bay. She said when she realized it was Ben doing butterfly and felt better. The shore was a sandy beach with a huge and fast drop-off.
We dried off, took photos and clapped for the finishing swimmers. The water tasted fishier closer to the Pier. Carefully examining our necks, Ben and Karen had the worst wetsuit burn on the entire circumference. Noah had a huge gash on his neck caused by the string and camera rubbing. We put on our “Alcatraz Swim Team” $5 beanies and walked back to the hotel freezing. After several shower shifts, Jenna, Karen, JD and Noah met Michelle and Tom in the lobby, while Ben got sick in the shower. Around 12:15, we walked into Boudin Bread for hot soup and sandwiches to go. We walked to Theater 39 at Pier 39 and ate while we waited for the awards celebration. The Arizona age group coach, Joe Zemetis, gave a motivation speech about how those kids now had bragging rights and proud that everyone “escaped their limitations.” Jef Mallett came on stage and drew Frazz escaping Alcatraz about spoke about how he felt that his race number (#1) on his hand was more of a hyphen, than a “one” because he was a swimmer-hyphen-cartoonist, or a triathlete-hyphen-author.
Age groups were later called up for their stone plaques and t-shirts with Bob Roper quotes. There were nine swimmers under the age of ten who completed the swim. There seemed to be at least twenty 11-12 year olds, and a dozen 13-18 yr olds. About 30 of us adults stood up last and moseyed up to the stage for our awards and a group photo.
After a brief hour of shopping for family at Pier 39, we watched the sea lions bark at each other. We later found the Hyde St Trolley broken, so we took the one at Walker to Chinatown. Our group planed our feet on the step and held on to the poles with all of our might. That $5 trolley ride was frightening and revitalizing at the same time. As we were going southbound, a northbound trolley zinged right past us and we brushed shoulders with their riders. Our first stop: Chinatown Fortune Cookie Factory in an alley. The cramped store had pigeons walking on the floor, so we didn’t stay long. My sister Jill went the next day and made us fortune cookies with messages that said, “You will swim fast.” She didn’t see the pigeons. Ben, Karen, Noah and I had a delicious dinner of won ton soup, chicken and vegetables, Mu Shu pork and green tea ice cream. We walked past North Beach and followed the trolley tracks back to the Wharf, talking about our upcoming Golden Gate swim. Organizers were talking about either shortening the swim or canceling it due to inclement weather expected on Sunday. “If you have beautiful weather for a few days before race day,” Bob Roper had said, “you know what to expect on race day.” Exhausted, it didn’t take long to fall asleep that night.
Day 5—Sunday, April 11 (Golden Gate Bridge Swim)
Woke up for breakfast at 6:30 a.m. Weather was rainy, 51 degree water near the Bridge. The air was in the 40s. We walked to Hyde Street Pier and congregated on the side of Capurro’s Restaurant. Karen approached Roper to see what the verdict was. “Suit-up,” Roper exclaimed! After another briefing inside the restaurant, and suiting up in the rain outside, swimmers boarded first, wearing wetsuits and tennis shoes or flip flops. It took 45 to 60 minutes to get to the Bridge. Our Michigan contingent again stood in the back, near the kitchen area of the vessel. The dancing waves and wind caused the silverware drawers on board to slide out and send spoons and spatulas flying. The bathroom on board had a scenic view of the Bay. Karen, Noah, and I walked to the front and stepped outside on the starboard side (right side facing front) for some photos. We watched sea lions and harbor dolphins dive around the area. A huge wave crashed on the deck and soaked my tennis shoes, which suddenly lost their purpose. I started to not feel very well. We went back to our spots in back and as we looked around, we observed that this swimming crew grew much quieter than the previous day, as we approached the Bridge. There were at least three sick kids who bowed out before jumping and many stoned expressions. Everyone seemed much more serious and the kids looked like they were prepared for battle.
Reaching the Bridge and looking for the ideal spot for us to jump, a voice bellowed at the swimmers from the deck, “Mentally prepare before you come forward to jump. When it’s time for you to jump, you jump. No thinking about it.”
Got it. And just like that, the pilot sent us jumping off the starboard side every five seconds like infantrymen (see videos on Facebook). The original plan was for us to jump off the boat on the Pacific side of the Bridge, and swim north. Keeping the Bridge on our right shoulder, the Flood Current was going to guide us to our first goal: Lime Rick, or 2nd goal: Finger Rock, just northeast of the last Bridge Tower, if necessary. Plans change and like Roper said, we played the hand that was dealt. The rain came tumbling down, and when we jumped, the 53 of us were already beneath the Bridge. This jump wasn’t pretty. I did a not-so-textbook stride-jump entry and screamed when I felt the water temperature. Much colder and more aware of the water temperature this day. We jumped last and watched swimmers try to head west, to get the Bridge on their right shoulders. The sight was spectacular but very difficult to spot swimmers since we were rising and falling in three to seven foot swells. After a little breaststroke and dodging escort swimmers and age-groupers, Jenna and I pulled away. We kept looking for the spectator boat, which dropped us off and was swinging around to pick us up near the rocks. It seemed so far southeast that we guessed we were going to beat them to our destination. Being somewhat closer to the Pacific, I figured there must be all sorts of sea creatures waiting to come up from the depths and eat us.
Karen got punched in the face by a man wearing a pink cap (thankfully not Jef). When we found Ben and Noah, we stopped for a few photos. Ben tried to push Jenna under water and Jenna screamed. Jenna and I became pack leaders and realized we were alone. When we tried to stop for Noah to take some more photos, the Zodiak boat, that we tried to follow, yelled at us to “keep swimming.” We took in more salt water than a sea cucumber. Noah somehow, got a bloody foot, which he swears was a shark nibble. We tried to aim for Lime Rock, but the food tide pushed us past finger rock and into a cove. Jenna and I stopped and yelled, “Where’s our Mother Ship?” It wasn’t even at Finger Rock, so we just kept on swimming to the east. The zodiac leaders told us that they would lead us to the spectator boat. Finally we reached the boat and swam up with a little head-up freestyle and breaststroke pulls to hear sounds of cheering parents and relieved pilots. One at-a-time, we warily climbed the rails of a white extension ladder, tied to the boat. Jenna and I climbed out first and two minutes later came Ben, doing a little butterfly, followed by Karen, and Noah, taking photos. We were instructed to “Go Get warm!” and remove our wetsuits. One little boy offered us a cup of hot coffee and Ben took him up on it. We all finished within 23 and 26 minutes.
For the next 30 minutes, until the last swimmers either completed the swim, or were safely pulled from the ocean, we waited patiently on the rocking boat, freezing, watching the steady rain outside. Jenna helped a young girl get warm and offered her an extra towel. Noah helped me remove my wetsuit and after kneeling down on the rocking boat to get it off my feet, he quickly ran to the back outside deck and threw up. We dressed in our FAST warm-ups and hats. Once I sat down, still not feeling well, I jumped up and pushed Karen aside, to get to the garbage can to puke. I stayed there, sick, for the next hour. The waves and wind never let up. We couldn’t believe when a 60-yr-old woman in a skunk hat, with around 70 crossings, pull off her shorty wetsuit and her butt was hanging out in front of the kids. Karen called Jaret, silverware started flying again and Jenna (exhausted from 5 hrs of sleep and an 8+ bottle of wine evening w/ her cousin, mom and aunt, plus Ben at Kennedy’s and Wine Down) and her mom and aunt tried to shut their eyes. After what seemed like a three-hour tour, we finally were going past Alcatraz again and saw a large regatta, more dolphins and sea lions.
Finally, it was time to disembark. We walked off the docks and through the rain to the Argonaut Hotel, to grab our awards and white event t-shirts. To warm up, we grabbed a seat by the fireplace and tried to warm our toes. Monday’s newspaper said that Angel Island had 35 to 41 mph winds on Sunday (Angel Island is near Alcatraz). Our hands were bright red and our feet were as white as ghosts. I watched my toes turn to pink, one at-a-time in the shower. We rinsed our salty wetsuits and all our gear. Ben lost his yellow cap and goggles on board as all our gear slid around the entire boat ride. After sitting on the hotel bed for a half-hour, I ran to the bathroom and puked 12 more times. I put on a new Scopolamine patch and took some Tylenol and tried to sip some Coke. Around 3 p.m. the troops rallied and we took the car across the Bay Bridge to Oakland. Still seasick, I wondered where all the southbound cars were, not realizing they were above us. We drove around Jack London Square, but decided to come back to San Francisco for dinner at Calzones in North Beach. We tried crab pizza, chicken calzones, and cesar salad.
Flew home Monday and when I woke up Tuesday and Wednesday, the world was still spinning. I went to the doctor after school Wednesday and he said I still had motion-sickness. He prescribed Antivert, used to treat or prevent nausea, vomiting, and dizziness caused by motion sickness. It is also used to treat symptoms of vertigo. I took it for the two days, but I resembled the Drowsy Dwarf and finally felt more like myself on Friday evening.
All in all, this was a terrific trip complete with wonderful people and we swam for a fantastic group, FAST, the Foundation for Aquatic Saftey & Training. FAST enables swimmers to teach swimming to small groups of high-risk children and organize, promote, and execute water safety events in schools and pools in every community.
April 25, 2010