061 Sharkfest Alcatraz Swim: 59:46

My friend Todd wanted me to swim from Alcatraz to the mainland, ‘Escaping Alcatraz’ in ‘shark infested waters’ essentially. I of course, signed up immediately.

SIDENOTE: This story is all about Adventure!

We left for San Francisco Wednesday night at 4:30PM out of JFK.

I shot a picture of some of our wall clocks… they always feel so welcoming.

We were flying Virgin America and I was instantly sold (being the digital master mind that I am) on their touch screen ordering system. You can order movies, TV shows, snacks, and yes… booze. You can actually start a tab and when you order a flight attendant quickly arrives procuring your ordered beverage. Amazing! Todd and I took full advantage of everything they had to offer and by the time we landed and our friend Buerkle (Kris Buerkle, but we call him Buerkle much like everyone calls me Baker) picked us up we were quite a handful.

Never having been to San Fran my eyes were a gaze at the beautiful scenery. Our first stop (after dropping our things off in Buerkle’s apartment in the Mission) was to get some Mexican food. It did not disappoint. One thing I noted was the temperature. It was like 55 degrees! Wasn’t it summer? Isn’t this Cali -forn-I-A?

Waking up at 6AM, the three of us set off for a white water rafting adventure. It was a 2-3 hour drive out East (weird saying that being from the East Coast) to Coloma. Gold was first discovered there along the river at the famous Sutter’s Mill.

I was taking in all the scenery, especially the mountains and all the different variety of trees! We are really missing out over here.

Arriving late to the white water rafting instruction seminar we had to quickly get in gear. We made a fantastic decision to rent wetsuits (since the American River’s water temperature was around 45 degrees.) Our raft guide would be Taylor, a very experienced 24 year old native. After some basic WWR instruction, helmet and life jacket checks, we set off down the river which normally outputs 1,200 cu ft/s of water was pushing 6,000 cu f/s! It was moving so fast! I was half excited and half fearful of this knowledge.

There were 7 of us in our raft… me, Todd, Buerkle, Taylor, Mike (55), his girlfriend Kate (50?) and daughter Michaela (12). We would come to learn that Michaela kicked some serious ass for being only 12. I sat front left in the beginning and as we hit our first Class 2,3 Rapids I took (along with Buerkle) a barrage of ice water to my torso, knocking me back. It was basically awesome. All of us quickly adapted and by the time we hit the Class 4 Rapids we felt like nothing could stop us.

For those of you who have not WWR before here is a bit of what happens. Just like the movies, you hear the water before you see it. Then, the raft speeds up and you enter the churning white water, paddling forward, left, right, or ‘holding on’ as Taylor would often instruct us so we didn’t get swept off the raft. In the front of the boat, it was much like being at sea where the nose would dip straight down into the rapid, then blast through the top portion of the waves, soaking those in front with an icy blast! Occasionally, we would hit giant swells sideways and get bumped around, talking on waves from different angles.

This was a 21 mile excursion down the South Fork of the American, so lunchtime was a destination, thank god. The 5 rafts of our company pulled over around 12:30 and we had a picnic lunch on the bank of the river.

SIDENOTE: This was absolute wilderness. From the start of the trip we were traveling down huge gorges and valleys where we might occasionally see a house on a cliff, but otherwise it felt very Wild West. This is going to sound really messed up (blame Hollywood) but I was imagining a bow and arrow attack from the banks of the river and what I would do in such a circumstance.

Once we were fueled up, our team was raring to go and wanted some big rapids. Taylor delivered, sending us down rapids called ‘Ambulance Chaser’ ‘Satan’s Cesspool’ and ‘Recovery Room’. It really was so amazing.

At one point as we pulled over to wait for the other rafts, Taylor noticed some trash in the river and picked it up. It was an unopened Coors Light Beer, ICE COLD! Todd, Buerkle and I shared it of course.

As our ride ended we lashed the rafts together to be towed in to shore. The kayaker who was riding along side of us jumped in our boat to get a ride and who was she? Louise Urwin from New Zealand, who is ranked like 9th in the world for down river kayaking! She was very cool and quite BA.

It took us 3 exhausting hours to drive back to San Fran. One highlight along the way was stopping at Ikeda’s Produce where I purchased what is as of now the best peach I have ever eaten. Perfection.

That night we ate a restaurant called Weird Fish. Oyster shooters, some Halibut, a lil Sav Blanc… everything the body needs… or maybe we were celebrating?

Friday morning Todd and I were on our own as Buerkle had to work. We went down the street to Tartine Bakery where I had the Morning Bun and an amazing cup of coffee! Tartine rules.

We then went to Union Square (yes, there is another!) and I bought a track jacket since I thought California was perpetually warm before I arrived. Then, we rode the Cable Car (hanging on the outside like in the movies and Rice-a-Roni Ads) all the way to Fisherman’ Wharf. We were now on ‘Special Mission: Eat Crabs.’ After cruising Pier 39 we decided on The Crab House as our choice restaurant. Sitting down at 11:45AM (we were on a Mission mind you) we ordered a beer and then something strange happened. The power went out… on the whole Pier! After eating our Crab Bisque we left in search of new electrified accommodations since power would not be restored until 2:30PM.

SIDENOTE: This would not be the last time we would loose power on this trip.

We made a quick decision to go to the Franciscan (est. 1957) where I met this guy. I would eat him and love every moment of it.

After lunch we met Todd’s friend Ingrid who showed us around Crissy Field. Locals were running, biking, wind surfing, swimming and having picnics. It was quite a cool place.

That night we found our self at a dive bar playing pool. The place was awesome and it was a clear realization for me that the New York I moved to 11 years ago was dead. This place made me feel like I was trolling the East Village in 2000 again, playing pool for fun yet thinking ‘I could get my ass kicked in this place for ordering the wrong drink’.

For dinner we went to the Noe neighborhood to an place called Lupa. It was right by Twin Peaks so of course we had to climb them.

Fueling up on some top notch Italian food, we felt ready for the swim. We were in bed by 11PM.


Battle Stations were called at 6:30AM. After some quick oatmeal prepped by chef Buerkle we set out to Escape from Alcatraz (which is funny because we had to get to Alcatraz first).

Arriving at check-in we came to the visual realization that there were 1000 swimmers! This made me happy because it meant that the ratio of crazy people to normal people was not as tipped as thought. After putting our wetsuits on in the 52 degree air, we marched off to the ferrys that were to ship us to Alcatraz.

I felt pretty good and really wasn’t that scared or nervous. I guess experience plays a role in that now as well as the fact that I do not believe in impossibilities.

2 ships took us across the Bay. We slowly turned around and anchored a hundred feet off the shore of Alcatraz Island before we all filed off out of the 2 side exits each ship had, swimming toward the front.

SIDENOTE: Many have asked me why we couldn’t jump off the actual island. The only answer I have is that I have no idea how 1,000 swimmers could all start a swim race on a rocky shoreline.

Once all of us were in the water and bobbing around in the 58 degree (cold!) water, they set off the start horn. No one told us where to sight, so we asked some veteran swimmers. Even though they gave us some answers, swimming toward tiny buildings in the distance and not even seeing the finish line makes it tricky. I’m used to orange buoys and yellow triangles.

This was the first time I actually practiced what I preached and started very slow and in a non-panicky ‘have to win this’ way. I simply just started swimming with the proper form Sean had been teaching me and began my journey. It’s funny, in a triathlon, bike or running race my head is in a totally different place. A competitive place, set on winning. When I am just swimming, I am so relaxed and chill, just enjoying myself. Maybe that’s the problem? Maybe I need t get more aggressive?

The water tasted great! I mean come on, swim the Hudson or East River a few times and I may have been swimming in Veuve Clicot. Mmmmmmm…

After 5 minutes the cold water was no longer a concern, I was in form and just plugging away and I really felt confident and fluid. I started pretending I was actually an escaped prisoner and how awesome i would be if I made it to shore.

Halfway through the swim we were in the middle of the Bay and confronting 2-3 foot rolling swells. It felt fun while swimming but if you sighted during one you got a face full of ocean. At one point I couldn’t see land, only the Bay Bridge to my left and the Golden Gate to my right. It was at this point I thought I saw a seal swimming next to me (which was obviously my imagination) and then started picturing sharks underwater watching me. I quickly thought of other ‘happier’ things to occupy my mind.

As San Francisco got closer, it got more and more confusing on where the entrance to the finish was. Then, a lone kayaker yelled at me, informing me I needed to swim to the left hard because I was drifting off-course. I said, “Just tell me where to aim.” He sent me perpendicular to the course I had been following, and I aimed for a Naval Vessel. I fought the current hard for at least 10 minutes and at times I felt like I was on a water treadmill.

Eventually, the sea wall came closer and I was able to take a right into the cove. Then, as I joined my peers again, someone kicked me right in the temple. Nice to see you too swim friend. The finish was in sight and I just stayed the course and wrapped up this escape. The bottom of my wetsuit pants were totally falling down and I’m sure my finish photo is hilarious. (Brightroom took it so I’m sure I’ll get it in the next month or two…)

My time was 59 minutes and change. Am I happy about it? Not really, but I am just excited at the thought of Escaping Alcatraz (and we didn’t get eaten by sharks!)

I walked over and met Todd (47 minutes) and Buerkle (42 minutes) and had a few high fives!

Later that day Todd and I set off to Saulsalito (Buerkle had plans) to have lunch at the famed Fish restaurant. It’s north of San Fran on the water and quite beautiful. After feasting there on crabs, clam chowder and tuna white bean salads we headed to Muir Woods to ‘deactivate the deflector shield.’

Redwood Trees and Return of the Jedi, nuff said. Unfortunately, there were no Ewoks hanging around.

Next up we drove the coast to Stinson Beach. It’s another amazing place. Fun Fact: Great Whites breed off shore from this beach. Fun!

We linked back up with Buerkle and his friend Jenny for drinks and food later that night. We stopped in to play some pool at a bar called Gestalt. Guess what happend when we were there? The power went out! Seriously, how strange is that?! The day before at Pier 39 and now in the Mission.

For dinner we went to a place called Locanda which was awesome! The Pride Parade was right out front so we had some serious entertainment through dinner. Todd and I hopped an 11PM red eye back to NYC, saying goodbye to San Fran.

All-in-all the trip to the west was superb. I have a new found love for the Northern California Coast and recommend it to anyone looking for some adventure.

SIDENOTE: Big ups to Neal of the Runner Army who was in San Diego swimming the La Jolla Pier to Cove Swim. In his words “This was my first ocean open water race ever, my first swim-only open water race, my longest swim race ever, and my first swim-only race of any sort in 22 years!”

Way to represent the East Coast, Runner Army!

  • Awesome recap. Sounds like an awesome, super fun weekend!!

    And I like your swim diagram…that’s a classic physics problem, har har.

  • Banicho

    What a trip! Would have loved to make it down to catch some of it, should have planned earlier.
    Sounds like your imagination really ran away with the win on this one, first rafting, then in the waters and finally in Lucas’s backyard!

    Keep up the inspiring work.

  • You were soooo close to my sister’s hood! She’s in the Castro, so just the other side of Delores Park from the Mission. I love Tartine! Any chance you made it to Bi-Rite Creamery for some ice cream? …it’s right down the street from Tartine.

    Great job on a big swim!

  • Dude, that sounds like an amazing trip. I heart San Fran. I cannot believe you swam in those waters – seriously awesome! Thank goodness the sharks stayed away…

  • Stephanie

    Thanks! I’m swimming (attempting to swim) Escape Alcatraz for the first time on Sat. Getting pretty nervous and enjoyed and appreciated reading your experience. -all the best on your next adventures.