Swimming Golden Gate to Alcatraz

Open Water Swimming Meccas

There are a number of open water swimming meccas around the world, places steeped in history and achievement, where swimming is an established part of life for a significant number of people. These are places that people flock to on reputation, having heard or read about them, and wanting to experience them themselves. Some examples:

  • Dover – well obviously right? The big one. Where it all began with Captain Matthew Webb’s Iconic first solo crossing of the English Channel. Where people still come to every year in their quest to try their hand at Marathon Swimming’s most well known test piece.
  • New York – another test piece resides here, the round Manhattan Island swim known as MIMS (Manhattan Island Marathon Swim), though there are a number of other notable swims such as the Ederle Swim, named after the first woman to swim the English Channel, Gertrude Ederle. While this took place 50 or so years after Webb’s landmark swim, it was hotly contested, very fast, and held the overall record for x years. Gertrude was also a major celebrity in her homeland US, albeit briefly.
  • La Jolla – This place is legend. A safe cove, roughly a mile across, or a mile and a half to the pier if you want 3 miles there and back. Largely free of sharks, but well stocked with other animals, and as a marine reserve, blissfully free of motorized craft. Year round the water is swimmable for a decent period without wetsuit. In my own experience, it has ranged between 12C and 23C. It is also a great place to get in some early season distance training, while UK and East Coast US waters are still languishing in single digits. The area is home to a friendly and keen year-round swimming group, and is only just down the road from America’s own test-piece, Catalina.
  • Sandycove – tucked away on the south coast of Ireland near Kinsale in County Cork is Sandycove Island. Home to a large and enthusiastic community of year-round swimmers, and home to Ned Denison’s legendary Distance Camp. Recently featured on American TV, this is where swimmers from round the globe come every summer to be beasted in the lakes, rivers, and sea around Southern Ireland.

There are many other spots that I am sure qualify as Meccas: Perth (home of the Rottnest Channel Swim), Lake Geneva, Lake Tahoe, Lake Memphragog, Tampa Bay, Hawaii, The Bosphorus, Cape Town, The Straits of Gibraltar. There are others – please don’t beat me up for omissions!

One further Mecca Helen and I visited recently is San Francisco. Despite having traveled there many times with work, I had always stayed south of the City, and had never found the time to go up and experience what it had to offer.

San Francisco has many sights. Alcatraz Island, the Bay, Golden Gate Bridge, the wild Pacific beaches, and the distant, mythic, shark-patrolled Farallon Islands.

A week after Helen’s recent Catalina triumph, and after a few days R&R in the beautiful surroundings of Yosemite, we descended back into the city to our hotel in downtown 4th and Market. Early the very next morning we were to be picked up at 6AM by a legend of Open Water Swimming, Gary Emich. Helen had organized an Alcatraz swim with Gary, who until very recently ran this as a business (now handed over to Susie Dods).   Gary is one of only two men to have swum to, or from, Alcatraz over 1000 times. Awesome stuff!

Gary was punctual, and took us up to where the boat was moored at Pier 39, briefing us on safety and procedure. The Pilot Rick turned up at about 6:40, and we set off in the Rib, speeding out over the still-dark waters, the first glimmers of dawn appearing to the east.

This was not to be any ordinary Alcatraz swim, for I had suggested, and Helen readily agreed, to combine two iconic San Francisco locations, and swim from the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz Island.

Gary had planned the swim with the benefit of his local knowledge, to start by the Golden Gate Bridge as the tide had turned, which would assist us, pushing us across towards Alcatraz Island. This is not a swim you do alone and unescorted. There are many big ships passing in and out, the tides will run faster than you can swim against, and the waters are typically not warm. We were to swim together, and be escorted the whole way by Gary on the rib. He would aim us so we hit the Island, 4 miles distant.

Going out we saw porpoises which was fantastic. I was so pleased for Helen who had missed out on dolphins on her Catalina swim. They weren’t swimming with us, but they were clearly visible. Magic!


Just before 7, it was splash time. I jumped in first to the ‘Potato Patch’, closely followed by SuperHelen. It was lumpy by the bridge, and the tide was already running quickly. The video shows Helen and me being pushed away from the rib at some speed.  


It was ‘cool’at about 16C (61F), and it was also terrific fun. Swimming in lumpy water isn’t always fun, but this was, climbing over the waves as we shot into the Bay. After a little while, it flattened out a lot, and the sun rose beautifully into a clear morning sky over the mountainous horizon.


We stopped several times to admire the view, laughing to ourselves at how awesome this was and how lucky we were to be experiencing it. As we swam on Gary shouted to us a couple of times to adjust our course. ‘Aim for the tower!’ as he pointed to the famous water tower on the Island of Alcatraz. It then got really swelly for a while as we got closer and closer to the Island. About ½ a mile out he shouted for us to aim right. Gary could tell that we were in danger of being swept north of the island and missing the target.

Swimming into Dawn

Swimming into Dawn

We turned on the afterburners and dug deep. I really felt for Helen having to dig in barely a week after a 20 mile epic Catalina, shoulders still a little sore. Also, as we swam ever closer, we thought we were going to be swept onto a submerged rock marked out by a large buoy just to the west of the Island, but we just managed to avoid it, continuing to dig deep to get in to the shelter of the island, and the tiny submerged beach where we were to make landfall.


After 45 minutes of beauty, wonder, and then harum-scarum thrashing, we were done. Helen’s third ‘Prison Break’ swim completed (Rottnest and Spike Island being the first two). We swam back out to the rib, and motored back to the city, waking up and gleaming in the early morning light.

Returning to the City

Returning to the City

For a swimmer-tourist, I cannot recommend an Alcatraz swim highly enough. Suzie Dods and SwimArt both will escort you on private swims, and there are also mass participation swims that are run. Go. Have fun. It’s wicked!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s