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Chris Smith – Escaping Alcatraz

Chris Smith only learnt to swim at the age of 46, at a time where a spinal injury prevented him from walking and he’d been in a wheelchair for seven years. He has since gone on to complete numerous endurance challenges including multiple triathlons and ultra-marathons. One of his shortest, but also most challenging (and even frightening) events was his escape from Alcatraz swim. This is the story in his own words.

In 2010 I’d had an idea that I would like to take on a swimming challenge. I’d previously completed triathlon and Ironman challenges, run across deserts and cycled across the UK. It was time to swim.
I’d considered swimming the channel, or around the Islands of Jersey or Manhattan but had dismissed them as it would take years of training, and I am nothing if not impatient. Eventually I settled on the idea of swimming from Alcatraz prison over to the San Francisco mainland. It is hard to fully gauge the exact distance as it is anywhere between 1.5 – 2.5 miles in total. The real danger in this particular challenge was not in the distance but rather in the size of the waves and the strength of the tide. Alcatraz would be challenging and slightly dangerous, but ultimately do-able. Not too many people had done it previously and it just seemed right. Alcatraz it was then.
I never take on challenges unprepared and over the next 13 months I’d recruited a support crew and trained in the pool almost every day swimming over 120,000 lengths in the process, as well as swimming outdoors in the open waters of Cheshire, Manchester and London and just about everywhere else. This approach is very much ‘me’ and during the intervening period I’d represented GB in the triathlon, broken a world record, been made redundant after more than 30 years in the same job. But for the whole time my mind had been preoccupied with one constant thought. Every single day I’d have either swum, read about swimming, watched films about swimming, or dreamed about swimming. I felt like a fish; I was hooked!
My challenge was registered with the San Francisco coastguard and I was given the prospective date of 27th August. Brilliant timing as it was just 4 days before my 50th birthday and what better way of celebrating. Research had confirmed that there really are sharks in that bay but any comparisons with Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea couldn’t be further from my mind as once I entered the water I wasn’t going to be hanging about for anyone, let alone a fish.
On Friday 26th August 2011 shortly after just arriving in San Francisco from Las Vegas I received devastating news. The coastguard informed me that the wind speed at 11 mph was too strong to enter the water and they will not allow the challenge to go ahead. My protestations led to nothing and I was advised that I’d be arrested if I tried to swim. The irony of the situation was not lost on me and I did think that if I was arrested they wouldn’t have far to take me to prison. Maybe then I could escape and then swim back to the mainland! As I stood in front of pier 39 looking out towards Alcatraz I couldn’t help but feel utter frustration at the situation. What a complete waste of time this has all been. Happy blooming birthday!
Maybe someone was watching over me, or maybe I got my birthday wish a few days earlier than expected because at 0540 the following day I received a call telling me that the wind speed was down to 3mph and the swim was on. The only problem was that the wind was expected to increase throughout the day and if I was going to swim I had to go now. At that time of the morning it was pitch black, we are several miles away in downtown San Francisco, and Deb was fast asleep in bed! “No problem”, I say, “We’ll see you in 20 minutes”
Just over 20 minutes later and I am in the boat with Gary, my support crew, and heading out to ‘The Rock’. The sun is just about coming up over the Golden Gate Bridge, but at the same time I can still see the moon over the San Francisco skyscrapers, directly ahead of me. The water looks like black ink, it’s cold and visibility is not great.

We stop the boat 200m in front of Alcatraz and Gary advises me to swim over, mount the rock and then the challenge will begin. I foolishly tell Gary that I want him to steer me in the direction of the fastest crossing as opposed to the safest as I am feeling confident enough to try and beat the existing record. A little later I wonder if I’ll survive long enough to regret my decision.

I gingerly slip out of the boat and into the water and within seconds I am struck by the strength and force of the waves and in particular the underlying current. Blimey, I am literally between a rock and a hard place. I haven’t even started and it already feels hard, but I remind myself that I this is what I do and this is who I am. I am an Ironman… not a sit on the sofa with your feet up eating hobnobs, man. A couple of minutes later I mount one of the rocks at the bottom of Alcatraz island and motion to Gary that I am ready and that he should start the stopwatch.
I slip back into the water for a second time and start to slowly front crawl, swimming towards the moon that is still sitting above the skyline. I remind myself that centuries ago mariners and sailors used the moon to navigate by. For the first time I realise how cold the water feels but I don’t worry unnecessarily as it is more of a nuisance rather than a hindrance. I have swum maybe a couple of hundred yards and feeling particularly under whelmed by it all when I get hit with my first wave. It comes at me from behind, I have no idea how big it is, but it hurts a bit and has enough force to momentarily push me under the water. This is not too worrying as I swim with my face in the water anyway and I am not particularly concerned at that point. When I come back up for air I look across at Gary and he gives me the thumbs up sign. I give him a wave, remember the record, and decide to push on with a faster pace. The sun is coming up and is now reflecting off the San Francisco skyscrapers now, directly in my sight line.
Another 10 minutes or so goes past and nothing too exciting is happening. I have learned to ride or bodysurf the incoming waves and then conserve as much energy as possible when the tide goes out again. It feels a bit like two steps forward and one step back but there is no problem other than progress seems to be slower than I would have liked. The sky scrapers don’t appear to be getting any closer and although I can still see the outline of the moon, the sun over to my right is getting brighter and it is almost daylight now. I have forgotten about the cold but increasingly become aware that I am sharing the ocean with all sorts of marine life. As the sun comes up and I put my face into the water I can vaguely make out murky shapes all around me, literally within inches of me. I get a bit of whiplash from an eel that swims too close and there are huge fish in there as big as my leg, but fortunately no sharks or seals. The real danger are not the sharks as you might think, but are in fact the 400lb seals who find it fun to swim underneath you and then flip you up in the air as if you were a beach ball!
Gary shouts over that I have reached the half way stage and that I am outside of the record. He motions something with his arms that I interpret to mean that I need to speed up. I am feeling pretty good about myself, and feeling fit enough to push on harder and so my face goes back into the water and I increase my stroke rate to 50-55 strokes per minute and bi-laterally breathe every 5 – 7 strokes. My ‘kick,’ as usual is virtually non-existent, but then again I am a triathlete!
After another minute or so I feel that I am making good ground but I swim into a huge floating mass of seaweed which I become completely entangled in. I try to swim through it but realise that I can’t and as I stop and tread water I get hit by a surprise wave that hits me like a short sharp slap in the face. I look over at Gary for help but notice that he appears to be fishing at the back of his boat and he is not aware of my predicament. I am about to give him a shout when I get hit with another bigger wave that crashes down on me. This time the force of it sends me completely under the ocean, and I am flailing about trying to catch my breath. I have swallowed some water by now and as I come up for oxygen I get hit with a second bigger wave that pushes me back under once again. The situation is now much more serious and I can’t breathe or swim and I sense that I will probably drown unless I do something. Amazingly when I come up for air on the third occasion I get hit by yet another wave but rather than pushing me under it sweeps me out towards the open sea. This course of action does at least afford me to time to breath but when I regain my composure I can’t see anything other than open water. I can’t see Alcatraz, or the San Francisco skyline, or the moon, or most importantly I can’t see Gary and the boat. I continue to breathe easily though which is at least something and I have the fight inside of me that tells me that I don’t want to die today, and I have the hope and belief that I can get through this. I tell myself that I have got through much worse than this before, and a few seconds later Gary pulls alongside in his boat and gives me thumbs up, and then coolly tells me that I probably won’t beat the record, at least not today anyway! He tells me that I am facing the wrong direction and when I correct my position in the water I can once again see the San Francisco shoreline and that big old moon which is still there, just waiting for me to finish.

And with the thought that I won’t beat the record I wearily put my face back into the water and begin to swim once again, this time in the right direction; swimming toward that beautiful august moon that is willing me on, pulling me slowly towards it.

I stay much closer to the boat from now on and we have to do some zig – zagging in order to avoid the seals and walruses, and seaweed. I get hit by yet more waves, but I feel like an old hand at this by now and I know how to roll with the waves and then simply get on with things. I get closer and closer to the shore and I realise that I am going to make it after all.
In terms of an endurance event this has been the shortest that I have ever undertaken, but this is the only time that I have ever been in real danger and there is nothing but a sense of relief when I know that I will succeed.
As I swim into the bay a few onlookers and tourists gather momentarily by the side of the pier and give me the odd shout of encouragement and a rapturous round of applause. I complete my challenge and try to stand up with the intention of waving to the bystanders, but I am suffering from motion sickness and I stumble and fall back into the ocean.
Job Done? Not even close.
A couple of day later I am in Los Angeles celebrating my birthday with a glass of orange juice. Somebody proposes a toast and I am asked to say a few words. My thoughts are slightly pretentious and I don’t know where they came from but I said something like “live in the sunshine, swim the sea and drink the wild air”The real truth is that I am just glad that my Alcatraz challenge is over and that I lived to tell the tale.
Later, when I arrived home, a friend asked me what I learnt from the experience?
I hadn’t given it too much thought beforehand as I hadn’t been searching for the meaning of life, but on later reflection I learnt that I’m getting older.
I need to accept that I’m fighting a war on so many fronts. My on-going foot injury of the last 7 months has never really healed, in addition to the calf muscle injury that I have been carrying since 1993. My spinal injury is none too good at the moment as I recently fell of the bike, but despite these setbacks I still have high hopes for the future. And well, you know when people have hopes, they leap for them; and the higher the hopes the higher they leap. The philosopher Nietzsche once said that hope is nothing more than futile wishful thinking, but I refuse to accept such a negative point of view. A life without hope is nothing, but a life filled with hope is absolutely everything, and it is the reason that hardships and suffering can be endured. You have to trust me when I say that there is a lot of suffering involved in running across deserts or cycling non-stop for 24 hours, or being battered with 12 foot waves. The real lesson that I have learnt over the last 3 years is that hope really does make a difference. Hope has power, hopelessness has none.
You can read more about Chris on his website at http://www.accidental-triathlete.com/

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.