Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Sharkfest Alcatraz 2015 - what I didn't know

Saturday I had a great, mass open water swim in a place I'd never before dipped a toe: the chilly, murky waters of San Francisco Bay during the 2015 Alcatraz Sharkfest. This 1.5-mile swim ferries experienced swimmers out just behind the east point of the famed prison island and then has swimmers jumping off the side of a small ferries, leaping two-by-two. More than 800 people from 17 countries registered. 594 successfully finished this year's swim, myself included.
Here's what I learned in the experience, for anyone else thinking they want to do the swim:

1- You show up in the dark. Nothing is open that early but a Starbuck's a few blocks away.
There are liters of Ethos water sold there. You will be thirsty and need to keep hydrating that morning. Skip the agonizing long line of people droning detailed coffee orders, advance to the front cashier with two liters and say "Oh geez the race reg is about to cut off. Here's $5. Thank you so much - gotta run!"

2-It can be sensory overload that early in the morning.
The fishy scent of sea lions in the nearby harbor, bacon frying in prep for awakening tourists in hotel restaurants, the stale stench of human urine in the grandstands that we swimmers were cordoned off in at the beginning, and finally that wall (and once swimming, taste!) of marine diesel that accompanies your water taxi. On top of smells are memories like the "Running of the Swimmers," being corralled from the grandstand along the wharf area with your fellow swimmers on the parade the 1/4 mile or so to the boat-loading area, the feeling of grime sticking to your feet on the walk, the sounds of seagulls squealing overhead.

3-Seek out people who've done the swim and ask them what they sight on to get back to Aquatic Park. On the ferry out I did just that. They were helpful (and not always consistent in their replies), and all confirmed the current sweeps west the closer you get to the breakwater of aquatic park. The P.A. system on the ferry was broken and the race announcer's pre-race announcement (to instruct us back) failed miserably; his every word shorted out over the speaker and vexed, we strained to eke out any comprehensible word. Shame. There is some course information in the race packet but it doesn't compute til you're out on the horizon from the right POV. Basically the course is a C-shape intended to keep you in line with the changing currents. The kayakers are zealous in their instruction and aren't always sending you in the same direction as the herd. If you are there in SF for a week or two, take a pre-course swim with Odyssey OW Swimming. Wish I could have!

4-If you don't jump off the ferry early, you won't even make it to the start line in time for a fair start time. Stay on the lower floor of the boat for an early escape or you'll be stuck way back!
Our boat was more than 200 yards (300?) from the start line...easily. Because my pal Deb and I were in the very last dozen of 400-ish swimmers to leap, the boat crept slowly back from the swimmers giving us a catch-up disadvantage. Unfortunately, she was plucked out by a boat assist and a DNF.

5-The time chip tracked the swimmer's individual finish, but the start time was a "gun time." 
Meaning no matter where your start position was, you all got the same start time. Meaning you really can't get an accurate time unless you were lucky enough to get off the boat early and right at the lineup out front with everyone else. As someone who is always trying to shave a little time off each swim, this was not the race to figure that out. I was 200-300 yards back still escaping the boat when the race started. Sigh.

6-There is plenty of room for everyone.
Despite a huge amount of swimmers, it was a delight not to have feet and elbows in your face throughout the swim. This race has a gigantic, wide swath of "course" and there are yellow caps scattered this way and that as far as the eye can see!

7-Take time to ENJOY the surroundings. 
You'll never get that same panorama again, and it's truly breathtaking to be floating in the middle of both bridges, with Alcatraz behind you and the city skyline out front.

8-The race is well-appointed with kayak support
They ARE zealous. They ARE protective. They have your best interest in mind. Do what they tell you. Thank them for their help and volunteerism. Being a first-timer, I definitely swam off course, closer to two miles than 1.5, and 61 minutes later I finished.

9-The chop, swell and currents here are for real. 
I've done a fair amount of open water/salt water swimming the past five years.  I was impressed by the fight I had to exert on this swim. There were a few moments where I didn't feel a lot of gain out in the middle, but then toward the end, at the breakwater (I sighted for the end of the gray ship the closer I came across) suddenly you feel this lovely nudge. I was surprised at how many swimmers were at full stop throughout as they sighted! It was a bumpy swim for sure.

10-When you emerge from the water you will have a silty beard.
It is disgusting. It is not photogenic. It is gray-green-brown and slimy. WIPE your damn face if there are cameras around. Unless you care to look like Bluto/Brutus from Popeye.

PS It's not as icy as they hype it. If you're used to swimming in Puget Sound, this will be a piece of cake. The temperature was also unseasonably warm in the low 60s. In the deep it was much colder than toward Aquatic Park. There was a sudden shelf of warmth that was a solid 5-7 degrees warmer than the main swim. I wore a wetsuit and swim bonnet and was glad I did but it could definitely have been swum without one. There was zero numb-up factor or after drop like I experience in Puget Sound. It was really a great swim and I'm so glad to have finished it! 

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