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Trial by Water

Could this 57-year-old meet his ultimate challenge: swimming the frigid waters from Alcatraz to the San Francisco shore?

To make the swim as real as possible, I signed up shortly after I returned home. I also told everyone, friends and family alike, what I intended to do. That would make it harder, I reasoned, to back out. For inspiration, my daughter, an artist, sent me a painting of the bay, which I hung on the wall where I work. On the back she’d written: “Happy Birthday to Aquapapa!”

From November 2006 onward, I trained in the 25-yard indoor pool at the local YMCA. I wasn’t as consistent as I would’ve preferred. Nor was I willing to give up certain vices—least of all, my taste for whiskey. But slowly I improved my endurance, and by June, I could swim three miles at a respectable pace—about 30 minutes per mile. With summer came open-water opportunities, mostly in lakes, which aided my reacclimation to cold water. Then, ten days before the event, I completed my training with four hourlong sessions in Aquatic Park and a side trip to accompany veteran distance swimmers off Santa Barbara.

I had trained well, and that’s what I told myself, but the mantra did little to calm my nerves the morning I arrived at Aquatic Park for the swim. Swimmers, many of them clearly serious athletes, were already lined up at the registration tables. Oh, man, I thought—I’m out of my league. In the predawn darkness Alcatraz was indiscernible save for the skylights above the main cellblock, partially illuminated by the island lighthouse. Throughout all that followed—signing in, strapping a timing-chip band around my ankle—I kept an eye seaward. Slowly, as sunlight spread across the bay, Alcatraz emerged from the blackness, was enveloped by the fog, reemerged, then disappeared again, which reinforced its remoteness. The cove was placid, but on the other side of the outlet a breeze was up and the water had already begun to churn. I was nervous. But uncertainty, I reminded myself, is one of the charms of sea swimming.

My interior pep talk was halted when the race director told us to walk six blocks eastward, to Pier 41, where a ferry waited. More than 500 of us marched down Jefferson Street. Traffic stopped. Tourists snapped pictures. Adding to the festive atmosphere was a bagpiper who led our merry band of swimsters to our fateful embarkation. Never mind that I associate bagpipers with funerals.

A different drama unfolded while the ferry motored to Alcatraz. All of us huddled together in a large room on the first deck. Merriment gave way to sober anticipation. Some stretched; others adjusted goggles. The excitement was palpable. So was the warmth of hundreds of bodies—bodies, I now noticed, of every kind: tall and short; skinny, chubby, and ripped; wrinkled and youthful. It was reassuring to see dozens of swimmers in their 50s and 60s. Over the loudspeaker came an announcement: we had reached Alcatraz. The ferry slowed to a stop. My nervousness was full-blown. Can I do this? I can do this. Can I do this? My heart hammering against my ribs, I threaded through the crowd for a better view. The Rock—the reason for the nickname was clear—filled the entire side window, hard and unforgiving. Doors on both sides of the boat opened. Swimmers shuffled forward and, three at a time, dropped feet-first into the water, ten feet below. After a wait that seemed both fleeting and endless, my turn came. I stepped to the edge, almost mad with adrenaline. Someone behind us yelled “Go!”

I jumped.

The water temperature was 63 degrees, frigid by most standards but balmy for San Francisco Bay. Yet when I hit the water, sinking a couple feet below the surface, I was stunned. The effect came not only from being seized by the cold, but experiencing, in silence and with unparalleled immediacy, the very wildness of the bay—the depths, the overwhelming power, the scary-yet-inviting aliveness. Whatever happens, I realized, will be on the sea’s terms, not mine. My survival depends on bending to its will.

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