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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?

I resurfaced amid a frenzy of thrashing bodies and two-foot waves. Get moving. Now. I swam through the roiling water, straining to look toward shore. Salt water poured into my mouth, the dull metallic taste reminding me to relax, to conserve my energy. Calm down, Ed. Find your rhythm. As my excitement subsided and I smoothed out my stroke, I fell into a cadence that felt right. Soon I crossed the magical, merciful temperature threshold; the water no longer pained me. I looked up to get my bearings. We’d been told to use an apartment building on the hill above Aquatic Park as a landmark. But it wasn’t visible. Nor was much of anything on the waterfront. I panicked. I can’t see where I’m supposed to go. Then I spotted the safety kayaks escorting us on both sides, and I steered a course straight down the middle.

Whatever happens will be on the sea’s terms, not mine. My survival depends on bending to its will.

The race was scheduled right before slack tide, meaning the currents would be mild. Swimmers were spread out in all directions, making collisions less likely. Waves jostled me from side to side, but they were fairly small, and—as advised by Kate—I adjusted my rhythm to roll with them. To my left, a young woman stopped to snap a photo of San Francisco with a camera she had tucked into her suit. I, too, took in the view: Golden Gate Bridge, the city skyline, the Bay Bridge. What would Dad think of this?

I now could see the landmark building, the piers below, maybe a third of a mile away. My arms were weary, but I didn’t slow down. A current became noticeable, pushing me westward. The outgoing tide. Several times I was forced to adjust course, re-aiming for Aquatic Park. It dawned on me that the experience would soon be over. Pay attention to every detail. I passed through another cold spot, which shocked me to the core. A breeze tickled my shoulders. Bubbles of exhaled air rolled across my cheeks. When the sun emerged briefly from the mist, the surface of the water spangled, then went green-black again. Every time I turned my head, I stretched my hand toward the sky and breathed in the delicious salt air. And every time I plunged my arm back into the water, I reached toward the darkness below. This is exactly where I want to be.

Two hundred yards from Aquatic Park, I found myself in a frenetic crowd again. The swimmers who had strayed to the sides now funneled through the opening to the cove. I slowed, veering this way and that, finally making it to the calm waters on the other side. A crowd had gathered near the finish line, and seeing them spurred me on. I felt powerful. But when I arrived in the shallows and tried to stand up, I realized that the last-minute burst of energy was due more to temporary exhilaration than any hidden reserves of strength. I faltered, then paused to steady myself. My legs felt rubbery. I slogged through the water, now three feet deep, then hobbled as best I could. I wanted to make a good showing as I crossed the finish line.

Awaiting me on the beach was a ravishing mermaid—my girlfriend, Seonaid, in costume—holding a flask of single-malt Scotch. Like the proverbial call of the Sirens, being welcomed by a sea-born beauty and sipping Lagavulin was irresistible to this old sea beast. As Seonaid and I stood together on the sand, gazing back toward Alcatraz and the water I’d just crossed, I was already looking beyond that place, that day, to other sea swims. The satisfaction of having done what I set out to do was far more intoxicating than the whiskey. I was ready to plunge back in.

A Harper’s Magazine contributing editor, Edwin Dobb is back in the pool, training for next season. For info on the swim, call 415-776-7372 or go to

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