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by Ali Hall

February 1, 2010

Editor’s Note: Swims described in this article should not be attempted without proper training and guidance from an experienced coach.

What does it take to swim from Alcatraz? Not just once, but 657 times? Specifically, what makes open water swimmer extraordinaire and longtime member of San Francisco’s South End Rowing Club Gary Emich keep at it? In our Q&A with Gary, here’s what he has to say:

Q: Tell us about your Alcatraz swims! Your first one…

A: I don’t think anyone ever forgets his or her first one and neither do I. It was a disaster!

May 15, 1993, and for the previous three weeks I was agonizing so much about the swim I literally couldn’t sleep at night (the name of it – the “Sharkfest” – didn’t help much either). And it didn’t get any better on race day. We all were taken out to Alcatraz on a ferry and jumped in the water at the east end of the island. At the start of the gun, several hundred swimmers were off. After about 10 minutes, I realized it actually wasn’t as bad as I thought. I began to let my guard down and even enjoy it a little. It was sunny out, the water wasn’t as cold as I feared and then before I knew it there was the “opening” to Aquatic Park just 250 yards away. The “opening” is a 100-foot eye in the needle between a concrete breakwater and the Muni Pier.  It’s the only way to the finish line. I made a bee line towards it and it was a mistake I will never, ever forget in my life.

The outgoing current had just kicked in and as I was heading towards the opening, the current swept me past it to the Golden Gate Bridge and on towards Hawaii.  At least that’s what I thought as my panic began to build. But I only overshot the opening by 100 yards and naively told myself I could swim back and into Aquatic Park. As I swam along Muni Pier into the current, I noticed the concrete pillar next to me wasn’t moving. One minute, two minutes, three minutes passed. It was still there. I was on an aquatic treadmill.

Just as my panic was about to get the better of me, a kayaker came along and I hugged the back of that boat with all my might as he attempted to paddle me up to the opening. Unfortunately, three other swimmers saw and they all latched on too. Immediately the current began carrying all of us, including our would-be rescuer, back towards the Golden Gate Bridge. The kayaker told us we had to let go and swim back to the concrete ledge under the Pier and that a power boat would come get us in just a moment. So we let go, swam 15 feet to the ledge and scrambled up onto it. Ouch! Those mussels and barnacles were sharp and drawing blood. There we waited, and waited and waited.

No one was coming for us and we knew there was no way to swim against the current. Looking around we realized the only way to make it back was to scramble up and over the ledge where we could then jump into Aquatic Park and make it to the finish line. And that’s what we did, getting severely scraped and cut by the sharp mussels and barnacles. But we made it bloody and bruised to the finish. All things considered, my time of 48:47 wasn’t too bad and the blood was sort of a badge of distinction considering it was the “Sharkfest.”

On a more serious note, I learned on that day, and have never forgotten, to have a tremendous amount of respect for the power of Mother Ocean.

Q: That was nearly 17 years ago. How many crossing have you done since?

A: I’m both embarrassed and proud to say I’m up to 657 crossing without wetsuit or fins. Embarrassed because some people will think I must not have a life or that I’m a one-trick pony. In fact one friend says the only reason I keep doing it is because I’m too dumb to have yet figured out how to do it right. Obviously I’m proud because it’s an unmatched feat.

Q: So why do you keep doing it? What keeps you at it and what do you think about when you’re swimming?

A: I always quip that Alcatraz is the Forrest Gump Box of Chocolate Swims because you never know what you’re going to get. Of all the hundreds of swims I’ve done, no two have ever been the same – ever! This photo shows the GPS-plotted routes of nearly 100 Alcatraz swims. It looks like a spider’s web with lines all over the place. I put a GPS up under my swim cap to plot each swim.

This also explains what I think about while I’m swimming. The currents in the Bay are constantly moving. They flood (fill the Bay) and ebb (empty the Bay) every 12-13 hours. That means the water is always moving. It’s not like swimming in a lake or even in the ocean. I’m constantly reading the currents, seeing what they’re doing and adjusting my line minute by minute. Alcatraz really is a thinking person’s swim. The winner is not necessarily who swims the fastest but who reads the currents best and takes the best line.

Q: Out of all these swims there must be some that stand out as the best and some that stand out as absolute nightmares.

A: Oh, you are so right about that. While there are many that just blur together, there is a handful at either end of the spectrum.

I remember very distinctly one of my very early nightmare swims. It was the middle of winter. The water temperature was close to 50 degrees and all of a sudden the fog descended. Although our escort pilot knew what general direction we were supposed to head, none of us were positive since the visibility was less than 100 feet. After more than an hour in the water we finally made it blindly to shore about ½ mile away from where we wanted to end. I have never been so cold and frozen and it still was a 20-minute zodiac ride back to the South End Rowing Club where a sauna and hot shower awaited us.

However, without a doubt, the day that stands out above the rest was when I decided to “escape” from Alcatraz in all four directions in one day. I knew I didn’t have the mental fortitude to do it on my own so I picked a friend of mine, Kristine “Bucko” Buckley, to accompany me. Kristine was voted the English Channel Swimmer of the Year in 2001 and I knew she wouldn’t let me wimp out. Our first swim was a 3-miler east to Treasure Island – about 90 minutes.

A little later in the morning when the currents had changed, it was 2 miles north to Angel Island – about 60 minutes. We waited until early afternoon for the tide to turn for the next one – a 3-miler out to the little cove north of the Golden Gate Bridge about 75 minutes riding the outgoing current.

And finally at the end of the day it was Alcatraz back to San Francisco and Aquatic Park. By this time Kristine and I were delirious, not really knowing what was going on. So it was no wonder we didn’t notice the incoming current kicking in. It carried us east past the opening and down to Fisherman’s Wharf. But we made it. We escaped all four directions, east, north, west and south, in one day. Close to 10 miles and almost 5 hours of swimming.

Q: Is there anything you’ve learned about yourself from all these swims? Do you have an ultimate goal or other goals?

A” Yes, I’ve learned that I don’t like being cold! Seriously, it’s not necessarily something I’ve learned but a belief that has been confirmed. You can do anything in this world that you put your mind to if you have the determination, the conviction and the ability to tune out the critical naysayers who say you can’t.

I recently heard a great quote by the film director James Cameron: “If you set your goals ridiculously high and fail, you will have failed above everyone else’s success.” So with that in mind, I’m aiming at 1,000 Alcatraz crossings.

As to other goals, for the past 12 years I’ve traveled to a different part of the world each year to do a new swim I’ve never done before – quite a few adventures and many more to come.

Q: Any advice to someone who wants to give Alcatraz a shot?

A: Go for it and don’t let anyone stop you, especially yourself. I always joke that the most difficult part about swimming Alcatraz is dealing with all the negative mental chatter going on in your mind between now and the moment you jump into the water. Once you hop in and get going, you’re going to have the experience of your life. Set a goal, develop a training plan so you can confidently and comfortably swim a mile and a half in open water and then enjoy the satisfaction after you’ve achieved your goal.