Sometime during the night of June 12, 1962, three prisoners escaped from Alcatraz. They were never heard from again. Did they make it? Or did they perish in the cold, choppy waters of San Francisco Bay or get swept through the Golden Gate out to sea?
Their plan was to make it to Angel Island and from there to Marin County. They had cobbled together a raft using raincoats, a wooden panel, and lifejackets, which was later found destroyed. In order to complete their escape, the men would have had to swim to shore. For 60 years, people have been wondering if that was possible.
When Fox Weather reporter Max Gorden decided to do a story on the escape, he turned to our director of admissions, Warren Wallace, for the answer. Warren owns Odyssey Open Water Swimming, which guides hundreds of swimmers from Alcatraz to San Francisco every year, and has made that swim many times himself. Warren suggested to Gorden that they recreate the prisoners’ swim.
So at 9:30 p.m. on August 5, Warren slipped into the water at Alcatraz, without a wetsuit or goggles, and began what was to be one of the most difficult swims of his life. The Fox reporter and videographer and an Odyssey coach followed him in a boat.
Warren says currents in the bay would have prevented the prisoners from boating or swimming to Angel Island, so instead he swam the route the currents would have carried them. Ninety minutes later, cold and exhausted, he landed near Horseshoe Cove on the southeast tip of Marin County, a distance of three-and-a-half miles. (His swim was interrupted mid-course by a passing oil tanker.)
The biggest challenge wasn’t the relentless current, the three-foot swells, or the 62-degree water, Warren says. “It was the uncertainty. I know the normal Alcatraz swim well enough that I always know how my progress is going, where I should sight, and how much farther I have left. With this one, being unfamiliar with the course, the currents, and the sighting points, especially at night without goggles, it was hard to judge. When I started to feel cold or disoriented, I didn’t know if I was almost done or if I had two miles left!”
Here’s the link to the Fox Weather story and video. (The embedded link to the video doesn’t work in the Firefox browser.) For more, including a map of Warren’s swim, see the Odyssey blog post.