Escape from Alcatraz 'Sharkfest' swim volunteeringThe 'Alcatraz Sharkfest' a little less than 2 mile swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco and the 'Escape From The Rock' Triathlon are great volunteer opportunities for lifeguards to get experience and kayakers to get a free San Francisco bay kayaking morning. They need people (lifeguards or not) in kayaks to help the off-course or cold swimmers and the race provides the kayaks.
Previous kayaking experience needed, like our spring break Monterey trip. For the date and price of the next De Anza College Outdoor Club kayak day trip go to: Outdoor Club Coming Attractions and read details at: Monterey ocean kayak day trip.
In 2013 the Escape from Alcatraz 'Sharkfest' swim race is set for Sunday, May 19. The Alcatri triathlon (a dualathlon this year) that starts with a Alcatraz to Aquatic Park swim will be Sunday, June 2 and the south tower of the Golden Gate bridge to Sausalito swim will be August 31. Volunteers need to be there at 5:45 a.m. or earlier. (Please note that volunteering at any race will not be an official De Anza College or De Anza College Outdoor Club event and it can't get you a better grade in a class I teach.)
You can help as a volunteer on shore, but they need people, especially certified lifeguards, to help out in kayaks on the water as well.
The kayak escorts paddle themselves out.
The swimmers ride to Alcatraz on two ferries which approach from the far side of and around the back of the island.
The ferries might line up side by side or in a row. They might stop and then start up again and adjust their position. One year guards who were in place early between the two ferries were thrown from their kayak when the wash of the restarting, readjusting ferries hit them from both sides. The athletes who saw this were yelling, "look, the lifeguards are in the water." The lifeguards got back in their kayak in record time with much composure.
Below, kayakers applaud and cheer the arrival of the ferries:
Most of the kayakers form a start line near the tip of Alcatraz Island. The lifeguards position themselves near the four ferry exits the athletes will jump from (one exit on each side of each of the usually two ferries).
Below, two photos of lifeguards in a kayak watching swimmers jump from a ferry. Can you spot the starting line forming, the line of swimmers in yellow race swim caps? To the right, the lead boat with big red buoys for the swimmers to try to sight on:
Below: first swimmer in 2006 off one of the ferries, (American Red Cross lifeguard instructor) Ken Mignosa, with his destination in the background and the race boat with huge red buoys as a target. Ken started his swim with butterfly. He said he was literally swum over by others more than once during the race.
About six to eight minutes after the athletes start jumping in, a ferry will let off one horn blast as a one-minute warning, then the start of the race with the second blast of the ferry horn. The direct route for the swim would be a little less than two miles, but the actual longer swim is a "sloppy, backwards C-shaped course" due to the tides, at first in a crowd:
and later more spread out:
Once the swim starts the kayakers have a better view than the swimmers of the city sights. In one direction is the Golden Gate Bridge, in another the Bay Bridge, and we've spotted the Palace of Fine Arts along the city skyline. Also spotted a seal, but no sharks. In 2000 all this was in sunshine, in 2001 and 2002 it was cloudy with occasional swells we couldn't see swimmers over. The swimmers sometimes were swimming uphill up the face of some swells.
The swimmers should aim for the boat with the bouys and aim not for the entrance to Aquatic Park, but off to the left where the current will back them up. If they "aim too far to the right" they will "end up west of the entrance, swimming in place against an unbeatable current and trying to get back."
Near the end of the swim time (around 1 hour plus or minus fifteen minutes, cutoff of 75 minutes) the current changes and the athletes can't swim fast enough to get to the finish, so they are given a lift on a Zodiac or boat to the entrance to Aquatic Park (the swim finish) where they can complete the swim.
The letter to participants stresses that it is not a race for novices, and said "if your time for a mile in the pool is slower than 40 minutes, we do not recommend you attempt this swim." Best times are around 1/2 hour. They each wear a Velcro ankle strap timing chip so they can get their time for the swim only race or for each section of the tri.
I am giving some information about what gear to bring or wear for possible lifeguard kayaking, but you must read and follow any information mailed to you by the event sponsors. Most years they have many loaner wetsuits for volunteers in kayaks, but you'd be more sure of one if you borrowed one in advance, and your own will fit better. They DO NOT recommend being out in a kayak without a wetsuit! A hat with a brim is a good idea, as well as croakies or other eyewear retainers for your sunglasses. We would like to note that the water is quite cold, (60-62 degrees, with some cold spots) and a spare swim cap on your person could be put on if you get wet and cold. (Most years I bring a bunch of swim caps to loan out to lifeguards.) We always recommend a whistle, pocket mask/gloves, a bottle of water and a good breakfast to start your day. (Put the whistle cord around the armpit area of your lifejacket, not around your neck.)
Fleece to put on after if you are cold and a change of clothes for after is also a good idea, and a towel to use after you rinse off the bay water, possibly using warm water you brought in bottles in your car (no warm showers at the site, but there is usually at least a hose). Leave valuables in the car as there is no safe place to leave gear at the site.
You may have to pay for parking, and you may wish you had a camera (waterproof?).
I usually make available rescue tubes for my lifeguard training graduates to borrow, which they
agree to return in same condition or replace at full retail replacement cost ($90). We might also loan out dry bags if we have our act together. Don't leave gear out unattended - stuff has been stolen previously when people left it sitting in a kayak and went sightseeing.
RETHINK volunteering for kayaking if you do not have sufficient
experience and strength to paddle 4 to 5 miles, some of it against a current or in swells. When we have Outdoor Club kayaking events we stay in small groups and watch out for each other. This will not be the case during this race. You may be some distance from other volunteers. Volunteers will be watching out for swimmers, not for each other. If you fall out of your kayak you might have to get back in by yourself. (Yes, this has happened each year to someone. One girl in 2000 fell out on the way to Alcatraz and on the way back. In 2002 one guy took over 12 tries to get back in his kayak when he fell out. Our lips are sealed as to their identity.)
Do not volunteer to help in a kayak unless you completely intend to be there. The race director has to pay to get you a kayak, and it's not acceptable to say you'll be there, then sleep in or change your plans at the last minute because a friend came over, etc. Often the race turns away volunteer kayakers when all the kayaks are spoken for.
Fill your gas tank, pack your gear and put the breakfast snacks, pot-luck lunch food (?) and ice into an ice chest the evening before. Set three alarm clocks in different parts of the bedroom, or better yet, stay over at another volunteer's house so you can get each other up!
Athletes are told:
"WHAT TO EXPECT DURING THE SWIM
SUPPORT Lead kayaks will direct the front swimmers along the correct course. Additional kayaks and boats will corral the remainder of the field. A designated lead boat will have a large orange buoy aboard to assist you with sighting. There will be no buoys in the bay to guide you; rather, you will use the lead boat and escort boats as your guides. If you are swimming astray, you will be advised to change course. You must obey the instructions of all escort personnel. Non-compliance with this rule will result in automatic disqualification.
This swim has been timed to take advantage of the currents, with the start timed to catch the tail end of the flood tide. As you begin your swim, the tides will be slack. As you progress towards Aquatic Park, a slight ebb tide kicks in (sweeping you right, or west, toward the Golden Gate Bridge). There is a stronger ebb channel along the entrance to Aquatic Park. Kayakers will direct swimmers about 200 yards east of the entrance to Aquatic Park to take advantage of the strong ebb current along the waterfront. Don't be fooled Ė Even if the water surface appears calm, the tides are always present. Swimmers who aim directly for the entrance will be swept toward the Golden Gate. There will be support boats and kayaks stationed west of the entrance to Aquatic Park to collect any swimmers who miss it.
Our objective is to have everyone successfully complete the swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco, but if your pace puts you too far behind to guarantee your safe completion, a boat will pick you up. You may be moved to a more favorable location, where the tide will work to your advantage and you may complete the swim; however, swim officials have the authority to make an objective assessment of your progress with respect to the current tide conditions and may decide to drop you off inside Aquatic Park. If an official tells you to get into a boat, it is expressly for your safety, and you must comply or you will be disqualified.
If you find that when you jump in the water or start to swim that your heart begins to beat rapidly and your breathing feels out of control, this is perfectly normal. It's just the adrenaline rush of raceday paired with the shock of the cold bay water. Use your own judgment on whether to continue, especially if you have any medical conditions, but most people find that if they continue to swim, they warm up, get their breathing back under control and are able to get back into a groove and finish the swim. You may backstroke, or swim with your head out of the water until you're comfortable to swim again.
If you feel that you cannot complete the swim or you need the assistance of a kayaker, stay put and put one arm straight up in the air. A kayaker will come to you and discuss your options. It is perfectly legal to grab the nose of a kayak and wait out a cramp, get your breathing under control, etc. Don't hesitate to take the measures you need to finish your swim. (Note: If you need to grab onto a kayak, grab onto the nose; NEVER grab a kayak from the side, as you may tip it over).
A smart athlete will know when it's not his or her day. You'll always be welcome to come back and try again. There's no shame in taking a rain check on this event.
paddlers raise their paddles to signify that they have a swimmers who needs a ride in...
and the SFPD or another support craft picks up the swimmer...
If you start to get cold and can't think straight, you are experiencing mild hypothermia and should make the choice to end your swim. Full hypothermia may result in death. Don't be ashamed or hesitate to call it quits early. If you decide it's just not your day, stay put and raise your hand. Yell to get the attention of an escort, and you will be picked up.
If you drop out and do not go through the swim finish chute, be sure to check-in with an official at the race finish to notify us that you are on the beach. We don't want to have to launch a search and rescue unless someone is truly missing in the water.
TRANSITION AREA AT SWIM FINISH
After you finish the swim, you will place all your swim gear (wetsuit, towel, goggles, etc) in a plastic bag labeled with your race number which will be transported to the finish area by our staff. You will have access to water & Gatorade at the aid station before you begin the 4 mile run to the bike transition area at Fort Winfield Scott."
Swimming with a balloon tied to you can do many things:
- make it easier for the assisting kayakers to keep you in sight
- make it easier for your spouse who is also swimming to keep you in sight
- create a more festive atmosphere
- create drag and slow you down
Notes for paddlers: from the race directors:
The primary responsibility of our water support crew is to be the first line of safety during the swim.
§ It is critical that each and every kayaker constantly scans the water in order to spot swimmers in distress.
§ At the first sign that a swimmer needs your help, paddle over to the swimmer Ė being careful to avoid other swimmers. Donít be afraid to block swimmers heading toward you; if a swimmer is in distress, approaching swimmers can swim around you.
§ Approach the swimmer carefully, advising the swimmer to hold on to the bow of your boat. DONíT let a swimmer grab the side of your boat, causing you to capsize. Back away if the swimmer tries to grab any part of your boat except the bow.
§ If it is apparent that the swimmer requires immediate medical attention, raise your paddle to the vertical position and blow your whistle to summon the nearest support boat.
§ Swimmers who are cramping or need to catch their breath may hold the nose of your boat and wait until they are ready to resume the swim without penalty or disqualification. Sometimes all these swimmers need is a nod of encouragement. Let them know that their anxiety is perfectly normal and to take it slow, get into a groove and relax! After all, this is supposed to be fun!
To turn a swimmer who strays off course, move ahead and well in front of the swimmer and bang your boat with your hand or paddle. This usually makes the swimmer raise his/her head and look at the kayaker; point out the direction the swimmer should go.
Some swimmers will want to bail out immediately after starting because they arenít used to swimming in open water. This first portion is often the busiest for the kayakers. Again, if a swimmer does not want to continue the swim for any reason, raise your paddle to the vertical position and blow your whistle to summon the nearest support boat.
Notes for lifeguards: Competitors are allowed to use any stroke.
Expect the possibility of:
--- As they jump in from the ferries, we need to be prepared for gasp reflex (if someone breathes in water as they hit the cold water).
--- A few just suddenly feel too tired/cold and want to quit. You might be able to convince them to give it a try and swim for awhile.
below: lifeguard Minh Nguyen assists a swimmer at the very beginning of the race as a race boat pulls nearby
--- At the start the extremely slim possibility of someone jumping on top of someone else. (The race has 'bouncers' at each ferry exit to control the athletes and we have never seen anything close to this happen.)
--- Some will be accidentally kicked or elbowed or they will turn to breathe and be unable to because
of choppy water. Some will have other swimmers swim over the top of them.
--- Athletes may have muscle cramps, mild or so totally debilitating that an athlete can't even hold a
kayak bow or rescue tube.
---Panic leading to one competitor grabbing another and a guard rescuing both at once. (In one case at a Danskin Almaden Lake race the woman who was grabbed wasn't upset at almost being drowned, she was mad that her time was being slowed!).
---Some athletes will want so much to finish, they'll keep trying despite cramps longer than they should, and are in big trouble by the time they swim aside from the pack and are first noticed--or--by the time they actually wave or speak up for help.
--Ate the wrong breakfast (possibly combined with nerves and a little ocean water) and needs to throw up, potentially while resting at your kayak. (At a Bud Light triathlon many years ago, a lifeguard we all knew who was competing in the race threw up three times at/on a guard's rescue board.) If they think about it, most will realize they feel much better after vomiting, and can finish the race. You could suggest to them that they probably feel better. You could posistion your boat where it will keep other swimmers
from swimming into the vomit and use your paddle to stir it around and dissipate it before you head on.
--They might have been kicked while swimming in a tight group of swimmers, including possible dislocated shoulders (rare, but it happened to a pro in the first wave of a Bud light tri). It is most likely near the start of any open water swim race).
---About 90% wear wetsuits and can still get hypothermic. Some who are too too hypothermic or have other problems (need their inhaler, for example) are given a ride all they way to the finish, and if needed, helped to the medical staff.
--Breathed or swallowed a little water (a little seems like a lot). May only need a little help, or potentially a lot of encouragement to go on.
When I refer to a victim who may have "breathed a little water," I want to be sure you all understand that I mean someone who choked on a little water, not actually aspirated any. I talked to a Race Doctor at a Danskin tri about this, and she said "think back to your own experiences swallowing water"... aspirating is "more spasmodic, a little more panicky, and a little more out of control."
If an athlete actually exhibited active drowning behavior, and/or you have reason to believe they did aspirate (breathe in) water, they need to be seen by the doctor even though they may be embarrassed. Talk to them about it. If they just want to leave the swim and/or rest alone, or go home, don't let them if you think they aspirated water. Be sure the boat that picks them up knows that they need to be seen by an EMT on shore.
If they refuse help even though they admitted they breathed in water, or you are sure yourself they did, at least try to get their number if they swim off and report it.
Remember, as noted by the United States Lifesaving Association, "It has been estimated that of all patients in near-drowning incidents, 5% will develop complications due to water aspiration and 25% of those will result in death."
Many athletes will stay head down and just swim freestyle determinedly. Some will use mostly breastroke, sidestroke or even elementary backstroke. (From a distance elementary backstroke with an out-of-the-water arm stroke recovery looks very much like a classic active drowning victim!) Some will pop up their heads--this could mean they are sighting ahead, couldn't get a breath to the side, just got bumped or kicked, just kicked someone and are apologizing, -- or -- are looking for a lifeguard's assistance.
There is the possibility that you won't notice a person in a crowd who needs help and is not moving or not popping up their head, but will notice people swimming behind them reacting to them.
Some might stop near you and want to hold on to your boat just long enough to adjust their ankle velcro timing chip. Others might ask you to take their photo with the camera they have.
Almost all the guards will have the job of following the last swimmers near a bunch of 2, 3, 4 or more swimmers.
The last swimmers may want you to stop frequently so they can rest, then take off again. If they want to talk, try to keep up a positive conversation. Some guards end up coaching 4 or 5 as they take periodic rest stops at/near the kayak. (More likely at the Sharkfest swim than at the Tri.) Be positive to everyone, but not to the point of insincerity or inappropriateness.
An athlete wrote after one race:
I just completed the Alcatraz swim yesterday and I wanted to compliment you on the organization, the experience, and if you had anything to do with the weather, the sunshine as well. This was my first time swimming from Alcatraz and I was a little nervous. (O.K. I couldn't sleep the night before). But what really impressed me was how SAFE I felt. Once in the water, the kayakers really kept an eye on everyone and while I was swimming, I could always spot kayakers nearby and they kept us all going in the right direction. Feeling that "watched over" took away all of my anxiety and I could swim and really enjoy the experience. I had a wonderful, fun time and I can't wait to do it again. Thank you for your attention to detail and for taking such good care of your swimmers. Please thank all the kayakers as well.
Mary Louise Schmalz
An aerial photo of the Golden Gate bridge, Alcatraz and the shoreline people swim to is at:
You can zoom in. (Please copy and paste the link if it does not function to click on it.)
lifeguards at the Escape from Alcatraz Alcatri 2010 guarding the Sharkfest and Alcatri 2007, guarding the 2006 Alcatri triathlon Sharkfest 2004 lifeguarding and Sharkfest 2003 lifeguarding have more pictures.
Thinking about swimming this race? Sign up in advance; the race size is limited. It fills two to four or even more months in advance.
You can enter your swim speed and race at the next link and find a good guess at your swim speed based on the currents that day. http://www.papaya.net/kent/swim/alcatraz/swimometer.html
If you are a De Anza student/staff and are going to swim this race, come say hello before the race. The guards and other paddlers meet at the far east end of the beach.
Volunteers and swimmers should go to: http://www.envirosports.com and click on the race you are interested in. From there you can find advice to swimmers and a race map.
Group photos of De Anza volunteers at the race are at:
Alcatraz group photos
Details about Outdoor Club events (again, volunteering at this race is not an official club or college event) are at:
Outdoor Club Coming Attractions
Answers to most questions about how the De Anza Outdoor Club works are at: Outdoor Club Basic Info The main rules common to most of our trips, including who is eligible to go, are at: Outdoor Club trip rules.