Escape from Alcatraz

23rd Annual
San Francisco Bay


Bill Arena
MCLA Wisdom Council

When I first moved to California in 2004 I overheard some friends speaking about this crazy open ocean swim that some hearty and incredibly robust women and men were actually doing each fall in the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay. That’s just crazy talk I thought at the time. Well, 14 years later, yesterday, I’m now one of the crazy ones myself. And it was a total blast.

The ALCATRAZ INVITATIONAL is an open ocean swim that starts by ferry ride out to Alcatraz Island, each swimmer leaps from one of two huge, packed-to-capacity harbor ships, then freestyles through frigid Pacific Ocean currents to Aquatic Park near Hyde Street Pier. We had over 600 swimmers at this year’s 23rd annual fundraiser for the South End Rowing Club, an amazing organization established in San Francisco in 1873.

There were world-class SOUTH END ROWING CLUB swimmers working out in the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay over 64 years before the Golden Gate Bridge was constructed just 2.2 miles away and over 60 years before the first federal prisoners were locked up at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary just 1.27 miles away. This historic San Francisco landmark has an incredibly rich history of international world champion open ocean endurance swimming excellence.

SUNRISE SWIM __ Honored early one morning in late August to start training with veteran open ocean endurance swimmers including Laura Hovden, race director upcoming Alcatraz Invitational. Felt like a white belt training with black belts as we swam out against the tide, my first time outside the harbor, Golden Gate bridge looming in the background. So spectacular. Special thanks to Susan who graciously hung back with me as I became acclimated, explained tide charts. Awesome experience. Savoring the moments. Grateful to hang out with the big guns and get ready for the Rock.

People come from around the country and around the world to participate and cheer on their friends and family in this annual event in San Francisco Bay hosted by the South End Rowing Club. The open ocean finish line is located on the beach at Aquatic Park approximately 1.3 miles away from the starting point abeam Alcatraz Island.

BIRTHDAY LEAP OF FAITH __ Culminating my month-long preparation for Alcatraz I was truly honored early last Tuesday to accompany my friend Nick on his first open ocean swim in many, many years with fellow members of my South End Rowing Club. Nick lost his leg in a terrible motorcycle accident and just the idea of swimming in the open ocean both INTRIGUED him and TERRIFIED him at the same time. Well, this man is a POWERFUL HEALER and INDOMITABLE WARRIOR. Powered past his fears and jumped into the waves. He did absolutely great. Incredible personal inspiration to me. Yes sir, ANYTHING is possible.

NEWBIES __ This year’s Alcatraz Invitational was the very first time for both me and my new friend Brooke. And now, we’re both hooked. We’re making this an annual event. Refocusing my training regimen. Open ocean cold water swimming is a veritable fountain of youth. Good vibes in SF Bay.

So honored and excited to hang out with SERC guest of honor world marathon swim champion CHLOE McCARDEL (center) of Melbourne, Australia, a veteran of 27 English Channel solo crossings.

Chloe also holds the world record for longest ever unassisted ocean swim from South Eleuthera Island to Nassau, Bahamas, 77 MILES in 41 HOURS. WOW. Aussie greatness in our midst.

Incredible logistics early Saturday morning checking in 600+ swimmers of all ages and backgrounds for this famous annual ocean swim in San Francisco Bay. South End Rowing Club conducts this huge event with professional precision, awesome attitudes, and ultimate care and safety for all participants. After check-in, the huge crowd gathers for comprehensive swimmer safety meeting. Speedos are adjusted. The sun is rising. The energy is building.

Following the safety briefing, SERC’s huge fleet of rowers, kayaks, sailboats, motorboat pilots and SFPD jet ski watercraft head out towards Alcatraz. Then our massive group of swimmers begins marching together several blocks to the Red & White Ferry docks led by a Scottish bagpiper from Edinburgh. Exciting, supercharged Highland warrior energy drives the enthusiastic crowd onward towards our deep sea destiny with the Pacific Ocean.

TIMING DEVICE __ Each swimmer is issued an electronic timing device that is worn on the ankle. Upon leaping from the lower deck of the harbor ship the waterproof timer is automatically activated and records the exact moment when he or she finally reaches the beach in Aquatic park and steps across the finish line some 1.3 miles away.

SPEEDOS __ During our sunrise ferry ride to Alcatraz with 633 crazy & scantily-clad male & female swimmers packed-to-the-max on commercial passenger ships, had amazingly fortuitous connection with my new swim buddy, Big Jim “Slo Guy” Matthews. Savoring sacred slow lane energy in San Francisco Bay.

Swimmers share packed, loaded-to-capacity commercial ferry ride to Alcatraz, leap in orderly fashion from the huge SF Bay harbor ships, then power through choppy Pacific Ocean bay currents to Aquatic Park at Hyde Street Pier.

DANGER ZONE __ Upon reaching a precise GPS location directly abeam Alcatraz Island the massive commercial passenger ferries slowly maneuver around, then shut down their engines, all swimmers aboard now poised to leap out into the open ocean within a dangerously precise 5-minute safety window before surging bay currents push us out of position.

COCKED, LOCKED & READY TO ROCK __ A warning buzzer is activated simultaneously on both ships. Now entering critical and potentially dangerous phase . . . launching 633 women and men into the wildly swirling ocean currents of San Francisco Bay is very serious business.

IT’S GO TIME __ Amazingly, EVERYONE launches rapidly with perfect focus and precision, three swimmers at a time leap from narrow designated ramps and quickly paddle away from the huge ferries to begin their big swim home. Adrenals pump massive amounts of adrenaline. The launch phase incredibly exhilarating. WE LEAP! WE SWIM! OH YEAH! IT’S GO TIME!

After deploying over 600 swimmers into San Francisco Bay, an amazing and furious mad dash to the shoreline ensues escorted by a huge safety crew of watercraft including kayaks, canoes, sailboats and jet skis. Safety is the ultimate priority and South End Rowing Club does a beautiful job protecting everyone participating in this event.

CARPE DIEM __ One suggestion we were given during our pre-race safety meeting at dawn was to stop at the half-way point of the swim and do a 360-degree turn. “Take the time to take it all in,” we were told over the loudspeaker. “Make a visual recording of this incredibly magical moment in the middle of San Francisco Bay.” Hmmm. Sounds like good advice I thought.

__ When I finally reach about the halfway point, already pretty fatigued, I decide to roll over onto my back and relax just a little bit, adjust my goggles, catch my breath, and try to get my bearings.

AS MY EYES SLOWLY RE-FOCUS ¡OMG! Bouncing in the churning waves, my four-dimensional field of vision at that instant is other-worldly: (East) Bay Bridge in the distance, (South) finish line at Aquatic Park shimmering below Ghirardelli Square, (West) incredibly majestic Golden Gate bridge reflecting the beautiful rising Sun, and (North) Alcatraz Island slowly but surely moving away from me with each stroke. The scene literally explodes my linear, intellectual, rational brain and a sacred, divine portal suddenly lights up before my eyes.

OUT-OF-BODY EXPERIENCE __ It felt like I was treading water in some undiscovered spiritual dimension floating in the middle of San Francisco Bay INSIDE an energetic portal connecting Heaven and Earth. As I’m blissfully savoring the moment, my intuition suddenly kicks in . . . “La vita è molto, molto buona (Life is very, very good). “Gioia e gratitudine” (Joy and gratitude). Andiamo ragazzi! Oh yes my man, we’re definitely doing this again next year.

Such a powerful experience leaping enmasse into SF Bay and heading out. Most swimmers took off leaving me flutter kicking in their wake. So grateful to the wonderful SERC safety personnel in canoes, kayaks and rowboats who graciously hung back with us slower swimmers offering encouragement and directions. Although most swimmers covered the course smoothly and efficiently, I ended up probably swimming further than necessary due to fogged-up swim goggles and my inadvertent, zig-zag floundering outside the harbor fighting the currents . . . still learning this whole tide business and how to flow with Mother Earth's natural energies.

MY LIFE IN HUMAN FORM __ Later, sitting quietly and serenely in contemplative afterglow in the heavenly SERC sauna, it spontaneously dawned on me that ocean swimming is a metaphor for life itself. GO “WITH” THE FLOW. Don’t waste your time or thoughts or energy agonizing about things you simply cannot control: people, events, politics, bigots, racists, twin flames.
YES! Of course! Thank you Tunkashila. Gratefully refocusing my thoughts, words and actions.
“Sto ancora imparando" (Italian) / “I am still learning”


Video recap of the South End Rowing Club’s 13th annual Alcatraz Invitational, September 2008.


PHYSICAL & SPIRITUAL __ So grateful to add this amazing, aquatic warrior event to my personal portfolio of healthy, spiritual, 3-way ceremonies empowering Body, Mind and Spirit. Such a joyful revelation to discover and literally embrace the virtual “FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH” PHYSICAL conditioning aspects of vibrant, cold water, no wet suit, open ocean endurance swimming, of course.

MNI WICONI __ However, in addition to huge PHYSICAL benefits, also shocked and totally stoked by simultaneous, full-contact, “FOOD FOR THE SOUL” SPIRITUAL supercharge each time I’m laser-focused with our beloved Mother Earth in this deeply intimate, personally empowering & multi-dimensional WATER IS LIFE ceremony.


I now gratefully add this exciting September ALCATRAZ INVITATIONAL to my life’s annual essential spiritual connections. Other important personal sacred ceremonies include the LAKOTA SUNDANCE prayer ceremony every June in the Black Hills of South Dakota and my annual MCLA SACRED PATH MEN’S RETREATS held every spring and fall. It is just so important and personally empowering to reconnect with the divine and keep the sacred fire burning. So grateful to be on the path and do this work. Life is good.


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BILL ARENA is the eldest of nine children born and raised in Rome, New York. He lives today in the east bay San Francisco. He's an MCLA Wisdom Council agitator, Men's Work facilitator/guide, Sundancer/Pipe Carrier Lakota Sioux spiritual tradition, Jin Shin Jyutsu hands-on energy healer, Animal/Bird wrangler, Black Belt martial arts instructor, Guided Group Meditation leader, Olympic-style Discus thrower, open ocean Endurance Swimmer, and head writer/editor Arena Creative Group.  His live-each-moment vibrational focus handed down by previous life Renaissance-era mentor and Italian paison, Leonardo da Vinci: "Sto ancora imparando" (I am still learning). “La vita è molto, molto buona.” (Life is very, very good). "Facciamolo" (Come on dudes. Let's do this).

The LAKOTA SUNDANCE Prayer Ceremony
MNI WICONI: Sacred Stand at Standing Rock
Indigenous Prophecy of THE CONDOR & THE EAGLE
SACRED PATH FLASH FLOOD Baptism on the Colorado River