"My Crazy Escape from Alcatraz"

23rd Annual
San Francisco Bay


Bill Arena
MCLA Wisdom Council

When I first moved to California in 2004 I overheard friends speaking about this crazy open ocean swim that some apparently hearty and incredibly robust women and men were 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 to Alcatraz Island, each swimmer leaps from a huge commercial harbor ship, then freestyles through frigid 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 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 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 access finish line is located on the beach at Aquatic Park Cove approx 1.3 miles from the starting point just 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 right in. He did absolutely great. Incredible inspiration to me. YES SIR, ANYTHING is possible.

NEWBIES __ This year’s Alcatraz Invitational was the first time for both me and my new friend Brooke. And now, we’re hooked. We’re doing this every year. Refocusing my training regimen. Open ocean cold water swimming is a veritable fountain of youth. Beautiful energy vibes right here in SF Bay.

So honored to hang out with SERC guest of honor world ultra-marathon swim champion Chloe McCardel (center) of Melbourne, a veteran of 27 English Channel solo crossings.

Chloe holds the world record for longest ever unassisted ocean swim, South Eleuthera Island to Nassau, Bahamas, 77 MILES in 41 HOURS. WOW ! ! ! AUSSIE GREATNESS in our midst.

Incredible logistics early Saturday checking in 600+ swimmers of all ages and backgrounds for 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 water 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 to Alcatraz. Then our massive group of swimmers begins marching together several blocks to the Red & White Ferry docks led by Scottish bagpiper Lynn Miller from Edinburgh. Supercharged Scottish Highland warrior energy drives our enthusiastic crowd onward towards our deep sea destiny with the mighty Pacific Ocean.

TIMING DEVICE __ Each swimmer is issued an electronic timing device that is worn on the ankle. Upon leaping from the commercial 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 approximately 1.3 miles away.

SACRED SPEEDOS __ During our sunrise ferry ride to Alcatraz with 633 crazy, scantily-clad and wetsuit-clad swimmers packed cheek-to-cheek on two commercial passenger ships, made an amazingly fortuitous connection with my new swim buddy, Big Jim “Slo Guy” Matthews. Savoring slo-mo mojo in SF Bay.

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


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

COCKED, LOCKED & READY TO ROCK __ A warning buzzer activates simultaneously on both ships. Now entering Alcatraz Island Restricted Area Danger Zone. Safely launching 633 souls into the wildly swirling open ocean maelstrom of San Francisco Bay is serious business.

IT’S GO TIME __ Amazingly, EVERYONE launches with perfect 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 is incredibly exhilarating. WE LEAP! WE SWIM! OH YEAH! IT’S GO TIME!

After deploying 633 swimmers into San Francisco Bay, an amazing and furious mad dash to the shoreline ensues escorted by a huge safety flotilla of watercraft including kayaks, canoes, sailboats and jet skis. Safety is the ultimate priority and South End Rowing Club does an incredible job protecting everyone participating in this event.

🔱 CARPE DIEM __ One suggestion we were given during our pre-race water safety meeting at dawn was to stop at the half-way point of the swim and do a slow 360-degree turn. “Take a deep breath. Be fully present,” we were told over the loudspeaker. “Make a visual recording of this incredibly magical moment in the middle of San Francisco Bay.” Hmmm. That sounds like pretty good advice I thought to myself.



Reaching about halfway, already pretty fatigued and more than a wee bit disoriented, I decided to roll over onto my back and relax just a little bit, catch my breath, adjust my goggles and try to re-orient my bearings.

Bouncing in foamy bay chop, my peripheral, 4-dimensional perception at that instant is stunningly other-worldly: (EAST) Bay Bridge looming in the distance, (SOUTH) finish line at Aquatic Park Cove shimmering below Ghirardelli Square, (WEST) incredibly majestic Golden Gate Bridge reflecting the beautiful rising Sun, and (NORTH) Alcatraz Island slowly, slowly, slowly (but SURELY) moving away from me with each stroke. This shocking, wave level, visual landscape literally explodes and vaporizes my overpowering linear, limited, intellectual, rational, human, obsessive, black-or-white, sink-or-swim, total-survival, obsessive brainwave thought patterns, AND, simultaneously, a SACRED PORTAL of vertical, shimmering, protective, warm, energetic white light slowly materializes 👁 🙏 ♂ 🐬 👁 🌎. 🔮 🔱 👁 right there before my blinking eyes. OMG!

AXIS MUNDI __ I feel like I’m now treading water inside some undiscovered secret spiritual dimension, slowly savoring an out-of-body energy healing inside an Axis Mundi connecting Heaven and Earth right here in the big middle of San Francisco Bay. AHHHH! As I’m blissfully floating in this other-worldly sacred space, my divine intuition suddenly kicks in (speaking Italian) . . . “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”).

So empowering leaping enmasse into SF Bay and freestyling west. Most swimmers blasted away 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 everyone probably covered the course smoothly and efficiently, it’s possible I swam further than necessary due to fogged-up swim goggles and my inadvertent, zig-zag floundering outside the harbor fighting AGAINST the currents . . . still learning this whole tide business and how to flow smoothly 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 open ocean endurance swimming can be a metaphor for life itself. GO “WITH” THE FLOW. Don’t waste your time or thoughts or energy agonizing about things you CANNOT control: people, events, politicians, bigots, racists, twin flames. YES! Of course! Wopila tanka Tunkashila. Gratefully refocusing my thoughts, words and actions. “Sto ancora imparando" (“I am still learning”)


Video recap of South End Rowing Club’s
13th annual Alcatraz Invitational


PHYSICAL __ So grateful to add this amazing, aquatic warrior event to my personal portfolio of healthy, healing ceremonies empowering body, mind and spirit. Such a joyful revelation to discover and now literally embrace the scientifically-verified, virtual FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH” PHYSICAL BENEFITS of year-round, cold water, no wet suit, open ocean swimming:
1)  Boosts immune system
2)  Delivers endorphin high 
3)  Enhances circulation
4)  Increases libido
5)  Burns hella calories
6)  Reduces stress

SPIRITUAL __ I've also joyously discovered that open ocean swimming is so amazing and deeply empowering, not just PHYSICALLY . . . but especially SPIRITUALLY. There are no shortcuts. No distractions. No playing around. One must be totally and completely focused and fully present in the moment while paddling around out there in the open ocean depths. The result for me personally is a supercharged, energetic, BE-IN-THE-MOMENT ENERGY CONSCIOUSNESS, an incredibly deep and intimate connection with our MOTHER EARTH and ALL LIVING THINGS. So grateful to discover this amazing aquatic spiritual path and now joyously savor this eternal connection with the Divine on a year-round basis right here in the big middle of our very own San Francisco Bay. “Pheta kin ileya han cha waste’ ”

My INTELLECT says it's exactly 343 days until our next Alcatraz Invitational 2019. And my divine INTUITION joyously and simultaneously confirms this cosmic energy alignment. "Hoka hey. Let the training begin.” ALCATRAZ 2019 TIMER 


🔱 I gratefully add this intensely invigorating Alcatraz Invitational to my annual spiritual commitments. Other sacred connections include my Lakota Sundance prayer ceremony in the Black Hills heartland of South Dakota and MCLA’s Sacred Path men’s retreats held every Spring and Fall up on the majestic Malibu mountain overlooking the Pacific Ocean. So personally empowering to reconnect with the divine and stoke the sacred fire on a regular basis. Working with the Light. Raising the Energy.


o - ❤️ - o

o - o - 🔱 - o - o

o - o - o - 🌎 - o - o – o

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BILL ARENA lives 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, Alcatraz Invitational 🔱 open ocean endurance swimmer, and head Writer Editor Arena Creative Group  

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