What it’s like to swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco

What it's like to swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco

I knew that Camille would be an interesting interview when I saw her pictures from an adventurous swim in my Facebook feed.

I think you will be inspired and encouraged to challenge yourself to try something new in the water after hearing her story.

How long have you been swimming?

For as long as I can remember (my best guess would be around age 5)! My parents put my brothers and me in swim lessons at the local swim club and we spent our summers on the swim team.

I continued swimming competitively through high school, had plans to swim in college, but was injured during my senior year of high school.

In college I worked as a lifeguard at the University of Kentucky pool, I often did swim workouts, but nothing major or competitive at that time.

Since moving to San Francisco I have picked up my swimming hobby once again and have moved from occasional pool swims to actual training and even open water training and races!

Swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco

How did you get involved in races?

As a kid, the swim team was the fun thing to do. It was what filled our time in the summer. Practice early in the morning, go back home to eat and do chores, back to the pool to hang out with all our swim team friends, and swim meets once a week.

In high school it was daily practice and meets, I spent a ton of time with my swim team friends, constantly smelled of chlorine, and couldn’t imagine a life without swimming.

I’ve always been competitive and had the desire to race and do well. It’s not so much that I want to beat others, it’s been more of a drive to see how much better I can do than before.

Swimming is a good sport for that because while there are always “winners” and “places” that doesn’t mean that anyone else necessarily loses. If you’ve beaten your time from before then you’ve won, even if your time isn’t faster than everyone else.

A new thing for me has been the challenge of open water swimming. Where time isn’t everything.

It’s more about endurance and dealing with the elements – murky water, waves, cold temperatures, sea life, etc. This adds a whole new element of adventure and gives me more to strive for than just getting faster.

Swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco 2

What challenges did you have to overcome?

The first and biggest challenge I’ve had to overcome as a swimmer was a shoulder injury. It happened during my senior year of high school at the regional swim meet – where I could have possibly qualified to swim at state.

Sharp pain in my shoulder at the end of one of my events – 100 butterfly, I believe – forced me to be assisted out of the water and escorted to the medical staff.

I would later spend weeks in physical therapy and when asking my doctor about the future of my swimming career would be told, “if you continue to swim at the rate that you have been, your shoulder will most likely need surgery within 3 years.”

Within 3 years?! That would be in my early twenties, it couldn’t possibly be that bad, could it?!

I was too scared to test it…and unfortunately, I didn’t qualify for any swim scholarships anyway, so that was what I took to be the end of my swimming career. I was 18 and heartbroken, feeling like I had just lost the love of my life.

To this day I can’t say whether or not that doctor was right, but I’m glad I didn’t push it. I missed swimming for a while, but have been able to make a comeback.

I’m a healthy, active adult now who has not only returned to swimming but also picked up cycling and running to become a triathlete, I love what I’m able to do now and hopefully, that will continue for a long time.

The second challenge was a mental one

One I’m sure many, many others have had. I was scared, no, I was terrified of water where I couldn’t see what was around me.

Swimming in lakes? Nope! Rivers? I’ll stay in the canoe, thanks. Oceans? Only if it’s crystal clear and I’ve got goggles on to look around!

That all changed in the spring of last year. I had joined a local triathlon club and, not knowing anything about the sport of triathlon, quickly joined a training group.

The first few weeks were basic and our swims were in a pool – my second home. But eventually, the time came to go out into the ocean, where we would eventually be racing.

A fellow training buddy and I went down to Aquatic Park (a great swimming area of the San Francisco Bay located in front of Ghirardelli Square). She had swum there many times and was ready to go once our feet touched the water.

As for me? I stood there in knee-deep water scared to go any further. “But it’s dark! I can’t see anything down there! What’s out there?!”

My fears were kicking in big time! “Just watch your hands,” she said. It was that simple, watch your hands. Eventually, after acclimating to the cold wate I put my face in, and indeed I could see my hands, it was reassuring!

I completed my first of many, many Aquatic Park swims that day and even though from time to time I still wonder what could be lurking beneath, I never let my mind wander too far.

I count my strokes, pay attention to my breathing, focus on form, and plan what my after-swim snack will be (usually a delicious Irish Coffee from the famous Buena Vista Cafe just up the block from Aquatic Park) 🙂

What’s it like to swim in cold shark-infested water?

The cold is always a tough thing to deal with. Aquatic Park usually runs between 50 and 60 degrees, mostly in the mid to upper 50s based on the times I’ve been in.

A wetsuit always helps. I practice in a full wetsuit, meaning it covers my arms and legs completely, but the cold water is always a shock on your face, hands, and feet.

Swimming will naturally warm your body up, but I almost always leave swims with numb hands and feet – making changing after the swim quite difficult. They make “booties” and gloves that can be worn, but I feel they interfere with my swim so I just deal with the cold.

Sometimes that’s easier said than done. For races, I wear a wetsuit without sleeves to have more shoulder mobility and to make the wetsuit easier to remove in transition. Races always get my adrenaline flowing so the cold is a little less of an issue.

As far as sharks…hum, well I can’t say that there are no sharks in Aquatic Park, there certainly are sharks in the Bay, but it’s been so long since anyone was attacked that it honestly doesn’t cross my mind.

Once we (our training group) swam in Santa Cruz on the same day that people had witnessed a shark attack a seal just down the shore from us, but that happened later in the day I believe, so we didn’t know it at the time.

This is crazy to hear, but it doesn’t affect me too much. I know that sharks don’t want to attack humans, they want seals or other marine life to eat.

So I think the chances of getting attacked are very slim and it doesn’t scare me much.

The idea of a giant squid or other sea creature lurking beneath?

Somehow that’s more intimidating to me…

Swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco

Have you had any close calls?

Close calls meaning what?

People have had to be pulled from races or swims before because of the conditions or their ability to go the full distance.

Sometimes cramping can put a damper on a swim, or a race if you’re as unlucky as me. And we’ve swum around sea life such as sea lions and other fish.

But I’ve been lucky to not see any major emergencies or disasters while open water swimming.

Swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco Map

What was your experience like swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco?

The swim from Alcatraz was amazing. It was hosted by a local open water swimming group called Odyssey Open Water Swimming.

They host this swim several times a year for adventurous swimmers or those training for a race like the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon.

The day I did it was Mother’s Day, May 10, 2015.

About 60 of us lined up to board a small boat – almost half of this group was people from my triathlon club (Golden Gate Triathlon Club aka GGTC) which made it very comforting for myself and the others who were doing this swim for the first time.

Swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco 4

The boat took us out to Alcatraz Island, close enough to smell the horrible smell of birds that I hate so much (I have been on Alcatraz three times now and refuse to go back, mostly because of the smell of bird poop everywhere).

After a few minutes of the kayaks and SUPs (stand up paddleboards) getting into place, we were instructed to start jumping. One after the other we jumped into the cold, cold water (around 52 that day I believe) and off we went. There wasn’t time to acclimate to the water or fix your goggles or sit there mentally preparing, it was time to swim!

Immediately I knew I was in for a challenge – a very welcome one, but a challenge nonetheless.

The waves were big and the current was strong. The end goal was to reach the San Francisco Yacht club – southwest of Alcatraz Island in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge.

To keep from being swept out and under the Golden Gate Bridge (in the direction of the very well known, shark-infested Farallon Islands) we had to aim for a sighting point south and almost east of us.

As we got closer to the shore, I quickly realized how much the current was affecting me as I was much farther west than I had thought I would be. The waves were huge, an issue at times.

Once or twice while attempting to take a breath on my right side I was hit in the face by waves and ended up swallowing water.

Luckily it wasn’t much and I was able to adjust and continue to swim. It was a foggy day, so sighting was difficult.

The bridge was barely visible in the distance and the buildings in the city we were supposed to aim for were hard to pick out. I kept my eye on the lead kayak, which had a bright orange flag on it and was always leading the way.

Swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco

What was the swim like?

The swim, while difficult, was faster than I had expected. My Garmin registered it as a 2-mile swim in 40 minutes – that is fast!

Way faster than I normally swim, so the current definitely assisted. The swim felt shorter and easier than it actually was.

Emerging from the water I was elated, I just swam from Alcatraz!!!

I felt great and had had so much fun that I wanted to do it again, immediately!

A friend of mine took a picture of me and captioned it, “No Camille, you cannot swim back to the rock.” As I look to be arguing with someone and asking, “but why not?!”

Swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco

The swim from Alcatraz was, to date, my biggest swim.

I’ve had longer, more beautiful swims – like one that was somewhere close to 3 miles in a crystal clear Lake Tahoe with GGTC friends last summer.

But this Alcatraz swim was bigger, it somehow meant more.

I did something that people have on their bucket list, it may not have been on mine for all that long, but it was there and I’ve checked it off.

I dedicated my swim that day to my grandmother. She’s always been there for me and has been my biggest support system since my mother passed away when I was young.

She knew that one day I would set my sights on Alcatraz and do that swim, so she was unbelievably happy to hear all about it once I finished.


What advice would you give to someone who is interested in trying something challenging in the water?

Anyone who is interested in swimming should just try it out.

Swim where you can, when you can, as often as you can.

Everyone’s goals are different so it’s hard to generalize, but if you want to be faster then you need to have good form (step one) then you need to dedicate the time to increase your speed (step two).

Get a coach to help if needed, there are many resources for people of all ages who want to learn to swim or improve what they’re already able to do.

If you want to do adventurous, long swims then you need to seek out groups and events near you.

Join a local swimming club or training group and do as many events as they provide.

If you’re new to open water, rent a wetsuit. Figure out which one fits your body best and which you’re most comfortable in before purchasing it – they are an investment and should last you several years.

Swimming is a lifelong, personal sport

The best thing you can do is what you want with it.

You can be a 16-year-old high school swim star who has two-a-day practices and lives with the smell of chlorine seeping from your pores, dreaming of becoming the next Olympic swimming star, or you can be an 80-year-old who likes to swim a few laps in open water once a week, or somewhere in between.

Swimming is what you make of it and can take you to some pretty amazing places if you let it.

underwater swimming

What adventure are you looking forward to crossing off your list next?

My next adventure will probably be a second Alcatraz swim.

I’d like to try it under different conditions and see if I can improve my time even more, but each swim from there is different, nothing is guaranteed, the conditions could be better or they could be much worse.

I’ve also been considering a bridge to bridge swim – a 6.2-mile swim from the Golden Gate to the Bay Bridge. This would be a long swim, but would also be assisted by the tide so the distance isn’t as daunting as it may sound.

Otherwise, I just hope to continue swimming – for pleasure, for races, for endurance, for anything. It’s a great way to stay active and it’s one of my favorite things to do.

You can follow more of Camille’s adventures on Instagram at @camiguli

*photo credit

1. Headline photo – Dan Valles (Instagram: @calisurfer31) 2-6. Camille Gulick 7. (The Facebook screenshot) Dan Valles  8 & 9 are GoPro photos taken by Michelle Lipira (Instagram: @mlipira)

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What its like to swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco

1 thought on “What it’s like to swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco”

  1. Congratulations on such a great swim and time in a challenging conditions. I was admittedly quite surprised to read that people do this. I always thought the big thing about Alcatraz was the water currents were so strong that it was virtually impossible for prisoners to escape and survive.

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