Man vs. Nature: Surviving the Alcatraz Challenge

author : dr_forbush
comments : 9

The boat was being tossed around. Someone noted that there were whitecaps on the waves. Another guy said, “This is going to be challenging.” I began to wonder what he meant by 'challenging'.

In the end, Man vs. Nature is the ultimate conflict that we all end up losing. This is because nature is the environment in which we all live. Nature encompasses everything we know. Other men, society, and ourselves can all be reduced to nature itself because all of these are products of nature. In literature, when we explore one of these so-called non-nature conflicts, we are only peeling off one subgroup of conflict in order to examine it more closely.

Man is always in a battle against nature. This was obvious in ancient civilizations when every danger lay just outside the campfire circle. But even today, the diseases that we fight - be they bacterial, viral, or even cancerous - come from nature in various ways to damage our bodies and age them little by little. Even oxygen and the sun age our bodies little by little. Nature eats away at us every day, and no matter how we fight it, we will ultimately loose that final conflict.

We don’t like to think about this fact of life. But every once in a while, death comes a little closer than we might like. Yesterday was one of those days for me.

Yesterday I took on nature by choice. Like I did last year, I chose to swim from Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay to San Francisco. The famous island lies about 1.25 miles north of San Francisco in the cold bay waters normally between 55 and 63 degrees Fahrenheit. In these waters, hypothermia is a real threat, but swimming hard for less than an hour will generate enough heat for most people to counter this problem. I survived this swim last year with some major chills and shivering, but nothing life threatening. I can normally swim a mile in about 25 minutes. Thirty minutes would be a lazy pace. So I wasn’t very worried about this swim at all.

But nature doesn’t always cooperate.

About 650 people joined me on a one-way cruise out to Alcatraz. I had no fear, because I had done this before. But looking back on this short trip out to the island, there was some foreshadowing. I began to talk to some of the experienced swimmers. Last year I worried about everything: where to sight, how to pace myself. This year I made the sophomore mistake of throwing worry to the wind. Of course, most of the swimmers wore wetsuits. I didn’t wear one last year, why would I need one this year?

I met a few guys who also chose to swim “naked,” as they call it. Two of them worked out every day swimming in the Aquatic Park. Another guy told me that this was his twentieth crossing. I asked him if there was anything that he had learned from all of his experience. He told me that the most important thing was that every crossing was different. And that sentiment is still bouncing around in my head today.

As we traveled across the bay, the boat was being tossed around. Someone noted that there were whitecaps on the waves. Another guy said, “This is going to be challenging.” I began to wonder what he meant by challenging.

Last year it took me 40 minutes to swim this short distance, mainly because I needed to occasionally stop and look around. I was also slow off the boat, which I believe added to my official swim time. This year I was quick to get toward the front of the line. I wanted to get started. Why wait? I jumped into the water, pushing the button on my watch in order to get the perfect boat-to-beach time.

I swam ahead away from the boat, following the crowd of swimmers that had jumped before me. Like most swimmers, freestyle means front crawl, the easiest and most efficient swimming stroke. I saw the swimmers in front of me and I kept up with him as we began to swim for the shore. Then a large wave hit me. I got my breath, but the wave slammed me into the water hard. I stopped for a second, picked my head up, and swam a few strokes of breaststroke. With my head above the water I could see the waves coming, but of course my progress was much slower. I put my head back in the water and continued on with my front crawl. I was hit by waves again and again slamming me into the water. This was different from anything I had experienced before. Then a wave hit me in the face and I sucked in water. I coughed and gagged. I picked my head up and once again began breast stroking toward the shore.

Well, I tried to swim front crawl a few more times, but the waves were killing me. One well-placed wave just might drown me. The safest thing to do had to be breaststroke, but I didn’t do just regular breaststroke, I swam breaststroke with my head up. This was slow and steady, but at least I wouldn’t be drowned by those stupid waves. This was obviously “real” open water swimming. I saw other swimmers around me. One person had their hand up signaling a boat. The boat was a few feet away. They had told us if we needed any help that we should signal the boats that would be along the course.

The waves must have been about three feet high. This might not seem like much, but it was just enough to get me high enough that I could survey the swimmers around me. I felt better knowing that there were other swimmers around me. Last year I felt like I was alone in the sea. I couldn’t see anyone around me until I got pretty close to the finish line. This year I could see heads bobbing all around me. I felt pretty good that I wasn’t alone. But people were passing me as I did breaststroke, and somehow these people were able to swim front crawl in all of these waves. I imagined that I must be like a runner that grew up in Kansas running quite well on all the flat roads that go around the cornfields. Suddenly I was placed in the Rocky Mountains and told to run a 10K. I’d be dying on every up hill, and trying to slow myself down on every downhill. Obviously I wasn’t prepared for this swim.

I stubbornly pushed myself forward. Breaststroke wasn’t fast, but the swim wasn’t only about winning a race. There wasn’t much chance that I was actually going to win the race. This was man against nature now, and I was going to win this battle. I started this swim with an idea that I would beat my time from last year and run after the swim was over. The race was actually to swim from Alcatraz, then run seven miles over the Golden Gate Bridge and back again. It certainly didn’t sound impossible when I started, but it sure was taking me a long time to get to the beach.

Nature, being what it is, isn’t about just one thing. Nature in the traditional sense is about aggressive wild animals, storms, lightning, volcanoes, mountains, and more. And, nature in my case wasn’t just about nauseating waves. It was also about the cold water. Putting two things together, the lack of a wetsuit and the much slower pace that I was making due to the waves, it was taking quite some time to make this crossing. Occasionally I would panic a bit and begin to push myself a little harder. This was not necessarily the best strategy. I was already doing my best to fight the waves, did I really need to fight the exhaustion? Wait a minute, swimming at the pace I was with my head up avoiding the waves was already exhausting me. The extra time that this swim was taking was already exhausting me. And the cold water was exhausting me.

I was thinking to myself that I was certainly in better shape this year than I was last year. What would have happened if I had to battle these same waves last year? This could have been worse. Maybe I should have worn a wetsuit? It would have been my insurance policy, giving me the margin that would have made the difference. I was certainly getting colder and my hands and feet were beginning to tingle. I could see the shore that I was aiming for, but it sure seemed to be a long way off. I struggled and pushed myself, but it seemed like I wasn’t making any progress. I even tried to swim front crawl again. But, in my tired condition, even the smaller waves near the shore took their toll on me. With about 300 yards to go, I finally realized that I should have been swimming sidestroke instead of breaststroke. I got a nice strong scissor kick going, and I started to pass the person swimming next to me. I felt like I was making some progress again. But I was already in a state of hypothermia.

I got out of the water and I ran to the place that I was supposed to change into my running gear. My wife met me there, and she was crying. I had taken an hour and twenty minutes to make this crossing. It took me 40 minutes last year. The difference was the waves, but my wife had seen an ambulance drive up, and she thought the worst. Even after seeing that I was OK, she was still upset, because someone else wasn’t. In fact, a 51 year old woman who was swimming this same race had died. They found her floating in the bay and they didn’t know what had happened to her.

I don’t know any other way to explain how I felt after that swim, except that I had “fog brain.” I couldn’t think clearly. I knew that I was supposed to run seven miles, but didn’t know if I could. I probably needed some fluids, but I didn’t feel thirsty. My wife was trying to help me, but nothing seemed to make any sense. I had hoped that by running I would generate some heat and all of this would correct itself. At least that was the plan. I put my shoes and socks on and my wife and I started running. We ran slowly, but I was beginning to realize that I wasn’t going to be able to do this.


My fog brain wasn’t going away and I was going into shock. I knew that this was bad, and my wife knew that it was bad. We turned around as we realized that this was just not worth the risk. The race was for fun. I could have run back and drink something and tried again. But I knew that that would just be stupid. I was sad and dejected. Nature had won this one, but I had lived to fight another day. The fight goes on, even though we all really know that nature will win in the end. We just don’t know when.


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date: October 9, 2007