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It may be known for its years of housing dangerous criminals — but Alcatraz, the infamous federal prison that sits on a rocky island in California’s San Francisco Bay, is also known for the dangerous currents that surround it.
Thirty-six men tried 14 separate escapes from the maximum-security prison over the years — and nearly all were caught or did not survive from 1934 to 1963 (when the prison closed), according to multiple reports.
Decades later, swimmers made “escaping Alcatraz” an athletic event that poses dangers not just from navigating the dangerous current but also the cold-water temperatures that can drop to 16 degrees C (60 degrees F).
Oh, and great white sharks also patrol the wider area, too.
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Rich Carroll remains undaunted by all of this.
The 54-year-old high school football coach at St. Francis Prep in Fresh Meadows, NY, told Fox Digital News in a phone interview that he plans to swim the approximately 2-mile course from Alcatraz to the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco — all to help raise funds for his school’s football program, which is in dire need of a new scoreboard.
He’s also a role model for others in terms of maintaining strong health and wellness.
The 2022 Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim takes place on Sunday, August 7.
“I started swimming regularly and fell back in love with the sport,” he told Fox News Digital. “I came across the Alcatraz Swim on the internet and thought, ‘What a great bucket list challenge.'”
Carroll had a total knee replacement surgery in 2019 just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“Eleven [my doctor] gave me the thumbs-up, I started training for my ‘great escape.'”
To help rehabilitate his knee, he began swimming — and became interested in guided open swim (swims in ocean water) events as well, including the Alcatraz swim event, which is hosted by Sharkfest, the open water tour group.
“I contacted my orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Kevin Jiang, MD, from New York Presbyterian Hospital,” said Carroll.
“Once he gave me the thumbs-up, I started training for my great escape.”
Carroll set himself a goal of raising $10,000 for his football program. He’s already surpassed that — but he says that anything extra he raises will go toward helping his student-athletes.
On its website, the 2022 Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim clearly indicates the level of swimming skill required for such an event.
“This swim is NOT for NOVICES,” the site notes. “This event is for experienced open-water swimmers only. You should be able to swim one mile comfortably in a pool in under 40 minutes.”
What to know about rip currents and sharks
While Carroll considers himself a strong pool swimmer, he told Fox Digital News that open swims are a different beast altogether.
“I came across the Alcatraz Swim on the internet and thought, ‘What a great bucket list challenge.'”
Any swimmer attempting a feat such as this needs to be extremely careful when transitioning to the open water.
Obstacles include a lack of visibility and changes in water temperatures that are almost 20 degrees cooler than a pool’s temperature.
Yet the top threat with training, the coach said, are the rip currents. “That’s the biggest danger,” Carroll said.
While the actual event will be a challenge, the training itself is hardly a walk in the park.
“It is a commitment,” he said. “Start small, build endurance and do not do it alone. Swim with someone or an experienced swimmer,” he added for anyone else who might be considering such a swim.
To prepare for the August 7 event, Coach Carroll has been swimming in pools and in the Atlantic Ocean along Long Island beach shorelines.
Yet as he trains in the open waters of New York, sharks have been presenting a danger. Several shark attacks have occurred this past month alone on Long Island shores.
George Gorman, Long Island regional director of New York State Parks, told Fox Digital News that anyone training for open water swim events should always swim where lifeguards are on duty.
In addition, people should swim with a friend.
Gorman said swimmers should be aware of their surroundings to help prevent shark encounters. Swimmers should avoid areas where there are bait or bunker fish, he said, as sharks may feed in that area.
Anyone training for open water swim events should always swim where lifeguards are on duty. In addition, people should swim with a friend.
“If you see white caps out of nowhere, it could mean bunker fish are nearby — which could also mean a shark could be, too,” he cautioned.
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And back to rip currents for a moment: Gorman suggested that when swimming in pairs, people should maintain a distance, typically up to 25 feet, in the event a rip current is encountered. That way, the other partner has time to react, escape and get help.
Gorman shared tips for anyone caught in a rip current. First, never fight against the current; instead, swim parallel to the shore until you notice the current has diminished and you are out of it. Next, swim at an angle away from the current, toward the shore.
Experts say to think of rip currents as a treadmill that is not turned off. You need to step to the side of it while you call for help.
Precautions at Alcatraz
To accomplish his task of “escaping Alcatraz,” Rich Carroll said he is relying on the Sharkfest guided tour group to ensure proper precautions are taken.
He’ll be contending with the elements as he navigates the rip currents that surround Alcatraz.
Several tour groups plan open swim events around the country each year.
Warren Wallace is founder and CEO of Odyssey Open Water Swimming and organizes several guided Alcatraz swim events a year.
“We’ve seen some strong pool swimmers struggle with the transition to open water,” Wallace told Fox Digital News.
The Alcatraz swim could last between 30 minutes and an hour-and-a-half, depending on the level of the swimmer and the conditions.
The group said in materials sent to participants that “due to the added difficulty of swimming in the open water compared to pool swimming, you should be able to swim at least 2-2.5 miles in a pool.”
The group said the Alcatraz swim could last between 30 minutes and an hour-and-a-half, depending on the level of the swimmer and the conditions.
Wallace said support boats and kayakers follow the participants along the route and help them navigate the course and currents during the event.
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“When we host big public Alcatraz Swims or small private ones, we are planning around the currents, creating detailed safety plans, coordinating with the Coast Guard and providing motorboat and kayak support during the swim,” said Wallace.
“Many of our captains and kayakers have supported hundreds of Alcatraz Swims, and that’s important in ensuring the swimmers have a safe and successful experience,” he added.
Wallace explained that the current around Alcatraz is very strong. Swimmers do not take a direct path to the destination but rather a roundabout approach that is navigated by guides to help offset the challenges posed by treacherous waters.
Wallace also said sharks are not much of a threat to the swimmers at Alcatraz.
Swimmers do not take a direct path to the destination but rather a roundabout approach that is navigated by guides.
“They aren’t a real concern at all. There are great whites sharks not far outside the bay, but the general understanding is that they rarely enter the bay itself.”
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Wallace said there are several smaller species of sharks in the bay that are not a risk to people.
He added, “Of course, we’re there with a safety team if there ever was a shark attack — but it’s really not something that swimmers need to worry about.”
The organization also suggested that swimmers use wetsuits to deal with the colder water temperatures, wear googles to help see through the murky waters, and wear earplugs.
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For anyone “worried” about the Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim, the site shares this information: “The Alcatraz swim course may have a notorious reputation, but we can assure you that [in 28 years] we’ve safely escorted more than 15,000 swimmers along this course.”
It adds, “The biggest variable is the tides. Luckily, our race director, Dave Horning, has swum the course 75 times and knows the San Francisco Bay tides well. We specifically plan the date of our Alcatraz events around the tides.”
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Coach Carroll, for his part, explained that of any additional funds he keeps raising above his goal of $10,000 “will go toward enhancing the high school student-athlete experience. This includes field improvements, equipment needs and various other student-athlete needs.”
Anyone wishing to donate can go to Coach Carroll’s Alcatraz Swim on Facebook.