There’s a reason why people long ago decided to put a prison on Alcatraz Island.
Water temperatures in the surrounding San Francisco Bay can typically drop to around 50 degrees, creating a high risk of hypothermia for anyone brave enough to enter the water. Add in the inconsistent water currents surrounding the island along with the threat of sharks, and it’s easy to figure out how none of the more than 1,500 prisoners there managed to swim from the island to San Francisco, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Then there’s Jon Birzon. He’s done it six times.
“There’s a sense of accomplishment that goes with it,” said Birzon, a junior at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale who swims for the Glenwood Springs High School boys swimming team. “Plus, I’ve gotten a lot of other people to come out and do it, too. And it helps to change their lives.”
In all, Birzon has convinced close to a dozen friends and teammates — including his Glenwood teammate Stefan Buxman — to take part in the swim. It’s actually a two-part swim over two days, too — one day is spent swimming from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco, and another is used to swim the length of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Birzon completed his sixth Alcatraz and Golden Gate Bridge swims in late March. And each time Birzon has done the swims, he’s come away with an unforgettable memory. None more, however, than the first time he ever completed the swim.
“Knowing as an 11-year-old that I could swim from Alcatraz to shore and swim the length of the Golden Gate Bridge, it gave me the confidence that I could really accomplish anything,” said Birzon, who said other older swimmers darted out of the water upon going waist high into the bay. “I know there’s not many 11-year-olds who have accomplished that.”
According to the FBP, no prisoners during the time Alcatraz was a federal prison, from 1934 to 1963, ever escaped. There were 14 known escape attempts involving 36 inmates, of whom 23 were captured, six were shot and killed in their escape attempt, two were confirmed drowned and five went missing and were presumed drowned.
Birzon didn’t have any idea what he was getting into when he first signed up, presuming it to simply be an open-water swim. He quickly found out just how different and difficult it is, especially with all of the swirling water currents and cold-water temperatures. He did wear a wetsuit to provide some insulation from the cold water, but he admitted that between the conditions and the sheer length of the swim, he needed assistance to finish.
Both swims have stark differences. The swim from Alcatraz is 1.4 miles to the shore, but swirling currents make a difference in how fast the course can be completed. The Golden Gate swim is slightly shorter at 1.2 miles, but currents are much stronger there since the bridge passes over the spot where the bay meets the Pacific Ocean.
He did the swim three more times with a wetsuit on, adjusting to the movement restrictions that come with wearing one. On his fifth time swimming, Birzon decided to go without the wetsuit, swimming the length of the bay and the bridge in a pair of Speedos.
“That was really hard,” Birzon said. “Without the wetsuit on, you lose a lot of your buoyancy, so you can’t just float on the water and rest if you get tired.”
Then he described stepping into the water without the wetsuit, which he described being “like someone poking your entire body with needles all at once.” As opposed to the wetsuit compressing the body in the cold water, Birzon wasn’t able to fully regain his breath for close to 10 minutes after entering the 50-degree water. And when he finished the swim, he needed a 40-minute bath in warm water after he was still shivering following a 20-minute hot shower.
That swim without the wetsuit was to provide himself more of a challenge after he’d completed the swims four times already. Buxman was intrigued by the challenge and did the Alcatraz and Golden Gate swims with Birzon this past March.
“The water tasted like fuel and salt all at the same time,” said Buxman, who proudly displayed the mark left from the wetsuit he wore when he did the swims a month ago. “It was a big accomplishment ... and I really want to do it again next year.”
It’s not uncommon for people to take the plunge on that swim. The Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon has been going since 1981 and, as recently as 2009, had as many as 1,700 participants. Birzon has done the swim six times, be he admitted that he met a guy during his swims who has done it close to 1,000 times.
Birzon has even coaxed newcomers into going through with the swim through uncertainty, recalling how he convinced a 20-something swimmer as a 12-year-old to go through with the swim by saying “If there were sharks, why would they pick you?”
“I get a sense of accomplishment every time I do this,” said Birzon, who plans to do the swims again in April of 2015. “I’m looking forward to going back.”