“Athletes, listen, this is an important announcement! You must – ”
Pfffffftt. Ziiipppp. Fffffuutttt. PA broken. Silence.
I’m waiting in transition. I’m wearing a wetsuit and trainers. I should be swimming in San Francisco bay but I’m not – the 2017 Escape From Alcatraz swim has been cancelled (for the first time ever!) and I’m waiting to find out what happens next.
It was an early start, 4am alarm, but, with the time difference between UK and the US it still felt like mid-morning. I got an Uber to transition, having left my bike there yesterday, the first time they’ve let people rack up on the Saturday. I didn’t know at this point it wasn’t the only weekend ‘first’ .
At transition I have plenty of time to set up my gear (unroll towel, check bike helmet, 10 seconds, done), check bike for air (press both tyres down with my thumb, 5 seconds each) and then catch a bus to the boat which takes you out to Alcatraz (just a couple of minutes to catch the bus).
The last bus leaves at 6am but, as I wasn’t sure of queues, I’d got to transition early and after completing my rigorous and thorough transition routine… I was on the bus by 5am, which was too early. I was on the boat by 5:30 and had two hours to wait until the swim start.
On the boat, a former sternwheeler (I Googled this), you get divided by age: over 40 onto the top deck, under 40 on the main deck. In case you forget how old you are you can check your leg: at registration they write your age in black marker on your left hamstring.
I’m under 40, and with my memory intact, I don’t even need to check when asked, so I get to sit on the main desk. As I’m there early, there’s plenty of places to sit, so I sit down.
“Sorry, you can’t sit there.”
The man to my left is indicating an empty space of 10 metres.
“My friend’s just coming back.”
“It’s okay, I’m sure we’ll both fit.”
I sit down and then worry that a man with a 10 metre wide butt will sit on me. Luckily, when the friend returns, he has a normal size butt – as do the two others who later join us. Not that I was checking out butts. But how much room does one butt need?! Even Sir Mix-A-Lot, the world expert on big butts and a man who cannot lie, would have said there was room for plenty of butts on that part of the boat.
I close my eyes. Listen to random conversation and think about the swim.
I’m nervous. Scared. But I have a secret weapon. Last night I left a water bottle in the fridge and I plan to pour it on my face and down my back before jumping into the bay. I think the cold water will help me acclimatise before I plunge in.
But, I never get to check that theory. At 6:30am, just as we’re due to sail to the start, a man with a loudspeaker tells us to be quiet and to listen to the PA. The PA then tells us that there’s been a “small craft advisory warning “and that the “swim is cancelled“.
There’s a loud groan. A protest. We’re asked to leave the boat and it’s still not clear why.
People talk about refunds. About ditching the whole event. One man says he can’t run or ride a bike, the only reason he was here was for the swim. Others talk in foreign languages. People travelling around he world to be here. And the swim, the iconic swim from Alcatraz back to San Francisco is cancelled.
Now I know how Al Capone must have felt – there was no escape from Alcatraz today.
Later, I find out that the wind and current was too strong even for the safety boats. The small craft warning was a warning that the kayaks and paddle boards who marshal the swim would not cope with the conditions. And if it was too dangerous for the safety boats it was too dangerous for swimmers.
I’m disappointed. I’d travelled a quarter of the world to.be here but I know safety comes first. And, after seeing the bay later, with whitecaps heading east, rather than west, and with winds hitting 35mph, it was the right call.
We queue to get back on the buses. It takes nearly two hours to get everyone back to transition. We still don’t know what’s happening but announcements say that a bike run race will take place and details will follow.
I keep warm by staying in my dry wetsuit. I thought of pouring the frozen water on my head just so I can have the Alcatraz experience but that would have been a stupid idea.
At transition, the PA gives our just as the announcement of the new race is made: “Athletes, listen, this is an important announcement – you must – ”
We gather at the entrance instead as a loudspeaker is found. The organisers will send us out in waves. Pros first then by number, five at a time, every 10 seconds, to ensure people are spread out along the course just as they would be if they’d completed the swim.
I finally take off my wetsuit and get ready to… ESCAPE FROM TRANSITION!