The Devil Inside

“Are we making any progress?” I said at about 5:00 a.m. yesterday somewhere off the West side of Alcatraz. It’s completely dark and my crew are using the SPOT tracker and their phones to try and see where we are in the Bay. I’d started my second attempt at a Roundtrip Angel Island swim from the South End Rowing Club beach about an hour ago. I am a bit disoriented because Alcatraz doesn’t look like like it’s moving in my field of vision as I can see the lighthouse’s light but not much else on it. Ribeye, John / Mayhem’s boat is hard to see too aside from its running light on the stern and a single red light on its bow.

I’d made my first attempt at an RTAI 2 years ago and got pulled at Alcatraz on the way back even though I was making progress towards finishing the swim for complete BS reasons that I won’t go into detail now. Needless to say though I’m not using the same captain and boat. This time I’m out with Mayhem (aka John Sims) piloting his trusty Ribeye zodiac carrying Les Mangold (Godfather of the Nadadores Locos and one of the most knowledgeable people on SF Bay currents), Robin Rose (crew member, buddy swimmer, and sweetest woman you’ll ever meet), and Scott Tapley (veteran independent observer and is of great integrity). I’ve got a great crew that I could never thank enough for stepping up to accompany me on this voyage. I wanted a barebones crew of some of the best and got it!

I hadn’t done a marathon swim since my Catalina channel swim in August 2015 and had been feeling a bit lost with no goals to work on. I postponed my Strait of Gibraltar swim to August 2019 for financial reasons as it would have been in a few weeks otherwise. I needed something though so revisited RTAI since it’s in my front yard.

This year was different though as the Figure 8 route popped into my head of the route I wanted to do. I’d have been happy with finishing with any pattern 2 years ago. Figure 8 though adds 2 – 3 miles and multiplies the complexity of having to now not just cross the shipping lane between Angel Island and Alcatraz both ways but also criss-cross it (West Alcatraz-East Angel Island and East Alcatraz-West Angel Island either way). Timing and luck have to be on your side. I didn’t know either until talking to Evan Morrison the other day that no one has pulled off the Figure 8 pattern on this swim yet. If I make it, I’d be the first person ever to do it.

Me swimming through Raccoon Strait along Angel Island.

The swim went beautiful and we were head of schedule after passing from West Alcatraz to East Angel Island and all the way around Angel Island. One of my favorite images from the swim was Ribeye with the sunrise off the East side of Angel Island. Robin Rose buddy swam with me for most of the way around Angel Island which provided invaluable as she could communicate with the crew on where to go and I just focused on swimming. There was one small inlet where a couple of sea lions came to check us out. Robin guided me through one particular stressful section where there was a small rip current similar to what I’ve seen in portages. I wasn’t sure if I could make it through that as I could see the Egregia menziesii (aka “feather boa” marine plant) getting moving fast in the wrong direction for me. Somehow I made it through though and we were able to continue on our way. We made a perfect circumnavigation around the island hugging its curves all the way against the mild flood.

I had no problem with the boat being farther away from me since I could sight off the island points since it was now daylight. Crabbing through Raccoon Strait was interesting with all the rocks and vegetation I could see underwater. I was way too close at one point and I got knocked into the actual island on my left side. Freshly wounded swimmer…great. I know though from the multiple times I’ve cut myself around Aquatic Park that any abrasion won’t start actually bleeding until I’m out of the water and the blood returns to the skin surface. We made it around the island ahead of schedule and only about 5 hours into the swim. I was happy to see the East side of Alcatraz, my next destination. Robin got back in the boat to rest up for hopefully her escort swim to my finish back at the club.


Swimming through Raccoon Strait with Robin Rose.

I was instructed to head towards the Bay Bridge to get further East with the dying flood and hopefully line myself up to take the minor 1.3 ebb around Alcatraz and back to the Aquatic Park opening in the next few hours. However this is when things started going wrong due to the conditions. An Eastward wind picked up against the ebb which caused me to go nowhere and then a Northwest current was pushing me back towards Angel Island. My crew tried for 2 hours to get me out of the circle pattern to no avail and we didn’t know where or when conditions would change to make any Southward progress again. We just knew that I wasn’t getting anywhere. I swam in place for an hour on my Catalina swim towards the end which luckily in open ocean, I didn’t have any knowledge about what was really going on. Different story in the Bay where I know the landmarks and how far everything is from me. I knew I wasn’t going anywhere that entire time which was very frustrating. I could see the East side of Alcatraz but I couldn’t get to it.


You can see where I was going anywhere but South and actually heading back Northwest. 😦

After swimming for 9 hours and 15 minutes, we called it and I got back on Ribeye. I was really disappointed. Scott Tapley, my independent observer (co-founder of Monterey Bay Swimming Association and fellow Catalina observer; we observed 2 Catalina swims together for Kristine Buckley and Amy Gubser), said that my stroke looked great and that my stroke count didn’t decline at all during the swim. This was the longest I’d swam since my 17:25:48 Catalina Channel solo swim so it helped me know that I can still swim 9+ hours. A bonus is that I cramped something in my back 8 hours into a Catalina training swim and then pinched my right shoulder 8 or 9 hours into my actual Catalina Channel swim. Today my body feels fine aside from some weird soreness in my right rib cape which I’m still trying to figure out why. I’m just happy that my shoulders are good which means that I wasn’t overusing them in my stroke yesterday.

Just another day of me swimming in the shipping channel between Angel Island and Alcatraz.

I’m still struggling with taking this as a learning experience. I naturally focus on those last 2.5 / 3 miles that I didn’t do and not the 7 or 8 miles that I did swim. I was so close yet so far. I hate not finishing. I hate not reaching my goal. I think some people thought my goal was to make a “lollipop” shape and have been congratulating me which just makes me feel worse actually. They’re congratulating a failure even if they don’t realize it. I set out to swim from the club out and around Angel Island and back to the club with a criss-cross pattern and failed to do that. It sucks that it’s not because of the lack of my ability or training, which is the only thing I can control but that the conditions didn’t allow it. I successfully completed both Anacapa (12.4 miles) and Catalina (20.2 miles) on the first try and I can’t finish this one marathon swim in my aquatic front yard. WTF? It has been a battle the overcome my disappointment on not finishing the swim this time. I felt like I let a lot of people down, especially my crew who gave up a lot of sleep and a day to be with me on this swim. My friend Betty Jean helped make me realize that everyone on my crew also has a DNF (Did Not Finish) to their name. I’ve been on swims that the swimmer didn’t finish and I didn’t regret being there for them. My friend Robert said “The only way to not have DNFs in this sport is to choose easy s*** and that ain’t your style.” Very true. I’m grateful that I’ve got the support of such great friends to help pick me up when I’m feeling defeated like I have been since Saturday afternoon.

I love how open water swimming gives you something different each time which is why it’s complete BS to say you “conquered” a body of water or swim route because you didn’t. You managed to get lucky with the right conditions that allowed you to cross. I know I can do this damn swim as I can do the mileage without question in that body of water. I just need the right conditions and it’ll help if the currents would read their charts too. I’m trying to take the good with the bad and how we can make the next attempt be successful.

Already picking dates with my crew for trying this again in 2018.


So close yet so far from making it back to Aquatic Park

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4 Responses to The Devil Inside

  1. Sandy says:

    Well done Kelley. You will succeed- mother nature had other plans

  2. Bobby T says:

    Kelley-You are heroic and loved!

  3. brooke says:

    We are listening. Nodding our heads, listening, knowing you’ll get that damned figure 8 in 2018!

  4. markbittner says:

    I read this as someone who is incapable of trying such a thing and genuinely curious to know what it is like. If you’d had any kind of “attitude,” it would have killed my interest. You didn’t do that. Thanks. Another good piece of writing.

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