April 10, 2012 @ 11:25 AM

Alcatraz Photo taken by Rachel Sears Casanta, Hypercat Racing

Swimming from Alcatraz is on the bucket list of many open water swimmers and triathletes alike. Whether you are taking on the Alcatraz Challenge, the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon, the San Francisco Triathlon at Alcatraz or the Ultimate Alcatraz or any number of other South End rowing club, Dolphin club swims or independent race company swim events, knowing key landmarks will help you get ready for aquatic success.

It is very helpful to familiarize yourself with the San Francisco shoreline / sky line as it will help you successfully navigate the quickest and most direct route to your swim finish.  What landmarks and the sequence in which you sight on those landmarks will depend on a number of variables including weather conditions, (big chop, flat water), visibility (fog, bright sun), where your swim starts (east/west side of Alcatraz), where your swim finishes (Aquatic park, St. Francis yacht club, Crissy Field etc) and currents. Knowing the common landmarks that open water swimmers utilize to guide themselves to shore ahead of your swim date will help you exponentially with your confidence, any anxiety and with the success of your navigation. 

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area or nearby you have the luxury of viewing these landmarks in person.  If you live far from the city by the Bay, no worries, you can search images on the web to help you get familiar with potential key landmarks. When you arrive in San Francisco, make it a point to go and view these structures in person as part of your final preparations. When you get on the boat on race morning, spend time locating these landmarks from the Bay…and you’ll be ready to jump, swim and conquer Alcatraz.

Here is a list of the landmarks to familiarize yourself with the San Francisco shoreline in preparation for your Alcatraz swim. I've included links to additional information or a photo of the landmark. To further research and get familiar with these sighting points, I encourage you to use google images to get different views of the structures. The most helpful perspectives will be any pictures taken from the water / bay as such a perspective will more closely mimic what you may see on your race event day.

1. Bay Bridge vs Golden Gate bridge. I figured we’d start with the easy landmarks.The big gray structure connecting San Francisco to Treasure Island and Oakland is the Bay Bridge. .  If you are in the water / on a boat facing San Francisco, the Bay bridge will be on your left.  The Golden Gate Bridge is the majestic (redish/orangish) work of civil engineering that connects San Francisco to Marin County. It will be on your right.

2. Alcatraz Island. The big hunk of land you are trying to swim away from. Visit it and do one of the tours, but remember, the goal is to swim away from the island (or around if you are swimming a round trip Alcatraz, but that’s another challenge for another day!)

3. Sutro Tower. The Sutro Tower is a 997’ three-pronged antenna tower located on a hill between Twin Peaks and Mount Sutro. The Sutro tower is a preferred landmark of experienced bay swimmers as it is a very prominent part of the city skyline. Even when conditions are foggy, the Sutro Tower rises from the mist and can offer the swimmer a point for navigational guidance.

4. Fort Mason. From the water, depending on visibility you will see the pale yellow buildings of Fort Mason or you’ll be able to make out the greenery of the trees/hill of Fort Mason Green nearby (if conditions are foggy, you may be able to see the trees/hillside better than the buildings.)

5. Fontana Towers. These ‘twin towers’ are on the shore behind Aquatic Park. They are often a good sighting point if your swim ends within Aquatic Park (at the South End, Dolphin Club or beach at Aquatic Park).  If your destination is further along the shoreline, being familiar with the Fontana Towers will help you gauge how far along you have progressed in your swim.

6. Aquatic Park. “Threading the needle” of the Aquatic Park entrance requires close attention to currents as the entrance the park from the bay is narrow when compared to the scale of the open bay. South End Rowing Club and Dolphin Club members are used to accounting for currents and strategically navigating the ebb or flood tides as they swim back to their respective club beaches. If you live locally I highly recommend joining one of these wonderful clubs to become a more experienced open water swimmer and to practice entering Aquatic Park from the open bay.

If your race or swim event culminates in Aquatic Park, you’ll want to view the opening and the buoy near the Aquatic Park entrance. Avoiding getting too close to or bounced against the piers by waves and currents is advised! If you are swimming the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon, knowing where Aquatic Park is located along the SF shoreline will help you know ‘where you are’ in relation to your final destination.

7. Palace of Fine Arts. The dome of the Palace of Fine Arts often works as a helpful point of reference when swimming towards the San Francisco shoreline. It sits behind Crissy Field and will be one of the later landmarks that you will see on your swim if you are swimming towards the St. Francis yacht club. View photos of the Palace of Fine Arts to get familiar with it, but keep in mind, the perspective will be quite different from the water. (There are many beautiful images of the palace from close up as opposed to from the bay perspective.)

8. St. Francis Yacht Club. For Escape from Alcatraz triathlon swimmers, typically your final sight pointing in your swim crossing is the red roof of the St. Francis yacht club. When you are on the boat, pre jump see if you can locate St. Francis.  Although you won’t be likely be aiming for St. Francis to start (due to currents), you’ll be looking to sight on the yacht club at the very end of your swim.

Additional Sighting Points:

SS Jeremiah O’Brien – The O’Brien is the last remaining historically accurate, unaltered liberty ship built and launched during WWII. It is one of only two remaining of the original 2700 cargo ships built of its kind. Being a big, gray ship, moored at Pier 45, the Jeremiah O’Brien can be helpful for Alcatraz swims culminating in Aquatic Park.

Balcutha – Moored at Hyde Street Pier. The Balcutha is another point of reference for athletes swimming within or near the vicinity of Aquatic Park.


In a later blog post, we'll go over different sighting scenarios and how to use these landmarks to guide you on your swim.

For coaching, Alcatraz triathlon, Alcatraz swim or Alcatraz aquathon training programs, please contact Coach Rachel Casanta with a note outlining your race event, event date and how she can help you.