April 22, 2012 @ 7:53 PM

As a proud former member of the San Francisco South End Rowing club (known for naked birthday swims, swimmers who shun wetsuits and swimmers who tackle the most craziest of swim challenges), I can tell you swimming without a wetsuit for an Alcatraz event is entirely doable with the proper preparations in mental and physical training.  However, for athletes taking on any of the Alcatraz triathlons or aquathons including the Escape from Alcatraz, the Ultimate Escape from Alcatraz, the San Francisco Alcatraz and the Alcatraz Challenge, I do not recommend going ‘naked’ (sans wetsuit) even if you are a truly seasoned cold water swimmer. 

Unlike swimmers who complete a swim and retreat to the comforts of a hot shower or sauna, multisport athletes must continue on with a run or bike/run.  Doing so wet, fatigued and exposed to typically cool San Francisco summer temperatures can be an invitation for a chilling experience and visit with Mr. hypothermia. 

To help you navigate gear possiblilies, here is a guide from head to toe of suggested equipment for a swim in an Alcatraz triathlon. As for navigating the swim itself, that is a blog topic for another day!

Swim Caps

Cover your noggin and conserve some heat. In addition to the race issued swim cap (which must be wore on top), consider donning a neoprene swim cap to keep your brains from freezing solid.  Be sure to put on the neoprene cap properly and not backwards – it looks silly – unless that is the look you are going for.  You can also opt for the more old school strategy of wearing two swim caps. Personally when I wear two caps, I prefer a silicon swim cap as the base (silicon caps don’t pull my hair) and the race swim cap on top.

Ear Plugs

Keeping water out of your inner ear can help you with balance and feeling/staying warmer. Not having half the bay swishing around between your ears can be prevented by the use of ear plugs. Keep in mind that sticking those things in your ears will reduce your ability to hear instructions from kayakers and water support. If you are good at reading lips, ear plugs might just be the ticket.  Give Mack’s ear plugs a try in training before you decide to plug up on race day.


Goggle selection is a very personal choice. Whether you decide to go with a full mask, more traditional or minimalist racing googles, be prepared for different light conditions. Arrive on race morning with a selection of goggles with varying lenses so that your biggest challenge does not become the simple act of seeing through them! I recommend a charcoal or mirrored lens for bright sunshine/reflection off the water, a yellow or orange lens for foggy/low light conditions as well as a set of clear lens goggles.


Should you wear a wetsuit for your Alcatraz triathlon race? Yes.
Due to the bay temperatures I highly recommend a full wetsuit. If you are not accustomed to wearing a wetsuit, full or otherwise, it is very important that you properly prepare for your race by doing swims in your wetsuit. The added buoyancy of the suit will cause you to float higher in the water and you may initially find the feeling of a skintight suit to be restrictive to your breathing or your stroke. The suit will have an impact on your stroke. Practice! Panic attacks are frequently due to lack of preparation.

What suit should you buy? Fortunately there are many choices of triathlon/swim wetsuits at a wide range of price points for you to choose from. When selecting your wetsuit, consider your budget to determine a price range. Once you’ve figured out what you’d like to spend, narrow your choices by brand and model. The most critical step is actually trying on the suit.  Work with a sales person so they can help you properly don your second skin and help you determine the best fit. While a wetsuit should fit like a second skin and should be snug it should not be so tight that you cannot move! A properly fit wetsuit when worn should not have gaps or wrinkles in the armpit or groin.

Another factor to consider when determining what suit to buy and how much to spend is a reality check on how often will you use the suit in training and racing. A value priced suit like Xterra or Neosport wetsuits might be a great choice for a beginner or an athlete who does not anticipate doing many cold open water swims or races. Athletes who swim and race clad in a wetsuit regularly in open water may opt for a pricier Blue Seventy, TYR or similar type brands.

(FYI, planning on ordering an Xterra wetsuit? Use the Hypercat sponsor code: CO-HYPER for best pricing)

Anti-Chafe Lubricant
Don’t forget your grease! Salt water is abrasive and even without salty wetness to swim in, friction points between the wetsuit and your skin can do some serious damage. Consider TriSlide, Brave Soldier Friction Zone and Body Glide as key components to your anti-chafe arsenal.  Key areas to lube? Any area that you are prone to chafe, but typically that will include neck, hair line and arm pits.   

Can I wear booties or swim socks in the swim?
Athletes frequently ask if they can use booties or swim socks in the swim portion of an Alcatraz triathlon.  Yes, you can.  Unless you have a specific medical condition or injury (ie laceration to your foot or feet), however, I don’t personally recommend the use of swim socks.  Your feet will be cold, but wearing swim socks won’t do a thing to speed up your swim. If it’s more important to use to keep your little piggies warm, then go for it. I say suck it up!

Once you've selected your gear, train in it and practice. The more comfortable you are in your gear, the more confident you will feel and the more enjoyment you will soak up from your salty San Francisco Bay adventure!

Questions about swimming from Alcatraz? Need training training for an Alcatraz swim or Alcatraz triathlon event? Contact
Coach Rachel Casanta