On June 11, 1962, Alcatraz inmates Frank Lee Morris, and brothers John and Clarence Anglin achieved the “impossible” and became the first convicts to (allegedly) escape “The Rock.” Since it became a federal penitentiary in 1933, invincibility has always been a key ingredient of the Alcatraz myth. The most dangerous and highly publicized factors against a safe escape included deadly currents, freezing water temperatures, high winds, stinging jellyfish, congested boat traffic, and sharks.
Because the bodies of Morris and the Anglin brothers were never found, the authorities had assumed that all three men drowned in San Francisco Bay during their attempt. At the time, the strongest evidence of their demise were the bits and pieces of the escapees’ raft and life preservers that had been found in the water the next day,
Over the years, however, others have begged to differ with the invincibility of Alcatraz.
A modern threesome, Gary Emich, Pedro Ordenes, and Steven Hurwitz (dubbed the “Sunriser Swimmers”) had been proudly commemorating the 1962 escape for several years, retracing the convicts’ alleged escape route every June11. In fact, on June 11, 2007, the three open-water triathlon swimmers, marked the 500th time that they had swum from the South End Rowing Club to Alcatraz Island — and back! Their acts, of course, debunked Alcatraz’s 100 years of alleged invincibility.
Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers, however, were probably not in peak thriathlon shape like the modern day Sunriser Swimmers. In fact, the modern threesome in their exploits had faced challenges that were even more extreme than the escapees’ A;catraz challenges. Both Emich and Hurwitz had circumnavigated Manhattan Island. Emich alone had swum the Amazon River, braving piranha and other predators. Ordenes, a native Chilean and the strongest swimmer of the three, is currently training to swim across the Bering Strait from Alaska to Russia.
The Alcatraz Aquathon and Swim
Established in 1983 by triathlete Joe Oakes, the Alcatraz Aquathon and Swim is another popular Alcatraz event, but “on steroids.” The event consists of a swim to Alcatraz, a 15-mile bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge, and a 14-mile footrace in Marin County.
On August 5, 2007, a 51-year-old woman became the first to die during the Alcatraz Challenge Aquathon.
Other Alcatraz challengers
The Sunriser Swimmers haven’t been the only ones to debunk the Alcatraz myth. There have actually been dozens of swimmers who have successfully made it from the San Francisco shore to Alcatraz and back.
One of the earliest recorded swims to and from Alcatraz Island was by Mabel Green in 1923. In 1933, three more women swam to and from Alcatraz as a protest against the government turning the island into a federal penitentiary. While their achievements were strong, they weren’t strong enough to debunk the Alcatraz myth.
“51-year-old swimmer dies”, Delfin Vigil, San Francisco Chronicle
“Swimming from Alcatraz”, Jennifer R. Accetola, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Alcatraz swimmers to mark escape date”, Alexandria Rocha, San Francisco Examiner