Don’t get hypothermia and other tips on swimming to Alcatraz

January 08, 2016                 2m read time
Chris Lieto

Seven prisoners are presumed to have drowned while trying to escape Alcatraz Island. Today, people swim the stretch of frigid, shark-infested water for fun in races like the annual Sharkfest Swim and the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon. One of those swimmers is ZOZI Guru Chris Lieto. Not only did the Ironman Champion survive the swim—it’s what launched his career as a triathlete. Read on to find out how he did it.

I had been living in the Huntington Beach/Newport Beach area and surfing a lot. We moved back to Northern California and in order to keep surfing, I had to drive from Lafayette to Santa Cruz. It was a long drive.

As I was looking for a different outlet to keep myself active, I heard about a race that went from the island of Alcatraz to San Francisco. I thought it sounded like a good challenge, and a lot of fun. Swimming wasn’t new to me—I grew up in the water, and played water polo in college—so I went to a local pool and joined a swim team to prepare.

A few of us on the team wanted to do the Alcatraz race, but we decided if we were going to do the swim, we wanted to race it old-school. It had always been said that even if a prisoner escaped the jail, he would still have to survive three things: swimming the challenging waters, avoiding the sharks, and managing the extreme cold of the bay.

Triathlon swimmer in the San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz Eugene Huxley

Triathlon swimmer in the San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz

Eugene Huxley


I figured I could manage the rough waters and the marine life, so what going “old-school” really meant to me was doing without a wetsuit.

Of course, swimming without meant I was going to be really cold when I stepped out of the water. I had this great idea of boiling water and filling a bunch of five-gallon jugs that my wife could bring to pour over my head once I was finished. Problem solved.

I rose early. Boiled my water. Filled my jugs. We packed them up and drove to the race.

Racers have to take a boat to the start, and while we were cruising along, I was looking around at the group. Out of 400, only eight people weren’t wearing wetsuits.

Not a big deal. What was more important to me right then was deciding when to get in the water. Do I jump in before the race to take on the shock early and move around a bit to get used to the cold temperature? Or do I just jump at the gun, so I don’t have to float around waiting?

Swimmer standing on the shore in a wetsuit Jacob Lund

Swimmer standing on the shore in a wetsuit

Jacob Lund


I decided to jump in very near to the start gun, just to take the immediate shock off a little. And it worked for me. I had a great swim, even though I did slow during the last 10 minutes because my muscles began to tighten and my joints and bones wouldn’t move as freely.

Come the finish line, I got out of the water all excited, found my wife, and told her to pour the first jug of water over my head.

It felt so good. It was the best thing ever.

For about a minute. And then I started getting really cold again.

She poured the next bottle. So amazing. So warm.

For about five minutes. And then I started shivering, chattering, seeing double. And I went into hypothermic shock. What I didn’t realize at the time is that the worst thing you can do is pour hot water over your head. Your body will think it’s warm, so it stops trying to heat and protect itself.

That was an important lesson learned. Do not pour water over your head jug by jug. Instead, wrap yourself in a warm blanket or layers of clothing, and drink hot chocolate, coffee, tea, or simply warm water to work on raising your temperature from the inside out.

Or, of course, just wear a wetsuit.

Chris Lieto

Chris Lieto has won 50-plus triathlons, including more than 10 Ironman events and two U.S. Ironman Championships. He also placed among the top 10 at the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii three times, finishing with a career best of second place in 2009. Today, Lieto is most passionate about sharing his experiences and getting people excited about accomplishing their dreams.

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