By Mike Florian
The tide took us out closer than I expected beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. The rest of the boats stayed on a true course for Alcatraz, aiming to take it counter-clockwise. Our Seda Tango was a good, safe boat, relatively fast, albeit beamy. The double and single surf skis were long gone when the tide rips caught us again and brought us in, back on course towards the island. Ron and I stroked hard. At the sound of the starter’s horn we hugged the Sausalito shore and never let up. That morning the tide was our friend as we neared Alcatraz ahead of all traditional kayaks. I sat in the bow seat. The westerly wind began as a breeze, strong enough for the odd white cap to show its beard. We neared the prison island. My head was down and I was in rhythm. Ron steered the boat towards the island’s western shore. We were a hundred feet away when he yelled, “Look up”.
I did and saw the small windows with steel bars. We raced closer. I looked at the stone wall and the dark openings to the cells. How often did a prisoner look up and see light, smell the ocean, hear the gulls and the waves. Now the tourist boats stop at the landing and escort visits to the famous Alcatraz Island. They see the cells inside, the hallways, listen to the tales. Very few see the rocky, wild shore as we did that day. The barred windows changed my perspective. We came down to participate in the Round Alcatraz race in San Francisco and strategized the Sausalito start, the tides to take us around Alcatraz, the long way in the open towards Angel Island and then back to the finish. I did not expect to be startled by the bleakness of the island. How can anyone escape? If they did and swam for shore they would fight the cold, the wind, the tides. Even great whites were known to cruise those waters. We left the western side of the island, the black rocks, the stone walls, the barred windows. As we rounded ahead of the pack the tourist landing came into view. San Francisco was to the right. An orange freighter made its way towards the bridge. Pleasure boats were leaving their berths waiting to hoist sails to the wind. All was well. We surfed and paddled our way towards Angel Island where the seas and swells calmed down.
Later, at the podium, where we were lucky enough to collect a blue ribbon for our boat class, I kept thinking about those windows and their history. I still do, occasionally.