In 1946, Aimee Norton’s grandfather was a prison warden in the state of Washington who was flown into San Francisco to help regain control of the prison at the Battle of Alcatraz.
Seventy years later, Norton found herself in the icy water swimming away from Alcatraz Island. She was not alone. Earlier this month, approximately 500 competitors took part in the 2016 Alcatraz Invitational, a 1.27-mile swim across the Bay.
Norton, in her first time swimming the event, chose to wear a wet suit to combat the nearly 60-degree open water, but a shock to the system after jumping off the boat proved unavoidable.
“I panicked at first when I got into the water because it was so cold,” Norton said. “So I just purposely didn’t push myself. I thought it was more important to be safe than to really go fast and possibly tire out.”
It was the second time around for Clinton Prior, a fellow member of Palo Alto’s Rinconada Masters swimming team. But even he wasn’t impervious to the chilly conditions around 8 a.m.
“It took a couple of minutes to calm down after that little shock of the cold, getting your breath back,” he said.
Prior, 45, came in first in his “suits” 40-49 age group with a time of 32:29, while many swimmers chose “skins” and went without wet suits. He grew up a little north of Brisbane, Australia, but didn’t swim competitively in high school, although he was a lifeguard.
“I was brought on the beach in Australia, so we just used to swim as a kid before school,” said Prior, an architect in Palo Alto.
He joined Rinconada Masters roughly four years ago and trains three times a week. On the weekends, it’s either surfing or sailing, so he’s familiar with the Bay.
“I kind of think the idea of jumping out of a perfectly good boat and swimming back to shore is a bit crazy, but also a good challenge,” Prior said. “And for me, it’s like when you write home to Australia and tell them, ‘Oh, I just did the Alcatraz swim.’ And they’re like, ‘No way!’ They think Alcatraz is some sort of island kind of Norfolk Island, which used to be a penal colony off the coast of Australia and it’s out in the ocean 45 miles away.”
Norton moved back to the Bay Area about five years ago with her family, which includes 12- and 16-year-old kids. In a way, this adventure was a means to an end.
“It’s hard to impress a teenager,” Norton said. “I think they’ll remember it when they’re older. ‘Oh, yeah, mom swam Alcatraz.”
She grew up in Texas and joined Rinconada Masters a year ago.
A research astronomer at Stanford who studies the sun’s magnetic fields using a NASA-funded telescope, her other hobby is poetry — reading and writing it.
“I actually feel like I have more energy if I exercise all the time,” Norton said. “And in general I don’t watch TV or watch movies, so I think a lot of people relax that way. I relax by reading poetry and exercising.”
After registration closed on the morning of Sept. 10, the swimmers gathered for a 15-minute briefing with event organizers to go over details. Then it was a short walk to Pier 41 to board the ferries.
“I think a big part of it is going somewhere with a lot of like-minded people who are all really psyched up to do the same thing,” Prior said. “There is never a quiet moment. It sounds like there is 1,000 people around you talking at the same time. It was good fun.
“And it’s an amazing cross section of people that jump off the boat to do the swim. It’s of all body shape and sizes that you can imagine.”
Employing staggered starts, three swimmers at a time dove into the Bay with electronic devices attached to track times.
“You feel like the inmates that get released early and they put the ankle bracelet on them,” said Norton, whose device failed, but she guesstimates it took her 42 minutes to reach shore, which would have put her in the top five in her “suits” 40-49 age group.
Prior needed to adjust his stroke and body lull to stop the intake of sea water, then quickly found his rhythm after launching off the boat.
“I jumped in and just went for it,” Prior said. “I didn’t stop for hell or high water.”
Norton found a different approach, remembering something she heard before the swim. She stopped halfway to let the moment sink in, to take a picture with her mind’s eye.
“I think that was such good advice,” Norton said. “So when you stop, you can see Alcatraz behind you and to the right, and then you can see the Golden Gate Bridge and you can see the Bay Bridge and you can see the city in front of you with the giant Ghirardelli sign, because you’re swimming to the sign, almost.”
Both escaped from the Alcatraz Invitational unscathed, and plan to do it again next year, and the year after that, and so forth.
“It’s fun to have something on the horizon to swim towards at the end of the summer,” Prior said. “The guy in the wet suit group that came first, he was 57 years old. I hope I’m swimming that fast when I’m 57.”
Aimee Norton, left, and Clinton Prior, members of Palo Alto’s Rinconada Masters swimming team, took part in the 2016 Alcatraz Invitational, a 1.27-mile swim across the San Francisco Bay.