Open-water duo aims to make 100th swim from Alcatraz

On June 11, 1962, three inmates made what may have been the only successful escape from Alcatraz, the isolated island prison 1 1/2 miles out in the middle of frigid San Francisco Bay.

No one knows what happened to the three men no bodies were found, but the bay's strong currents and sharks would have made finding any evidence nearly impossible.

Throwing yourself to the mercy of the bay, risking your life to escape from hard time only a desperate, misguided soul would try such a thing, right?

Guess again: On Monday, June 11 the 39th anniversary of the escape two veteran Bay Area swimmers will attempt to swim from Alcatraz to the mainland for the 100th time, a feat unmatched in the rough-water world.

Roughly once a month since May 1993, South End Rowing Club swimmers Pedro Ordenes and Gary Emich have ventured into the chilly waters and swam the "escape" in just a swimsuit, cap and goggles. Their 100th swim as a duo, if successful, would crush the previous record of 70 crossings, which stands in the Guinness Book of Records.

Each Alcatraz swim takes 45 to 50 minutes, but it can all depend on the bay's strong currents, which can reach 8 mph. Wind chop and water temps hovering in the 50's (Fahrenheit) make the swim an unpredictable challenge each time.

More amazing is that these swim veterans are no spring chickens: Ordenes is 53 and Emich is 50. Each is a veteran of the San Francisco bay swim scene, and each is race director of a prominent Bay Area swim event: Ordenes oversees the South End Rowing Club Alcatraz Swim Invitational, set for Sept. 8, and Emich directs the swim-run Alcatraz Challenge Aquathon and Swim on July 8.

The Bay and its legendary Golden Gate Bridge have held a magnetic pull for both men.

"I very clearly recall the first time I saw this group of folks from the legendary South End Rowing Club swimming in Fisherman's Wharf Aquatic Cove," Emich said. "Intrigued, I went down to the shore and stuck my hand in to gauge the temperature of the water. 'These folks are crazy!' was my first thought, followed immediately by 'I've got to try this myself.'"

Ordenes, a civil engineer who began open-water swimming while living in San Diego, underwent a similar epiphany after moving to San Francisco in 1992. He soon joined up with a cadre of Bay swimmers including legends like "Napa" Bob Roper and George Farnsworth.

"Being a member of the South End Rowing Club since 1992, I met a real legend in open water swimming, George Farnsworth," Ordenes said. "George swam all his life in different conditions and no matter how slow he got at his advanced age, Alcatraz was the real fascination."

Inspired by the famous Chilean swimmer Victor "Tirburon" Contreras, Ordenes in December 1999 swam across the infamously treacherous, four-mile-wide Strait of Magellan at Chile's southernmost tip in 39-degree water. The chilly, windblown trip took just under two hours.

Emich, a manager for the U.S. Postal Service, has racked up a series of equally impressive rough-water crossings, including the Amazon River, Peru's Lake Titicaca, Scotland's legendary Loch Ness, a relay crossing of the English Channel, and famous U.S. waterways like the Mississippi and Potomac rivers.

Ordenes and Emich will start their swim Monday at 7:30 a.m. from the cliff base on the south side of Alcatraz, aiming to reach land at the Presidio's Crissy Field Beach. (Ever wonder how open-water swimmers find their way? Here's how.)

Spectators can watch this historic swim up close guests and press must board the accompanying boat, California Spirit, at East Pier 39 at 7 a.m.

For more information about the Alcatraz 100, check out www.alcatraz100.com.

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