Every year two area men, Mitch Kleinsasser and Guy Ferris, along with their South Dakota friends — Spencer Tisher, from Dell Rapids; Kent Knudson, from Canton; and Todd Brist, from Watertown — along with Daniel Sjerven, a Minnesotan, try to have some kind of big adventure.
The six buddies are late 30-something contemporaries.
“Every year my wife and kids just roll their eyes and such. She knows I am going to do it, no matter how stupid it sounds,” said Kleinsasser.
“My wife and kids are used to it by now, after 20 years,” Ferris added. “I have a lot of crazy and silly ideas.”
Their 2019 stupid, crazy, silly idea was to swim from the infamous prison on Alcatraz island to safety on the opposite shore of St. Francis beach, between Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California.
On July 20, after having booked the adventure back last fall and conditioned themselves in the meantime, six buddies did what Ferris said has been on his bucket list for a long time. Kleinsasser said, “Please don’t put the word ‘bucket list’ in this article. I hate the word.”
“We have been talking about this swim for a few years, and in December decided 2019 was the year we were going to do it,” Kleinsasser said. “There were six people in our group of friends. A total of 47 swimmers jumped into the water Saturday morning. People from all over the world were there, I talked to a person from Whales and one from New Zealand.”
“It’s just trying to make it to shore.” said Ferris. “Pedro, with the Swim with Pedro adventure booking company, said that it is not a timed race, but if you don’t swim hard you will get sucked out to the ocean, and you don’t want that. During my practice swims on the face of the Oahe Dam, I kept thinking if you were really escaping Alcatraz and got to shore, what then? I’m glad I wasn’t in that situation.”
“In preparation we all did different things,” said Kleinsasser. “I swam across the face of the Oahe Dam three times and did several laps on several occasions by the causeway. The swim that probably helped me the most was I swam from the boat ramp by Discovery Island across the Missouri to Fort Pierre in high winds. That proved to be a great training experience with the current and the wind; all in all, I drank a lot of river water that day.”
“We were dropped off near Alcatraz but could not actually go on the island due to it being a bird sanctuary or something,” continued Kleinsasser. “Jumping into the water, most of the swimmers, including us, wore wetsuits. It was absolutely surreal when we jumped in and started swimming. I would say that the Alcatraz swim is the most iconic swim in North America. There were big waves and a strong current to navigate to get to shore. Nothing in my training could prepare me for having salt water in my mouth and up my nose for the two hours.”
The key was to keep swimming to shore, and not follow the current.
All in all, it took about an hour and a half for the swimmers who made it.
Safety boats and kayaks were stationed to help any swimmers in trouble.
It was reported that some swimmers had to be rescued.
“After the swim I was in line to get onto a trolley to the motel and was visiting with a family standing next to me, and they didn’t believe I just did the swim,” said Kleinsasser. “Even the doorman at the motel thought it was impossible.”
“(Alcatraz was) on our bucket list for a long time, but so fun to finally schedule it, start training and making plans for a trip,” said Ferris. “I found ‘Swim with Pedro’ online; Pedro is an expert swimmer who charters swimming adventures around the world. He and his staff organized support to travel near us with kayaks and get the necessary coast guard permits to keep us legal, from drifting out to sea or run over by a ship.”
“But a last minute surprise got us nervously laughing, when the news story of a fisherman catching a Great White Shark near Alcatraz hit the presses about a week before our swim. We figured if we spread out they can’t get us all,” said Ferris. “No sharks were seen, but we did learn about some of the challenges, like a strong tide heading out to sea and about a 10 mile per hour wind coming in from the sea making constant one-to-two foot waves that gave us more salt water in our mouths then we ever wanted. It was my first time swimming in the ocean, and the taste of the water constantly in my nose and mouth for 1.5 hours was enough to maybe make it the last. It makes you really appreciate Lake Oahe.”
“What next for next year? I have no idea, but something will come up; somewhere we can break away from wife and kids and stuff,” said Kleinsasser.
“Next? Thinking when we turn 50 we will run with the bulls in Barcelona, but we better do something fun next year first,” said Ferris. “Some of our ideas have worked; many haven’t. My parents are the ones who worry; my dad said this was one of the dumbest things I’ve tried.”