For his recent swim from just off Alcatraz Island to the San Francisco shore, Joe Gallagher had little choice but to brave the chilly bay wearing only a Speedo, goggles and a swim cap.
“I don’t have a wetsuit,” the 12-year-old said.
Before it was over, Gallagher didn’t have a swim cap, either – it was lost at sea – but that didn’t stop him from completing the nearly 1.5-mile swim in 60-degree water. The Los Altos Hills resident and his uncle, Joe Locke, managed to reach the beach at Aquatic Park in 45 minutes.
“It’s always really cold,” Gallagher said of the San Francisco Bay. “I was numb for a couple of seconds, then I was better.”
This wasn’t the seventh-grader’s first foray into the bay. Inspired by his uncle – an accomplished open-water swimmer – Gallagher began swimming at Aquatic Park in fourth grade.
The first time out, he swam for 30 minutes in 55-degree water, according to his mom, Anne Marie Gallagher.
Gallagher completed a longer swim at Aquatic Park the next year and by the end of sixth grade set his sights on Alcatraz.
“That was my goal,” he said.
Gallagher prepared for a month, mostly in the pool at Fremont Hills Country Club. The Bullis Charter School student estimated that he swam 40-45 laps every day by himself.
Five days before heading to Alcatraz, Gallagher journeyed to Aquatic Park with his uncle for a test swim.
“I did a training swim that was about the same distance (as departing from Alcatraz),” he said. “That helped me.”
Then on the morning of Aug. 16, the pair returned to San Francisco for the real deal.
Riding in a small vessel with room only for his parents, Anne Marie and Fred, and the boat captain, Gallagher and Locke slipped into the bay just a few hundred feet from Alcatraz at 6:15 a.m.
The swim started smoothly, according to Gallagher, but then they hit rough waters.
“Near the middle, the current got really strong,” he said.
So strong that the boat captain – who followed them closely – grew concerned for their safety.
“I sort of got swept away, and the boat captain thought we weren’t going to make it,” Gallagher said. “Then my uncle went to the left and I followed, and we were OK.”
At least they didn’t have to contend with sharks – Gallagher said the only sea life they encountered were seals.
When the duo touched shore at 7 a.m., Anne Marie said her son had “a huge grin on his face.” Gallagher didn’t have the energy for a celebration, however.
“It was really early – we were up at 4:30 a.m. – so we didn’t really celebrate,” he said.
There’s always next time. Gallagher, a former competitive swimmer who switched to water polo a year ago, said he is contemplating doing other ocean swims.
“I’ll probably do more,” he said. “But as of now, I haven’t decided.”
If Gallagher does, it’s a good bet his uncle will be swimming alongside him.
Gallagher probably couldn’t have found a better partner for the Alcatraz swim than Locke. The 45-year-old swam the English Channel three years ago and the Catalina Channel in 2009.
Last month, the Mill Valley resident became only the second person to swim from the Farallon Islands to the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge – and he did it in record time. Locke completed the approximately 30-mile swim in 14 hours. The water temperature dipped close to 53 degrees and he didn’t wear a wetsuit.
“His toughness and perseverance inspire us all,” Anne Marie said of her brother.
As the wetsuit-free swim from Alcatraz proves, Locke’s nephew is showing some of the same attributes.