Saratoga boy, 9, swims from Alcatraz to San Francisco

At one point during Daniel Bessonov’s Sunday swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco, the 9-year-old was convinced he wasn’t moving. Numb from the frigid water and fighting hard against the current, the Saratoga resident didn’t realize he was actually powering through waves at a solid clip, finishing the swim in 41 minutes.

Had he not overshot his destination, Aquatic Park — he came ashore along a lip of beach near the Golden Gate Yacht Club, adding as much as a half-mile to the 1.5-mile swim — he would have had an even faster finish.

“Cold and nice,” he said after giving his coach, Jordan Wood, who swam with him, a very wet high-five when they hit the sand.

The choppy, hard-to-predict waters between the infamous former island prison and one of the world’s most famous skylines continually lures swimmers from around the world who want to do what seemingly no inmate at Alcatraz ever did — propel themselves across the expanse to the shore. In June 1962, convicts Frank Lee Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin slipped out of their Alcatraz cells and escaped the island in homemade rafts — and were never heard from again. Authorities have long believed the three died.

“It’s the myth and mystery, that’s its allure,” said Gary Emich, who has made the crossing 737 times and is Daniel’s other coach. He guided the boy from the boat on Sunday. “You couldn’t escape from Alcatraz because of the sharks and the cold water and the current.” Without the help of tide charts, making the crossing is a risky adventure, Wood said.

“The treachery of the currents is what makes it dangerous,” he said. “That’s why the prisoners couldn’t do it. They would have had to know the tide cycles.”

Just a week ago, with a full moon, Wood would not have been able to make the swim because the moon’s strong gravitational pull make currents too fast to navigate, he said. On some days, it can take 10 minutes of struggling against the current before a swimmer can break free of the island, he added.

Even strong swimmers can become disoriented in San Francisco Bay. A few years ago, a good pool swimmer got turned around and was headed to Sausalito before a boat picked her up, Wood said.

“You can get turned around and you don’t even know it and you are going the other way,” Wood said. He makes sure he can see the Golden Gate Bridge on his right when coming up for air to ensure he’s not headed in the wrong direction.

Before Daniel took the big plunge, he had three practice swims, two in the bay along the San Francisco shore and one in Half Moon Bay. Generally, women, who have an extra layer of body fat, handle the cold water better than men, Wood said.

“With the initial shock, they’ll freak out and head to shore,” he said of some men he has trained.

The 9-year-old, though, handled the cold water well.

While Daniel is not the first child to make the Alcatraz swim, it is nonetheless unusual for a swimmer so young to want to challenge the rough waters, his coaches said. He made his decision just several months ago, and his coaches, seeing how strong a swimmer he is — he practices four or five days a week — signed off on the request. It wasn’t just his powerful strokes, though, that won over the coaches; it was also Daniel’s ability to handle the “mind games” of open-water swimming, Emich said.

“There are creatures out there,” added Emich, who has experienced young seals in the bay treating him like a beach ball. “The visibility is limited. When you are in the pool, the water is 80 degrees. The water today was 57 degrees.”

Daniel left Fisherman’s Wharf at about 7:45 a.m. in a large Zodiac boat. In addition to his two coaches, he was accompanied by his parents, who are both software engineers, and his grandparents.

Daniel said he wasn’t a bit nervous — until he realized Alcatraz Island is way out there.  “Before I got in the boat, I thought, ‘I can handle this,’ ” he recalled. “But when I saw it was such a long distance, it was scary.”

But he followed Wood into the chilly waters without hesitation. The two swam through jellyfish — “It felt like moving Jell-O,” Daniel said — and headed to shore faster than another group of adult swimmers.

Now the Saratoga Elementary School student wants to repeat the Alcatraz Island swim when he’s 10 — but without a wet suit.

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