ABU DHABI // The date: October 14, 2013. The place: Alcatraz Island Prison, San Francisco, US. The challenge: escape.
It is an ordeal that may have claimed the lives of the jail’s most infamous escapees, John and Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris, on June 11, 1962.
Now, more than 50 years on, a new trio, this one led by British UAE resident Peter Gibson, took on the challenge and emerged cold but triumphant – all in the name of charity.
The original threesome worked for months, late into the night to dig tunnels with plastic cutlery, and placed fake heads in their cell bunks to fool prison guards.
But once outside the notorious prison, they were presented with one more daunting obstacle – 2.5 kilometres of cold, turbulent, shark-infested water.
The prisoners were never seen, or heard from again. Authorities at the time said they were inevitably killed trying to cross the stretch of water, swept away by powerful currents, but their bodies were never recovered.
Mr Gibson and his two sons – William, 26, who works in legal research in London, and Nicholas, 21, a third-year geography and business studies student at Leeds University – took on the Alcatraz swim during the Eid break.
All three men are keen swimmers and had long talked about it.
“I train regularly in Al Jazeera 50-metre public pool three times a week and open-water swim each Saturday morning at Al Bateen Beach or Khalidya Palace Hotel at 7am with friends,” said Peter Gibson, who works for Gasco.
“But it was impossible to prepare for the cold here in Abu Dhabi because the water isn’t as cold, hence the need for acclimatisation swims.”
The waters around The Rock are only between 10°C and 12°C, and experts say no novice should try to make the crossing.
“For two days, admittedly not long enough, prior to the swim we had acclimatisation sessions in the sea, which literally took our breath away,” Mr Gibson said.
“On the first of these days, an ambulance was parked by the beach administering aid to a swimmer whom we later learnt was suffering from hypothermia. It was not an encouraging message.
“For safety reasons we swam together in a pod. The pace was good but the cold slowly makes its impact, the main one being the onset of ‘swimmers claw’, the inability to keep your fingers together due to the cold so the effectiveness of the swim stroke is slowly lost.
“It was something we had never encountered before – apparently a hypothermia indicator.
“We eventually touched shore at the old loading dock for prisoners on their way out to Alcatraz and after a few high-fives, it was back on to the boat to warm up, followed by a few celebration Irish coffees in a local Irish cafe.”
Mr Gibson said completing the challenge, which took them about an hour, with his sons was an experience unlike any other.
“Nothing beats having their companionship over the four days in a busy world, culminating with the swim and being able to share the achievement together,” he said.
The three are still collecting donations but hope to have raised more than Dh10,000 for the Philippines humanitarian charity, Community and Family Services International, with which Mr Gibson has been involved for four years.
“It is an excellent organisation based in Manila that I have become very close to, and I now sit on their board of trustees,” he said.
“In the past year I have taken a close interest in their humanitarian operations, making two visits to Mindanao in the Philippines.
“One was to Cotabato City and the surrounding region that has been a conflict area with many previously internally displaced people working hard to reestablish their lives, and the other to eastern Mindanao, after Typhoon Pablo in December 2012 destroyed the homes and livelihoods of thousands of people.
“So I have seen firsthand the tremendous work CFSI does in partnership with established humanitarian organisations like Unicef, and the strong appreciation they receive from the communities they work in. CFSI really does rebuild people’s lives.
“Apart from their work in Mindanao, they have projects in Manila, Vietnam and Myanmar.
“In Myanmar, CFSI is closely involved in humanitarian work with the Muslim Rohingya people in the south-west of the country, where many thousands of them are IDP after inter-communal conflicts with Buddhists in Rakhine state.”