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'Ultimatum' challenge pits Boy Scouts against the Rock

Danville troop is first in the nation to swim Alcatraz

It's not every day that a group of teenagers can be seen swimming wildly away from Alcatraz, but Danville's Boy Scout troop 236 was up for the challenge. And, no, they weren't attempting an escape.

Eight scouts, two girl "venture crew" members and seven parents braved choppy bay waters on Sept. 8 as part of the "Alcatraz Ultimatum" -- a 1 1/2 mile swim from the island to the shores of San Francisco. After months of training, Scouts that completed the swim will not only receive a merit badge but valuable life lessons.

"We wanted to show kids that they can succeed if they practice and try hard," said Assistant Scoutmaster Earle Conklin, a marathon swimmer and member of Nadadores Locos, a San Francisco-based swim club.

After completing a long distance swim with the Nadadores in April, Conklin thought it would be fun to organize a swim for troop 236. Although kids have made the swim before, it's quite uncommon and the first event of its type in Boy Scout history.

To take part in the swim, Scouts and venturers (older kids and girls who participate in Scout activities) had to attend a minimum of two ocean swimming sessions, a safety meetings and two seminars in addition to being observed by Nadaores coaches. Conklin added that participants had to swim approximately two miles in San Francisco's Aquatic Park Cove.

"I've been swimming since I was really little," said Marie Marchetti, 19, whose brother is involved as an Eagle Scout with troop 236. "My mom signed me up to be part of the venture crew and I went to two of three trainings. I swam and it was a lot of fun, I loved it."

On swim day, Conklin said the Scouts and adults had multiple layers of safety including "coaches in the water with us swimming and kayak escort people right with us. We had a ferryboat captain driving the yacht and all were in contact on radios."

Seventeen people between 12 and 63 jumped off the yacht, the Dauntless, on Saturday. Although weather in San Francisco was comfortable in the low 60s, Conklin said the water was rough. Scouts saw winds at 15 knots, lots of white foam, large waves and a sailing race that cut through their path.

"(The toughest part was) getting past the mental barriers because it's open water and who knows what kind of sea life is there," Marchetti said. "I just told myself not to worry about it because there were so many of us and we were doing it all together."

To help regulate her breathing in the cold bay water, Marchetti did backstroke for the entire swim. She completed the Ultimatum in 50 minutes, much of which was spent swimming ahead of the group.

"Every one of those kids made it all the way. And the feeling was one of total exhilaration," said Conklin, who swam alongside the Scouts. "My first impression, I was the 63-year-old, was 'What am I doing? What did I get myself info?''"

Although Conklin is an experienced swimmer and said the euphoria was still very high days after the event, he wasn't the only adult who felt the jitters.

"I'm a marathon runner and wondered…am I going to have my pride challenged or can I teach the boys about meeting challenges?" asked Scoutmaster Paul Grabowsky. "I very much learned that I had some limitations, things I was afraid of. It taught me as well as it taught the boys not to limit themselves and to believe in themselves and put the work in to meet an intense goal."

Grabowsky said many in the troop were strong swimmers. Several boys made the swim in 27 minutes, while others took approximately 45 minutes and a large group finished in a little over 1 hour.

"Most of them were really, really good about getting in the water and dealing with it. A lot of that was because we did a lot of training before they got in the water and explained that cold is just a state of mind really, it's something you can get used to and your body adapts to," he said.

Once all the Scouts and venturers made it to San Francisco's aquatic park, swimmers enjoyed a barbeque and award presentation, with honors including the torpedo award for fastest swimmer, barnacle award for the "crustiest adult" and the frog award for best jump into the water.

"I was really excited, I couldn't believe I did it," Marchetti said. "I knew that I wouldn't have an issue, I knew I would be ok because I had confidence in my swimming ability."

Grabowsky said he would like to make the Ultimatum a yearly event and grow next year's to include a kayaking merit badge. Eventually, Grabowsky would like to see his troop run the event with adult oversight.

"It's what Boy Scouting really is in the end…window dressings that teach boys leadership and character development," he said.

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