Delft scientists recreate Alcatraz escape

News - 18 March 2016 - Roy Meijer

On 27 March, Discovery Channel is launching a new series of documentaries, the first of which features an adventure with a TU Delft twist. In Alcatraz: Escaping the Rock, three scientists (from Deltares and TU Delft) investigate whether history's most famous prison escape could actually have been successful, by recreating the original boat and entering the waters of San Francisco Bay.

Virtual boats

The escape from Alcatraz in 1962 has always been surrounded by mystery. Did the three prisoners safely reach the shore or did they and their inflatable boat, made from raincoats glued together, meet their demise in the strong currents of the San Francisco Bay?

When Olivier Hoes, water management engineer and lecturer at TU Delft, was approached by the city of San Francisco to predict future currents and water levels in the Bay, his colleague Rolf Hut came up with the idea of also using the computer models to calculate whether the three prisoners could have safely reached the coast. 
With the help of computer simulation expert Fedor Baart (Deltares), Hoes and Hut have launched hundreds of virtual boats in the Bay of San Francisco.

Visualisation of the situation in which the escapees paddled north:

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Ultimate experiment

Hoes, Hut and Baart conduct the ultimate experiment to test their model: Hoes recreates the raincoat boat and, as soon as the tides and other conditions precisely match those on 12 June 1962, Hoes, Hut and Baart take to the water in San Francisco Bay. According to computer predictions, it should have been possible to reach the coast safely. Find out if they succeed: Alcatraz: Escaping the Rock can be seen at 21.00 on Sunday, 27 March on Discovery. Alcatraz: Escaping the Rock can be seen at 21.00 on Sunday, 27 March on Discovery Channel.

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