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Long Distance Feat in Fathoms Deep

Jun 09, 2011 09:00PM ● By Anonymous

[inset s title="Caption:"]Swimmers wait on the shore of Sandy Point State Park for what's known as the "Cuisinart Start" of the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. Photo by Larry French[/inset]

650 swimmers from across the United States will brave the turbulent waters of the Chesapeake Bay in the 20th Annual Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. The 4.4-mile swim is the country’s premier open water distance swim and attracts both world-class swimmers and endurance athletes. Swimmers travel between the spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridges, starting from Sandy Point State Park and finishing at the small sandy beach adjacent to Hemingway’s Restaurant and the Bay Bridge Marina on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Additionally, the 1-Mile Chesapeake Challenge Swim will be held, beginning and ending at the beach adjacent to Hemingway’s Restaurant.

There will be informational booths to visit that will educate and raise awareness for the mission of the March of Dimes and the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

Imagine swimming across the Chesapeake Bay. Would you survive the 4.4 miles of cross currents, chop, extreme water temperatures, seasickness, nettle stings, and maybe even collisions with the barnacle-covered Bay Bridge supports? And could you endure the flailing arms and legs of your competitors during the “Cuisinart Start”—the jam-packed launch of the popular Great Chesapeake Bay Swim?


One of the country’s premier open-water challenges, the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim (GCBS) charitable fundraiser takes place annually on the second Sunday of June. The beach start at Sandy Point State Park, just outside of Annapolis, occurs in two waves, with the fastest qualifying half of the 650 valiant swimmers starting in the second heat. The course extends eastward between the two Bay Bridge spans and finishes on a sandy Kent Island beach near Hemingway’s Restaurant.

Becoming a GCBS swimmer is no small commitment. Would-be participants must document their recent completion of an open-water swim event or their success at a timed three-mile pool swim. These athletes are not all spring chickens—the average age of the swimmers is 42. Since the early nineties, 10,000 gutsy swimmers have completed the cross- Bay swim, but this grand achievement is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many. Less than half of these hearty souls return in later years to try this daunting undertaking again. The camaraderie among those who do come back for more crosses generations, gender, and skill levels. Annapolis resident and accountant Andy Grannell, 62, participated in his 24th swim last summer. Bill Shipp, 49, an attorney from Mitchellville who completed his third swim last summer, calls himself “a newbie in the scheme of things.” Grannell and Shipp are part of the Arundel Breakfast Club, a colorful, informal group of open water junkies, pool swimmers, and triathletes.

Sporting, in jest, their fish-shaped Arundel Breakfast Club (ABC) press-on tattoos, the club members prepare by swimming together seven days a week. “We are a social club with a swimming problem,” laughs Al Gruber, a 53-year-old member who completed his 13th Chesapeake Bay Swim in 2009. The group swims together indoors for 80 minutes each weekday morning before heading to their day jobs as lawyers, engineers, doctors, and “IT guys.”

Club member John Avallone, an Annapolis pediatric ophthalmologist, completed his fourth swim last summer at age 51. “The challenge forces me out of my comfort zone— the trial and hardship help me to know myself better and to grow. The swim is a mental game, an effort to stay positive and focused,” John observed afterwards.

As soon as the Bay water reaches a barely tolerable temperature in May, the Club members are on the dock at Sally and Jack Iliff ’s home on Crab Creek, where they work out on Saturdays and Sundays in open water conditions. Iliff, an attorney who has completed the Bay Swim 10 times, was celebrating her 64th birthday as she donned her wetsuit for the 2009 swim. Her husband Jack is an ophthalmologist by profession and a Severn River native who has 13 Bay Swims, an English Channel relay, a Manhattan Island relay, and numerous top-10 swimming awards under his belt.

Swimmers complete the grueling challenge, finishing near Hemingway's on Kent Island.[inset s title="Caption:"]Swimmers complete the grueling challenge, finishing near Hemingway's on Kent Island. Photo by Larry French[/inset] Shipp noted before last summer’s race, “After the melee at the start, you find your own space and settle into a pace. You have to be mindful of the current because if you drift outside the pylons of either bridge, they yank you out. I try not to think about 4.4 miles. Just get to the next pylon, then the next, then the one-mile buoy, then the two-mile buoy.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) helps to select the optimal start time for the race by collecting high-tech information on weather, tides, wind, and currents. In the event’s early years, most participants could not finish the swim and were plucked from the Bay because of overwhelmingly strong currents. Due to NOAA’s involvement, approximately 80 percent of the swimmers now complete the swim.

Brian Earley founded what is now the GCBS with a solo swim in 1982. Nowadays, the point-to-point race is professionally organized by New Jersey-based Lin-Mark Computer Sports, Inc., which manages swims, cycling races, and triathlons up and down the east coast. Owners Linda and Mark Toretsky handle registrations, swimmer identification, and race time reporting. The 2009 squad of 650 swimmers drew from 39 states and ranged in age from 14 to 74. While the Bay crossing is underway, the organizers also manage a one mile circular swim off the Hemingway’s Restaurant beach in which about 360 swimmers participate, some as young as 10.

But the real heart and soul comes from Swim Director Chuck Nabit. A real estate developer with three Bay Swim completions of his own, Nabit has led the swim for 18 years, helping to raise over $1.5 million for charity. The proceeds go to the March of Dimes, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, and other local charities.

Nabit and the other GCBS nonprofit leaders give countless volunteer hours to ensure the safety of the army of athletes. “For 18 years, I’ve been standing on this beach sending people off to a great experience. It’s controlled insanity,” he notes between radio communications with “RaceCom”—one of the fleet of safety vessels. “We put a lot of time and energy into making the swim’s organization as crisp as possible. My job here today is to account for each and every one of the swimmers with the Coast Guard.”

Each swimmer wears a computer chip ankle band that records the start and finish times to the second as the wearer crosses an electronic mat. The 2009 men’s fastest swimmer was 38-year-old Brian Benda of Parkton, Maryland, while 20-year old Erin Luley of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania earned the women’s fastest time. Seventeen-year-old Taylor Smith of Arnold made the fastest crossing in the youngest age group. These winners finished in just over an hour and a half. As the swimmers mill around the Sandy Point beach awaiting the race start, it is clear that sheer athleticism is the order of the day Muscular, fit, tall, and broad-shouldered in their black body-length wet suits, goggles, and colorful swim caps—this is no ordinary sampling of humanity. New Jersey’s Mike Doyle completed his 23th Bay Swim in 2009. Doyle’s muscular shoulders and extreme fitness make up for his loss of one leg—his other passion is sled ice hockey.

The tawny colored sand is hot underfoot as the 2009 Great Chesapeake Bay Swim is about to begin. A warm breeze blows steadily from the northwest, bending the tall beach grass against the temporary green mesh fence that encloses the start area and holds back the cheering spectators. A serene blue sky dotted with cotton-ball white clouds and circling police helicopters shimmers over the waves rolling onto the beach. A never-ending ribbon of cars streams westward across the near span of the Bay Bridge, and the water surface glints off the hulls of vessels scattered along the swim course to ensure the athletes’ safety. Seagulls squawk overhead as Chuck Nabit takes up his megaphone for the countdown.

Rolling on the waves in the distance are two multi-colored mooring buoys marking the entry to the swim lane between the twin spans of the Bay Bridge. Any swimmer who inadvertently leaves the lane defined by the inner bridge pylons is automatically disqualified and pulled from the water. In the pre-swim meeting, Nabit warns the swimmers to avoid the “dangerous sharp rocks, barnacles, and trash” lurking around the bridge piers. “Do not get yourself hung up on the piers or you will be pulled from the water—don’t get lulled into some nether-region where you’re not concentrating on what you’re doing.”

Indeed, the swimmers talk of “finding a rhythm with the chop” and finding a new muscle group to use when their shoulders tire of the endless stroking. The slower swimmers who cannot reach the one, two, and three mile points within specified times are automatically disqualified. They are pulled from the water by a fleet of volunteer boats and taken to the “DNF pier—the Did Not Finish pier”—at Hemingway’s fuel dock on the Eastern Shore. In 2009, a hundred swimmers turned in their computerized ankle bands at the DNF pier. Nabit advises in his pre-swim meeting, “No shame, no harm, no foul if you decide you want to exit the course.”

The swimmers’ health and well-being is of the highest priority for Chuck and his team of 600 volunteers on land and sea. The Chesapeake Bay Power Boat Association provides over 60 volunteer vessels. The fleet also includes 50 kayakers and 20 jet ski operators, who are the first contact for any swimmer in distress. Swimmers are permitted to hold onto these smaller vessels to rest without advancing. Two food boats offer water, saltines, vanilla wafers, and bananas—“not a luxury accommodation,” Nabit chuckles.

Professional support includes two State Police helicopters, four advanced life support vessels, two dive teams, six Coast Guard vessels, and two Natural Resources Police boats. The Coast Guard closes the commercial shipping channel and prohibits recreational boat navigation under the bridge. Before the countdown to the start, the athletes are advised that the flood current will pull them to the left and then the ebb tide will push them to the right as they near the finish line.

Climbing out of the water on the far shore as volunteers quickly unzip wet suits and offer food, the fatigued but gratified swimmers find a festive atmosphere. There is an infectious esprit de corps among the swimmers as they mill around the pen, congratulating one another regardless of speed or ability. Scarfing down Subway subs, orange slices, and chocolate donuts, the sea of athletes with wetsuits shed to the waist is exhilarated with accomplishment. And they should be—this event is not for the faint of heart. The war stories are plentiful, and the training schedule is daunting. Many of the competitors are perennial open water swimmers. ABC member Liz Fry, age 50, has completed three English Channel swims, circumnavigated Manhattan Island, and completed the Catalina Island Channel swim five times. Her fitness training includes nine completions of the New York City Marathon. Fry, who fights asthma as she swims and runs, is one of the rare swimmers wearing no wet suit for her Bay swims. Wet suits are a big deal for these open-water swim aficionados because the suits maintain their body temperatures and keep their legs buoyant. There is a special award for the winner of the “non-wetsuit” category.

Hundreds of spectators wait on the far shore, well equipped with lawn chairs, umbrellas, and coolers. A fun-loving disc jockey leads children in the hokey pokey. A fire department truck stands ready to provide freshwater, outdoor showers for the Bay-weary swimmers. The cheering from the animated crowd resounds anew as the first five swimmers emerge from between the bridge spans in the hazy distance.

Stroke after stroke brings them closer along the jetty wall, yellow swim caps bobbing above the swells, arms churning as the competitors realize they have a chance at the coveted number one spot. The crowd cheers as the athletes crawl one by one from the sea onto the sandy runway landing, some bounding and others dazed and disoriented.

Scraps of overheard conversation tell it all. “Mile three was terrible.” “Mile four was horrible.” “The chop this year was the worst ever.” But there is jubilance in their voices as they mill around the pen waiting for the awards ceremony, their fans once again pressing against the mesh fence enclosing the finish area. Pride and relief exude from the swimmers, who are without a doubt, now members of an elite swimming guild with a unique qualification—the word “obsession” comes to mind.