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Hundreds Swim Across Chesapeake Bay - 2003-06-11

Some 600 swimmers are doing a lot of bragging this week. And the right to do that was exactly what they were looking for when the plunged into the Chesapeake Bay last Sunday to swim across it. Open-water swimming, as it's called, is an increasingly popular past-time, and VOA's Maura Farrelly was on the Chesapeake Bay this past weekend for one of the sports major annual events.

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States. It stretches more than 300 kilometers south from the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, to the open sea, just north of Norfolk, Virginia. At its widest point, the Bay is 48 kilometers across; at its deepest point, it's more than 52 meters. Around 3,600 species of plants and animals can be found in and around the Bay and on this particular afternoon, so can about 600 swimmers and their friends and families.

The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim is one of the premier open-water swimming events in the United States. It began with just a handful of people in the early 1980s, but by 1986, it had grown to include 211 swimmers. In 1993, organizers put a cap of 600 on the event. Race director Chuck Nabit has successfully swum across the Bay three times. He says this year, the waiting list had 120 people on it, all of them looking for the same thing.

"The thrill of accomplishment," said Chuck Nabit. "The sense of well-being that comes over you when you're out of the water and back on land is really indescribable. It's just great. And when you're in the middle of the channel, it's amazing how insignificant you feel. Even though there's 600 swimmers in the water, it's like you're all by yourself.

It's no easy feat to swim across the Chesapeake Bay. Even though the event takes place at the estuary's narrowest point, this isn't a pool or a lake. A seven-kilometer swim is daunting enough. But when you throw in the tidal currents that criss-cross the Bay, the distance can seem endless. This year, the water's a little colder than usual. The east coast of the United States has gotten an awful lot of rain over the last six weeks, and the water temperature is just 17 degrees Celsius. That's about four degrees below normal. Barbara Robinson is with the Chesapeake Bay Power Boat Association, which provides most of the volunteers for the annual swim. As she stands on a boat, ready to head out into the middle of the Bay, she says she expects the water temperature to be a problem for some swimmers.

"We've pulled as many as 200, and as few as in the teens," she said. "So each race is a little bit different. This is my sixth year. You know, there's a pool going in the club about how many they'll pull. And we're very equipped. We got extra blankets in. We have extra towels, extra life preservers. We're pretty geared up this year, because the weather is so uncertain."

There isn't a whole lot of fanfare to the start of the race. Participants enter the water in waves, depending upon their level of experience. The weaker swimmers go first, since it'll take them longer to get across, and everyone needs to be out of the water before the tide comes in. They swim the length of the Bay Bridge. The route was deliberately designed that way, so that swimmers wouldn't become disoriented when they got out into the middle of the Bay. The bridge has a northern and southern span, and swimmers come across in the channel between them.

Hundreds of volunteers in kayaks and motor boats line the route, on the lookout for swimmers who seem to be having trouble. The kayakers are the first line of defense. Swimmers are allowed to grab onto them if they need a rest and aren't disqualified for doing so. But once the swimmers climb into a motor boat or if they fail to reach a marker by a particular time, they're out of the race.

It takes an hour and 27 minutes for the winner to make to the other side of the Bay. This year it's 19-year-old Bradley Schertle, who says he's been doing open-water swims since he was eight. But as a native of Maryland, Mr. Schertle considers the swim across the Chesapeake to be special.

"I've swum it, this is my fourth time," he said. "First time I've worn a wet suit. I had a little friendly competition with Scott Buddy, the two-time champion. He's a graduate of the University of Maryland, and I'll be a junior there this fall. So it feels pretty good.

It takes about three hours for the last of the swimmers to make it to the finish line. Only 62 people had to be pulled out of the water this year, pretty good, considering the temperature. The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim is one of the more popular open-water swims in the United States, but at just seven kilometers, it's by no means the longest. Every April since 1998, about 20 swimmers have been gathering in Florida to swim the 38-kilometer length of Tampa Bay. And in July of 2004, there's an open-water relay scheduled in the Bering Strait, from Alaska to Russia. That's a 100 kilometers and the average water temperature in July is between 2.5 and 7.5 degrees Celsius.