This past Sunday I swam 4.4 miles across the Chesapeake Bay with 650 other swimmers, what an experience! This event had not been held since 2019, so the race director and swimmers were excited for it to take place. Here’s a recap of the day and some thoughts on open water swimming.
The most important element, also uncontrollable, when swimming is the weather. Planning an event like this ten months in advance you have no idea what the day may bring. Leading up to Sunday the weather was looking pretty iffy. Lightening was the biggest threat, that’s a no go and would promptly end the event or keep it from happening. Fortunately, the storms moved to the south and the sun came out just as the swim began.
This year’s start was particularly late in the day. If you’ve ever completed a triathlon or run, you know that starts are often early Saturday/Sunday mornings. A lot of attention was paid to the currents to provide a slack tide out in the middle of the bay when most swimmers were crossing. Because of this, the event did not begin until 1:30 in the afternoon. This led to an early arrival at Sandy Point State Park and then a lot of sitting around.
One of the most awesome things about open water swimming is how cool all fellow swimmers are. This year’s event had a number of junior swimmers (under age 18) and swimmers well into their 70s and beyond. Age doesn’t matter in swimming, neither does size. You don’t need the physique of Michael Phelps to line up on the start line. All sizes and swim abilities are welcome. This is what makes open water swimming a great sport IMO. Everyone is willing to share tips and ideas on what they learned from earlier swims. Regardless of your approach, treating this like a race or just out to finish the event, there is a real sense of community among swimmers.
Driving from Northern Virginia meant I’d cross the Bay bridge and park in the kiss & ride lot. School buses were lined up to shuttle all 4.4 mile swimmers back across the bridge so we could start from Sandy Point. The swim is west to east between the bridge spans and concludes next door to Libbey’s Coastal Kitchen. Driving over the bay I counted six or seven container ships anchored south of the bridge. This event requires coordination with the Coast Guard as they shut down one of the largest shipping channels on the east coast to all marine traffic. In addition, they had over 500 volunteers in kayaks, boats, and a safety helicopter circling overhead to ensure no boat attempted to cross through the line of swimmers.
After the safety briefing, they led the first wave of swimmers to the beach. A lot of care and preparation was considered for each swimmer entering and exiting the water. All swimmers wore a timing band on their ankle. In addition, two slips of paper were provided to each swimmer with their race number. One to hand over as you entered the beach and crossed the timing mat. The second paper was placed under your swim cap and upon exiting the water would be handed to volunteers.
I was wearing a yellow cap and in the second wave of swimmers. It was exciting and daunting to watch several hundred swimmers in pink caps, wave one, leave the beach in a mass start! The beach was wide, but everyone is sighting off two orange buoys next to the bridge. All these swimmers were spread out to begin, but then end up swimming between the buoys placed 25 yards apart. The one unavoidable aspect in open water swimming is contact with other swimmers at the start. It’s not intentional, nobody wants to swim into other swimmers, it just happens. I positioned myself close to a rock jetty with other swimmers and took off when they sounded the wave two start. I went out pretty fast in order to avoid contact with others which worked out well as we approached the buoys and squeezed under the bridge.
Once under the north bound span of the bridge, the rules were simple, stay between the bridge span until you cross the bay and finish on the other side. Earlier in the morning, I had the opportunity to chat with a wonderful, experienced swimmer who had completed 30 crossings. He was next to the registration table at check in and had a ton of advice, charts, and suggestions on current and wind conditions. His advice was simple, stay closer to the north bridge (on your left) and upon crossing the channel make your way over to the right (south bridge). Sounds easy, right?
The current was rough, and though I consider myself an experienced swimmer it was more than I anticipated. I found it challenging to get into a rhythm and settle into repeatable arm strokes. The current was traveling up the bay and at times I found myself closer than I wanted to be to the bridge pilings. Washing out on the other side of the bridge would have disqualified me so it staying in bounds was a priority. The bridge begins with a gentle curve to the left before straightening out. I had to adjust my strokes and increase speed, swimming diagonally to go straight.
Once the bridge straightened out around the bend, I found it easier to swim moderately straight. I ended up spending most of the swim in the middle of the bridge span. I passed a boat that was providing gels and small cups of water to swimmers. My game plan was simple, don’t stop until you get to the other side. I had decided to stuff a gel in my speedo in case I needed some energy mid swim. I never stopped for the gel as I feared my legs may cramp up treading water. I did take in the majestic views of the bridge breathing to my left and surfacing periodically to check my surroundings. Pretty cool scenery! I didn’t see a lot of swimmers near me or any marine life. I guess all the sharks were staying clear!
After crossing the channel and passing several mile marker buoys the bridge continued to extend. I was in a good head space through the entire swim, just keeping my stroke rate high, continuing to kick, and staying relaxed. You can burn a ton of calories looking around being anxious, so I really tried to be present at all stages of the swim. I found breaking the swim down into smaller events was helpful. I viewed the start, swim under the bridge, around the corner, concrete piling #1, channel, concrete piling #2, then watching the bridge lower all as mini swim events. Accomplishing each was forward progress. I knew I was getting closer to the other side as I breathed to my left and could see vehicles passing up above me.
Once I crossed under the southern bridge span and between more buoys it was another 400 yards or so along the rock wall to the finish chute. The water level got lower, and I passed some swimmers who at this point were walking into the finish line. I kept swimming all the way in until I ended up with a hand full of sandy sludge. Standing up in a foot of water was challenging, after wobbling a bit I ran up a small incline over the timing mat and my race was complete!
Swim times for this event vary each year based on the conditions. I was happy with the 2-hour 11-minute time given I was a non-wetsuit swimmer. Wetsuits are supposed to make you faster; however, I find them restrictive and am more comfortable in a speedo. It was a great event all made possible by incredible volunteers, even better all swimmers were accounted for at the end of the day! All monies raised by this event go to help the March of Dimes, Chesapeake Bay Trust, and the United States Coast Guard. I think I’ll be back next year…
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