Great Chesapeake Bay Swim 2018 – An Unexpected Gift

Last year I said I wouldn’t do the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim again. After three installments, I was at peace. The first time—against my gut’s advice and due to my lack of confidence—I swam in a wetsuit and ended up in a Kent County ambulance due to overheating. The second time I wore a tech suit. The third time, I made the crossing in a bathing suit printed with the beautiful Maryland flag colors. Chesapeake had become a gauge of my confidence as a swimmer. I had graduated from wearing slick, floating neoprene to the humble bathing suit worn by marathon swimmers. I was at peace with my rookie mistake and figured it was time to look for other challenges.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge from Sandy Point State Park.

However, a dear friend of mine, who has no trouble persuading me to join him in swimming adventures, convinced me to put in for the lottery for the 2018 installment of Chesapeake. It’d be fun to swim together again. I got in, but he did not. Even though I was sad, I decided to go at his urging. I have two family members in Maryland with whom I wanted to spend time: my sister and the Chesapeake Bay. I think of the bay as my mother and the Atlantic Ocean as my father. The self-imposed pressure of proving I could swim across the Chesapeake in a bathing suit was now in the past, so I found myself free to look at this race in a completely different way. Even though I hate to be swum over by men in wetsuits—no women in wetsuits have ever swum over me—Chesapeake’s course is a favorite of mine. The view of the bridge’s straight spans from the waterline as one exits the western curve is breathtaking. In addition, this swim is an engineer’s dream. The promise of comparing data collected by NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System with one’s swimming experience is quite exciting.

Stormy weather was expected for the race. The National Weather Service had issued a small craft advisory the evening before the event. I wondered if the race would be held at all, since the Saturday prior the RD had communicated that the swim would start at 1030, thirty minutes ahead of schedule. The start of the swim is dependent on the tide change. Luckily, on race morning the advisory had been cancelled; however, a flash flood advisory had been issued. Thunderstorms were expected in the afternoon. The day was overcast and cool. The air temperature was comfortably in the low to mid 70s (22.2 – 24.2°C).

Air temperature.

I always enjoy the school bus ride from the Stevensville Park and Ride over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to Sandy Point State Park. It allows one to gaze over the surface of the bay and wonder what the journey under one’s own power from the Western Shore to the Eastern Shore will surprise one with. No two swims on the same course are ever the same. Experiencing the ever-changing conditions of a body of water over a number of swims leaves one with a feeling of a growing intimate relationship. I feel the same way about my beach, Red Reef.

Once at Sandy Point State Park, I took advantage of the heavy cloud cover and dove into the gunmetal gray water for a warm-up swim rather than hide from the sun in the woods as I’ve done in previous years. In the underwater light columns, the bay water glowed its familiar green hue. I swam along the entire length of the swimming area and back. The water felt fantastic at 72.6°F (22.6°C) and would only rise to 73.6°F (23.1°C) throughout the race. It was also less brackish than previous years due to the recent heavy rains in the Chesapeake Bay’s watershed.

Water temperature.

I emerged from the water when the RD called for the safety briefing to start. I appreciated the earlier start time; perhaps we’d miss the storms altogether. Safety vessels already bobbed on the water and kayakers deployed their craft at the beach. The number of volunteers for this race is always impressive. At 700, it exceeds the number of swimmers, though I wasn’t clear if this figure included law enforcement and professional health and safety personnel. 650 people were to take to the water that morning to make the crossing.

The RD indicated that swimmers would get a push from the tide toward Kent Island at the beginning of the race and that slack tide would occur halfway through the race. I questioned these statements in my mind. In my experience, the flood tide pushes the bay’s water north and the ebb tide south. It was unclear to me how swimmers would have an easterly assist, particularly when the wind was coming from the NE. Swimmers would be leaving the beach toward the end of the ebb tide; therefore, water would be moving south toward the ocean. When would one encounter the slack tide? Well, that depends on how fast a swimmer one is.

Current direction.
Current speed.

Safety briefing over, the green-capped Wave 1 swimmers gathered at the beach and trundled over the timing mats, wetsuits on the left, skins on the right. My line, skins, had no wait. I stood quietly by a signpost, listening to another RD yell at swimmers to get out of the water, as if they were unruly schoolchildren. A man sauntered by muttering not to listen to the RD about the tide, because the tide would tell one what to do. I had a chuckle. A swimmer might find herself in the wrong spot when the tide slaps her with instructions.

Wind speed.
Wind direction.

I glanced along the spans of the bridge toward Kent Island and over the gunmetal gray of the water’s surface and wondered what surprises the bay would hurl at me this time. Light winds were expected. So were storms. The go signal was given. I was neither scared nor excited. I was at peace. The bay would make the crossing easy or hard; I accepted that thought and felt I would make it safely across.

Course map.

Mile 1: From Sandy Point State Park’s beach to bridge’s western curve exit – I entered the water from the north end of the beach to avoid the crowd. I was pleased I’d already warmed up because I fell right into my pace. I reached the ‘beach ball’ buoys that mark the entry into the ‘lane’ formed by the bridge’s spans and stayed close to the northern span. I was enjoying all the room I seemed to have to myself. The NE wind was very light. Just a bit of chop is all I need to feel engaged. I reached the Mile 1 buoy and felt elated that I had not seen any of the yellow-capped Wave 2 swimmers yet. Coming out of the curve one has the most glorious view of the race: a straightaway of nearly three miles that ends at Kent Island. I find Chesapeake to be a very technical swim. A lot can happen in three miles.

Mile 2: From the bridge’s western curve exit to past the second set of suspension towers – Conditions rapidly changed coming out of the curve. The outgoing tide picked up speed and rapidly swept me from north of the centerline of the course to just under the southern span. I’ve never experienced this wicked tide, but I knew what to do. I’d done it before. One has to swim at an angle and be extremely mindful of an efficient catch. I tried an angle of about 100 degrees from the horizontal. I was making progress, but not to my liking. The southern span was still too close. I increased the angle to 135 degrees and even though it seemed to put me head-to-head with the wind, I was making much better progress. Approaching the first southern concrete monolith, which sits on a tiny island, I saw an opportunity to widen the gap between the southern span and me. Two Wave 2 women, swimming in tandem, passed me. I decided to try to draft them since drafting is legal in this race. I hung on to them long enough to reach the tiny island. The island is an obstruction to the southerly flow of water, which causes it to lose speed, therefore making it easier for a swimmer to effectively swim upstream. I reached the centerline of the course and positioned myself north of it. I held my line as I crossed the western shipping channel, which is located between the two sets of suspension towers.

Mile 3: From past the second set of suspension towers to the middle of the trussed section – Past the Mile 2 buoy, I felt the ebb tide gradually recede and with it my need to work against it. I relished in the overcast day and the few lenses of colder water I encountered. Finding them feels like a strike of luck. I enjoy entering them and feeling them sliding along my body until the moment that they flick my toes before saying goodbye. I moved close to the southern span in anticipation of the flood tide. Nearing the Mile 3 buoy, amid the eastern shipping channel, the tide slacked and the wind died. I felt transported to a quiet lake. Toward the north, tall, black clouds loomed. I felt the urgency to pick up my pace in case storms started. I hoped I wouldn’t be pulled out of the water due to lightning. The thought of powerboats picking swimmers off the water scared me. Then I recalled that powerboats other than the two anchored feed boats, weren’t allowed in between the spans, so I deduced smaller craft, like jet skis, would be picking off swimmers. Calmed by that thought, I continued to swim.

Mile 4: From the middle of the trussed section to the eastern abutment – The wind returned, this time lighter and from the east. Still swimming just north of the southern span, a young man in a wetsuit joined me. The flood tide started to pull us north, so we swam at an angle of about 80 degrees from horizontal to counter its effects. I’m a very steady swimmer. My companion would pass me and fall back, giving the impression we were passing each other. This yo-yo tandem swim kept us focused on not losing our line when the tide’s pull increased. It’s amazing how two swimmers can help each other make progress without making eye contact or saying a word.

Mile 4.4 – From the eastern abutment to Hemingway’s Marina – My buddy crossed the southern span between the ‘beach ball’ buoys. I followed a few seconds behind him. I turned west toward the marina and spotted him standing in water taking a breather. I felt disappointed because I would’ve enjoyed his company until reaching the finish line on the shore. I continued to swim without pause. The stretch alongside the south side of the terminus of the bridge is never enjoyable. The water is shallow, muddy, and warm. My feet hadn’t touched the ground since I dove into the water at the Western Shore. When my hands touched the bottom, I stood up and waded out of the water onto the finish ramp proudly wearing the Maryland flag colors on my suit. My time was the slowest of my four Chesapeakes, but this race was the hardest in terms of tide and I felt so well, I could’ve turned around and swum back to Sandy Point State Park.

I swallowed a donut and gulped down a sugary drink. A volunteer handed me a race shirt, which to my delight boasted an imprint mimicking Maryland’s ‘Treasure the Chesapeake’ license plates. I accepted a shower from a Kent County firefighter (best reward of the race!), changed, and headed down the road toward the Stevensville Park and Ride, about a one-mile walk. I felt buoyant with joy because I didn’t feel tired and my body didn’t hurt. Suddenly, I realized that my next race is 20 Bridges and my heart fluttered in my chest. I thanked the Chesapeake for her gift, what I had come for, though at the time it was unbeknownst to me: the firm belief that I was ready to attempt a swim around Manhattan.