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Conquering the bay in the Great Chesapeake Swim

Selene San Felice
Contact Reporterssanfelice@capgaznews.com

At first glance, Hemingway's Restaurant on Kent Island appeared to be having a normal party on Sunday with a DJ playing music, people lounging on the lawn and sipping beer. That is until swimmers started stumbling ashore, ripping off their caps, goggles and wet suits.

These weren’t survivors of a shipwreck. They survived the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, a grueling 4.4-mile race from Sandy Point State Park, underneath the Bay Bridge and up to the shore of Hemmingway’s.

Many of those cheering on the swimmers had just come ashore themselves that morning, as part of the 1-mile race on the Eastern Shore side. Both races benefit the March of Dimes, funding research to stop premature birth, birth defects and infant mortality.

Annapolis couple Andy and Pam Anderson, ages 62 and 59, swam the 1-mile race together and celebrated with a picnic.

“You’re always anxious getting into the water, but it feels so good to come out,” Andy Anderson said.

To call these swimmers survivors is no understatement. Up to 20 percent of competitors have to be literally pulled out of the race each year due to injuries or rough weather conditions.

In the average two and a half hours it takes to make it across the bay, they’re fighting cross-currents and choppy waters, dodging jellyfish and seaweed and pulling themselves blindly through the brackish waters.

At the 1997 race, six swimmers were hospitalized for hypothermia. Three swimmers have gone into cardiac arrest and died trying to complete the race, the most recent of which was a South Carolina man who died during his 20th swim in 2014.

Brian Earley knew the swim would be dangerous when he did it alone as a wiry college kid in 1982. He wanted to raise awareness for diabetes after his father died from complications of the disease. That day, he used paper maps to chart the tides then swam alone in the rain. He has not swum the race alone, nor has it rained in the 36 years since.

“This is a dangerous event, but if trained for and managed correctly it can be an amazing thing,” Earley said.

The danger of the race not only ignited Earley, but thousands of other brave souls across the nation. The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim is now one of the hardest open water swims to get into, as 3,000 entered the lottery to qualify this year.

The 650 swimmers from 34 states who get their shot at beating the bay were protected by more than 700 volunteers across kayaks, jet skis, powerboats and both shores.

“When I started this I wanted to say thank you to my father,” Earley said. “The Chesapeake can be conquered, and a thank you should be given.”


This year's champions

The first 4.4-mile swimmer to make it to dry land was Patrick Donahue, 44, of Bethesda, finishing at 1:41:47. He was also the first to break away from the pack of swimmers under the Bay Bridge.

Donahue turned the last half mile of his swim into a race, sprinting to beat Andrew Femiano, 21, of Monrovia. Femiano came in a little more than a second after Donahue.

The first woman to make it to land, and 10th overall, was Kelsey Cashman, 16, of Annapolis. This was her first Bay Swim. She said the hardest part was around the 2-mile mark the current had her swimming sideways. Cashman swims for McDonogh School and Eagle Swim Team in Baltimore.

Carter Williams of Arnold, 10, was this year’s youngest participant, finishing the 1-mile swim in 27 minutes and 48 seconds.

The oldest male swimmers of the day were Edward Briggs, 81, of Gaithersburg, who finished the 4.4-mile swim in 3:30:00 and Donald Ingalls, 80, of California, who finished at 3:55:17.

Nancy Brown, 82, finished the 1-mile swim as the oldest female competetor of the day at 42:56.


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