Bay swim bridges competitive gap for variety of participants


On Sunday shortly after 7:30 a.m., Sandy Alcorta will plunge into the Chesapeake Bay off Sandy Point State Park and head for the other side, almost 4 1/2 miles away.

Alcorta is 35 and has had a pacemaker for 12 years. The other day, when she consulted her cardiologist, Dr. Kenneth Baughman, she learned that he also would attempt the swim.

"His heart transplant patients talked him into it," Alcorta said. "Some of them are going to do it, too."

Nearly 900 people have signed up for the eighth annual Chesapeake Bay Bridge Swim Sunday, a test of endurance and a battle against cold water and a strong current expected to be 1 mph.

Although the course that ends at Hemingway's Restaurant measures 4.4 miles, the average swimmer, because of the current, probably will log 5 1/2 to 6 miles. The fastest swimmers will finish in under two hours, possibly in 90 minutes.

People as old as 70 and as young as 11 have conquered the bay. They come from Texas, Chicago and as far away as California.

"There aren't a lot of open water distance swims, so we get a lot of entries," said director Fletcher Hanks.

Of the nearly 900 entrants, Hanks estimates at least 150 will be pulled out before they finish, most after surrendering to the current. Anyone who hasn't finished by 12:15 p.m. also will be picked up.

"We pulled 153 in 1989 when we had only 500 swimmers," Hanks said. "That was the last time we had a current like this."

Ten patrol boats will dot the course, along with about 60 rescue crafts. Two planes with trailing banners will warn boaters about the swimmers.

"There may be sharks around the bridge, but so what?" Hanks said. "They're not the kind that eat anybody."

Hanks, 73, has never entered the bay swim himself. Says he's too busy.

There are perennial entrants, like 33-year-old John McLaughlin. This will be McLaughlin's fifth journey.

"I love it," he said. "This is the best of all Masters swimming events. It's wide open and exciting. You just go! When you go around the bend and see the people on the beach at the finish, you can imagine how marathon runners feel."

Last year McLaughlin swam across with the woman who is now his wife, Ann, cajoling and consoling her. His time was about 45 minutes over his usual two hours as he stayed by her side, sometimes floating on his back while waiting for her.

"She was scared and overwhelmed at first," McLaughlin said. "Whenever she looked at a rescue boat, I said, 'Put your head in the water and swim.' She made it."

After this bay crossing, McLaughlin may take on a stiffer challenge. He is considering the 14-mile Bay Bridge tunnel swim in Norfolk in September.

Everyone who has attempted, or plans to attempt, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Swim has a tale.

One woman, who will try it for the first time, dreamed she had to swim from her home on the Magothy River to St. Michaels. Another sat in her car with the heater on full blast to warm up after completing the adventure two years ago.

Sally Iliff made it in 1989 in her first and probably last try despite the waves of nausea that swept over her. She became sick from the sloshing motion when she was heaved from side to side in the troughs of waves.

"I said to myself I'd better finish because I never want to do this again," she said.

Jill Springer succeeded four years ago but vowed she would never try again without wearing a wet suit. She lurched onto the beach, disoriented, lips blue, and was still chilled, on a 90-degree day, after a warm shower and wrapping herself in towels.

"An hour into the swim, I was numb from above the elbow to my fingertips," Springer said. "It was scary."

The first two times he tried it, Gordon Haines failed, in 1988 because the current swept him south of the bridge resulting in an automatic disqualification and in 1989 because of cramps. He succeeded last year under what he calls ideal conditions.

"I'm trying it a fourth time to prove to myself I can make it under more adverse conditions," Haines said. "It's still a challenge."

Marvin and Laudi Baer have gone to considerable lengths to prepare for their first venture. They read articles on marathon swimming, bought wet suits for buoyancy and warmth, swam off Sandy Point for hours until park rangers waved them in and rented a motor boat and took turns swimming beside it under the bridge.

"We tried to build our confidence because there's such a fear of the unknown," Marvin Baer said. "You can't see more than a few inches under water, but we satisfied ourselves that piranhas weren't going to get us.

"We began to relax and enjoy it. There's no chlorine to bother your eyes. There's nothing oily or nasty."

Last weekend the Baers entered the Choptank Open Water Swim, about one-third of the distance they will attempt Sunday. They made it. Good tuneup. The Baers are primed.

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