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Bay swim not so great as wind blows, tide goes


KENT ISLAND -- It was billed as "The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim," but when it ended yesterday, a more appropriate name might have been "The Great Chesapeake Bay Rescue, Part II."

For the second consecutive year, strong wind gusts and a relentless ebb tide forced most swimmers to abandon the bay crossing.

Of the 331 swimmers who started the 4.4-mile race from Sandy Point State Park to Kent Island, 283 gave up, were plucked out of the water by rescue boats and were deposited on shore.

The swimmers' goal was to reach the Eastern Shore by staying on a course between the parallel spans of the Bay Bridge.

They made it as far as the main shipping channel -- less than halfway along the planned route. There they encountered a swift outgoing tide that for most swimmers made continuing impossible.

"That was horrible out there," said a weary Jeff Kostoff, whose time of 1 hour, 47 minutes, 20 seconds put him at the top of those who were able to complete finish.

"The middle two miles were hellish," said Mr. Kostoff, a 26-year-old Rockville resident and member of the U.S. Olympic swim teams in 1984 and 1988. "I didn't think of stopping, but there was a time when I was worried."

Seven of the 48 people who finished the swim were women, led by Susan Altman of Columbia with a time of 2:07:14. Robert Williams of Rockville, who turned 50 yesterday, was the oldest swimmer to finish.

Despite the low number of finishers, event organizers claimed the swim was a success because greater attention was paid to ensuring the swimmers' safety than in the past.

A race physician said eight swimmers were treated for sea nettle stings, two for sunburn or abrasions from wet suits, one for a foot splinter and another for a cut toe.

"Last year, the elements tested the organization and the organization failed," said Charles J. Nabit, a Baltimore businessman who helped put together the swim. "This year the elements tested the organization and the organization won."

In last year's swim, 720 of 884 swimmers were pulled out of the water because of heavy currents. Talbot County sports entrepreneur Fletcher Hanks, who organized that race, said Coast Guard officials delayed the start of it for 40 minutes, causing swimmers to enter the main bay channel as the tide peaked.

The Coast Guard refused to issue Mr. Hanks a permit for his proposed bay swim June 14. Coast Guard officials said there would be no formal event this year, but later approved a request by Mr. Nabit and Lyn Brooks for yesterday's event, which benefited the March of Dimes.

In addition to the Coast Guard, the Maryland Natural Resources Police, Anne Arundel County Fire Department dive rescue team, members of the Chesapeake Bay Power Boat Association, a club of Boston Whaler owners and a kayak organization lined the swim route with rescue vessels of all sizes.

Many swimmers unable to complete the race seemed willing to try again if it is held next year.

"This is a great event," said Tom Joyce of Washington. "All they got to do is start the danged thing on time."

Yet others were unsure whether they would return.

"I didn't think it would happen again," said Jane Earl, a swimmer from Michigan who was pulled from the main channel at about the same spot where she gave up the race last year.

"It just wears you out," she said of the bay and the tide.

Race observers, including Mr. Hanks, who watched at the finish line near Hemingway's Restaurant on Kent Island, said the swim should have begun hours before the 8:30 a.m. start time set by organizers.

"Vindicated, that's the word to describe how I feel," said Mr. Hanks, who oversaw the last seven bay swims, as he watched boats unload swimmers at a dock.

Ms. Brooks said that Coast Guard recommendations were used to set the start time and that it is not always possible to forecast water conditions weeks in advance.

"It's a bay," she said. "It's Mother Nature. It's a lot of things."

Jeff Ellis, watching as the 13th swimmer climbed aboard his 46-foot fiberglass "Reel Mistress," decided to head for shore because water was swamping the stern.

"I feel like a captain from Haiti carrying boat people," he said.

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