For Elizabeth Lavell, a ferocious current between the spans of the Bay Bridge made competing in the 15th annual Great Chesapeake Bay Swim yesterday afternoon "the equivalent of swimming in a washing machine."
Lavell, 24, of Annapolis was the first woman to finish the 4.4-mile race from Sandy Point State Park to a beach on Kent Island that attracted more than 600 long-distance swimmers. "That current was atrocious," said Lavell, who used to swim for the University of Maryland, College Park.
The swimmers formed a sea of blue- and gray-capped heads and crawling arms that popped in and out of the water. Most reached the finish line on the Eastern Shore. But about 40 were stopped by the current and had to be rescued, said Chuck Nabit, the race's director.
Among those taken to shore by boat was Sharon Hestvik, 47, of Arlington, Va., who was born and raised in Baltimore. "It was just like swimming in place. With those rocks, it was just like fighting for your life, just trying not to hit them."
The sun burst through the previously overcast sky just as the early finishers stumbled up the beach about 3:45 p.m. The song "Eye of the Tiger" from the movie Rocky III blared from the speakers.
Bruce Brockschmidt, 39, downed a bottle of dragon-fruit-flavored water at the finish line in five seconds flat. A swim coach from Mount Laurel, N.J., Brockschmidt claimed first place this year, with a time of 129 minutes, 35 seconds. "I just dug in and tried to swim," Brockschmidt said. "I did a lot of training for it last year, but there's not a whole lot you can do when it's so choppy."
After failing to complete the 4.4-mile race twice before, Judith Cheek, 59, of Catonsville stuck to the seventh annual 1-mile race that was held earlier in the day.
"I'm too slow," Cheek said. Still, in the one-mile she placed sixth among older women. "But there may have only been six in my age group," she said.
About 400 people joined her in the one-mile swim. Michael Waltman, 36, of Aldie, Va., placed third with a time of 24:33. If he ever wins that race, Waltman said he would move on to the 4.4-mile challenge.
"The whole goal here is to do the races long enough to do a father-son race with him," said Waltman, a former University of Connecticut swimmer, gesturing toward his son, Jake, 2.
Spectators set up picnic blankets and folding chairs on the grass outside Hemingway's Restaurant in Stevensville, and many got even closer, scooting onto the flat rocks that lined the races' finish line on the shore. Using binoculars, people strained to spot a loved one among the distant splashing and thrashing in the water.
Traffic crawled on the bridge overhead. At one point, the eastbound lanes were emptied, except for a lone ambulance sounding a siren. At least three traffic accidents occurred during the two races, which could have been caused by motorists looking at the water instead of the road.
The swimmers, including four men in their 70s, hailed from 28 states and Canada, organizers said. One couple, Maria Isabel Blanco, 52, and Hugo Oberti, 62, traveled from Uruguay to watch their son, Mauricio Oberti, 28, who lives in Washington, compete.
More than 700 volunteers lent a hand yesterday, patrolling the bay and supervising land operations. The Chesapeake Bay Power Boat Association provided the motorboats. Kayakers from local clubs paddled along with the swimmers. They fed swimmers sports drinks and bananas at the midpoint and assisted in rescue efforts.
The top female finisher for the past two years, Ally St. Claire, 19, of Silver Spring, found the conditions worsening as the 4.4-mile race wore on. She persevered to become the second woman to finish this year, with a time of 139:06, just over two minutes behind Lavell.
"It was fine in the beginning but all of the sudden just changed completely, and the waves got worse and worse," said St. Claire, who blamed nearby personal watercraft for creating some excess wake. "All I did was put my head down to stop thinking about it and just go with the waves."
Winners of the open-water competition don't receive cash prizes. All the proceeds go to charities, primarily the March of Dimes and the Chesapeake Bay Trust. With $175,000 raised, yesterday's event became the highest-grossing race thus far, Nabit said.