This insider’s guide to the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim of 2010 was written for and distributed to the Annapolis Breakfast Club (ABC), the group I swim with most mornings. I’ve asked Alan Gruber for permission to post it to the website to show just what kind of thought goes into a 4.4-mile swim. Al has successfully finished this swim 13 years in a row, with this Sunday being #14. He’s a 54-year-old grandfather, has participated in a dual crossing of the English Channel with other ABC members, and has completed many amazing open-water swims. Think you’re ready to jump into a long swim? Read… and think again. Thanks, Al.
I’ve been asked (begged) to post this again this year. I hope you enjoy it and that it has some information you find useful.
So you don’t think I’m making all this up, this will be my 14th consecutive crossing of the Bay. I swim with ABC (Arundel Breakfast Club) in Annapolis, MD. I’ve swum the McConnell (Reston, VA) 2 miler, St Croix 5 miler, Bermuda 6 miler, and was on the relay team that successfully swam a dual crossing of the English Channel.
Conditions of the Bay
While the swim course is the same every year, the conditions of the bay make each year unique. These are my suggestions for this year.
First pre-race suggestion: Take it easy on Saturday. Stay out of the sun, don’t mow the lawn, no need to swim (if you don’t know how to do it by now, you won’t learn in one day) and hydrate.
As has been said many times before by coach Andy, Saturday night you should only eat something that you’ve had 100 times before. This is not the time to experiment.
Remember to set your alarm clock and a back up. This is the earliest swim start in over a decade. Most of us will need to rise and shine by 4am. Buses from the Eastern Shore start at 5:30 and the first wave is starting at 8! The nice part about this that you’ll have the afternoon to cut the grass and do your gardening.
Bring your driver’s license or passport to prove who you are. Bringing your mom is nice, but they probably won’t accept her as identification.
For you Bay virgins, the scene at Sandy Point may look chaotic, but its quite well organized. I would suggest the following once you get off the bus: hit the rest room, go through check in, get your body marked, get your bag so that all the stuff you brought to Sandy Point can get to the Eastern Shore, go to the rest room, listen to the pre-race briefing, go to the rest room, get into your wet suit and through the gate, start swimming at the sound of the gun and please no more rest room activity until wave 2 passes you.
Make sure that your goggles are comfortable, 100% UV and tinted. These should be goggles that are broken-in, tried, and true. Using a new pair of goggles straight out of the box is not a good idea. There is no wall to hang onto in the middle of the swim if adjustments are needed.
Even with the Bay water as warm as it is this year, most of us will be wearing a wet suit. Body Glide will be your best friend. Pick some up at your local sports store or bike shop. Do not skimp when applying. The back of your neck will need it, but don’t forget about shoulders, backs, elbows and the back of your knees. Hopefully you’ve done a few open water swims this year and know how and where your wet suit rubs.
Also, goop-up. I mean really goop-up. It’s expected to be sunny and near 90 on Sunday. You’ll need to pay particular attention to your face. You will probably get sunburn and sport a half moon on your forehead where your swim caps covered.
The Sunday Thomas Point water temperature was at 75 degrees; 75, that’s August temperature in June. I would venture a guess that Sunday’s bay temperature would be about the same. Still, this will probably be the warmest water ever for the swim.
The two things that have the greatest influence on the swim are the bay currents and the wind. Watch the weather forecast on Saturday for the wind data. WBAL, Baltimore, Channel 11 seems to have the best Bay forecast in the area. If the wind is from the west (very rare) it will be a great swim for everyone, from the south it will be tough on right side breathers, from the north (very rare) tough on left side breathers and from the east, very bad for everyone. The current will be moving from the north to the south most of the swim.
The race is timed such that slack current occurs during the middle of the race for the vast majority of swimmers; people who are slower than you. However, this year I don’t see that happening. I think the current will start out slow from north to south and increase as the race progresses.
There will be a briefing by the race director on the currents. Listen carefully. The currents are stronger than you might think. Many swimmers have been pulled way off course because they got too close to the edge of swimming lane and all they could do is fight the current.
Remember: You have to stay between the bridge spans to stay in the race. If you’re under the bridge you’ll be pulled and get a free boat ride to the Eastern Shore.
The Cuisinart Start:
Make sure that you have everything as soon as you pass over the electronic mat: wet suit, goggles, cap and race tag. As soon as you get through the entry chute head for the water with your wet suit open. You’ll be in a rubber suit on a hot, humid, sunny day. Take the opportunity to get some cool water in your wet suit. The race officials always yell at people to stay out of the water so the start is fair. But get in the water anyway just to cool off. Ask anybody to zip you up, don your cap with your race tag under your cap and put on your goggles and you’re ready.
The start whistle can come surprisingly quick. If you think sharing a lane with 5 people cramps your style just wait. You’ll be trying to establish your personal space with 300 fast friends when the whistle blows. Don’t spend a lot of energy popping up and looking for open water. Stay with the pack and make sure you don’t get your goggles kicked off. Drafting in the pack will let you conserve energy. Take this time to stretch out and warm up. Remember that you can’t win the race in the first mile, but you can sure lose it! If you’re a bit claustrophobic, let everyone start ahead of you then enter the water; you’ll lose maybe two minutes of a two-hour plus swim, don’t worry about it. You’re heart will be racing, the water temperature will be shocking no matter how warm it is, you’ll question why in the world you’re doing this and it’s only the first 200 yards into the swim. Once under the north span the field tends to dissipate.
With the race starting so early there will be very little shade to swim in. The sun will be ever present and the glare could be tough.
After finishing the left turn start to try to stay closer to the northern bridge than the middle. The current at the first part of the swim should be gentle but moving from north to south. So as you progress the current will naturally push you to the south. Let it do the work. Your aim should be to at least equal distance from either span after the first shipping channel.
The Main Swim:
When you’re in the first shipping channel your swim will be affected more by the wind than anything else. You’ll also feel a noticeable drop in the water temperature.
By this time the sun will start feeling really hot on your back, especially if you have wet suit. Between the sun and the warm water temperature you might want to do a dolphin dive to get some water flow through your wetsuit and get a little relief. There will be pockets of cold water from time to time.
At the mid point of the main shipping channel there’s not a whole lot to see. You can judge where you are just by glancing at the span on the side where you regularly breathe. If the bridge starts to grow or diminish you might want to take a quick look ahead to make sure that you’re swimming straight down the middle. Crazy Ivan’s (swimming left, then right, then over correcting again) will just add many yards to an 8,000-yard swim. Relax and take long metered strokes.
During the swim you’ll probably change your stroke a few times, due to fatigue, crowding, and the water chop. Don’t get discouraged and don’t stop swimming. The chop will be the biggest adjustment.
As you pass the second span look for the turkey buzzards that hang out on the lower latticework. Just after the second channel the pillars become more numerous. It’s still a mile until you pass under the bridge and head for the finish line. You’re not as close as you might think.
Don’t get too over anxious about getting close to the southern span. The current will start to increase in a southerly flow. You’ll see the pillars on the south side and perhaps the numbers on them. Ignore the numbers; they will repeat themselves and give you false hope.
Head for Home:
Finally you pass under the bridge and go for home. You’re still 700 yards from the finish. There should be a large inflatable barrel marking the 4-mile spot. Try to get close to that then turn left; otherwise, you might be too close to the rocks on the left side and get all cut up. There is a tall red-and-white cable marker near the finish, just aim for that. The water will be very shallow as you get even with the sea wall. It’s not uncommon for people to just walk into the finish, but don’t do it. Also, because it’s shallow it will be very warm water; a cruel last leg.
The finish is at the water’s edge. Keep swimming until you touch the bottom twice. Standing up will be more painful than you might imagine. Crawling is acceptable. It might be more comfortable to do an ape walk using your knuckles to help propel you forward. Once you step on the timing pad at the water’s edge you’re done and can collapse. People from nowhere will help you with your cap to get your tag and to undo your wet suit. Enjoy the attention.
Congratulations, you’ve done it! Get something to eat and drink. Take in the moment; you’ll never forget it. Best of luck! Make us proud!