There are endless possibilities for marathon swimmers around the world, but as the sport has risen in popularity over recent years, certain swims have emerged as the ones. The Chesapeake Bay doesn’t evoke the same images of an ocean paradise as Hawaii and the Mediterranean. I don’t know any swimmer who currently has the Chesapeake Bay on their bucket list. And there is no Chesapeake Channel Swimming Association – though I absolutely intend to make one. But this swim – roughly 20km from Fisherman’s Island to Virginia Beach – is one of the best-kept secrets of the swimming world.
The first recorded swim across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay took place in 1982. As reported by The Washington Post, Iontha ‘Yonty’ Rhodes, a 54-year old grandmother from the Eastern Shore, swam to Virginia Beach on August 29, 1982. To the best of my research, only a few people – most of them Navy SEALS and all of them men – have made the crossing since then. And while I couldn’t ascertain much information about each swim’s start, track or finish, I believe mine made me the second woman to complete the swim, almost 30 years after Rhodes.
Growing up a competitive swimmer is the aquatic version of being trained in classical ballet. There are certain rules you know are not to be broken. There are skills that must be mastered and elements of movement to permanently embed in your muscle memory. Bilateral breathing every third or fifth stroke is the beat to which my freestyle’s metronome was programmed many tides ago. Even to this day I still scold myself if I fail to kick underwater past the flags or breathe the first stroke off the wall. I’ve never broken a natural inclination for sprint freestyle but long-distance swimming has become my contemporary dance and open water my ballroom. Liberated from the absolute perfection a 50 free demands, unrestrained by walls, disconnected from any comparison or proportionality which the pool measures in hundredths of a second, a marathon swim from A to B is about just that: swimming for the sake of swimming. I’d recently done the Thames Marathon and had been swimming about 20-30km a week. So when the weather conditions allowed, it was time to hit the water and just dance.
This swim – roughly 20km from Fisherman’s Island to Virginia Beach – is one of the best kept secrets of the swimming world.
I recruited a boat captain who’d previously helped me with an open water paddle and knew this swim was next on my bucket list. He was also a paramedic and swimming coach. Since the Chesapeake Channel has no association setting rules for ratified or official swims, I set my own. A swim must typically begin and end above the high-tide line, but as a bird sanctuary, going above the high-tide line on Fisherman’s Island is strictly forbidden. As a critical habitat for wildlife, Fisherman’s Island National Wildlife Refuge is also closed to the public, so I began my swim standing in knee-deep water off the island. Since I’m not a member of the Armed Forces, I would end my swim on the Virginia Beach side standing in knee-deep water at Fort Story. Consistent with English Channel rules, I would wear only a suit, cap and goggles, and have no contact or assistance aside from the periodic snacks and drinks which my boat escort would throw at me.
Fisherman’s Island is a crossroads between Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic. Just standing in that knee-deep water, you can feel the complexity of currents ebbing and flowing through the roughly 20km mouth between the largest estuary in the United States and the Atlantic. The water of seven large rivers and many more tributary rivers discharge into the Bay and contribute to the outgoing tidal flow into the ocean. A swim of that length is likely to stretch into both the incoming and outgoing tide. At separate points, the flow will pull you into the Bay and push you out to sea. Predicting the effect of gravity, wind, temperature and water density on a passage of water this large is normally the job of meteorologists and oceanographers, but how these forces play into a swim track perpendicular to the tidal flow is precisely the type of challenge embraced by marathon swimmers. For me, the point wasn’t to prove I could swim far or fast. Instead, the point was to navigate any obstacles which arose – physical or emotional – in order to keep swimming until I reached the other side.
While the history of swimming across the Chesapeake Channel is sparse, you would be hard pressed to find a channel in the United States with more historical significance. The effort required to swim from Fisherman’s Island to Virginia Beach is hardly a ripple when placed on the greater continuum of time. Archaeologists, for example, are still uncovering artifacts, such as arrowheads, tools and ceramics, which belonged to indigenous people dating back 16,000 years.
For me, the point wasn’t to prove I could swim far or fast. Instead, the point was to navigate any obstacles which arose – physical or emotional – in order to keep swimming until I reached the other side.
In more modern history, on April 26, 1607, after three months at sea, 105 English colonists raised a cross at the site of their first landing. The surrounding land they named Cape Henry after King James I’s son. His other son, Prince Charles, became namesake of the Eastern Shore. The part of Cape Henry now known as First Landing was where I completed my swim, just over the dunes and down the beach from the First Landing Memorial Cross, the large granite monument that stands in place of the original. But to call my swim challenging or feel any kind of significance coming to that shore feels utterly paltry against the Virginia Company’s arrival from England. After a small skirmish – especially compared to the massacres that would ensue – with the Powhatan Confederacy, coastal Virginia’s inhabitants for thousands of years, the colonists continued up the James River before establishing Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in North America. This beginning of British rule in America marks not only the decline of Powhatan rule but also the acceleration of warfare and genocide against indigenous people across America.
Nearly 200 years later on September 5, 1781, the Revolutionary War battle known as the Battle of the Capes would take place in the waters between Cape Henry and Cape Charles. The victory of the French fleet enabled the American and French forces to take control of Chesapeake Bay beginning the siege of Yorktown. Surrounded at Yorktown, British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington on October 19, 1781. The mouth of the Chesapeake Bay therefore saw both the beginning and end of British America. British naval historian Michael Lewis described the Battle of the Capes as ‘one of the decisive battles of the world. Before it, the creation of the United States of America was possible; after it, it was certain.’
Archaeologists are still uncovering artifacts, such as arrowheads, tools and ceramics, which belonged to indigenous people dating back 16,000 years.
In August 1619, an English privateer ship – the White Lion – would cross the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and create the waves in which America still swims. The waters of the Chesapeake Bay became the site of another historic landing, except this time, America’s ‘original sin’ came to shore. The White Lion had about 30 enslaved Africans onboard. These men and women had been captured from a Portuguese slave ship and were traded in exchange for food and supplies. But these early-enslaved Africans hailing from Africa’s Atlantic coast had swimming abilities and watermen skills that far exceeded their European captors. Our nation’s first black citizens were even Chesapeake Bay watermen given Seaman’s Protection Certificates in 1796. And while the waters of the Chesapeake Bay became the first place where black men could work as equals, ‘Chesapeake Station’ also grew into an important part of the Underground Railroad.
In August 1619, an English privateer ship – the White Lion – would cross the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and create the waves in which America still swims.
As the morality of slavery brought America to civil war, the strategic geography of the Bay once again made its waters witness history. With the Union capital, Washington DC, on the Potomac River, and the Confederate capital, Richmond, on the James River, control of the Bay was imperative. Lincoln ordered a blockade in 1861 to prevent the Confederates going in or out of the Bay. As a result, naval warfare erupted in the Bay to break the blockade, including the first battle between two ironclads – the Monitor and Merrimac – in the Battle of Hampton Roads. In 1937, Winston Churchill wrote, ‘The combat of the Monitor and the Merrimac made the greatest change in the sea-fighting since cannon fire by gunpowder had been mounted on ships about 400 years before.’
World War II’s naval warfare would reach the Bay in the form of German U-boats during the Battle of the Atlantic. In 1942, the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay formed the northern portion of what became known as ‘Torpedo Alley’ as Nazi U-boats laid mines around the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay and Thimble Shoals Channel. To the horror of beachgoers during the late afternoon of June 15, 1942, nine explosions ripped through a large convoy of merchant ships, massive oil tankers and the military ships escorting them to land.
The US military remains the Chesapeake Bay’s keystone economic species. The military presence has become as endemic and prolific as oysters on the seafloor. For a local, the jet formations feel as normal as the seagulls, but for an out-of-towner they can be a sight to behold. And as one of the busiest ports in the US, sighting a cargo tanker is as common as sighting a bottlenose dolphin. My boat captain, with the assistance of the Channel’s boat traffic control, helped me avoid this constant stream of massive container ships. We even skipped a feed needing to just hammer across the same shipping lane where Nazis once laid explosives at Thimble Shoals. I can still see my boat captain using one hand for radio communication while emphatically signaling for me to kick harder with the other. Once I’d swum far enough from the cargo traffic, I posed with a container ship in the background on my next feed. And on the boat ride back to the marina off Virginia Beach’s one and only Chick’s Oyster Bar, I waved a thank you as we passed the boat traffic control center.
We even skipped a feed needing to just hammer across the same shipping lane where Nazis once laid explosives at Thimble Shoals. I can still see my boat captain using one hand for radio communication while emphatically signaling for me to kick harder with the other.
In addition to avoiding military and cargo ships, my late-September swim avoided the gigantic schools of Cownose stingrays on their annual migration. I’d seen these platoons of Cownose rays before from my paddleboard and remember being both in awe as they glided through the water with more fluidity than kites in the sky but also grateful to have a barrier between me and the venomous barb on their tails. The English explorer who later became President of the Jamestown Colony Council (voiced by Mel Gibson in Disney’s historically inaccurate 1995 film, Pocahontas), Captain John Smith, would agree that the stingray migration is best to avoid. In 1608, though he recovered later that evening, he ordered his comrades to begin digging his grave after a Cownose ray stung his arm. My swim also avoided peak jellyfish season. Marathon swimmers will be relieved to know the sting from the Bay Nettle – the species most common in the Chesapeake Bay – is far milder than many of their fearsome cousins worldwide. Compared to stings I’ve had elsewhere, I’d describe the jellyfish in the Bay as annoying – but any legion of jellyfish is best avoided.
Although the Chesapeake Bay has a few shark species that call it home and a few more occasional visitors, as is typically the case on a long swim, they are no cause for alarm. But the waters off Fisherman’s Island were a murky dark brown and I’d heard that Bull sharks frequent the waters around here. At the start of my swim, I did have that creepy feeling of a presence in the water I couldn’t see. The eerie brown water stood in complete contrast to the pristine beach and sunny blue skies, but fortunately it didn’t take long for these churned up waters on the coast to fade to clear blue-green.
As I made my way to land on Virginia Beach, the sun was still high on its descent to the water’s westward horizon. Cape Henry’s two lighthouses ascended higher and higher above the dunes. A late-afternoon wind chopped at the sea surface and the waters turned back to a dark murky brown. While this limited my underwater visibility during the final stretch, I could suddenly hear all kinds of whistling, clicking, creaking and squeaking. For the last 100 meters, there was an enormous group of bottlenose dolphins swimming all around. Even though I couldn’t see much past my hand, the sound of the dolphins’ chatter felt like they were just beyond arm’s reach. And when I took a breath or picked my head up to sight, I could see the dolphins only a few meters away. As I made my way to the beach, this chorus of dolphins was so loud, it felt like the local pod was applauding my arrival.