Safety concern may sink bay race

February 14, 1992|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,Staff Writer

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Swim Race may be going under.

Race director Fletcher Hanks' application to stage the 4.4-mile swim for the ninth straight year has been denied by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The denial came in a letter from Stephen Phillips, boating affairs branch chief of the Fifth Coast Guard District in Portsmouth, Va. Phillips cited "high risk factors" that "render the event unsafe."

An abnormally strong current in the shipping channel under the bridge during the race last June led to a massive rescue operation in which 720 of the 884 starters were pulled from the water.

The Coast Guard called off the event, which began at 8:05 a.m. when the swimmers entered the water at Sandy Point State Park, at 10:15 a.m. One man was swept more than two miles south of the bridge and was picked up by a pleasure boater.

"That was the hardest it's ever been," said Jim Kegley of Washington after arriving on shore at Hemingway's Restaurant as the winner of the event for the fifth time.

In eight years, Hanks said, 2,364 people have completed the course, "so it can be a safe swim."

But the current was so strong that it was "lucky as hell we didn't lose anybody," said Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer William Shamel.

Phillips didn't rule out the possibility of someone conducting the event, but noted that certain conditions would have to be met.

"It would have to be at a different time when the current isn't as strong and the water temperature is more favorable," Phillips said. "And if there's a better way to account for the people in the water, then perhaps it could be held. We would consider a different time.

"The killer was the time of day. The swimmers were in the shipping channel at the worst time, when the currents are strongest. Our prime concern is safety."

Hanks said he is "anxious to have the event continue." But he added that he suspects that many people "think I am the problem," and, if so, he is willing to step aside.

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