In above their heads, they reached other side

July 09, 2000|By JOHN STEADMAN

Out in the middle of Chesapeake Bay, without a tow rope or a compass, yachts and fishing boats were drawing close enough to holler their concern for three young men cutting their own wake in the water.

All the naive swimmers wanted to know from the nearby boaters hovering about them was:

"Which way is Tolchester?"

This was 50 years ago, a summer Saturday morning, when three adventurous challengers took on the test of crossing the upper Chesapeake Bay. As fish swim, the distance was calculated between 9 and 10 miles - not to be confused with the 4-mile length of the Bay Bridge and its annual competitive swimming event that runs from Sandy Point to Kent Island.

The plans for what took place a half-century ago didn't constitute a race. It wasn't until the night before, when they were dancing at the Summit Night Club, that the orchestra leader, Dean Hudson, stopped the music and announced that two guests among the crowd, Charles Wanner, 23, and Jesse Greenbaum, a year older, were going to attempt to swim the Chesapeake the next morning.

They had not been in long-distance training, knew nothing of what constituted normal preparations and, in fact, hadn't even given thought to such a possibility. They had never covered more than a mile during speed workouts at the Lakewood Pool, where they were co-managers and life guards. Still they were competitive enough to want to learn how they measured up when pitted against the Chesapeake.

Wanner had a 17-year-old nephew, Bob Hill, visiting from Reading, Pa., who was interested in going with them. He was told the moment he became fatigued he had to ask for help.

What gave reason for concern, as the 8:45 a.m. starting time approached, is the lead boat that was to accompany them hadn't arrived. So the three decided to embark on their own, hoping the boat would put in a later appearance and be able to find them.

Four miles into the swim, the boat that was to accompany them showed up. Hugh Gourlay and Danny Bonthron, the co-pilots, explained they had difficulty making rental arrangements at Fells Point, which explained their belated arrival alongside the swimmers.

With so much clamor and excitement going on in the middle of the bay, the Coast Guard arrived at the scene, but was told by the swimmers they weren't in need of emergency help. The Coast Guard gave them a mild rebuke for not getting official approval for the crossing.

Meanwhile, Wanner, Greenbaum and Hill stroked onward. The Coast Guard impressed upon them that you don't go down to the water, jump in and start swimming the bay. That, indeed, was what they had done.

When the hired boat, delayed at departure, caught up with them they were well into the swim, almost halfway across. Strips of ham and slices of orange gave them a nutritional boost, plus the vocal encouragement extended by Gourlay and Bonthron.

Three miles off the Tolchester destination, what had been an easy swim suddenly became more difficult. The tide was running against them, the channel water seemed to exact more physical pressure and boat traffic, from freighters and pleasure craft, increased.

Both Greenbaum, then at the University of North Carolina, and Wanner, swimming for Johns Hopkins University, had been record-setting performers at Baltimore City College and were South Atlantic AAU champions. They had summer jobs at the Lakewood Pool, located in the 2500 block of N. Charles Street, and worked out almost daily, but had never pushed themselves for longer than a mile of laps.

The last two miles of the Chesapeake was a fight, consuming two hours, almost slowing them to a crawl. But all three - Greenbaum, Wanner and Hill - the added starter, waded ashore triumphantly at Tolchester and then rode the boat on the return to Bay Shore Park, where there was little resembling a hero's welcome, only a handful of friends, some of whom they had been dancing with the night before.

What became a performance highlight is an official record - 4 hours, 55 minutes. In 1928, Elizabeth Colgan had taken 5 hours, 20 minutes to make the same crossing and graciously hailed the threesome as the new record holders.

"I've often wondered why other swimmers haven't tried to equal or surpass what we were able to do in 1950," said Wanner. "It was almost a whim that took us to the Chesapeake Bay that morning. If the band leader doesn't make the announcement on Friday night, then I doubt if we would have given it a try.

"At North Carolina, my friend Jesse Greenbaum, who's since died, approached world-class ability. He talked many times about competing in college against some of the best in the country, but the Chesapeake swim held a certain fascination for him and for Bob Hill and me."

Wanner believes 50 years is long enough to wait for a record to be broken. He's reasonably certain if it happens the latest challengers will break the mark. Also, that they won't be caught in the middle of the bay, asking passing boaters, incredulously:

"Which way is Tolchester?"

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