"Like a rubber duck in a Jacuzzi."
That's how Brian Earley said he felt as he and about 600 other swimmers sliced through the waters under the Bay Bridge yesterday, buffeted by waves every stroke of the annual 4.4-mile Great Chesapeake Bay Swim.
The 44-year-old Earley bounded out of the glistening water and onto the shore of Kent Island, hands in the air and screaming triumphantly.
"People are drinking a lot the Chesapeake," said Earley, of San Diego, catching his breath after a time of one hour, 44 minutes and 44 seconds, which placed him 45th. "You can't see. ... That was one of the roughest on record because of the wind and the 2- to 4-feet chop."
Earley should know. An Annapolis native, he founded the fund-raising event in 1982 as a student at what is now Towson University, when he swam the challenging course from Sandy Point State Park to Kent Island - alone.
Back then he did it in memory of his father, Joseph Earley, who had died of complications from diabetes the year before.
Earley has come back for the swim just about every year, watching what began as his personal mission blossom into a summertime rite of sorts, as hundreds of people from across the country plunge into the bay to raise money for the March of Dimes and the Chesapeake Bay Trust, among other charities.
A blue-gray sky met shimmering 74-degree water as the swimmers made their way through the current between the Bay Bridge spans, an army of strong arms and yellow and orange bobbing heads as cars and trucks whizzed by above them.
Colored inflatable balls and flags flapping in the wind helped guide swimmers, along with a fleet of kayaks and other boats leading the way. Thirteen people had trouble making the crossing and had to be plucked from the waters - a lower number than usual, race coordinators said.
Back on land, at the finishing spot behind Hemingway's Restaurant on Kent Island, music played, beer flowed, hamburgers and hot dogs sizzled on a grill, and a crowd - including relatives of race participants - basked in the sunshine.
Sightings of finishers nearing shore began about 12:30 p.m., announced by disc jockey Keith Robinson, who exclaimed to the cheering throng, "It's not a shark. It's a swimmer!"
Sure enough, there was Chris Morrow of Baltimore, a lean 18-year-old who staggered out of the water with a wide grin, his first bay swim taking one hour, 28 minutes, 6 seconds. "I feel great," said Morrow, peeling off his wet suit and goggles. "That was just so much fun. It was just an awesome experience."
A Gilman School senior planning to attend the University of Virginia, Morrow started swimming when he was about 10, with the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.
Yesterday's race was probably his most difficult swim. "It was the longest 10 minutes of my life," he said of the last leg. "Every pull was like pulling through cement."
The rest would follow Morrow - men and women, teens and seniors. Some would hobble out, appearing dazed and disoriented. Others finished with a flourish, dashing happily out of the water.
Ally St. Claire, 18, finished first among the women - for the second straight year. Her time of one hour, 34 minutes, 51 seconds placed her eighth overall.
The Silver Spring resident said she got through the currents by having the lyrics of a song run through her head over and over again. The song?
"`Fighter' by Christina Aguilera," she said sheepishly.
Members of the Annapolis Breakfast Club waited for about 50 of their colleagues to come in, ranging from first-time bay swimmers to long-time veterans such as 40-year-old Annette Holmgren of Kent Island, who also swam 26 miles through the English Channel in 2002.
"There was a tailwind, but it was a little choppy," Holmgren said as she hugged fellow club members staggering out of the water.
The members included 70-year-old Phil Kerr, who finished the bay swim for the sixth time. "Toward the end the tide changed, and I had to be careful I didn't run into the bridge," said Kerr, of Kent Island.
Six years is enough, Kerr said. "This is my last time. I promised my wife."
As swimmers traded stories, Earley marveled at the size of the waves, some of which he had to dive through. Tough, he said, but that's the idea behind the race.
"It is meant to mirror the difficulties of someone who has a disability," Earley said. "But this was just tough for a couple of hours. It's not about convenience, or wet suits.
"What makes it easier when you have a disability?" he said. "Nothing."
Still, he couldn't help but note that this year's race was one of his most challenging. "It was brutal," Earley said. "I couldn't wait for the end to come."
But he can't wait for next year.