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Current, retired Navy members swim bay for fundraiser

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (MCT) -- They woke well before the sun. By 4 a.m. Saturday, they were loading kayaks, gear and plenty of food and water onto motorboats. From Chic's Beach near the south end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, they set out toward Fisherman Island, where their swim would begin.

A little before 6 a.m., retired Navy SEAL Steve Brown and his friend Phil Powell, a special warfare boat operator, were taking their first strokes.

If all went according to plan, they'd follow the bridge back to Chic's Beach -- a 15-mile swim across the choppy bay.

Each swimmer would be trailed by a kayaker with food -- "fuel," Brown says -- and each kayaker would be trailed by a motorboat, one of them carrying a medic.

With breaks to eat or drink every 20 minutes, it might take anywhere from nine to 12 or more hours, and that was if the weather didn't stop them.

"It can rain as hard as it wants," Brown, 48, said a few days before. "But any lightning, and we're done."

The same was true for high winds, and on Saturday morning, things weren't looking good; the ride out to Fisherman Island was a rough one.

This was Brown's idea. He'd spent decades stationed in Virginia Beach, swimming in the bay. One day I'll swim across it, he told himself.

Early this year, he called Powell, 49, who'd done the same swim a decade earlier. It took him 11 hours.

They decided the details: They'd try to do it without fins but would bring them in case. They'd raise money for two nonprofits, the Navy SEAL Foundation and UDT-SEAL Association, with a loose goal of $20,000.

When they reached Chic's Beach, they'd celebrate with a gathering at Buoy 44 Seafood Grill.

While working in Afghanistan for a few months in a civilian job, Brown started training at a gym. As soon as he got home in June, he was in the pool.

A close friend of Brown's, retired SEAL David Collins, agreed to be his kayaker.

When Collins died unexpectedly, another friend stepped up, planning to carry a Saint Michael medallion that belonged to Collins with him across the bay.

Powell, a master chief petty officer, knew from experience that proper preparation was vital. On top of strength training, he began swimming 12 to 14 miles a week.

He and Brown got permission from the Coast Guard. They conferred with the Virginia and Maryland pilot associations. They sought the help of experts, including an open-water swimming coach and a man who swam the English Channel.

What should we wear? they asked. When should we start carb-loading? At what point should we call it off for weather?

They did their best to anticipate other hazards: currents, jellyfish, busy shipping lanes.

They studied the tides and memorized details of their route.

"I already swam the channel in my head," Brown said.

By 3:30 Saturday afternoon, a crowd was gathered on the beach under cloudy skies. In the distance, in the bridge's shadow, a tiny kayaker and a tiny swimmer appeared, followed by a motor boat. Shortly behind them was another swimmer.

Soon Brown could hear the cheering. Soon his feet were touching sand. Soon Powell's were, too.

After hugs and handshakes, Brown checked a device that counted their distance and time.

With currents, they'd swum 18 miles.

It took them 9 hours and 41 minutes.

There were no jellyfish, they said, but there was a good-sized loggerhead turtle. They dodged a few container ships, too, and became separated for part of the swim.

At one point after Powell vomited from swallowing too much sea water, the medic administered an IV so he could continue.

It was important to him to finish, Powell said, because the swim wasn't about him and Brown; it was about helping naval special warfare service members and families.

As of Saturday, they'd raised about $10,000.

All the preparation and nearly 10 hours of swimming were worth it, Brown said.

He paused.

"You know how I did it in my head first?" he said. "It wasn't even close."

corinne.reilly@pilotonline.com

(c)2014 The Virginian-Pilot. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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