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First-timer’s guide to the Peaks to Portland Swim to Benefit Kids

First-timer’s guide to the Peaks to Portland Swim to Benefit Kids

Peaks to Portland Maine first-timer's guide

You’re swimming the Peaks to Portland!

Registration has been completed, swim training has begun, and you’ve already started fundraising some much-needed funds for the YMCA of Southern Maine.

You’re really going to swim the 2.4-miles from Peaks Island to East End Beach.

Heck. Yeah.


If you’re not yet registered but are excited by the prospect of participating, there’s still time to sign up! You’ll be glad you did: ymcaofsouthernmaine.com

If you need more convincing: 5 reasons to sign up for the Peaks to Portland right now


You’re likely already clear on the bulk of the prep work you need to do to ensure a happy and successful swim (ie, line up a kayaker, get a swimsuit, do lots of swimming between now and July 28). But if you’re a first-time participant this year, there are some other helpful things to know about the Peaks to Portland – tips that will make the experience that much smoother and give you a clearer heads up about what to expect. And while you’d surely figure many of these out on your own…eventually…why wait?

So I’ve rounded up some sage words of swimmer’s advice, offered to you from those who have swum it before. Because we all want you to have the grandest time (and not get stuck in that current just before East End Beach like – ahem – some of us may have).

P2P enthusiasm before the swim in 2015. Anne Nadzo photo

First-timer tips for the Peaks to Portland

Practice swimming in open water in your wetsuit
“No matter how much training you have in the pool, it’s really important to practice in your wetsuit in open water – even in a lake. Swimming in a wetsuit in open water is almost an entirely different sport, so you have to practice.” – Claire Jeffers

I’d add that getting time in the ocean is important both for swim practice (getting a feel for your wetsuit, the waves, spotting in open water, etc) as it is for getting your body acquainted with the cold water. That takes training, too.

Open-water swim practice. The photo is from Crystal Lake in Gary, a good spot for open-water practice early it the season. Getting into the ocean at least a couple of times before the P2P is a wise idea.

“From my experience, the open water training before my first P2P was just as much fun as the race itself. There are many groups who meet up for open water excursions in the ocean and lakes. Go on social media, or talk to lifeguards and other swimmers at the pool that you go to.” – Derek Davis


sheJAMs has a 6-week women’s beginner open-water swim program. Classes will have a maximum of 6 for personalized attention and will be held at Wassamki Springs, Scarborough. sheJAMs Membership is required. FMI: shejams.com


Practice at least once with your kayaker before the event
“Each time I’ve done it, it’s such a different experience! Do at least one practice swim with your kayaker and def get in some ocean swims prior to!” – June Usher Wallace


If you need a kayaker, Portland Paddle has established a forum for matching up swimmers and paddlers.
If you need to rent a kayak, Portland Paddle has rentals available. If you need to rent a wetsuit, Gorham Bike and Ski does that.


Don’t miss Packet Pick-up
Packet pickup on Friday, July 27, is mandatory – we’ll conduct a safety briefing, you’ll get your swim cap and gear, and there’s the opportunity to meet other swimmers and volunteers. Bring your photo ID and, if you’re using a kayaker, they must attend with their ID, too. And note: traffic into Maine on a Friday in July is HEAVY, so plan ahead if you’re driving in.

Kayaks stacked up aboard the Casco Bay Lines ferry over to Peaks Island before the Peaks to Portland swim. Shannon Bryan photo

Take the early ferry to Peaks Island
There’s no charge to bring the kayak aboard the day of the swim, but passengers (swimmers and kayakers) will need a ticket. Buy tickets online. Swim waves will begin at 8:30 a.m., and there are a few ferries from Portland to Peaks that morning. I always liked to get there early, get settled, and have time to relax before the swim. Here’s the ferry schedule for summer.

Wear your swimsuit to Peaks Island
“Wearing your bathing suit to Peaks Island makes life a lot easier. There are plenty of bathrooms on island, but who wants to stand in line?” – Meaghan Woodsome, YMCA of Southern Maine

Get in the water to warm up before the swim starts
“Go for a short swim when you get to Peaks. This will help you burn off some of your nervous energy.” – Meaghan Woodsome, YMCA of Southern Maine

Before the event begins, get in the water and swim some laps. It’s a good chance to warm up, get that “getting into cold water” part over with (it always takes me several minutes to ease in), and might help to remind you that – oh darn – you forgot to put on your goggles. (I was so nervous my first year, I actually did that. Luckily I figured it out before the swim actually began.) And, as Meaghan says above, you can burn off some of that nervous energy.

Duct tape can come in handy. I used some on my feet to protect them from the sharp shells at the start. I also put some on my wrists and swim cap so my kayaker could differentiate me from other swimmers. When everyone’s wearing the same outfit, it’s tough to tell one swimmer from the next, so I was game to try anything. Did it help my kayaker find me? Maybe. Maybe not. But it sure didn’t hurt. Jill Upham photo

Be careful of the sharp shells at the start (in other words: duct tape!)
“(Keep) tape handy for feet if there are a lot of shells at the start!” – Katie Caiazzo

I learned that one the hard way my first year, when I cut my foot on a shell (or something) when I first got into the water at the starting line. Another swimmer told me about the foot-taping, which I did the following year to great success. The tape stayed on my feet the entire swim and I pretty much forgot about it.

Duct tape can also come in handy for other stuff – like duct taping your flag to your kayak or putting tape on your swim cap and around your wrists. (When all the swimmers look the same in their swim caps and wetsuits, I figured a little color on the cap and wrists might make me easier to spot by my kayaker. Does it really help much? Eh, that’s neither here nor there, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Many kayakers deck out their boats to be easier to spot by their swimmers. It’s a fun idea – and hey, lively decor makes everything better – but it’s still pretty tough for swimmers to see much from their position in the water. My learning as a swimmer: let your kayaker find you. Jill Upham photo

“Make sure your kayaker has something to make them stand out – balloons or flags or a big funny hat – because it’s really hard to see them from the water. Connecting with them is, from my experience, the trickiest part.” – Susan Smith Robbins

“I agree that connecting with your kayak guide is very important, but don’t spend your time looking for them, they should be able to find you. Some people put some fluorescent tape on their swim cap to make it easier for the kayaker to find them. If you give them wave before the start so they can keep track of where you are, then it shouldn’t be a problem.” – Derek Davis

The first year I swam the Peaks to Portland, my kayaker and I decorated her kayak with all sorts of brightly colored balloons so it’d be easier for me to spot her in the crowd of kayaks. But in the rush of swimmers in those first few minutes, when everyone’s splashing all over the place, I found it tough to see much of anything. She ended up spotting me. In years after that, we made a plan beforehand (she’ll hang to the right side and watch me get in the water, so she can see me as I get closer and paddle over). That worked better. And I decided to just keep swimming, trust that she’d spot me, and if worse came to worse, I’d just follow another boat until she found me. It never came to that, of course.

If you’re lucky enough to have a multi-tasking kayaker, she/he might even take some phptos of you while you swim. Anne Nadzo photo

Let your kayaker be your guide (but have a plan of attack)!

“Definitely have a pre-race talk and plan with your kayaker. Your kayaker is more important than most realize. Oh and make sure your kayaker has all the mixing for your post race mimosa!” – Wendy Yager Hallenbeck

“Let your kayaker be your guide so you don’t have to keep stopping to get your bearings. And really, just enjoy it. It’s an incredible experience and you get to see Casco Bay from an viewpoint that very few others have.”- Susan Smith Robbins

“Make sure your Kayaker is paying attention to you!! And have a plan on where you would like to have the boat positioned in relation to you.” – Betsy Parker Landmann

Do you want your kayaker to be in front of you? Next to you? Several feet away or just a few? I found I liked having my kayaker next to me, but a little ahead, so I could see the tail of the kayak every time I breathed to the right. That way, I didn’t have to lift my head to spot. I just followed the kayak. But you might prefer something else. Either way, you and your kayaker should have a plan. That’s why a practice swim beforehead is a good idea. But you can also adjust when you’re out there. If something’s not working, you can always stop for a minute and chat with your kayaker and do something different.

Some other kayaker tips:
“Have some fresh water with your kayaker in case you need it.” – Jessica Gagne

“Pick a kayaker guide who isn’t preoccupied about snacks. (This advice comes from my wife, who has done P2P twice.)” – Glenn Jordan (And yes, Glenn was her kayaker.)

Swimmers take off from Peaks Island. Kayak guides wait in the distance to meet up with their swimmers. Photo courtesy Meraki Photography

Save your energy, find your pace
“Do not start out hard and fast. You’ll have an hour (+/-) to go fast. If you go out too hard you’ll burn through your glycogen stores in the first 10 mins. Instead, pick a nice pace, work on setting up your stroke for the first 500 yards, then go faster. If in the last 500 yards you have energy left, then pour it on.” – Simon M Wignall

Or do what I did: Just find an easy pace and stick with it the whole way.

“Everyone gets a timing chip, so you don’t have to worry about what wave you’re in. In fact, the later waves can make for a better experience for newbies, because you can take your time and swim YOUR race.” – Meaghan Woodsome – YMCA of Southern Maine

There’s no changing the fact that the water is going to be cold. Training in cold water will help. On P2P day, just keep swimming, find a steady pace that works for you, and get ‘er done. Anne Nadzo photo

Prepare for the cold

“No matter how cold you are, don’t try to climb up onto the kayak to escape the ocean temps.” – June Usher Wallace (Ha!)

I’m not sure if June actually tried this or just thought about it, but she brings up a good point about the swim: that cold water. Before the P2P, it’s wise to get into the ocean as much as possible to both practice your open water swimming (in your wetsuit, because swimming in a wetsuit in salt water can feel very different than swimming in a pool) and to get your body acquainted with that cold water. That takes training, too.

“It might be cold AND if you start thinking about feeling cold, you will feel colder. Remember: whatever the temperature is, it is the perfect temperature.” – Kelsey Abbott

Prepare for the chafing

“If there is the most remote possibility that you will get chafed by your wetsuit, use Rocktape on the areas likely to be affected.” – Susan Smith Robbins

I tend to chafe on my neck, where the collar of my wetsuit rubs when I turn my head to breathe. I didn’t know this until after my first P2P and I saw what looked like a ligature mark around my neck. Luckily it didn’t bother me while swimming, but chafing can be a really annoying burden, so do what you can to avoid it.

“Grease up your arm pits and no matter how much you prepare – prepare to be cold. During and post. When you get out, you will be wearing a sweater in (July) and love it!” – Christopher Vail

Mind the currents near Fort Gorges
“Watch out for Fort Gorges. While you won’t get hurt, getting stuck in the currents around the fort can really tire you out.” – Meaghan Woodsome, YMCA of Southern Maine

One of the best pieces of advice I got before my first P2P was to stop as I was passing Fort Gorges and take a look and appreciate where I was and what I was doing. I’m really glad I did that. (Thanks to Kelsey Abbott for the advice!) But the currents close to Fort Gorges can be sketchy, so don’t get too close! Getting caught in a current isn’t the end of the world, but swimming against it is tiring, and you don’t need that.

This shot from the 2015 Peaks to Portland was taken a little past half way. Conditions that year were tough and choppy. But fellow swimmer Tracy Tischler, right, and I took a few moments to stop, float, and laugh mid-swim. Neither of us were racing for time – we just wanted to appreciate what we were doing and remind ourselves what a feat this was, even if the waves were slapping us around a bit that year. Anne Nadzo photo

“If you’re not trying to speed demon through it, take a moment here and there and pop your head up and take in the amazingness.” Jessica Gagne

Unless you are swimming for a medal, take minute to stop in the middle to look around and appreciate/soak in the beauty of where you are swimming! – Laura Manuel

“During your P2P swim, be sure to stop for a quick second and look around because you’re swimming in the middle of Casco Bay and that’s pretty cool.” – Claire Jeffers

Just before East End Beach, there’s a pretty strong current that has a habit of sweeping swimmers too far to the right of the finish line. Jill Upham photo

Aim for the apartment building
“Familiarize yourself with landmarks near the finish line. The tall yellow bricked apartment building is a great one to set your course to.” – Meaghan Woodsome, YMCA of Southern Maine

Just before East End Beach, there’s a pretty strong current that has a habit of sweeping swimmers too far to the right of the finish line. So aiming for a point to the left of the finish line (like the tall apartment building on the prom that’s easy to see from a distance) is a good bet. (Although definitely listen to the recommendations of organizers on race day.)

Be ready for the current just before East End Beach

“Be prepared for the current by East End Beach. You’re tired, hungry, and can literally see the finish line five feet in front of you, but you have to power through the current to get there. It was the thing that surprised me the most about the race.” – Katelyn Michaud

“The current at the end, totally…the finish line was a straight line and I got stuck behind that rock pile. I think I swam in place for 30 minutes. 🤦‍♀️” – Tracy Tischler

So close to the finish! Jill Upham photo

At the finish line, swim as long as you can
“Swim as long as you can, don’t start walking in neck-deep water. Or even hip-deep water. Do a few dolphin dives once you are in thigh-deep water. It wakes your legs up.” – Simon M Wignall

A rule of thumb I’ve heard and used before: Keep swimming until you can touch the bottom with your hand. It’ll be soooo tempting to stand up as soon as your feet can touch bottom, but it’s no fun slogging through neck-deep water. It’s easier – and faster – to keep swimming. And when you do stand up, watch out. All that time in the waves will have you walking a bit like a drunk person for the first few steps. Not to worry, there will be volunteers to help you stay upright and get out of the water safely.

An incredible feat! Crossing the finish line during the Peaks to Portland Swim to Benefit Kids. Photos courtesy Meraki Photography

Finish with pride!
However fast or slow you swim, by the time you reach the finish line you’ll probably be pretty glad to touch land again. Rightfully so. One year, I finished with a grin and thought, “That was so much fun – and easier than I thought it’d be!” Another year, when the conditions were choppier, I finished thinking, “Wow, that was tough and I’m glad to be done.” No matter what, remember that you just did something pretty fantastic. Let that sink in, and be proud of yourself.

Bring dry layers (like it’s November. Really).
Pack warm, dry layers for after the swim. And I mean socks, a fleece, maybe even a knit hat, even if it’s 80 degrees that day. You might not need them, but every year I did the P2P, I came out of the water cold and stayed that way for hours after, so have those layers just in case.

Go celebrate
Whether it’s getting a beer at a local watering hole, having a sandwich and sitting in the sun, or going home and reclining back on the couch, give yourself time to celebrate and relax.

(To remember the occasion, you can also buy some P2P gear – apparel, pint glasses, beach towels, and stickers.)

And, as Derek Davis says, “Don’t plan on being able to do much else for the rest of the day because you will probably be a little sore (or a lot sore if you are like me).” And tired.

Some additional helpful stuff:
– Check out the frequently asked questions and photos from last year.
– If you need a kayaker, Portland Paddle has established a forum for matching up swimmers and paddlers.
– If you need to rent a kayak, Portland Paddle has rentals available. If you need to rent a wetsuit, Gorham Bike and Ski does that.

Shannon Bryan

Shannon Bryan

I don't like "exercise" any more than you do. But you know what I do like? Paddleboarding with a friend all afternoon (and then sitting in the grass to drink chardonnay). Bike rides and nachos, hikes, yoga classes held in breweries, group paddles to Fort Gorges, you get the idea. Because Maine is my gym.