She is the jockey and he is the horse. She sets the course and he dutifully follows.
Beth Ansheles of South Portland and Scott Yeomans of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, are cousins. She paddles a purple kayak, he swims alongside. “He’s the speed,” Ansheles said. “I’m direction.”
For the past four years, theirs has been an unbeatable combination.
Guided by his cousin, the 50-year-old Yeomans needed only 41 minutes and 4 seconds to traverse the chilly waters of Casco Bay on Saturday morning in the 34th annual YMCA Peaks to Portland swim. He clambered out of the bay onto the sand of East End Beach and passed beneath the finishing arch more than a minute and a half ahead of runner-up Alex Mukai, a 16-year-old from Cape Elizabeth making his first attempt at the crossing.
“She kayaks out here all the time,” Yeomans said of Ansheles. “She knows the tides. She’s straight as an arrow. It’s almost like swimming in a pool because I only have to sight for the first three or four hundred yards. She picks me up and then it’s just watching her the whole way.”
Swimmers leave the beach on their own, then connect with kayaks festooned with helium-filled balloons, crazy decorations and even, in the case of paddler Stu Siddons of Bar Harbor, a sparkly tutu of teal, fuchsia and blue.
“It’s a special occasion,” said Siddons, who guided Lucy Van Hook of Portland across the bay. “So I don’t mind wearing it.”
Cheryl Daly, 42, of South Portland was the first female finisher. A two-time runner-up, Daly made it across in 47:17 to beat Kirsten Read of Arundel by 17 seconds.
“I had no expectations,” Daly said. “The water was really, really cold. I just put my head down and said let me finish strong and get out of this water, because I’m so cold.”
The race started on Peaks Island beneath a cloudless blue sky and an air temperature of 69 degrees. The water, however, was 58 and left many swimmers – particularly those among the 353 finishers who spent nearly two hours in the water – shivering beneath foil wraps afterward.
“It was markedly colder than last year,” said Christie Underwood, 39, of Peaks Island, still shivering 10 minutes after emerging from the water. “I think we’re all a little hypothermic.”
Four hundred and three swimmers registered for the race, proceeds of which benefit the youth aquatics program at the YMCA of Southern Maine. All but 40 gathered on the beach at Peaks Saturday morning along with their paddler guides. Nine were pulled out of the water after showing signs of distress.
A 10th, George Hunihan of Milford, Connecticut, decided to swim to the start from Portland but it took him nearly two hours to reach Peaks.
“I got caught in the current,” said Hunihan, who, like a handful of swimmers, does not use a wetsuit. “I’m not going back. I’m crazy, but I’m not stupid.”
Hunihan, who returned to the mainland via ferry, swam the English Channel in 2008 and has done Peaks to Portland more than 10 times. He said Saturday’s conditions were the coldest he remembers.
Mukai, a junior at Cape Elizabeth High, shrugged off the cold. He said he sat in the water at Peaks to let his hands and feet go a little numb to get used to the temperature.
“It really wasn’t much of a problem,” he said. “My mom and her brother (Windham High swim coach Pete Small) used to swim it, so I wanted to carry on the family tradition.”
Swimmers younger than 16 are not allowed in the race, which raises approximately $70,000 for the YMCA of Southern Maine, which has four branches at Casco Bay, Greater Portland, Northern York County, and Pineland.
“All of that will go to financial assistance for youth aquatics at the YMCA, teaching kids how to swim,” said Hildy Ginsberg, executive director of the Portland YMCA. “It’s our largest fundraiser of the year.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or