Eric Nilsson thought he had won last year.

But he missed his target of the finish line at the YMCA of Southern Maine Peaks to Portland swim, and the detour landed him in fifth place.

“I honestly thought I’d won, but I went way past,” said Nilsson, of Cambridge, Mass. “This time, I tried to stay more to the left side so I could see.”

Nilsson, 30, rectified last year’s mistake on Saturday by winning the 36th annual open-water swim from Peaks Island to East End Beach. He swam to shore and jogged the final stretch of the 2.4-mile race through shallow water before finishing in 43 minutes, 19.7 seconds for his first Peaks to Portland victory.

A record turnout of more than 500 swimmers participated in the fundraiser benefitting children and teens in the YMCA’s youth development programs. Conditions were almost ideal in Casco Bay, which remained flat aside from a choppy section in the latter half of the course. With water temperatures relatively warm in the low-60s, Nilsson was in the minority of swimmers competing without a wetsuit.

“At this temperature, I don’t feel like I need a wetsuit,” Nilsson said. “If it was like 50 degrees, I might wear one.”

Meanwhile, the second and third finishers – Matthew Hurley, 33, and John Stevens, 38, of Portland – encountered similar confusion that Nilsson experienced in 2016 as they swam to the right of the buoy-lined chute.

“We got totally thrown off at the finish there,” Stevens said, estimating that the mix-up cost them between 10-15 seconds. “By that point, your legs are all cramped, so you stand up and then you have to get back in, and everything tightens up on you. It’s a little bit harder to get back out of the water.”

Stevens said Hurley – his training partner – waited for him to catch up at the end, and the two finished almost simultaneously. Hurley placed second (44:11.3) and Stevens followed in third (44:11.9).

“I’ve been hurt this year, so I really haven’t been training as much as I would like to,” said Stevens, who won Peaks to Portland five times in the 1990s. “So to come in and do as well as I did, I’m happy with that.”

Along with Nilsson, Emma Rotner was also a first-time Peaks to Portland champion, finishing first among the women and 16th overall in 47:37.3. Rotner, 23, recently moved to Portland from New Hampshire. The event was her first open-water race.

“I just kind of put my head down and swam,” she said. “I know Kirsten was right behind me.”

Kirsten Read, 52, of Arundel placed second among the women last year and won in 2013. She was again the female runner-up with a time of 47:45.5. Cheryl Daly, 45, of South Portland, finished third (49:01.3).

For Rotner – an assistant director for one of the YMCA camps – the win is especially meaningful.

“It’s just cool to be swimming for a cause that I’m working for as well,” Rotner said. “I get to see the kids who are benefitting from this type of fundraiser.”

Last year, the YMCA of Southern Maine provided more than $1.2 million in financial assistance to youth alone. The YMCA has branches in Biddeford, Portland, Freeport and New Gloucester.

Helen Brena, CEO of the YMCA, said she expects the event to exceed this year’s fundraising goal of $180,000.

“We’re raising money so that the Y can have the resources to make sure no child is ever turned away because their family can’t afford programs,” Brena said. “It’s adults doing the swim, and they’re impacting the community in a wonderful way by investing in youth.

Watching the race from shore with her three grandchildren was Pat Gallant-Charette – a 66-year-old Westbrook native who became the oldest woman to swim across the English Channel in June.

Along with the English Channel, Gallant-Charette is also the oldest woman to swim the Tsugaru Strait in Japan, the North Channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland, and the Molokai Channel in Hawaii. Next month, she plans to swim 32 miles across Lake Ontario.

But of all her swims, Gallant-Charette said Peaks to Portland is her favorite. It was her first open-water race, and she has since competed in it more than a dozen times.

“That’s where I got my start – I fell in love with open-water swimming at this race,” she said. “You don’t have to be the speed of Michael Phelps to get to the finish line. You go at your own pace, and everyone is cheering everyone on.

“I’m hoping that one of these swimmers out there one day will try some marathon swims.”

Taylor Vortherms can be contacted at 791-6417 or

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