STRALSUND, Germany, July 7. A record field of 1,000 swimmers braved choppy Baltic sea swells off Germany's northeast coast on Saturday for the 37th annual Stralsund channel swim, one of Europe's most famous open water swims.
The largest field ever assembled for the 2.4-k (1.5-mile) swim across the channel from Germany's largest island, Ruegen, took advantage of strong currents and warm water temperatures to set unusually fast times.
Jan Graefe, 27, of Rostock won a race that traces its origins to 1825 in a record time of 24 minutes 13 seconds to beat the previous mark of 24:39 set in 1987 by East German Olympian Joerg Walther.
"The conditions today were fantastic," said Graefe, who also won the race last year. "The tailwind and the strong waves really helped push me forward ahead of the pack."
Last year's race took place in frigid 57-degree (Fahrenheit) waters while the water this year was 72 degrees, although strong southeastern winds whipped up waves of up to one meter.
Christoph Karow was second in 25:39 ahead of Oliver Schwarz in third place in a time of 26:12.
Annegret Braun won the women's race, also in a record time of 26:21 and took fourth place overall.
The international field featured competitors ranging in age from 13 to 75 years from a number of European countries and as far away as the United States.
Even though it was interrupted by two World Wars, the "Sundschwimmen" remains the biggest open-water race in Europe, though nowehere near the biggest in the world.
"It's a special atmosphere, " said Inge Krueger, 62, who finished her seventh race in 50 minutes. "You do it once and you are addicted."
The swim across the Stralsund channel had acquired cult status in the former East Germany when up to 550 people took part.
"It was a little piece of freedom to swim out into the channel into 'international waters,' said Rudolf Boehme, 48, who swam his 24th consecutive race.
He said East German authorities forbade swimmers to go beyond 200 meters of the shore but the rules were relaxed for the annual channel swim.
"Even though Sweden was still 70 km away, it was a special feeling to be 'abroad' for a short while," said Boehme, a baker.
But on the downside the water then was always polluted.
"The ships in harbor and the factories dumped their waste and old oil into the water and it would sometimes make you feel so ill that you felt like vomiting," he said.
But two years after the collapse of communism in East Germany in 1989 the water was cleaned.