Greek Marathon Swim

25km Kalithea to Nikiti

Take one well-fed Irishman and a tough Tasmanian, coat them in grease and sunblock, simmer in hot water for 25km, garnish with a garland of olive leaves and you’re ready to present them with medals. That’s basically the story of a 25km marathon swim Ellery McGowan and Jim Boucher added last week to their open water achievements. The swim crosses the Gulf of Toreonos from Kassandra to Nikita in Greece, the country that invented the word “marathon”.

The swim history recounts how in 1969, a group of young people from Nikiti, Greece, turned madness into reality as they swam 25km across the Toroneos Gulf from Nikiti on the peninsula of Sithonia to the peninsula of Kassandra. Their only motive was their love of the sea. Nobody noticed the seven swimmers departing but, in the afternoon when it became known that the swimmers were arriving on the coast of Kassandra, the villagers ran to welcome the heroes. In subsequent years the Cultural Youth Association of Nikiti, “SITHON “, was established and this organisation runs the event which starts from the village of Kallithea on the peninsula of Kassandra to Nikiti. The crossing has become the main event of an annual folk festival combined with other cultural and athletic events.

The event, run for the 44th time in 2014, is the most famous open water swim in Greece and although referred to as a race, everyone is a winner – this would make the Surreys a bit heavy on medals – and all finishers receive identical medals, trophies and, most uniquely, a real garland of olive leaves as presented to athletes in ancient times. The majority of swimmers are Greek, but 2014 included three from UK – Jim, Ellery and 33-times English Channel soloist Mike Read – along with two Hungarians, one of whom had cycled all the way from Budapest. On the evening before the swim, athletes were introduced to the villagers and holidaymakers of Nikiti before eventually being let off to bed around 11:30pm. Not fantastic given the 4:20am start to catch an undersized bus to the start on the next peninsula!

The swim started at 7:45am with only a few early clouds. The water was at least 25C to start with and the air temperature estimated to rise to over 32C during the day with the prospect of scattered thunderstorms. Each swimmer has a fishing boat escort of varying sizes but most, if not all skippers were well-experienced in the crossing. The combination of distance and temperature required careful consideration of feed plans and having enough cool water on board. Aside from a couple of hours in the middle of the swim when nearby storms kicked up a bit of chop on the surface, the water was generally near-millpond smooth and no major effect from currents as in the Channel. The slightly adverse weather meant times were a little slower than last year, but the first swimmer home arrived in just over six hours. Jim was first home for the British-based contingent, delighting the crowd with his trademark shamrock jammers, in 9hrs 12 minutes. Mike, in finishing the race for the 24th time in 10 hrs 30, received great adulation from the locals, for whom he is an Honorary Citizen. As swimmers finished, Vangelis’ “Conquest of Paradise” blared out and they could hear the music as they swam to the shore, accompanied by cheering kids and youths swimming alongside. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as each swimmer finished, but one of the greatest cheers was reserved for Ellery, who finished in 11hr 57. Swimmers were walked up on to a stage and once the cheers stopped each addressed the crowds. A quick break to get dressed and then return to the stage for the final presentations, more adulation and fireworks display to end an event that was as emotional as it was simply breath-taking. The Greeks know how to do a spectacle for sure and those who compete it is a truly unforgettable experience.

By Jim Boucher