Swimming The Hellespont

The Ancient Greek youth Leander swam it nightly, guided by the torches lit by his beloved Hero, so the legend goes, until one stormy night he succumbed to the treacherous currents and drowned. Broken hearted Hero followed her lover to the watery depths. In 1810 the young Lord Byron emulated Leander’s swim, and narrowly escaped drowning himself.

In the wake of Leander and Byron, Egg and I set off to Turkey to swim Europe to Asia across the Hellespont, also known as the Dardanelles Straits, the strip of water that leads from the Sea of Marmara to the Aegean Sea, reportedly the second busiest shipping lane in the world.

This was the 23rd annual Turkish Victory Day Hellespont race organised by the Cannakkale Rotary Club. 200 Turks take part in the race and up to 100 “professional foreign swimmers” or more accurately, a motley crew of swimming tourists organised by Swimtrek.

We arrived in Cannakkale on the Asian side via ferry and bus from Istanbul, and gazed across the not-so-flat stretch of water to the other side. Ships, some the size of small towns, glided by. It didn’t look too far, we persuaded ourselves.

Early next morning we were expected on the beach where we would undergo a medical and a chance for an acclimatisation swim. Our blood pressure was taken, our hearts listened to, questioned about our health, the forms signed, witnessed and stamped. All 80 Swimtrekkers were deemed fit enough to swim. Phew!

At the pre-race briefing at the University that evening the elaborate Turkish instructions were translated into brief, barely understandable English. We managed to grasp that the most important point was how to beat the currents and get across. There were elaborate diagrams with arrows showing the flow of the currents, the position of two big yellow buoys which would guide our direction, more arrows. If you misjudged your direction you risked missing the finish and being swept down the straits. This wasn’t a straight forward swim. The cruise liners, ferries, and huge rusty tankers, we were told, would be asked to slow their approach down the straits to keep the channel between Eceabat and Cannakkale clear for 90 minutes, the cut off time for the race. Tips in the information booklet included “eat a good breakfast which includes something sweet like honey or jam”. Good, there were big pots of the stuff on the breakfast buffet at the hotel, we were going to be fine!

One thing we were unable to establish was the distance. It was 4.75 miles, nautical miles or kilometres if you swam the correct route, or 3.5 of any of the above as the crow flies. Simon Murie our trusted Swimtrek guide, enlightened us. “Think of it as a two mile swim” he said.

Race day dawned. As we entered the race arena our bags were searched by sailors in immaculate white uniforms, while armed teenage soldiers looked on. Marine and town dignitaries and their wives arrived in long sleek automobiles. Medical forms were scrutinised and blood pressure double checked. It was all very serious. As well as our numbered swimming hats, red for Turks, yellow for foreigners, we were given goody bags with the obligatory T-shirt and towel, plus flip flops, a peaked cap and a plastic rain poncho.

Half an hour before the race we were loaded into buses to be transferred by ferry to Eceabat on the European side where the race was to start. Dressed only in bathers, swim hats and goggles, the flip flops saved feet from the scalding metal ferry deck.

280 swimmers lined the shore at Eceabat, jostling for positions, the beach behind us littered with yellow flip flops. The finish, the tip of a little finger of land way down to our right, was barely visible. So easy to miss …..

The whistle blew, we started, the mass of flailing arms and legs slowly thinning out, beginning to swim. No sight of the yellow marker buoys, they were hidden behind boats sporting huge yellow balloons. Luckily Simon, the only one amongst us to have swum the Hellespont before, had pointed out three landmarks during the ferry crossing. 15 minutes (give or take depending on one’s speed) to the radio mast straight ahead, he’d said, 15 minutes to the flag a little to the right, 15 to the football stadium a little more to the right in the middle of town, only then turn right and head to the finish. Soon I was stroking easily, heading straight across to the far shore and the radio mast, falling into pace, passing swimmers or being passed, ignoring the finish away to my right. The swimmers thinned out, then no one. Far below me a large white globe glowed. Jellyfish….? Looking around, swimmers had spread out far and wide, the boats a long way off. The shore a long way back. I felt very much alone in that way that only happens in sea swims. Time to head for the second landmark, the flag.

Below me a huge white luminous globe with a frill edged in deep purple undulated serenely. A jelly fish, oh, so beautiful…. Then another. I swam on, wary now. A swimmer swam across me heading towards the finish. I swam on towards the third landmark, the stadium. Suddenly, a jelly fish, the size of a melon, almost touched my face. I recoiled, then kicking frantically, tried to swim above the water as it bounced along my chest, my stomach, my thighs. Try not to kick, no stings, OK….!

I looked towards the finish, it was visible now. Next time I looked I realised it was getting nearer, faster than usual. I wasn’t far enough across, golly, I might miss it! I started sprinting towards the shore at right angles to the finish. Soon I was amongst a group of young Turkish swimmers all sprinting in the same direction. There were lots of jellyfish now, oh dear! The finish was getting closer. Could I make it? Two of the lads turned right towards the finish. No, too soon. I continued at right angles still swimming hard.

The finish was very close now, surely … I turned towards it. Next thing I was there, I’d done it! As I climbed the steps to the jetty I noticed the two young Turks who’d peeled off a few minutes earlier struggling the last few yards against the tide towards the finish. I’d made the right decision.

Standing on the jetty amongst other finishers we exchanged tales of our swims, watching as swimmers were swept past the finish, those near enough valiantly inching their way towards us, others further out hopelessly swimming against the tide. Then Egg approached, breast-stroking in at a perfect trajectory, he too had made it.

The 90 minutes were up, Lou Murie sprinted in against the tide, only just making it to the jetty. She had swum the whole way without goggles, they had snapped early in the swim. The poor souls out in the channel were picked up by the boats. All the Swimtrekers had made it, but only just.

The sun was hot as we waited for the award ceremony. We donned the baseball caps. The fastest male swimmer a young Turk, 49m 00s. The fastest female swimmer a Swimtrekker, Rebecca, 51m 44s, pipping a young Turkish girl at the post, much to her father’s disappointment. Her award an orange and diamante watch which Egg immediately coveted. Next awards went to the disabled swimmers, mostly amputees. Then the age group awards. The Swimtrek women did rather well taking 7 gold medals (including me!), as well as several bronze and silver. The men managed 5 gold medals (including the only 70 year old whose birthday it was that day) and a smattering of silver and bronze.

We rounded off the day’s triumphs at the post race dinner where Egg became auctioneer (a first for him) of the race memorabilia in aid of Cannakkale disability charity and managed to rack up a substantial sum with many Eggisms and much hilarity.

By Margy Sullivan

Post script: We declined the offer of a taxi to the airport in favour of tram, train and bus. “It’s going to rain” warned the hotel receptionist. As we exited the tram the skies opened and the rain bucketed down. Now I knew it was worth hanging on those ponchos…