The Strait of the Dardanelles runs like a sinew between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. It also connects the Aegean Sea to the inland Sea of Marmara and serves as a boundary line between the continents of Europe and Asia. For this reason it has become one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. So it was no surprise when we veered alongside the water - crammed into a taxi with a Turkish driver gesturing to signposts as they swept by outside - that we peered through the screen of trees and saw huge tankers and freighters bloated with cargo. But what did give us a jolt was that giddy James Bond moment, when one of us pointed to the bridge of a Russian submarine, slicing through the central current.
We were a long way from the sleepy rivers and babbling brooks of Cumbria. This was the wide open heart of Turkish industry – that often fought over stretch of water, the shores of which are scattered with the dusty ruins of Ottoman castles and ancient cities. And right then it became clear that this was going to be a swim unlike any we’d attempted before.
They call it the Oldest Swim in the World – a transcontinental crossing of the historic Dardanelles, from Europe to Asia. We were here with the company Swim Trek (run by Simon Murie, himself an English Channel swimmer and coach who broke the Australian record for crossing the Gibraltar Straits) on one of the many swim adventures they organise around the world, from the Galapagos Islands to Croatia. When Calum first arranged for us to join them I began reading about what we could expect. There was no need for the usual back and forth. Anyone who thinks that swimming across the world’s most powerful maelstroms is a good idea, and turns out to be right, is worth trusting twice. So I smothered any distrust built-up over years of being the Little Brother – memories of toddling along forest paths and suddenly being hip-nudged into the undergrowth…
I decided that this time I was all in.
Way back in the classical age, when the Mediterranean fostered the great civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome, the narrow Strait of the Dardanelles was known as the Hellespont. It was a name taken from the Greek Hellespontos, meaning Sea of Helle. According to the Greek myth Helle was the daughter of the King of Boeotia and Nephele the cloud nymph. She also acted as consort to everyone’s favourite big-bearded wielder of earth-shaking tridents: Poseidon, Lord of the Sea. And yet Helle was also stricken by that old familiar quandary of being hated by her stepmother – a dour goblin-type called Ino, who devised plans to torment and kill her. On one occasion Ino secretly destroyed the crops and told the locals that the only way to regain the harvest was to sacrifice Helle’s twin brother, Phrixus, to the gods. Before the locals could capture them, Helle and Phrixus were saved by their cloud nymph mother, Nephele, who sent a flying ram with a golden fleece (later sought as an artefact by Jason and the Argonauts) to rescue them. However, as they were escaping, Helle lost hold of the flying ram and tumbled to her death in the raging sea. And from that moment on the waters that swallowed her body became known as the Hellespont.
They call it the Oldest Swim in the World because it is one of the first open water swims we know of – still preserved today in a mixture of myth and ancient history. It all began with the story of Hero and Leader. Leander was a young man from Abydos who would swim across the strait to visit his lover Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite. Hero lived in a tower close to the shores of Sestos and there she would light a lamp her window, to guide Leander over. Having stayed the night, Leander would then dive back in at dawn to swim back across the strait. However, one night a growling storm rolled in and blew out the candle in Hero’s tower. Halfway across the unlit strait, Leander lost his way and drowned under the waves. The moment Hero learned this news she threw herself from the tower into the Hellespont to be reunited with her love – in death.
Almost 2000 years passed before a 22-year-old poet by the name of George Gordon (Lord Byron) came along and hopped into the strait to follow Leander’s legendary swim. His aim was to prove that the story of Hero and Leander was more than fiction. Byron recalled the experience in his famous poem Don Juan, in which he reflects upon the enduring tragedy as he paws his way through the lukewarm waters.
It was the start of a great pastime that seemed to liberate Byron, who had a deformed foot and often walked with a limp. The water gave him freedom and mobility – it made him happy. In fact when he lived in Italy he swam the length of the Grand Canal in Venice, accompanied by a gondola escort. And he also crossed the Portuguese Tagus River in 1809.
Swimming had an effect on Byron that is evident in his work. He described it as: “[a] buoyancy of spirits I never feel on any other occasion.”
You can’t talk about the Dardanelles for long without drifting onto the subject of war. As with any little truffle of commerce, the rootling snout of war was never far away. The Dardanelles are a strategic sea access route and throughout history many wars have been waged to control them. On several occasions the strait became crucial for the defence of Constantinople – now modern-day Istanbul – throughout the Byzantine Period. Then Russia blockaded the strait during the Napoleonic Wars, in 1807.
However, perhaps the most well-known of all these conflicts was the Battle of Gallipoli.
For the local Turks – the ones we’d be swimming with – this stretch of their homeland was deeply significant. The Dardanelles represent a great sense of national pride and sadness. The area around Çanakkale alone is a gravesite for 70,000 men. During the Battle of Çanakkale, on November 3rd 1914, a generation of Turks joined together and took up arms to defend their country against invasion. The strait provided direct sea access to Constantinople – it’s the main artery leading to the heart of their nation. Without it the Ottoman Empire would’ve been unable to survive.
After their failed attempts at naval conquest, the Allies opted to invade the Gallipoli peninsula on foot. British divisions were ordered to move in on the tip, while soldiers from Australia and New Zealand would cut a swathe through the middle. Yet on the night of April 25th, 1915, tens of thousands of young soldiers arrived, riding boats into Anzac Cove, directly into the sights of a defending Turkish force. Amidst the ensuing chaos the invaders managed to form a small beachhead. But there was little they could do to stave off the attack. By the end of the day, Allied casualties numbered around 2,000 killed or wounded, with similar losses on the Turkish side.
A century later Australian and Kiwi tourists still arrive at Anzac Cove to honour the fallen. To many Turks the cove is almost sacred – a resting place symbolic of their defence against imperialism and the sacrifices of their ancestors for the values and freedoms they hold today. In an address in 1934, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic and one of the minds behind the defence of Gallipoli, gave a speech in which he commemorated the dead on both sides:
“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives,” he said, “You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore, rest in peace. You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace…”
It was a recognition of all those young soldiers who fought under distant orders, in defence of their respective countries. During peacetime those same young men might’ve been free to drink together in Anzac Cove, sitting on the sand and swimming in the ocean.
Today the strait still plays a significant role in Turkish culture and commerce. It’s about more than Helle, Leander and Byron. There’s history everywhere, in all directions. The remains of Troy now sit dust-stained at the strait’s western entrance and a replicated wooden horse overlooks the seafront in Çanakkale – the very same horse that Brad Pitt abseiled out of in the 2004 movie Troy.
All these years on the ancestors of those who fought over this strait still gather once a year to swim across it. The shipping lane closes – one of the busiest in the world – and some 800 skimpily-clad swimmers bundle into the water together and charge out through the waves.
We were thrown into a grinning group of Aussies, Kiwis, South Africans, Irish, Welsh and English… Jumbled together in our 75 green caps, amidst the sea of yellow caps belonging to the Turks. We left the ferry in a slow herd and flowed along the roadside, passing bystanders who gawped at us and early risers in their apartments, who patrolled their balconies with little steaming cups and watched our solemn sea-bound march like sailor’s wives on their widow’s walks.
Two salient forts – sand-faded vestiges of the Ottoman empire – were perched atop either side of the strait. We walked to the bay where we’d be starting our swim, close to one of these forts. A barrier separated us from the sand. Officials walked up and down it, patrolling our confines. They checked their watches at intervals and signalled each other. We were all of us itching to get started. Wearing nothing but our suits and caps. Goggles hung pinched between fingers. Colourful jammers clashed and jumped together.
The weight collected again in my stomach. I felt the unease rising.
This was the start of our Hellespont Swim Race.
We’d taken a boat ride across the Dardanelles the day before and been told about the two currents that flow through the strait in opposite directions. A strong saline undercurrent sweeps along the farthest shore. This would make it hard for us to exit. Simon had explained that we’d have to aim left and fight the current and make for a tall flagpole that jutted up from the hills. Then after there were several other landmarks – a stadium, the minarets of a mosque – we’d have to sight until we could cut a direct sprint for the exit ramp at the harbour. Apparently only the strongest Turkish swimmers would swim a straight line to the finish. For the rest of us it was likely our paths would turn out like the scribblings of an infant with an Etch A Sketch.
I shuffled up to the barrier and gripped the metal. Calum was talking excitedly to a huddle of Swim Trekkers. Behind us the recumbent town of Eceabat was just waking up. Stray dogs lounged at the roadside. I stared across the water and measured the crossing in my mind. I reminded myself that the Thames Marathon had been 14km in total. This was closer to 5km.
Enjoy it, I told myself.
The eastern shore rippled in the heat. A layer of mist had settled over the water. I looked at the little mosques and forts and white buildings of Çanakkale. The coast itself was arid – the vegetation sparse and the shoreline crowded with chalky rocks the same colour as the buildings. Just then a trio of eager Turkish men muscled their way to the front and stealthily heaved the barrier back. One of the officials caught sight of them and rushed over, waving his clipboard. Amidst the commotion a horn blasted suddenly and the front lines surged forward and sprinted down the sand into the shallows, like wildebeest galloping through crocodile-infested waters. We wished luck to our group of new friends: Matt, Otto, James, Dee and Sarah. Then we jumped down onto the sand and spotted another Swim Trekker – the quick-fire Irish whippet, Ed. The night before he’d been a bag of nerves. He inhaled a mound of chicken and rice and jittered at the table and asked us about the details of our preparations. Now he was the most determined of all of us. He talked in all directions as he weaved his way into the water and forgot to step on the starter mat to register his ankle tag and rushed back and re-joined the group beside us.
“Right lads – you’re only here once,” he called, as he disappeared into the mass of swimmers.
The morning sun was streaming down onto the water. We waded in with the heat on our bare backs and pulled down our goggles. A fever swept across the churned water and I let out an involuntary cheer as the bodies rushed past me and dove into the shallows. Tall splashes erupted in all directions. Slowly we slumped forward and pulled ourselves down into the swirling green quiet – that veil of bubbles. When I came up there were swimmers on all sides of me. I picked out Calum’s Selkie jammers and drew up alongside him. Then we set off together into the long, bobbing channel of fishing boats, dinghies and kayaks.
The next half hour was as pleasant as any time I’ve spent in the water. The currents were slow and gentle and the waves rocked us and rolled with our strokes as we rose and sank over the chop. The bed disappeared quickly, but the sun still stretched its fingers down far below us and caught the umbrellas of clear jellyfish as they rose from the murk and glinted within twisting shoals of fish. Calum and I kept a quick-ish pace and timed our strokes together and cut a path through the criss-crossing wakes of other swimmers and saw the steep sun rays dropping through their bubbles. I let my feet trail and felt the warm water threading through my fingers and washing over me. I kept sight of the line boats and the flagpole ahead of us and we didn't stop until we were cast under the prow shadow of an incoming boat.
We looked up to see Simon grinning down at us.
“Stroke’s looking good,” he said.
He told us we were making a good direct line with the Turkish bunch. If we continued as we were the current could sweep us too far right and cause us to miss our exit. He advised us to cut a hard left towards the boats on our farthest side.
We took his advice and swerved against the current and kept digging in until we floated onto the glassy waters around the exit ramp, shielded by the harbour wall. A moment earlier a figure had swept past us as we crawled through the water. When we peeled our goggles off we saw that it was James - one of the South African/London Swim Trekkers. He grinned at us and raised his arms as he burst from the water.
"I beat the Wild Swimming Brothers."
In the end we made the 5-kilometer crossing in just over an hour.
That night we drank with our group and heard stories of encounters with sharks and Pacific Island swim spots and huge events that draw thousands of aquatic attendees. A handful of our swimmers had won medals and the Efes was flowing and spirits were high. Personally it was one of the best swims I’ve been part of so far. It was totally different to our swims in the Arctic Circle (much warmer) and our swim down the River Eden (much shorter). The challenge had been to stay calm and find an inward rhythm amidst the 700 other swimmers. But that wasn't such a hard task with such beautiful surroundings and far-reaching water clarity and the silent company of all those other people threading through the water. Aside from the first few lines the pace had been gentle and unhurried. Some of the older swimmers had even swum breaststroke the whole way. We'd had enough time to enjoy the water and film and dive down at times to that dim curve where the temperature dropped.
Anyone wondering whether to book the Hellespont swim next year - we make a lot of recommendations for events and sometimes you do worry if the swimmer catches a bad day, or bad weather, there's a chance they won’t get a good experience out of it. The Hellespont is different though. Even if the currents turn on you – a boatload of swimmers didn’t make it and still came out on the opposite coast with huge smiles– the atmosphere of excitement and pride is irresistible. You'll be aware all the while that you are taking part in something special. The great march of industry grinds to a halt. The freighters and submarines draw back. And for two hours the Strait of the Dardanelles belongs to a bubble-kicking, current-pawing, salt-water-spitting pod of swimmers from around the world. All there for the same reason - all enjoying the water with barely a word passed between them.
This is something you'll remember - this good thing you did...
Visit the Swim Trek Website.