On the day of the swim we were thrust into a muddled group of Aussies, Kiwis, South Africans, Irish, Welsh and English - all 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. The risers 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 the flag you could sight several other landmarks – a stadium, the minarets of a mosque… – we’d have to pick them out until we could cut a direct sprint for the exit ramp at the harbour. Apparently only the strongest Turkish swimmers swam a straight line to the finish. For the rest of us it was likely our paths would turn out like the scribblings of a drunk 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 into 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’d inhaled this mound of chicken and rice and jittered at the table and asked us all about the minor details of our preparations. Now he was more determined than the rest 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.