A SWIM FROM EUROPE TO ASIA, 2018
THE STRAIT OF THE DARDANELLES runs like a sinew between the Black Sea in the northeast and the Mediterranean to the southwest. It also connects the southwestern Aegean Sea to inland Sea of Marmara and serves as a boundary line between the continents of Europe and Asia. As a link to all these expanses of open water it has become one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. So it was no surprise - when we veered onto the coastline, crammed into a taxi with the windows rolled down and a Turkish Tourism graduate and his father gesturing to signposts and ruins as they swept by outside - that we peered through the thin screen of trees and looked across the water at huge tankers and freighters bloated with cargo. Mind you, what did come as a surprise 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 were scattered with the dusty ruins of Ottoman castles and ancient cities. And right then and there 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 started reading a little 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. And 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.
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.
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 swimmers 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.
For anyone still wondering whether or not to book the Hellespont swim next year… We make a lot of recommendations for swim 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 that you did...
Sign up for the next big event: Visit the Swim Trek website