A SWIM FROM EUROPE TO ASIA, 2018
HELLESPONT (jack’s diary)
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 the 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. And so it was no surprise - when we veered onto the coastline, crammed into a taxi with a Turkish Tourism graduate gesturing to 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 filled with cargo. What did come as a surprise though, was that giddy James Bond moment when we suddenly sighted the bridge of a Russian submarine, slicing through the central current.
It was clear then that we were a long way from the sleepy rivers and babbling brooks of Cumbria. This was the 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 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.
On the day of the swim we were thrust into a group of Aussies, Kiwis, South Africans, Irish, Welsh and English - all grouped 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 itching to get started. Wearing nothing but our suits and caps. Goggles hung pinched between fingers. Colourful jammers and trunks jumbled together.
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 bumped into another Swim Trekker – the quick-fire Irish whippet, Ed. The night before Ed had been a bag of nerves, inhaling a mound of chicken and rice and jittering at the table. He asked us all about the minor details of our preparations. Now you could see he was determined to get in the water and make it across. He talked in all directions as he weaved his way through the chaos and forgot to step on the starter mat 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 lit-up the water as we waded in with the heat on our bare backs. We stopped amidst the rush of bodies and pulled down our goggles. A fever swept across the churned water and I let out a cheer as swimmers dove into the shallows around us. Splashes of water erupted in all directions. Slowly we slumped forward and went under and pulled ourselves through 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 arrows down far below us and caught the umbrellas of clear jellyfish as they rose from the murk and glowed under faint 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 also kept sight of the line boats and the flagpole ahead of us. 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 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 5km 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 of different nationalities, threading through the water. Aside from the first few minutes 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 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