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Try something different: Swimming Europe to Asia

According to Greek legend, Hero, priestess of Aphrodite, fell in love with Leander, a young man who lived on the other side of the Hellespont. Each night he would swim across the channel to be with her. One stormy night, he lost his way and drowned. Hero was so distraught that she threw herself off the cliff and died too.

This legend spawned an annual event in modern Turkey, called the Hellespont Race, where for 2 hours one day of the year, the fourth-busiest shipping channel in the world is closed for a swimming race. The part where Leander actually drowned is seemingly forgotten, as 800 or so people line up to attempt the crossing from Europe to Asia. In 2019 I was one of them.

Now to be clear I am not a competitive swimmer, or even a good swimmer, but I am also not one to shy away from a challenge, and when I saw this opportunity, I grabbed it. Giving myself a good 8months to train for the 4.5km current-assisted swim, I headed down to my local pool to test my starting fitness. I could swim 800m total, stopping for a rest at the end of each 50m lap. So quite a bit of work to be done then! I had also never swum in a current, or in fact in an open-water event of any kind.

So I headed to the pool twice a week, slowly building up to 4kms of continuous swimming in two hours. Not fast, but steady. And there were setbacks. In winter I came down with the ‘flu and was sidelined for four weeks, as it turned into sinusitis. And just two weeks out, I suddenly started developing debilitating cramps in my calves, about 2kms into a swim. I decided I needed to treat this swim like the land-based endurance events I have done, with a greater focus on hydration – and to my relief the symptoms went away.

Dealing with my open water inexperience was a harder fix, given that I live more than 2hrs from the nearest coast, and most of my preparation time was in winter. But I found a 3 day swimming camp run by Andre and Jules at OceanFit in Sydney, and headed off to see what I could learn in a long weekend.

The weekend was very practical, building piece by piece the skills to effectively get out through the surf safely and back in again. In typical Aussie style, humour was front and centre of all instruction. This was not a course you should do if you can’t make fun of yourself! Yet by the end of the weekend, even the least experienced of us (ie me!) could successfully swim out in a continuous motion and get back to the beach. I felt so much more ready for what lay ahead.

Before I knew it, it was time to head to Turkey! The Base for the event is the beautiful seaside town of Canakkakle on the Asian side, and the event is run by the local Rotary Club. International entrants must book through a UK Company called SwimTrek, which prides itself on getting swimmers to the finish.

The nervous energy was palpable as we arrived at registration at a local seaside bar. 180 international swimmers from over 30 different countries. There was merchandise pickup, temporary tattoos and course briefings, before our first outing into the Hellespont itself: a 500m loop along the coast as an acclimatisation swim. The water was surprisingly warm – about 24 degrees – and much, much clearer than I had expected.

Next SwimTrek took us out along the course by boat, clearly pointing out the landmarks to sight and when to head for shore. The current is very strong, pushing from the left as you swim. The overwhelming message: keep heading for the opposite bank and do NOT try to swim to the finish. Most non-finishers are swept out into the Aegean Sea (where they are rescued by the event boats – known fittingly as “the catchers”.)

The event morning started early with a 6am walk from the hotel to the finish line. It was here that we could leave our bag for after the event. We boarded buses to the ferry in just our swimmers, cap and goggles, plus a pair of disposable hotel paper slippers to protect our feet. No modesty or glamour here: just 800 people, wobbling along like penguins as we attempted to walk in our ridiculous slippers.

The ferry ride to the start on the other side seemed very, very long. If nerves had not struck by now, they came like a tidal wave. 800 people stood in a carpark at the event start. A final toilet stop, and bad jokes to attempt to allay the nerves. Suddenly there was a blast of a horn, and I commented that we must be about to start. Then I looked out and saw the front group were already in the water.

We moved forward over a pile of disposable paper slippers until we reached the beach and it was our turn. I was wading into the channel, fixing my eyes firmly on the communications tower on the other side that was to be my first sighting point.

As a novice open water swimmer, in effectively my very first event, I had underestimated the impact that the current would have on my stroke, as it pushed me from the left. I struggled to control my breath and my stroke, so I made the decision to change to breaststroke. While I hadn’t trained to swim anything other than freestyle, I was confident that I had the swim fitness to make it. Or at least I had to try.

The channel is deep but amazingly clean. I saw very little in the water until I came across what I thought was a number of white plastic bags. But as I came closer, I realised they were in fact jelly fish. They began to smack me in the face, and I wondered why I hadn’t researched whether Turkish jellyfish sting. I can tell you now that they don’t!

As I moved across the channel, I could see the line of fishing boats that marked the far left of the course and swimmers starting to turn to the right. The next sighting point was a large flagpole and I kept swimming towards that; but noticing more and more swimmers curving right. It was at this point that I made a mistake. Assuming the other swimmers were correct, I shifted my direction to the third point: the sport stadium. Within a few minutes I had a fishing boat beside me yelling out: “No! Don’t swim for the finish, swim for the port.” I looked up and I had been swept down the channel with the current and was already almost in line with the finish, even though I was too far out. I was in trouble.

I re-oriented towards the port, upstream from the finish and swam as hard as I could. I was successfully moving towards the coast, and I started to know that I would make it. But then another setback.

I was 20m from the coast, but about 100m downstream from the finish. The current was extremely strong and I was making no progress. The boat came alongside me and watched me for another 10mins before giving me the bad news. I had not moved. I was like a swimmer in a jet pool. The emotion of potentially not making it was overwhelming. But then a simple solution: just swim to the bank and the crossing is official. No glory of emerging on the red carpet, but a cross-continental swim none the less.

I swam that last 20m as hard as I could and touched the rocks on the bank to the cheers of personnel on 3 boats. I had done it! I was a cross-continental swimmer.

The energy I had expended in the attempt to reach the red carpet left me incapable of walking. A lovely local Turk helped me not to fall on my face as I climbed across the rocks to the bank. I walked the final 100m to my group – cameras still pointed waiting to see me emerge from the water!

It was not the finish I intended, but it was a finish. Our whole group made it across. 84 entrants were swept into the Aegean or could not continue and had to be picked up, but everyone was safe.

I am incredibly proud of what I achieved. In hindsight I would probably have done an actual open water event as a practice, and definitely would not be lulled into following the crowd instead of the event plan. But such are the unknowns of embarking on a new challenge and, if nothing else, it ensures a good story!

The Hellespont Swim is held in August. For further information see:

Images courtesy of Swim Trek and Ocean Fit

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