“IF, in the month of dark December.
Leander, who was nightly wont
(What maid will not the tale remember?)
To cross they stream, broad Hellespont;”
By Lord Byron
In 2013 I came across an article about open water swimming with a picture of a large stretch of blue water full of orange-capped swimmers. It was the Bosphorus Cross-Continental swim – 6.5km down one of the World’s busiest shipping lanes in Istanbul – which was described as being a swim once completed by Lord Byron. And while I’ve since discovered that this wasn’t factually correct, I was inspired by the idea of taking part in something steeped in literary history.
So, I applied to the Turkish Olympic Committee and duly got my place. Then the hard work began. I had to find a swimming coach to improve my front crawl technique and who could vouch for my swimming ability. I had to have a full doctor’s check-up and of course, there was the countless laps of the 50m pool at Bath University. But then…
I got freaked out! I was getting tons of emails in Turkish and suddenly felt like I’d taken on too big a challenge. That’s when I heard about Swim Trek and soon discovered that they too run a swim in Turkey – the Hellespont and Dardanelles – nicknamed the World’s Oldest Swim, and this time it really was a swim Lord Byron had done. I switched over immediately.
The Hellespont & Dardanelles – a narrow stretch of water separating Europe from Asia – is steeped in history, boasting the Greek myth of Leander who supposedly swam the distance at night to meet his lover Hero. Lord Byron wanted to swim it to prove it was possible and on 3rd May 1810, his second attempt, he did.
When I signed up to do this swim, I had no clue what I was getting into. I’d completed one outdoor swim around Burgh island, but other than that, I’d done all my training in the pool. It was on a boat tour of the route, the sea looking wild and choppy, that I had a sudden understanding that this was going to be a swim that required tactical knowledge as well as endurance. I knew I had the latter, but not so much the former…
You see the Hellespont is a dangerous stretch of water, with strong currents that if not traversed across correctly, would sweep you straight past the finish line and out into the Aegean Sea. The slower the swimmer, the more exaggerated route you took in the shape of a curve. I only learnt about all this as I was staring out at the water, gulping with nerves, wondering what I’d got myself into.
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. I listened to what the coaches said as they travelled around by motorboat calling out suggested sighting points. I chose the most cautious path and it paid off. I completed the swim in 1hr 17min. Not bad considering Lord Byron completed it in an hour and ten…
I arrived in Istanbul feeling excited and after a five hour coach journey followed by a ferry to Çanakkale, I couldn’t wait to get going. Swim Trek were excellent hosts of the non-Turkish side of the event and it’s at the first night party that I learnt more about the history of this stretch of water.
Lou’s List of Swims
I’ve been swimming all my life, but my obsession with open water started in 2013. If there’s a lake, quarry or sea, I’ll swim in it! Here’s a few of my most memorable:
1. An Iconic British swim - 2km around of Burgh Island
Off the coast of South Devon, Burgh Island is a private island with an Art Deco hotel where Agatha Christie wrote two of her novels. It was my first proper open water swim and while it was a straightforward router, getting used to the tide and the waves and the saltwater was hard. This was my inspiration for Fig’s first swim - Dinosaur Island.
2. An Iconic Canal Swim – 2km round the Christiansborg in Copenhagen
This swim provided the inspiration for Fig’s 17th swim – the Mermaid Canal and I remember thinking about it as I was swimming. I have the best memories from completing this one, as I had my family cheering me along. The elation and pride on their faces when I got out the water was wonderful.
3. The Marathon Swim – Dart 10K
This is the hardest swim I’ve ever done. Training 3-4 times a week, building up to 8km, was tough and took a lot of time, energy and willpower, not to mention how hungry it made me! It’s also my saddest swim, as I had no one there for me when I got out. The emotion of completing something that I had worked so hard to do hit me and I ended up bursting into tears in front of a complete stranger!
4. The Popular Swim – 6.5km around Brownsea Island
This swim is so popular you have to set your alarm at 7a.m to register and even then, you might not get a place. After several years of trying, I finally got to do it in 2019. The day was gorgeous, with perfect weather conditions. Unfortunately, I let myself get psyched out by all the amazing swimmers who stormed past me. Then my goggles leaked the whole way round and I got a terrible rash burn from my thermal top and wetsuit. All of which spoilt my enjoyment of what could have been a beautiful swim.
5. The Cold Swim – 7km down the River Wye
The Wild Wye was an amazing swim. From getting in the river and being pulled along by the current, to seeing other swimmers laughing, chatting and generally enjoying the opportunity to swim in such lovely surroundings. Unfortunately, I got too cold and started to panic. Even asked the SARA volunteers who were standing along the course whether I had blue lips. I was freezing and by the time I got to the finish line, a rope leading up a muddy bank, I could barely walk and ended up letting out a crazy tribal roar as the emotion of getting there hit me. I ended up in the First Aid tent wrapped in a silver foil blanket. However, this time I had friends looking out for me. It’s amazing what a difference that made…
6. The World’s Oldest Swim - 4.5km Hellespont & Dardanelles
This is what got me into open water swimming, because I liked the idea of saying that I’d swum between Europe and Asia, across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes! The enormity of the challenge hit me when we took a ferry along the route and I realised how difficult it was going to be, given the currents and choppiness not to mention the idea of literally being stranded between two continents!
This was the inspiration for Fig’s final swim – the Cross Continental.
I of course have a list of swims I’d like to do one day, most of which were also the inspiration for Fig’s swims. They include:
· St Michael’s Mount
· Swim the Arctic Circle
· Oman Fjords
· The Hurly Burly
· Gozo to Malta sunrise swim