The World’s Oldest Swim

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.

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