Following in the breaststrokes of Lord Byron

My friend Ash went swimming the other day.   From Europe to Asia.  Across the Dardanelles, a 6.5 km wide strait of water that separates the continents at the point where the Bosphorus approaches the Aegean sea.

He didn’t do this on a whim, unlike Lord Bryon who tackled these choppy waters on 3rd May 1810.  Despite Byron’s club foot and the fact that he was swimming breaststroke he managed to swim across the forbidding sea from Eceabat in Europe to Canakkale in Asia. He was a keen swimmer but for this specific venture he was inspired by the Greek myth in which the loved-up Leander swims the Hellespont (the other name for the Dardanelles) every night to be with his love, Hero, who shone a lamp from her tower to guide his way. This feat is often seen as the birth of open water swimming.  Just over two centuries later, Ash was following in the strokes of the foolhardy poet, as were the 450 or so people who were doing the swim with him this year.

Traffic on the Dardanelles

The Dardanelles is one of busiest shipping lanes in the world.  Every year on 30th August the strait is closed to maritime traffic and the ferries, liners and cargo vessels are replaced by small local fishing boats and tugs whose responsibility is to watch out for struggling swimmers and, if necessary, to fish them out of the waves alive.    This is a notoriously dangerous pass with strong competing currents which threaten to send even the broadest-shouldered competitor back to Europe if they are not spat out into the Aegean or even sucked down to the sea bed.  And this year it was even harder than usual with Gale Force 6 winds and waves metres high.  So tough were the conditions that the organisers even thought about cancelling the race.

30th August is Republic Day in Turkey, not the actual day that Byron swam but a national holiday, and particularly relevant to this strategic strait. The Dardanelles, connecting the Aegean and the Black Sea as they do, have always been key to controlling the Bosphorus and therefore Istanbul.   As I went over on the ferry with the swimmers armed only with their costumes, goggles, Vaseline, water and swim hats – yellow for Turks and red for foreigners – the tension and anticipation was as high as I imagine it might have been for the Allied and ANZAC forces as they approached Gallipoli from the sea to launch their land attack back in April 1915.

Luckily the results of this swim were nowhere near as catastrophic as those of the Gallipoli campaign (which left over 130,000 dead and over 260,000 wounded) though from examining the swimmers’ faces as they prepared themselves for the onslaught it looked as though they thought it could well be.  But it was a particularly tough race. Last year when the conditions were good the fastest swimmer came in at 37 minutes. This year the fastest time was 58.  Only 60% of the swimmers completed the course and several didn’t even start.

Eyeing up the opposition on the ferry over

Planning the route

Last steps on European shores

They’re under starter’s orders…

….and they’re off!

But Ash wasn’t one of them.  He started.  And he finished.    In 140 minutes.  OK so not the fastest time but far from being the slowest either.   And for someone who had never swam more than 1 km in open water and who had just come straight off a 2 week holiday in France sampling the local wines and finest fare and indulging in the occasional cigarette I thought that was particularly good.

Before

After

 

Well after! Ash, another crazy Brit called David and Ataturk (remember it’s Republic Day) 

Having travelled out with Ash and his fellow swimmers to the starting line and seen them all dive in, becoming red or yellow specks on the choppy surface of the straits before quickly disappearing out of sight, I ran to catch a dolmus (minibus) that took me and a handful of other spectators to a ferry further down the European coast and took us back to the end point in Canakkale on the Asian side.   I blagged my way into the press area and positioned myself to watch and wait for Ash to appear, trying to put aside my concerns that he may not appear at all.

As I waited for my friend I was astounded by the range of different shapes and sizes that I saw emerging from the waters.  The first 2 were as to be expected – toned youngish men.   But from then on it was more or less unpredictable as to whom was to materialize from the waters and I realised that the stereotype I had in my mind of the perfect swimmer’s body was far from the reality . I was struck by the large number of women in the first 10 swimmers, and I was also struck by how large some of them were, the complete antithesis of the athletic Rebeccca Adlington type. Young and old seemed to be equally matched in the water – people well in their 60s were coming in strong.   And, above all, I was blown away by the number of people who came right up in the top ranks and onwards who were missing limbs.  2 men with no legs, a woman with only one working leg, even a man with one arm.   As testimony to the strength of the human spirit my vantage point was second to none.

Truly inspiring

Byron often claimed that his biggest achievement was to swim the Dardanelles.  Now I can see why and that’s from having simply watched the race alone, let alone taken part in it. For Leander, however, the story ended in tragedy.  One stormy winter’s night, he was tossed into the sea by the waves and Hero’s light was blown out.   Leander lost his way and drowned and Hero jumped from her tower to her death on hearing the news.

Luckily I didn’t need to perform such dramatic feats for my friend.  And luckily for Ash, he didn’t catch a fever from the waters as Byron had.    Neither, so far as I know, has Ash commemorated his triumph in verse as the sporty poet did.   There’s another thing he doesn’t share with Byron, something that funnily enough Byron doesn’t mention in his famous poem written after his swimming triumph.    It was Byron’s second attempt at crossing the Hellespont.    Ash only needed one.

 

WRITTEN AFTER SWIMMING FROM SESTOS TO ABYDOS

If, in the month of dark December,

Leander, who was nightly wont

(What maid will not the tale remember?)

To cross thy stream, broad Hellespont!

 

If, when the wintry tempest roar’d,

He sped to Hero, nothing loth,

And thus of old thy current pour’d,

Fair Venus! how I pity both!

 

For me, degenerate modern wretch,

Though in the genial month of May,

My dripping limbs I faintly stretch,

And think I’ve done a feat today.

 

But since he cross’d the rapid tide,

According to the doubtful story,

To woo, — and — Lord knows what beside,

And swam for Love, as I for Glory;

 

‘Twere hard to say who fared the best:

Sad mortals! thus the gods still plague you!

He lost his labour, I my jest;

For he was drown’d, and I’ve the ague.

 

I may not have written a poem but here’s a poetic picture. Canakkale the evening after the swim