I am swimming in the middle of the strait dividing Europe from Asia Minor and I sense most of us are not going to make it. Water that looked blue and inviting from the shore is fierce and full of unruly white horses. Every time I take a breath, my mouth fills with salt water. It’s almost impossible to see the sightline of the radio mast through the swell. There’s no way in these conditions that we can make it across the strait inside 90 minutes. But that’s all we’ve got before the shipping lane for tankers heading from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean is reopened.
This perilous crossing marks the bicentennial celebration of the Hellespont swim made by Lord Byron, Romantic poet, revolutionary and mad-keen swimmer. He later described the feat as more meaningful than anything he’d achieved, whether “political, poetical or rhetorical”. Now I can see why.
Half an hour ago, 140 of us set off from the beach at Eceabat on the Gallipoli peninsula, hoping to cross the Dardanelles (formerly the Hellespont) and reach the pretty port town of Canakkale on the continent of Asia. The event, organised by specialist British travel company Swimtrek, is nothing if not ambitious. Through a local fixer, an administration fee has been paid to shut the shipping lane for an hour and a half. With so many swimmers of varying ability loose in the current-ripped strait, Swimtrek has 40 boats anchored across the course, some floating red balloons to guide our way, others there to pick up anyone in distress.
Inside my wetsuit, I’m warm and frustratingly buoyant. There are four balloons in total to traverse before the home straight and I’ve not even reached the second. The Channel swimmers and Ironman triathletes cut through the chop, but looking around the rest of the field, most people seem to be struggling. Still, no one is giving up. It’s a friendly group united by a gritty determination to conquer watery challenges. There’s a policeman from Plymouth, a classical mythology teacher from Florida, a hedge-fund fixer at Artemis, an Australian training for the Channel, an English literature teacher from Aberdeen, where Byron grew up, a Berlin computer programmer, as well as seemingly dozens of lawyers and people called Dominic.
The reverence felt by swimmers towards this most promiscuous of poets may strike some as odd. But today, Byron is seen as the grandfather of modern open-water swimming. He was born with a deformed foot, which made walking painful. From childhood he discovered that swimming set his body free. In the River Don as a boy, the Duck Puddle at Harrow, and the Cam when he was at Trinity, he found a form of athletic expression denied him in normal life.
In the spring of 1810, the 22-year-old Byron was on the equivalent of a post-university gap year, when he saw the Hellespont. Knowing it was littered with the mythological corpses of warriors and lovers, he couldn’t resist the challenge. The narrow waterway is named after Helle, who according to legend fell from the Golden Fleece to her death. But it was the myth of Leander swimming nightly across for trysts with the priestess Hero that inspired Byron most. With William Ekenhead, a young Royal Marines lieutenant, he gave it a try in April 1810, but their first attempt was thwarted by strong tides and bad weather. On May 3 they tried again and, choosing a short crossing of about a mile, this time succeeded.
Today we are swimming further – 5km (3.1 miles) – but unlike Byron, most of the swimmers are wearing wetsuits. The cold winter has brought a chilly issue from the Black Sea and at 13.5°C it’s several degrees cooler than normal for May. The previous day I’d done an hour in the water without a wetsuit, after which I shook uncontrollably for quarter of an hour. Authenticity is all very well, but hypothermia is something else.
I’ve reached the second balloon by counting my strokes and ploughing on, not minding too much if I swallow water or drift away from the course. Small and innocuous ivory-coloured jellyfish are everywhere. As my outstretched hand pulls back half a dozen of them at a time, I see them as companions making the slog somehow more bearable. The counting seems to be working as I’m soon passing the third balloon. For the first time I feel I’ve got a chance. The coast is still a mile off but if I can get in close, the shipping won’t be a problem.
As I head for shore, my head pounds with the cheesy Europop of Alphaville from the night before. “Forever young, I want to be forever young” – it’s uncanny how swimming encourages the most insidious pop to get stuck in your head. Byron would have agreed with the sentiment, although he put it rather differently in the stanzas written in 1808: “I would I were a careless child / Still dwelling in my Highland cave / Or roaming through the dusky wild / Or bounding o’er the dark blue wave.”
Byron isn’t taught much in school today, but his magnetic reputation seems undisturbed by the years. We still think of him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, as his lover Lady Caroline Lamb put it. Indeed, poor old Ekenhead fell off a brick wall and died weeks after the Hellespont swim.
As for my own safety, I have cramp coming and going in my calves. But I take a perverse delight in carrying on. I discover that if you press on through the cramp it gradually passes – for a time at least. As the fourth balloon approaches, the waves give way to calm water and at last I can open up and let rip.
The “finish” sign rears, the yellow-green bottom is suddenly visible. I stagger up the steps, momentarily confused but happy. The Channel swimmer who was first to reach the Asian shore had planned on a time of about 40 minutes but finishes in one hour, 27 minutes. I’m just pleased to get across, in two hours, three minutes.
Byron wrote afterwards, “I had no Hero to receive me on landing.” Our welcome party is a few people handing out blankets and plastic cups full of hot chocolate, which my shivering hands can hardly hold. Because of the conditions most of the swim wasn’t enjoyable, save for a blissful, warming pause after the third balloon to pee. But now is the payoff. Here in this beachfront café, strangers are wrapping others in towels and greeting people they met a few hours previously like long-lost friends.
Fortified by my third hot chocolate, I find myself standing next to the man who’ll one day become the 14th Lord Byron. There’s no need to ask if he made it. Charlie, aged 19, who with his boyish dimples and curly black mane is a dead ringer for his celebrated ancestor, is chatting delightedly like someone who forgot to revise but somehow passed their A-levels. The relief is palpable. There were 200 years of family pride resting on that one.
Swimtrek’s next Hellespont event is the Turkish Victory Day Swim, August 30. For more details go to www.swimhellespont.com