Lord Byron may have been a celebrated Romantic poet, but his proudest achievement was not literary but sporting: in 1810 he swam around five kilometres across the Hellespont in a mere one hour and ten minutes. : “I plume myself on this achievement more than I could possibly do on any kind of glory, political, poetical or rhetorical,” he said afterwards.
The Hellespont, a ‘classical’ swim, was irresistible to Byron. It was made famous by the mythological love story of Hero and Leander. Hero, virgin priestess of Aphrodite, lived on the European side at what was called Sestos. Leander, resident of the Asian side in Abydos, swam the Hellespont every night to visit his true love.
Nowadays known as The Dardanelles, the Hellespont forms part of the Turkish straits that lead to the Aegean Sea.
The swim is notorious for the current running towards the Aegean and, each year, takes a number of swimmers by surprise, who end up too eager and so too far down the straight to get back up. (don’t worry, they are rescued by the boats) Swimtrek recommend that you should be comfortable swimming distances of around 4.5km if you’re interested in taking part. It can be choppy, it can be cooler than you expect. It can also be calm, sunny and warm, as we experienced, although this is said to be rare.
More by accident than design, I have long followed in Byron’s footsteps. I moved to Switzerland from Byron’s home town of Nottingham, England. And wherever I travel I seem to find plaques in his memory, either of, or implying, an epic swim: one outside his villa at Lake Geneva, another in a grotto on the Ligurian coast marking his 7.5km swim from Portovenere to Lerici, his slog from the Lido up the Grand Canal in Venice, one in Malta, another in southern Spain…
In May this year I received a call from Kate, the Outdoor Swimming Society founder, asking if I would be interested in swimming the Hellespont on a private swim – when the straits would be closed to tankers – ahead of the annual event in August. Hellespont, yes! For the first time in my life, I would follow Byron’s lead intentionally.
Before arriving in Troy, fellow swimmer Alex Preston (an award-winning author) and I had agreed that, for authenticity, we should do breaststroke as this was the stroke swam by Lord Byron.Joining our party was another Alex (a British diplomat) and Simon Murie, the accomplished cross-channel swimmer, man-mountain and founder of SwimTrek holidays.
After a short flight from Istanbul, over the sea of Marmara and down the Dardanelles, we arrived at the Truva hotel in Çanakkale. As we were staying directly in front of the stretch of water in which we would be swimming, we had plenty of opportunities to ponder our fate.
After some excellent tips from Simon, and a little coaching the day before, we felt confident that we were ready for the swim – but maybe bravado was masking our fears? Could we beat Byron’s time, swimming breaststroke?
Many in Turkey were observing Ramadan, the month of fasting in the Islamic faith. We took a local fishing boat across the strait. It was a calm, sunny morning and the four of us were surprised by the eerie calm of the water. It appeared calmer than my local lake. Was this the calm before the storm? A pod of frolicking dolphins provided a welcome distraction from the fear – had I really read that most of Byron’s swimming companions drowned?
I also hoped, if there were any local sharks around, that they would be observing Ramadan. My last remaining doubt was the one that Charles Sprawson alluded to in “Haunts of the Black Masseur”: the dark abyss between continents. What would be down there? What could be down there? As it turned out, the sea appeared to be a soothing, milky green.
I tossed my dry bag into the water, left a dome camera with our guides and splashed to shore, ready to go. We lined up on the beach and prepared our nerves for the task ahead. It felt surreal when a drone whirred over us, as we took a few quick photographs in our tight goggles and caps. We headed straight out into the sun, so I was very thankful that I had heeded Simon’s advice to wear tinted goggles.
Finally the time had come. Simon gave us some final words of encouragement and we were off!
The buoyant, saline water felt almost like a double wetsuit, so it took only seconds to feel in my stride. Considering some of the quartet of swimmers were relatively inexperienced, we charged along like galloping horses. It was particularly emotional for me because my father, who passed away a few years ago, was a strong breaststroke swimmer who came close to selection for the 1948 Olympics. He was definitely swimming with me in spirit.
Simon has participated in or observed this swim dozens of times, so we felt in the hands of a pro. His calm manner and expert guidance led us on an almost perfectly straight route across the fast current. He called out every few hundred metres: “aim for the notch in the tree-line, now aim for the radio mast”. “Aim for the left boob” was probably my favourite command, as it seemed appropriate for Byron who, when not obsessively swimming, was said to be almost obsessively loving.
Once in the middle of the strait we briefly paused and soaked in the view. It was easy to see why a Romantic poet would fall in love with a swimming challenge considered to be the oldest in history. Majestic terrain, dramatic hilltops, and strangely comforting deep water. I felt at one with history and mythology.
On arrival at the Asian side we were greeted by an array of eager TV and online journalists. I puffed my chest out with pride. I felt I had earned the same merit as Byron, that I could plume myself on this achievement more than any other kind of glory.
And that was it. Whether it was adrenaline, the beautiful landscape, or simply the natural pace of the current, we’d made it. High fives and hugs all round. What a thrill! What’s more, we beat Byron’s time. But, of course, he didn’t have the support of the Police, the Coastguard, the Military Coastguard, a support boat, a safety canoeist, a drone and two GPS watches!
I would like to extend a huge thank you to Ahmet and Ugur at Wilusa Travel, Simon Murie from SwimTrek and the Governor of Canakkale for giving us this opportunity and such a warm welcome. What a fantastic introduction to the Year of Troy 2018.
If you would like to create your own chapter in this story, visit:
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 wint’ry tempest roar’d,
He sped to Hero nothing loath,
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 to-day,
But since he crossed 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 drowned, and I’ve the ague.