Intercontinental Swims

Traverse the world under your own power with these 5 intercontinental swims

Europe to Africa, Janita Bellamy

Sometimes the end of land is the beginning of a journey. Traversing the world under your own power now includes swimming as more people swim between continents. Racing from Asia to Europe across the Bosphorus in Istanbul is one of the most popular swimming events, but it is not the only place where people swim between continents. Distances range from centimetres to kilometres, but can be made longer by currents, require more nerve in sharky places and more endurance in cold waters. Intercontinental swims are a challenge and an adventure to look forwards to that is within reach of a range of swimming abilities.

North America to Europe: Silfra fissure

In Iceland the boundary between North American and European continents runs through shallow water so you can dive or snorkel over the continental divide.  Cutting through an ancient lava field the Silfra fissure is famous for providing excellent views of the intercontinental gap. Fed by glacial water filtered through lava and kept below 5°C by Iceland’s climate the water is crystal clear. With water this cold permits for getting in are only given to people who will be wearing drysuits, so it is a snorkel or dive with fins. Permits can be applied for online or at the information centre in Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park. Alternatively swimmers can join organised snorkelling tours of the water with dry suits and permits taken care of by the organisers.  Roger Taylor, the first person to swim an officially recognised Ice Mile in Iceland, said” Snorkelling in the Silfra fissure is like swimming through air, the water is so so clear. Its amazing to be able to touch two continents at the same time too, what a special world we live in.”

Susanne Masters

Asia to Europe: The Bosphorus and Hellespont

Swimming from Asia to Europe in the heart of Istanbul in summer means you are never out of sight of land and the water is a mild 20°C.  Even at a length of 6.5km the balmy water temperature and some assistance from the current makes it an intercontinental swim that with a little training is within the ability of most people. Getting entry to this popular race with limited places available can be harder than completing the race. In 2018 the registration of non-Turkish swimmers was filled within 27 minutes. 1200 places in the race are available to non-Turkish people. However not more than 450 of these places for foreigners can be taken by one nationality.  Russia filled its quota of 450 swimmers within 13 minutes in 2018. When I swam the Bosphorus in 2014 I had no problems registering on my Swiss passport, but have been unable to swim the race with English friends because they could not get places. There is a swim travel company that covers this race. But the race and Istanbul are easy to navigate independently. At registration there are plenty of onsite volunteers fluent in English. On boat trips covering the course prior to the swim directions and explanations of waypoints are provided in English as well as Turkish and Russian.  

  • 2019 registration opens on 4th January, entry is €120 or $120. See more, and register

Swimming in the other direction from Europe to Asia you can follow in Byron’s bubbles and cross the Hellespont. Only Turkish people can register independently, via the rotary club that organises the swim. People from other countries can only register for the race via a travel company, which is a shame as this restricts independent swimmers in the most hospitable and easy to navigate foreign country I have ever travelled in.


Europe to Africa: The Strait of Gibraltar

Between Tarifa in Spain and Punta Cires in Morocco the distance between Africa and Europe narrows to 14.4 km.  Because water from the Atlantic races into the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar there is a strong current. Effectively this makes the distance swum to cross the strait about 11km. However swimmers who aren’t fast enough are swept east and the distance between Europe and Africa becomes too wide to cross. Mediterranean waters are a comfortable temperature for swimming people, and also amenable to critters that most swimmers want to avoid.  Sharks may be there but are unlikely to be encountered. It is more likely for swimmers to be put off by jellyfish whose stings can range from negligible to excruciating.  More challenging than animals are the swirling weather conditions that can bring fog.

Cameron Bellamy swam the Strait of Gibraltar in 2015.  He prepared for the swim by training up to 2 hours a day. Describing his motivation he said, “I was just starting to try to swim the Ocean’s 7, of which the Strait of Gibraltar is a part and it was next on my list seeing as I lived in London at the time. However, to me, it is the most iconic swim. Swimming from Europe to Africa was an amazing experience especially as I’m from South Africa, but had never been to North Africa.” Starting from Tarifa in Spain and ending on the Moroccan coast just east of Tangier Cameron describes conditions on the swim as “Amazing: perfect weather, currents and water temperature. We swam very consistently to finish in just over 4 hours. We heard numerous whales, but unfortunately didn’t see them.”

Cameron highlights a unique aspect of this swim challenge saying, “ I actually met my current business partner in Tarifa, he was waiting to swim too and we ended up doing the swim together”. While most long distance solo swims are restricted to one solo swimmer per support boat, the Gibraltar swim can be swum in small groups of up to four solo swimmers.

Sal Minty-Gravett and Deborah Vine are preparing for the Gibraltar swim in 2019.  Deborah was prompted by someone asking her about doing the Gibraltar swim. “I said why not. I want to swim for experiences and fun, not an inside desire to prove. If I make it then that’s fine, if I don’t then that’s a cheese off but also fine. I guess having swum internationally as a youth and done massive mileage then I just don’t feel any need to go there. What I really love is helping and being part of others dreams.”

The Gibraltar Strait Swimming Association is the organisation that supports and ratifies Gibraltar Strait swims

North America to Asia: The Bering Strait

America and Asia are tantalisingly close, but very few people attempt the chilly challenge of swimming between them. Lynne Cox swam through icy water and time when she crossed from Little Diomede in the USA to Big Diomede in what was then Soviet Union Russia. Separated by the International Date Line, Little Diomede is also known as Yesterday Isle, and Big Diomede as Tomorrow Island. A key component of her astonishing achievement was navigating bureaucracy for 11 years to secure permission to attempt the crossing; as she did the swim in 1987 when the USA and Russia were fully immersed in the Cold War. Lynne’s swim in 3.3°C water took her 2 hours and 6 minutes.  Asked why she attempted such a difficult challenge Lynne said, “ To open the border between the USA and Soviet Union, and promote peace between the two countries.”

In 2013 an international team of 66 winter swimmers spent 6 days and 6 nights swimming the Bering Strait in a relay from Cape Dezhnev in Russia to Cape Prince of Wales in the USA.  It was 134 km in water of variable temperature between 2°C to 8°C. Jack Bright, one of the organisers of the swim, commented “It is difficult to cross legally from Russia to the USA in an unorthodox way. This was a unique event, we needed people who were tough, cold hardy and would not be afraid of the bad conditions.”

Connect with these intercontinental swimmers

Susanne Masters