Over my head: swimming the Hellespont

This whole “follow Richard Halliburton around the world” thing sometimes gets me in way over my head.  That figure of speech became literal this past week when I faced down the mighty Hellespont.

Though often referred to as a river, the Hellespont, or the Dardanelles as it is known today, is actually a strait connecting two small seas, the Marmara and Aegean.  It has a viciously strong surface current.  On top of that, it’s quite wide: few kilometers of open water separate Europe and Asia along the length of the strait.

So why on earth would I want to swim across it?  Well, as usual, because Richard did.  But he was following in some pretty illustrious footsteps (flutter kicks?) himself.

The river was first swum in ancient times as told in the timeless love story of Leander and Hero.  The strait wasn’t swum again until 1810 when Lord Byron, in honor of the tragic couple, crossed it doing the breast stroke.  And then in 1925 my hero, Richard Halliburton, completed the same swim in honor of both Leander and Byron.

And now it was my turn to perpetuate the cycle.  Of course, I wasn’t doing it alone.  I set out on this adventure with roughly 550 other people, part of an organized race day, and the only option for modern swimmers to make the crossing.

Map c/o Swimtrek

Map courtesy of Swimtrek. The full route is 5.5 km though it “feels like” 3.5-4.0 km because of the current.

But I wasn’t going to complain—I needed all the support and help I could get.  A fleet of 50 rescue boats waiting to fish me out if I failed?  Yes please.  I’d never been a swimmer, and my pace was pathetically slow.  I was somewhat confident I could get across the river if I had all day, but far less confident that I could do it within the allotted two hours.

And so, I arrived in Canakkale (pronounced CHAN-ah-KAHL-lay) on the Asian side of the Hellespont on a hot day in August, ready to [attempt] to swim the channel.  Ah, but the channel wasn’t ready to be swum.

High winds raked the water’s surface sending up white caps and large swells.  For the first time in the 28 years of the race, it was postponed.  The new schedule was fine for me, but for hundreds of swimmers it was as good as cancelled; travel plans forced them home without completing the iconic swim.

Two mornings later the weather had calmed and I was ready (read: nauseous and panicky) to face the open water.  All of the remaining swimmers, roughly 300 people, piled onto the tiny starting beach, a crowd of nearly naked men and women doing awkward calisthenics while trying not to think of their imminent future.

Pre-swim picture with my new friend Caitlin!  We don't look nervous at all.

Pre-swim picture with my new friend Caitlin! We don’t look nervous at all.

Suddenly a gunshot rang out—the race was on.  Heading to the water I moved to the far left of the bulk of the swimmers, upstream of the kicking feet and jabbing elbows.

The seething mass of swimmers thinned quickly.  The sand of Europe faded beneath me into the dark blue depths of the Hellespont until it was just me and the water.  Oh, and the perimeter of obnoxiously close motorboats belching diesel exhaust into my gasping mouth when I turned to breath.  But no matter, I was swimming, and, to my surprise, I was feeling good!  Ten minutes into the swim I knew beyond a doubt that I was going to make it to Asia.

About thirty minutes later I wasn’t so sure.  The most challenging thing about the Hellespont swim is the route finding.  In theory it’s quite simple: if you’re a slow swimmer, start out aiming for the plateau, then a third of the way across change to the radio tower, then after another third the Turkish flag, and then the finish.  Ta-dah, piece of cake.

In reality, it was more like this: “Okay, aim for the plateau…crap, that’s the tower…okay, good, plateau…dammit, that’s the tower again…” followed by, “How far across am I?  Maybe I’ll wait until I’m halfway.  Is this halfway?  But what if it’s not even a third yet??”  In the end I knew to start aiming farther downstream because someone in a boat yelled it at me.  Roger that.

For the next half hour I swam really well.  I felt strong, my form was good, and I was making visible progress toward land.  But then three things happened: I started to get tired, I began to approach the counter current that pushes upstream, and I realized I was one of the last swimmers in the water.

Racers in the Hellespont

Racers in the Hellespont

It was that last fact that freaked me out.  I knew it was true because instead of one or two boats hovering to my left I had roughly fifteen boats ringing me in.  Clearly they were bored and I was their last project.  I felt like the whale in Free Willy, surrounded by poachers waiting for their chance to yank me out of the water.  A very disheartening prospect.

Even worse, they were shouting out directions constantly, forcing me to break my stroke every time.  One of them interrupted my swim to unhelpfully yell at me, “Head for the finish!” and I snapped back, “I’m trying!!” before choking on a mouthful of saltwater.

Having no idea how much time had passed I began to seriously worry:  what if I was taking too long and they were going to pull me out?  I felt utterly dejected at the thought.  I could see the finish but it wasn’t getting any closer.  But then my notorious stubbornness reared its fearsome head.  I couldn’t fail, I had to make it across!  I’d trained too damn hard, and goddammit, Richard did it!  Sparks shot from my eyes and I clenched my jaw like a battering ram.  I would swim to Asia!!

I buckled down and swam as fast as I could, which wasn’t very fast with my noodle arms and flaccid legs.  The whole time I repeated encouragements in my head, “You can do it, you can’t give up, you worked too hard, you can do it…

I made slow progress, pitifully slow, but eventually the endless blue of the Hellespont gave way to the sand and mussel beds of Asia.  Finally I was there.  I stood up in the shallows, and my knees wobbled dangerously.  A nice man reached out a hand to help me.  At the top of the ramp a small girl placed a medal around my neck, and I damn near cried on the spot.

I couldn’t believe I’d done it.

I still can’t believe I did it.

If it weren’t for Leander and Byron and Richard Halliburton I would never have even attempted such a feat.  I sometimes want to curse them for setting such a high bar, but then I look at my little participation medal that says I swam from Europe to Asia and I feel so darn proud.

I also feel exhausted and achy and little sick from swallowing salt water, but I think the pride wins out!

Crossing back over the Hellespont on the ferry. I think that's my smug-victorious face!

Crossing back over the Hellespont on the ferry. I think that’s my smug-victorious face!

PS:  A lot more than just the swim happened on this trip to Canakkale!  Full disclosure (including my run around Troy and counting coup on the Trojan horse) will be revealed in the book!

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9 Comments

  1. Good job! Well done! Its allways about the mindset. Allways!

  2. Sarah, I am so proud of you! Congratulations!

  3. You captured the action and drama of your ordeal beautifully. I was all worn out by the time I read your last line. You did well Sarah.

  4. How many times do I tell you that you are the most badass person I know!? Inspirational, Sarah. Definitely no shortcut ;)

  5. Congrats! Good thing you’ve got that “safe-journey-over-water” fishhook ;)

  6. Dear Sara,
    You are amazing daring young woman. I fallow your trip and think of you at all times. You do not need to write me back, but keep writing your adventures. Congratulation to the Hellespont crossing and good luck to the future.
    Your Mother’s friend Zee

  7. Dear Miss Sarah:

    Aha! That swim is one more item you may cross off your “bucket list.” Just how long is your bucket list anyway. And Nemo is just as proud also! Keep adventuring, young lady!

  8. Woohoo! Congrats, Sarah!!!

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