With a shout and a prayer and a curse, we leapt at dawn from a boat into the water of the Dardanelles and started to swim from Europe to Asia.
It had all started in London over the umpteenth bottle of Bulgarian red. For a long time, I said, I had wanted to swim the Hellespont – the narrow channel between the sea of Marmara and the Aegean. The Hellespont hit the mythological headlines a long time ago. Leander, who lived on the Asian side, had the misfortune to fall in love with Hero, who lived in Europe. The course of true love did not run smoothly. Geography was not on their side. The Hellespont has a nasty current ripping down the middle of it and a reputation for chewing up ships. And religion didn’t help, either. Hero was a priestess of Aphrodite, and sworn to perpetual celibacy. So their meetings had to be covert and at night. Just as in most relationships, ancient and modern, the bloke did all the travelling. She held out a lantern, and he swam each night towards it. They copulated all night, and he then swam back. One night the wind blew out the lantern and that current took Leander out into the Aegean. He never returned. The heartbroken Hero had the decency to hurl herself into the Hellespont and the myth was born.
The Hellespont was assumed to be swimmable only by gods. But then, after one failed attempt, Byron did it, and it has been done from time to time since. We should have a go, I said to Steve and David (fat, pale, thirty-something pie-eaters like me). If a club-footed syphilitic like Byron could do it, so could we. The Bulgarian red spoke, and it said yes, and before it could withdraw I had put a deposit down and committed us to the swim.
The paperwork is nightmarish. The European shore, at Abydos, is inside a restricted military zone, and rumoured to be mined. The Hellespont itself is a marine motorway, carrying a huge volume of traffic between the Mediterranean and Istanbul and the Black Sea. The Turkish authorities don’t like the idea of Englishmen’s bodies choking the propellers of container ships, and insist on lots of permits. The man to sort all this out is Huseyin, whose long, white wispy hair makes him look like a mammalian anemone. He has organised most of the successful attempts on the Hellespont in recent years.
So we trained a bit. We lumbered over to municipal pools and floundered up and down. We never seemed to get faster or less tired, but we did seem to get a bit thinner. It was difficult to motivate ourselves, because there really didn’t seem to be much connection between the heated human soup of the public baths and the swimming of a major shipping lane. But the calendar ticked on, and we got on the plane, still a bit bemused, and found ourselves somehow in Cannakale.
Huseyin met us, mapped out the route (head on into the current for a mile, and then a gentle swim home), made us eat moussaka and vitamin pills, told the barman not to serve us any beer, and booked our early morning calls for us so that we had no excuses.
With the dawn came renewed incredulity at our stupidity. It was cold, there were some vast tankers plying up and down, and the rip current at the centre of the channel was throwing up white horses that looked like Grand National winners. Also Huseyin had told the press about the attempt. A launch full of photographers was following us, and failure would not be private.
As the sun came up our clothes came off. The lads on the boat rubbed us down with axle grease and with a great scream we committed our bodies to the deep. An underwater gust rolled me over, and from then on, the channel churned me emetically around.
As soon as I hit the sea I was on my own. Yes, somewhere behind me was the grumbling of the escort boat’s engine, and somewhere way ahead Steve was burrowing efficiently towards fame, and somewhere to one side David was grunting and swallowing water, but I was in my own tiny world, hedged in by waves and the sides of my goggles, vaguely conscious that stretching down and down below was the vertiginous green of the channel. It was a lonely and disoriented business. If I stretched my neck up I could sometimes see the hills of Asia, but there was never any sense of movement. From the boat there were occasional shouted hints and words of encouragement like: “Sewage slick ahead: keep your mouth shut”, and “This is where blood started to pour from the Ukrainian’s ears.”
Steve had set purposefully off with a front crawl of the sort he’d only ever used before to part crowds to get to the bar. I had thought that the waves would prevent really effective crawl, and had trained mostly using breaststroke. This was a stupid mistake. Breaststroke has a phase when there is little forward motion. When you are swimming into the current this means that you lose half of whatever distance the stroke has won you. It took me fifty minutes to realise this and change to a continuously propulsive front crawl, by which time Steve was almost in the arms of his very own Hero.
Rhythm is everything, the good swimmers say, and rhythm is hard when the sea which surges around you has no sense of it. You seem to make no progress at all. There was a vague sense of pressure against my chest as I ploughed into that current, but there was no visible fixed point against which I could measure any progress. Failure, though, was unthinkable. Too many people knew about this venture. If I didn’t reach Sestos I could never return home. So I kept striking metronomically away and then, suddenly, the current eased. A shout from the boat told me to turn up the strait. That was the indication I had been waiting for. It meant that the back of the Hellespont was broken. I began to realise that there was no need to keep a lot in reserve any more.
From then it all happened quickly. There was a wisp of green weed at the bottom, and a stone appearing out of the gloom. Looking up, I could see the crenellations of Sestos castle on the gorse covered hills of Asia. A thousand miles away there was some cheering as the press men hauled Steve out of the shallows and asked him what on earth he had done this for. And then suddenly we were there too, stumbling out into towels and a posse of television camera men. They asked us for comment. David, mentally enfeebled by the effort, gave them an elaborate and deeply embarrassing pun about Leander’s libido based on ‘breast stroke’ and ‘breast stroking’ which, laboriously translated into Turkish, started as gibberish and ended as filth. We ate nuts and pulled our bellies in for prime-time silly-season Turkish TV, and drank brandy to the memory of that great hard man, Leander, who had done this every night and back, for love, not glory.
Greek deity, it seems, is a reasonably accessible career. This is a classic swim, but not a particularly difficult one. David and I, who both used that pathetically inefficient breast stroke over the two miles, did it in about eighty minutes. Steve, who is a regular ten pints and three bags of chips man, wallowed home in under an hour. The rumours we had heard about hammerhead sharks, giant squid and solid rafts of jellyfish were unfounded. The rumours about diarrhoea and vomiting, however, are completely true. Those denizens of the deep strait between Europe and Asia are of truly mythological proportions. But that’s another story. And who cares? According to the best authorities on Olympus, we were officially gods.