To Hell (but not back): Recreating the epic Hellespont crossing that sent Leander to a watery grave

Greek myth had it that Leander would swim the Hellespont to his lover every night, then return before dawn. When Byron followed in his wake, the swim – albeit a one-way trip – became arguably the world's most iconic. Two hundred years later to the day, Robert Epstein set out to recreate the poet's epic journey from Europe to Asia – and immediately encountered the waves that had sent Leander to a watery grave...
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Panic has left me nigh-on immobile. I am 300 metres out to sea, a relentless churn of pummelling waves has sent a bathtub of water down my throat, and I am struggling to breathe. There is only one thing for it: I throw my arm in the air and wave pathetically at the nearest boat. Unused as I am to the tight fit of a wetsuit around my larynx, I feel nauseous. So much so that I dry-heave. Twice. And suddenly I feel, if not fine, then certainly well enough to carry on. I arch my arm on to my head, signalling that I am OK, and plough back into the endless azure of the ocean.

This isn't how my splash across the Hellespont was meant to go. I have swum in a pool six days a week for more than five years. At first, it was to combat stress, but it has since become habitual – like a morning coffee, it wakes me up, and if I go without, I feel lethargic. For the past two months, I've been racking up the lengths – 200, usually, on a Sunday – which should have left me in fine fettle for this extraordinary opportunity to swim between two continents. But I haven't bargained on the currents, the cold (the water is an extremities-numbing 13C) – or the sheer mental demands.

Now known as the Dardanelles, the Hellespont separates Europe from Asia in north-west Turkey. A 61km-long stretch, it connects the Aegean to the Sea of Marmara, and varies in width from 1.2km to 6km. I am here with about 140 others of all shapes and sizes ("I'm never going to run a half-marathon or climb a mountain," says Dominic Gillespie, a jocular Scot with a body that's more Michael McIntyre than Michael Phelps. "But I'm a half-decent swimmer, so it'll be a massive achievement"), and we are aiming to recreate a swim first completed by Lord Byron, he of the club-foot, syphilis and pantaloons, exactly 200 years on. And if the good Lord could do it in an hour and 10 minutes with all those encumbrances, why, we with our slick wetsuits, anti-fog goggles and an armada of 40 support boats should have no trouble...



In the 19th century, Englishmen were known as the world's best swimmers – Charles Sprawson, author of the seminal text on open-water swimming Haunts of the Black Masseur, records Goethe's remark that, "they are never put out and are as much at ease [in the water] as if the whole world belonged to them" – and George Byron, in particular, was famed for his prowess. Growing up in Scotland, he had swum in the Dee and Don, then in the cellar of his ancestral home of Newstead Abbey, which he flooded for the purpose. At school at Harrow, he would ride a pony two miles to a "duck puddle" to soothe his craving, as, says Sprawson, "only in swimming could he experience complete freedom of movement". (A contraction of Byron's Achilles tendon meant he could walk only with "an odd mincing gait".) "I delight in the sea," the aristocrat once said, "and come out with a buoyancy of spirits I never feel on any other occasion."

At Trinity College, Cambridge, he spent his time writing poetry and taking dips in the Cam, before in 1809, at the age of 21, he left England for a Grand Tour of Europe. Perhaps his most famous aquatic exertions took place in Venice, where he regularly stripped off and dived in to the lagoon to swim wherever he wanted rather than waiting for a gondola, and once swam the length of the Grand Canal, beating his Italian opponent "all to bubbles". But the iconic achievement that gave birth to what is now known as open-water swimming was his feat at the Hellespont.

Byron loved to swim beneath Greek temples and around old Roman pools, fascinated by their ancient heritage, so the mythological lure of the sea of Helle was substantial. According to Greek lore, Leander, a young man from Abydos, fell in love with Hero, a virginal priestess of Aphrodite, who lived across the strait in Sestos. Leander would swim every night to Hero, make love and return before dawn, until one evening the lamp that Hero held to guide Leander blew out, the waves overcame him, and the lad drowned. Hero – a faithful sort – threw herself from her tower and promptly joined him in the afterlife.

It is not hard to see why a Romantic poet whose ardour for the ladies is legend in itself might wish to follow in Leander's wake. And so, in April 1810, Byron set off with his companion, a Mr Ekenhead, to make the crossing – only to misjudge the current and be forced to give up halfway across. Byron tried again the following week, and on 3 May, ' completed the course with nary a hair out of place. "We were not fatigued," he later wrote, "and did it with little difficulty."

Byron being a capricious cove, that comment should not be taken too seriously – especially given the poem he penned after the event in his own honour ("Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos"). "My dripping limbs I faintly stretch," runs one couplet, "And think I've done a feat today." He also admitted, in a letter to his friend Henry Drury, that "The immediate distance is not above a mile but the current renders it hazardous," and he notably wrote three times to his mother of the feat, concluding that: "I plume myself on this achievement more than I could possibly do on any kind of glory, poetical, political or rhetorical."



Though the swim I am about to embark on is all about recreating Byron's journey, glory is about the furthest thing from my mind on the morning of our attempt. Nerves are first and foremost, and it has been difficult to keep down any food. At the safety briefing held by the tour organisers, SwimTrek, we are told that our effort is to be lengthened slightly, to 5km, due to machinations relating to the Turkish authorities. To be fair, we are lucky to be doing the crossing at all – the Hellespont, one of Europe's busiest shipping lanes, is being closed to business for an hour-and-a-half just for us. But it does mean our swim will be far longer than Byron's (see map, right) – even taking on board his claim that the current turned his mile-long journey into a three- or four-mile effort.

So, we'll have just that 90 minutes to complete the course, after which we'll be hooked out by the local police. The previous year's winner had finished in 48 minutes (the Hellespont is swum annually on 30 August, a national holiday commemorating the final battle in the Turkish War of Independence), admittedly in far more favourable conditions, but I'm definitely aiming to beat Byron's 70 minutes. After all, I can swim 4km in the pool in 72 minutes, and that's supposedly far harder – no currents to pull you along, no wetsuit to buoy you up. What's more, I had no problems swimming 2.8km the day before to acclimatise to the water, and, as we line up along the rubble-strewn beach that is our starting block, I feel, alongside the nerves, a real confidence.

It doesn't last long. After just 20 metres, I find that I cannot swim as normal – the waves, driven by competing currents flowing south from the Black Sea and north from the Aegean, are hitting my face so hard, and so frequently, that instead of lowering my face and lengthening my stroke, I flash and flail above the water, yanking my head from left to right to try to find a breath. After my brief stop to dry-heave, I carry on for the first kilometre in similar fashion, before realising, in quite some distress, that I'll never finish the race like this.

Sink or swim is the phrase, but it's more like jump on a boat or sort yourself out. I'm worried that if I do put my head down, when I come up to breathe, I'll be met by a wall of water – and I really can't afford to swallow any more. But I can take this splashing around no more, so, come on...

Somewhat fortunately, I have resolved my mind to this change in attitude and commitment to technique – rolling 90 degrees to breathe, keeping elbows high, arms wide apart and gliding – just as I've passed the worst of the swell. If I'd listened properly to the safety briefing, I might have known this: we had been told that there are back-currents around both Eceabat, where we started, and Çanakkale, our finish line. But, in my defence, I have been in a state of confusion. And I have now headed so far to the left that I can no longer see any bobbing heads. The solution that pops into my mind: head right. I do so, for 10 minutes, and finally catch sight of a pod of eight bright-orange swimming caps. I am back among my people. Not to mention several flotillas of tiny, near-transparent organisms. And here I must make a confession: reader, I violated a jellyfish.

There's not much you can do when suddenly faced with hundreds of the things, so you just swim as normal and hope for the best. And the best, I'm guessing for the poor soul that I whipped out of the way, is probably not having a hand placed inside your soft, rubbery flesh then being catapulted backwards at pace, but there you go.

There are four buoys along the route and race rules demand that we pass to the left of each. I am so off course at the start that I never see the first; the others, I manage to sight and head towards. Adjusting course constantly is imperative, due to the strength of the currents. At one point I think I am swimming straight towards a target pylon, only to find I am at least 50 metres to the right; according to Dominick, our photographer, who has watched a large part of the swim from the lead boat, our group quickly spread out 400 metres across the strait. ("It looked like cats being herded," he tells me. "People were zigzagging all over the place.") But having now relaxed somewhat, I'm in "the zone", swimming stroke after stroke in blissful reverie, so much so that I barely notice the time passing.



Two hundred metres from the end, and I spot a fellow swimmer nearing the finish from an angle perpendicular to my approach. Despite an ache in my left shoulder that means I can't properly lift that arm out of the water, I feel fit enough to race him in; I beat him by two seconds, feel a ridiculous momentary surge of personal elation, and prepare to triumphantly mount the steps to the official time-keeper – only to find, less than heroically, that my legs give way. Thankfully, a helper grabs my arm and guides me up.

On into the finishers' enclosure, where others are sipping on hot drinks – those who can hold them, that is; it is a condition of swimming in cold water that some people's hands form into claws, and there are one or two prime examples around. I feel warm (it's a balmy 2C out), but ask for a tea anyway. As I am passed a cup, I notice that my hands are shaking uncontrollably: my outside might be warm, but my core is frozen. Half of my drink ends up on the floor.

Looking around, I note that although full of the smiling faces of people delighted to have conquered the course, the enclosure also resembles a war-zone emergency room: one swimmer is taken past me on a stretcher (13 people had to be pulled from the water on to boats), while multiple others have towels wrapped around them, frantic hands rubbing their arms. And everyone is shivering. One man, I am later told, had had no idea whether or not he'd finished (presumably due to the discombobulating effects of hypothermia) until he was informed that evening.

My finishing time is a pleasingly symmetric two hours and two minutes – far slower than Byron (and, indeed, slower than the current Lord Byron's son, 19-year-old Charlie, who finished two minutes ahead of me). But, then, had the authorities stuck to their 90-minute limit (they were kind enough to let us continue, as we had all passed the ferry line in time), only two people would have finished.

One of those, the winner, was Colin Hill, who made it in an hour and 27 minutes. Colin is no slouch: he's completed the Channel in an impressive 10-and-a-half hours and, alongside Brendan Foster, set up the Great Swim (our sport's answer to the Great North Run), whose four races are expected to attract 20,000 people this year. So I ask him whether he found the going as tough as I had. "It was an epic swim," he admits. "Much harder than I'd thought – during that first stretch, I was thinking, 'This is really quite challenging' – but I really enjoyed it."

And that was the most important thing: this had been the toughest challenge of my life, but after that first kilometre, when I'd vowed never to do anything so stupid again, it was an exhilarating experience. So much so that I have tentatively agreed to swim the Messina Strait, off Sicily, this September, with a fellow Hellesponter. And to anyone thinking of joining us, I'd say: come on in, the water's... well, it's not lovely. But it does give you a heck of a ride.

To swim the Hellespont (in warmer water) in August, or for details of other SwimTrek tours, visit swimtrek.com; for more on open-water swimming, visit outdoorswimmingsociety.com

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