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How to Swim the Hellespont - The Ten Do's And Don'ts

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I have just attempted to swim the Hellespont, that great waterway that connects Europe with Asia - and, for my pains, I not only failed (dismally), but was beaten out of sight by Bo Derek as well as a slip of a girl aged just FOURTEEN! Youch!

After considerable ranting and gnashing of teeth, I realised that I could have probably made it. If I'd used my brains. Which I didn't.

So this is what I've learned about the Hellespont - and, indeed, open-water swimming in general.

Not that I'll necessarily make it across next year.

But I will be there on the start-line.

1. Most people who swim the Hellespont - or Dardanelles as it is also known - are competing in Turkey's Victory Day race on August 30. You've got 90 minutes to swim this four-odd mile stretch of waterway and the tides are vast and inexorable. All the scores of tankers and liners are stopped in their tracks to leave the Hellespont clear for the 600-odd nut-job swimmers. You dive in on the European side and then head off in a thrashing frenzy for Asia. You've got to take whatever water the weather throws at you, and in the case of the 2013 race, we had a brisk Force 4 breeze full in the face. The waves and tide running hard against us. If you're going to make it over the Hellespont in these sort of conditions, you're going to need a big engine. Breaststroke might be dandy for swimming along the coast. But it is not going to cut it for the Hellespont. Your best bet is freestyle. (Though one guy did attempt to do the whole thing with the butterfly stroke.)

2. The Hellespont is like a vast river, and there is a strong and constant current that sweeps down from the Sea of Marmara to the Aegean. As it narrows, so the current gets much stronger. Much. At its narrowest point, between Canakkale and Kilitbahir, the Hellespont is just 1,400 metres wide. It's a bottle-neck, and the water is fairly ripping through. What this means is that you have to have crossed the waterway much higher up. The later you leave it, the tougher it's going to get.

3. If it's a flat calm, then you're going to be fine just diving in straight from the beach at Eceabat and striking out east. The finish-line at Canakkale is at least two miles down-river, but if your breaststrokie is solid, and you've done your homework, then the current will sweep you home. You might even break the cut-off time!

But if the sea is choppy, and the wind is in your teeth, then you want to head north. And head north while you are on the land. You've got to leave from the top of the beach - or perhaps even higher. Me? If I'd had any brains, I'd have taken some old trainers. Then, at the start of the race, I'd have sprinted 500 yards north. It might have taken a few minutes, but one thing you do not want in the Hellespont is to be swimming against the current. If it's choppy, HEAD NORTH. You want to give yourself room for manoeuvre. It'll also get you away from the pack, and all the kicks to the face and the punches to the head.

4. Many swimmers use Vaseline, particularly in the sea, as it helps to stop chafing - round the arm-pits, buttocks and around the edges of their swim-suits. I'd never used Vaseline before in the sea, but thought "What the hell" and slathered it on.

This was a very bad idea.

Within about two seconds, I'd contrived to get the Vaseline all over the inside of my goggles.

I spent the entire race looking at the world through this blurred fug.

5. When you get cramp, it feels like you've been shot. You get a few twinges, and then Ping! It's a short, blunt stab to the legs, and it really is "Oweeee!" There are some things you can do to prevent cramp. Taking a lot of water on board helps; salt tablets are also good. Better yet, have a couple of proper sports massages before the race. These will help to iron out any knotty muscle masses in your legs.

6. If your swimming stroke is just average then you've got to be much further across the Hellespont before you start heading for home. If you're not at least half way across before you go for the finishing line, then you'll be stuck in the middle and heading (fast) for the Aegean. The guy who was coming in third took too direct a line. He sailed right past the finish line. It took him 20 minutes of swimming flat out to get back again.

7. The correct route across the Hellespont is like an upside down J. For the first kilometre, you want to be striking out east. You only start your turn halfway across. Then as the current picks up, you'll make this slow swinging curve until you're almost heading in a straight line for the finish. In practice, this means that you will be aiming for a variety of points on the Hellespont.
Here's the detail. Average swimmers should first head for the flat, bald plateau to the left of the striped telecommunications tower; then for the tower itself; then, as you skim past the tower, aim for the huge red Turkish flag that will be flying atop the hill; then for the lights of the football stadium; and only then can you aim for the finish line. Unless you're a strong swimmer, you only go for the finish-line when you're almost directly north of it, so that the current sweeps you straight in.

8. Drinking before the race. You want to have at least two or three litres of water swilling around inside you before the race. Booze on the other hand is probably not a good idea. I'd been training for this damn race for over a year - and yet, the night before, still thought fit to have a litre of beer and nearly a bottle of red wine. Dohhh!

9. Buy some Speedos. Be in no doubt that Speedo's are NOT flattering. Unless you're an Olympian, you're going to look awful in Speedo's. Even I, with my ripped, tanned torso, managed to look like a bit of a porker. But anything like board-shorts will have have a lot of drag. Why make life more difficult for yourself? While you're at it, smother yourself in sun-cream. It may be cloudy, but you can still really burn your back and shoulders.

10. There is a good chance that you'll fail to make it across. About one in three swimmers didn't make it over in 2013. And admittedly this can all be ever so slightly vexing when you learn that swimmers like Bo Derek, who is 56, and slim and petite, have somehow managed to swim the Hellespont. But so what? It's only a tiny dent to your pride, and the who hell cares about that?

Lord George Byron - "mad, bad and dangerous to know" - was the first of the real open-water swimmers. He flunked the Hellespont on the first attempt, but when he succeeded the second time (in four hours), he said it was the best thing he'd ever done.

And Leander too - he was swimming over every night to be with his lover Hero, who was a priestess at the temple of Aphrodite. In the morning, he'd swim back home to Asia again. But what's Leander remembered for? He's remembered for DROWNING in the Hellespont during a stormy night. (And Hero then threw herself off the tower.)

The only thing that genuinely builds character is failure. It's like a muscle. The more you fail, the better you learn to bounce back. And when you do bounce back, you'll bounce back HIGHER. If you ain't failing a lot - well then you ain't aiming nearly high enough. You're not grabbing life by the throat; you're living it in your own cosy little comfort-zone.

We're with Samuel Beckett on this one:
Ever tried.
Ever failed.
No matter.
Try again.
Fail again.
Fail better!

If you do fail, then not only will you have the chance to do it all over again next year, but you'll be in the very good company of Byron and Leander (and me!).

When I was right in the middle of the Hellespont, swimming like hell and heading hard out to the Aegean Sea, with ancient Troy ahead of me, and with the World War I Gallipoli battlefields right behind me, I was swept with this wave of the most intoxicating euphoria. "This is the Hellespont and this is history - and I am in the very thick of it!"