THE BLOG

Swim the Hellespont - And Change Your Life

21/09/2015 12:31 BST | Updated 21/09/2016 10:12 BST

It's not a very long swim; it's not too dangerous either. In fact if you're looking for bragging rights, then the two-and-a-half mile Hellespont is probably not for you. But what the Hellespont has is history. It drips with history. It is - without any question - the world's most iconic swim.

But this magnificent strait that divides Asia from Europe, is way, way more than just a swim.

It can change your life.

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1. Dealing With Failure

Of course nobody likes the taste of failure. By definition, failure tastes like s**t. But failure builds character. It makes you evolve. You're never, ever going to like the taste of it. But in time, you'll learn to swallow it down quicker.

And when you look at the history of the Hellespont, and all that has happened there, this waterway seems to be defined by failure. Epic, off-the-wall disasters which will echo yet for thousands of years to come.

At the southern end of the Hellespont is Troy, that once mythical city that turned out to be real: razed to the ground by the Greeks after ten years of war.

On the European side is Gallipoli where, a century ago, tens of thousands of soldiers were buried after a year of pointless fighting.

And Xerxes, the Persian king, who was so enraged by the stormy seas that he had the Hellespont flogged with 300 lashes.

If you're not failing much, then you're not aiming nearly high enough. But it's not failure that makes us: it's how we deal with it.

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2. The Correct Route Across A Square

It was Odysseus who could have coined this old Persian adage: the correct route across a square is by three sides.

More often than not, it is better to tackle problems obliquely - to come at them from another side.

In Odysseus' case, this meant dreaming up a new way to overcome the great walls of Troy. After a decade of stale-mate, he conjured up the ruse of the Wooden Horse.

So many people these days, they are confronted by a problem and, bull-like, they charge on in.

The smart ones move like water. Effortless, irresistible, they glide around all in their path.

If you swim the Hellespont, by the way, the correct route is also tangential. Head straight for the finish-line at Canakkale and the currents will sweep you straight into the Aegean. The canny swimmer approaches her target in a graceful curl.

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3. Do Not Reinforce Failure

The year-long battles at the Gallipoli peninsular are a grand lesson in the reinforcement of failure.

You only need a few hours on the Gallipoli battlefields to see that the entire campaign was going to end in disaster. The land is inhospitable, thick with ravines and thorny scrub, parched in the summer and ice cold in the winter.

Hundreds of miles of deadlocked trenches and yet over and over again, the Allied generals sent in more troops to be slaughtered.

It's a nice point. One of which only you can be the judge. When are you reinforcing failure - and when are you soaking it up, and ploughing on with the project?

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4. Play To Your Strengths

Lord George Byron was the first of the real open-water swimmers. He swam the Tagus in Portugal. He swam the Grand Canal in Venice - a filthy swim which no-one would ever dare do today.

And he also swam the Hellespont - at the second attempt.

The thing about Byron was that he had a club foot. Would hobble his way around; certainly couldn't run.

But when he was in the water, he was reborn as a God.

That's knowing your weaknesses. And playing to your strengths.

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5. To Love - But Not Be Blinded By It

According to the age-old story, Leander fell in love with Hero, a priestess at the temple of Aphrodite, and every night he would swim the Hellespont to be with her, and every morning he'd swim back again to Abydos in Asia.

But it all ends tragically - as stories of the Hellespont tend to do. One stormy night, Leander sets out to be with his Hero. He drowns and in her grief, Hero throws herself off her tower - and though they have now become immortals, what we can learn from them is that love is a wonderful thing. A glorious thing.

But that doesn't mean we charge in willy-nilly. Sometimes it's best to cool your jets. Even in the heat, we strive for circumspection.

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6. Keep Your Eye On The Prize

Helle and her brother Phrixos were the original Hansel and Gretel, about to be murdered by their wicked step-mother, when they were flown off to safety on the back of the ram with the golden fleece.

Helle has escaped - she's free. And she starts to admire this wonderful waterway beneath her - how pretty it looks!

She gets distracted, she loses her grip and she falls into the water and drowns - and so it is that this strait was named the Hellespont, "The Sea of Helle".

There's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip. But when you've got that cup in your hands, then wake up! Pay attention!

Of course we love stopping to smell the flowers along the way. But that does not mean we are distracted from the main event.

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7. Believe In Miracles

Miracles can happen.

But they are much more likely to happen if you put in the hours.

Over a century ago, there was a crazy, crazy German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, very rich, who dared to think the unthinkable. He was going to start digging for a mythical city. He was going to find Troy.

Schliemann decided to treat Homer's Iliad, the story of the fall of Troy, as fact. In the Iliad there were certain clues, including mention of two rivers.

He dug and he dug, and talk about reinforcing failure, because Schliemann kept on digging even though everyone thought he was absolutely mad. And one day he found Troy, or at least the ten cities which were built on Troy, as well as a vast treasure which is now squirreled away in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

So these miracles, they do occasionally happen. But they occur much more often when you've put in the graft.

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8. Live Practise

A lot of very good swimmers would be completely unable to swim the Hellespont. Take the Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington: despite all her gold medals, Rebecca would not stand a prayer in the Hellespont.

That's because Rebecca is terrified of open-water swimming. She loves the black lines of the swimming pool, but - until the day when she eventually decides to conquer her fears - she will never be able to swim the wild waters of this bottomless strait.

Open-water swimming is a different beast from a swimming pool. There are nerves to be calmed and there are new techniques to be learned.

To train for the Hellespont you need to practise in the wild. Like with a lot of things. For instance: the only way to learn to speak in public is... to speak in public.

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9. Even The Very Best Can Fail

Last year, in 2014, a number of world-class swimmers were hoping to swim the Hellespont.

They'd grooved their technique. They'd put in all the hours.

And they still didn't make it over.

That's because Swimtrek had to postpone last year's swim by a couple of days; too choppy.

How the swimmers howled! I heard them as they gnashed their teeth and railed at how they had been denied this little swim.

And so they'd done a lot of training and paid a lot of money to ship themselves to Turkey - and guess what? Another Big Fat Fail.

Well, my friend, you better learn to deal with it.

Sometimes, you can plan all you like, and train all you like, and strategise all you like. And it'll still all go belly up.

That's because in life STUFF HAPPENS.

The sooner you start learning to deal with BAD STUFF, the better. For preference: we like a quip and a carefree smile as we head to the bar for a beer.

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10. Versatility + Perseverance = Luck

Imagine setting your heart on some footling quest like the Hellespont. For though it may indeed be a historic swim, we should also be worldly-wise enough to realise that, really, it don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

We work on our technique, we train and we train, and then - what do you know? - your shoulders are screwed, and you will not be swimming freestyle again any time soon.

So instead you start on your breaststroke, which though not quite as robust as freestyle, will still just about get you over the Hellespont. On a good day. On a really, really good day - because the problem with swimming the Hellespont it that it only happens one day a year, August 30, and there is a cut-off time; if you haven't made it by the cut-off, then you'll be hauled into the fishing boats.

But anyway - with versatility, and perseverance, and a huge, huge slice of luck, you should just about be able to make it.

And then you count your many blessings.

So many people these days, they forget to do that.