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Swim the Hellespont - The Ten Things You Need to Know

09/09/2014 11:32 BST | Updated 08/11/2014 10:59 GMT

I have just had my second crack at attempting to swim the Hellespont; it did not go well. Sometimes, even though I'm only two years in, it feels as if this historic swim is developing its own powerful juju that will contrive to thwart me at every turn.

Last year I thought I knew quite a bit about swimming the Hellespont - it's all there in my Ten Do's and Don'ts. Now I know a little bit more.

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1. Train In The Sea

If you're going to swim the Hellespont, it's no good just pounding out mile after mile in your local pool. Of course the local pool is a good place to hone your technique and put in the miles. But open-water swimming is a quite different challenge. When you're in a swell, you've really got to accentuate your breathing to make sure your mouth is fully clear of the water. If you're swimming breaststroke, your whole upper-body movement has to be exaggerated, so that your head is well out of the water. And there are no pool-lines to follow, so you've got to keep a really good eye out on where you're heading. But the Hellespont's tricky like that. It's got waves and wind and swirling currents sending you in the wrong direction - and although you might initially know where you're heading, halfway through you've got to make a call, and you've got to start aiming for the finish-line. But cut it too fine and you'll be swept all the way into the Aegean. You never know. You never know until you've done it.

2. Appearances Can Be Deceptive

Those lovely people at Swimtrek have a drinks party before the swim, the better to get to know your fellow swimmers. It's then that you realise that, looks-wise, it is absolutely impossible to tell the good swimmers from the duds. Running's different. Most top runners have one thing in common. They're pretty damn scrawny. Actually - most are so emaciated they look like they've spent the last couple of years in some kidnap hell-hole. But swimmers... you have no idea. A number of the guys, for instance. I'm not saying that they were fat. They were sort of barrel-chested. This Australian who'd even swum the Channel. I think the word to describe him would be "chunky". And then a pretty American woman who, when I first saw her, clothes on, looked... well looked like she didn't skimp on the puddings. And then when she stripped down to her swimming costume, you realised she had shoulders the size of a bull and that her entire body was solid, rippling muscle. (She swam 3km in 37 minutes; it was like she had an outboard motor.)

And then there were these guys I met - older guys. Much older guys. Codgers - that's the word for them. [Hi DJ - Hi Charlie! How we doing?] Well when I initially saw them, I assumed they were a couple of bag-carriers come to watch their wives swimming. Not a bit of it. They devoured the Hellespont - chewed it right up and spat it out.

3. It's Not About The Swim

Swimming the Hellespont should take about 90 minutes; maybe a couple of hours if it's choppy. But the actual trip takes four days, minimum. Just getting there takes an age. You've got your flight to Istanbul - a good three hours from the UK. Dawdling through immigration takes at least an hour. And then the six-hour coach trip down past the Marmara Sea and the ferryboat over to Asia and to your hotel in Canakkale. Well let's just say that I'm not exactly licking my lips at the prospect of having to do it again. If you're only really there for the swim, then it's not going to be a whole lot of fun. The swim is merely the cherry on the very icing on the cake. But we do not go on these crazy swims just for the swim. We go to see the sights; and to meet our fellow crazies, each of whom is, like ourselves, just that little bit clean off their rockers; and to have that strange, quirky thing that is an adventure. Not a full-blooded adventure where you might actually kill yourself. Just a little mini-adventure where the worst that can happen is that you get a good stinging from the jellyfish.

4. Relish The History

There are hundreds of great swims in the world - but the Hellespont (or Dardanelles) is the one that fairly drips with history. It's like this huge river that divides Europe from Asia and humans have been trying to cross it for thousands of years. The first recorded swimmer was Leander, who was swimming the thing twice a day in order to be with his lover Hero. (But why, oh why did he bother to swim back to Asia in the morning? Did he have some big job that he had to knuckle down to? Did he have to clock on to the factory floor at 8am?) Anyway - it didn't end too well for Leander, drowned in a storm, and didn't end too well for Hero either, as she then threw herself off a tower. Meanwhile, right at the bottom end of the Hellespont, you've got Troy. A few thousand years ago, the world's most beautiful woman - that'd be Helen - was probably having a daily dip in the Hellespont. And then you've got Lord Byron - poet, monumental shagger, first of the real open-water swimmers - who bagged the Hellespont at the second attempt. Byron was doing breaststroke because that was the only stroke in town and it took him four hours. (By the way. Has Byron not got the classiest sobriquet of any human who ever lived? "Mad, bad and dangerous to know." How could any woman resist him?)

5. Visit Troy

There is a little bit to do in Canakkale, where you're based for the swim. You can sit on the sea-front and guzzle beer and kebabs; you can have a paddle at the beach; you can even wander down to the fort, which is a bit, well, forty-like. Maybe it's just me. Living in the UK, I'm rather spoiled for forts. We've got tons of 'em.

Anyway, if you do tire of the delights of Canakkale, then you might spend an afternoon at Troy. "It's just a heap of rubble!" said my room-mate Shane. "Why don't they clean this place up?"

And that is all perfectly true - Troy IS just a heap of rubble.

But there is also a great story behind Troy too, so I better tell you it. Over the centuries, a number of archaeologists had been digging around for this mythical city but had never found a thing. Then in the 1870s along came this millionaire German, Heinrich Schliemann, who had a brand new theory. He was going to treat Homer's account of the Fall of Troy as completely factual. He would mine the Iliad for clues as to the location of this ill-fated city.

After a few years digging, Schliemann did indeed find Troy (which, unbeknownst to him, was actually ten cities, one on top of the other). He digs an enormous trench right through the middle, north-south. He digs through the outer walls. He digs past the watch-tower. And then he digs up a gold bracelet. (Very cunning - who ever would have thought to bury their treasure outside the citadel.)

What to do next? Schliemann tells the hundreds of diggers that it's his wife's birthday and gives them the day off. Then, with his hand-picked team, he digs up all the loot, or "Priam's treasure" as he called it, and carted the whole lot back home to Germany, where it ended up in the Berlin museum.

Some people see Schliemann as just a looter - which makes the final twist in the tale all the more delicious. Come the end of World War II, the treasures of Troy were looted a second time, and they are now in Russia's Pushkin Museum. They are not likely to be leaving Moscow any time soon.

6. Visit Gallipoli

The Turks backed the wrong team in World War I, unfortunately imagining that the Germans were going to win. The Turks had a number of spectacular defeats in the First World War; eight of them, all told.

These defeats are now all but forgotten. When it comes to writing up World War I, the Turkish history books generally devote about one page to all eight of these battles, none of which you will ever have heard of.

But the Turks did have one big win. It cost them a lot of men. But, really, in Turkish history, it's the only battle in town. It's the battle that has been etched into the history of not just Turkey but also the histories of both Australia and New Zealand: Gallipoli.

Most people's knowledge of Gallipoli comes from the movie of the same name, starring a very young Mel Gibson. For both sides, it was a complete blood-bath.

The tragedy of Gallipoli campaign was that it was completely and utterly crackers. In early 1915, the Allies dreamt up this extraordinary plan to capture Istanbul, thereby knocking Turkey out of the war. All they needed to do was send a few war-ships up the Hellespont, and then on up the Bosphorus to Istanbul. Unfortunately the Turks had seen them coming. In the narrowest part of the Hellespont (right where the swim is), there were over 400 mines as well over 100 colossal guns. And, just in case, a couple of German battleships were waiting in the wings upstream - though no Allied ship ever made it up that far.

After the first three ships had been sunk, the Allies came up with their Plan B. First they'd seize the European peninsular of the Hellespont. Then they'd open up the waterway.

You only have to spend a few hours in the heat of the Gallipoli peninsular to realise that this was going to be one very tough nut to crack. Searingly hot in the summer, bitter cold in the winter, and with this immensely difficult terrain, all hills and ravines and thick thorny scrub.

The battle-sites are typical World War I, as the generals reinforced failure after failure with more troops and more shells. By the end of the Gallipoli campaign, the Australians and the Turks had dug themselves in to a checkerboard of over 300 miles of trenches. (That's how the Aussies got the name "Digger").

During a lull in the fighting, an Aussie threw a bottle over to the Turkish trench 20 yards away. He'd stuck a note inside the bottle - "How far is it to Constantinople?"

Ten minutes later, the bottle came back - "Carry on digging like this and you'll be there in three years." And rather presciently, that's exactly how long it took for the war to be won and for Constantinople to be captured - though certainly not via Gallipoli, where the Allies had thrown in the towel at the end of 1915.

The whole Gallipoli campaign is now seen as such a folly and such a senseless waste of life - but it was also the making of a certain Turkish Colonel, who defied his generals' orders and who slaughtered the Aussies by the hundred. Kemal Atatürk went on to become the founder of modern-day Turkey and is today all but revered as a god.

Atatürk's words about Gallipoli are still profoundly moving:

"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours... you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."

7. Visit a Turkish Bath

The Turkish baths in Canakkale are old and beautiful; how the hot, wet marble steams in the gloom. I don't know exactly how old the baths are, but they've got to be more than a century. You can imagine the Turkish artillerymen coming into the hamam after a hard day shooting up the Allied battleships in World War I.

It's quite an experience going into a genuine Turkish hamam; it's unlike any sort of massage I've ever had before.

Though here's a tip. You want to have your Turkish bath after you've swum the Hellespont. It would be an error to go into the hamam before the swim. They're complete bloody butchers.

You strip off down to a little loin cloth and go into this dim hot-house that is lit by a few small skylights. You mooch around, try to keep cool as you poor cold water over yourself, and then a wiry little chap comes over, with sinewy muscles and gnarled fingers that could crack walnuts. You lie down on the marble slab in the middle and your masseur then proceeds to beat you up. It is excruciatingly painful. I was fairly squealing with pain as he did God knows what to my legs and arms. He really hurt my fingers.

Anyway - it's all gonna be just great, and I'm sure you're just gonna love it, but these guys can seriously injure you. Seriously. Most times you come out feeling a bit battered and bruised, though nevertheless grateful for the experience, but just occasionally you'll have torn a muscle or perhaps even have had your tibia snapped in half, and so therefore... therefore it's probably more sensible to save this little treat till after you've bagged your Hellespont medal.

8. Shit Happens... Deal With It

Occasionally in life, things turn out badly. You may have worked hard for a particular outcome. You may have worked your little socks off. And then, well, you know, events happen, and despite your very best endeavours... you don't get what you wanted.

Just for the sake of example, let us suppose that for a whole year you have trained extremely hard for a terrific open-water swim like, say, the Hellespont. You've honed your technique; you've put in the mindless hours at the pool. You've even done a fair bit of open-water swimming, even though you might happen to live in Scotland, where the water tends to be cold and petulant. Then, in Turkey, you stick to the game-plan, and you do not - as my grandmother used to say - become "fusionless with drink". You drink a little, but soberly, modestly, decorously, in the sure and certain knowledge that, come swim-time, your body will feel the better for it. You stretch well; you exercise lightly; you have new goggles which, Vaseline-free, will enable you to see your way clear to the finish-line.

But you know what can happen?

Shit happens!

That is the way of life. Occasionally, through no fault of your own, you are going to be hit by large festering pieces of shit.

But what defines us is how we deal with these pieces of shit.

Do we rant, do we rail? Do we whine away and scream and blubber like little howling babies?

Or do we suck it up? Do we realise that, actually, in the general scheme of things, we are supremely lucky even to be attempting this Turkish swim in the first place? Let's face it: swimming the Hellespont is a total luxury that is only really available to the local Turks and to loaded Westerners. Which means that if the swim is cancelled... well boo-bloody-hoo.

It is not seemly to start howling away about all your wasted training and money. Frankly - it is absolutely pathetic. You've got to suck it up. Like my friend DJ says to his wife Robin: Suck. It. Up.

On the night before this year's swim, we had a final briefing. We'd already been out on the water in the afternoon and it had looked pretty choppy. Quite a biggish swell. I mean still sort of swimmable. But not easy.

Then at the pre-race briefing, it was baldly announced that the swim had been cancelled. (I only wish they'd had a camera on the 230-odd of us in the audience. You'd should have seen those jaws hitting the floor!) It was the only decision to make - the next day they were expecting a Force 7 gale.

Actually - they didn't cancel the swim. They postponed it a couple of a days. But for the foreign swimmers, changing their travel plans was going to be expensive.

Anyway - the bad news is announced, and there is this muttering rumble in the audience as we digest the fact that we ain't going to be swimming the Hellespont any time soon.

And then it all kicks off. Some guy, an American I think, was ranting away about the somewhat dubious Turkish film we'd had to sit through (sans sub-titles), and he had to be back at work on Monday, and he'd trained real hard, and he really wanted this thing, he wanted it so bad... and after a minute of this bilge, the entire audience was as one thinking, "You are one complete and total a-hole." Personally, I would have had him removed from the auditorium and shot on the spot - for showing general lack of spirit. I tell you, it's the only thing to do with these bloody whiners. Put them out of our misery.

Anyone can be cheery and charming when everything is going well. But it is how we react to adversity that is the making of us. It's the bad breaks that make us robust, versatile, rounded - so that when, come the day, a really, really bad break comes your way, you'll be better able to deal with it. And having your Hellespont swim cancelled is not too much of a bad break - trust me on this.

9. Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.

If you are aiming high, then it stands to reason that you're probably going to have a few fails before you get there. If you're aiming extremely high, then you'll be failing quite a bit. You'll get used to the taste of failure. Not that you'll ever like it - it's sort of bitter, wormwood and rotten eggs - but you will get better at swallowing it down. But the more you fail, the better you'll be at dealing with it. It's still going to taste like shit. But you can swallow it down quicker. Bounce back quicker - with, hopefully, some lessons learned.

Not that swimming the Hellespont is aiming that high. For any open-water swimmer it is pretty damn doable. But it is still going to take practise and good technique - and even then, the Gods can still be against you.

And if you do eventually achieve your goal, your swim, it will be all the sweeter for your previous failures. We're with Truman Capote on this: "Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour."

So just because you might not have achieved your footling goal of swimming the Hellespont, does that mean you just give up and go home - or do you come back harder, stronger (and with more flexible travel plans)? Besides - next year, 2015, will be the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign; that is going to be one memorable swim.

Here's a thought. If you are not failing a lot in your life, then you are not aiming nearly high enough. You are in fact coasting. You are not stretching yourself. Failure is like a muscle - in order to become bigger and stronger, it needs to be well exercised. If you want to feel vigorous and alive and fully engaged with life, then, well... you're going to have to fail a bit. Quite a bit.

Which very roughly translates to: embrace every failure that comes your way. Give it a little cuddle. Savour the bitter feelings of disappointment. And then come back and do it all over again. Just like Samuel Beckett says: "Fail Again. Fail Better."

10. Be Versatile

While the Hellespont is, of course, one of the world's most iconic swims, do we really have to nail our colours to the mast on this one?

Basically: it's not worth dying in a ditch for.

It's very appropriate that the Hellespont just happens to be directly next to Gallipoli because if there is one beautiful lesson we can learn from these battlefields it is this: Do not reinforce failure. If you're digging yourself into a hole, then... Stop Digging!

Not withstanding that our general philosophy in life should be "Try Again, Fail Again and Yada,Yada, Yada", we should also be aware that our life's little chariot is actually being towed by not one horse but two. And the name of that second horse goes something like this, "Run your winners and cut your losers."

Sometimes in life, you're on a bloody loser. Like having an argument with your wife. Any way you slice it, you ain't going to win.

Of course you've got no idea what in your life is a loser and what might yet turn into a winner if you put in a little more graft. Guess you've just got to go with your gut.

But sometimes, on certain projects, you just get this little whiff of a feeling that the fates are against you.

Me? I don't know why, maybe it's the twitching of my thumbs, but I have been getting this rather bad vibe about the Hellespont.

And I'm not altogether sure that I can stomach a third straight year in Canakkale. It's a hell of a trip down and though Troy is probably just about worth the one visit, it's definitely not worth two.

You know what we should style ourselves on? We should be mountain streams - for ever gliding down a hill. One way or the other, we roll round all obstacles in our path.

Meaning?

Meaning that, well, the whole point of the Hellespont swim is, really, to have the thrill of swimming from Europe to Asia. As for Leander and Byron and all that great and glorious history schtick - nobody's ever heard of 'em! Nobody!

Meanwhile...

Meanwhile, in Turkey, also organised by our dear friends at Swimtrek, there is another swim from Europe to Asia. That'd be the Bosphorus, the strait that stretches from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara (as opposed to the more southerly Hellespont which flows from the Sea of Marmara to the Aegean.) The Bosphorus swim is about the same distance as the Hellespont swim - but it is one hell of a sight easier. It is a complete doddle. Even a one-legged dog could manage it! For Christ's sake - even Pippa Middleton managed it! The reason the Bosphorus is so easy is that it's only about 800 yards across - you're carried the rest of the way by the current. (With the Hellespont, as already noted, you've got to swim a good couple of miles and the currents are tricksy.)

The Bosphorus isn't going to be too choppy. The swim won't be cancelled. And it's in Istanbul, which doesn't require some hellish six-hour coach trip to get there and which has a sight more attractions than Canakkale.

And here's the really beautiful bit. Apart from a very few sad sap swimmers, nobody in this world or the next has the faintest clue that there is any difference whatsoever between the Bosphorus and the Hellespont. Everyone thinks they're just EXACTLY the same. Hellespont? Dardanelles? Ain't that the Bosphorus?

So that, my friend, is the easy, reliable, no-nonsense way of bagging the Hellespont - just swim the Bosphorus instead.