10/07/2013 20:25 BST | Updated 09/09/2013 06:12 BST

Swimming for Dear Life


This past Sunday, two boatloads of raucous semi-clad people ranging in age from 14 to 83 made their way up the Bosphorus Strait, a long stretch of sea that divides the European and Asian sides of Turkey's largest city.

The vessels were transporting swimmers to the start of the 25th intercontinental Bosphorus swimming race. I was one of them, just two days after my 40th birthday, making me the youngest contestant in my age group but still feeling the strain of a life well lived.

During the voyage, the competitors were chanting, "Everywhere is Taksim. Everywhere is resistance." It was a potent reminder that the race was taking place in a city that has been wracked by near-constant civil unrest since early May. The violence reached a peak a month ago with the Gezi Park protests, which took the lives of four people and injured thousands more across the country.

The same evening of the race, the city was cloaked under yet more tear gas as protesters attempted to re-enter the now world-famous park after it had been closed for three weeks.

When the boats finally docked, 1,500 people spewed onto a pontoon from boats normally chartered for wedding parties and corporate events. Penguin-like, they dived into a roiling foam of limbs and headed out into the open water.

The first leg of the race was a struggle across a few hundred metres into the central southbound current from the Black Sea. The sign that you've hit the right current is a drop in water temperature by a few degrees from what was already breathtakingly cold. The rapid central stream carries you most of the way down a zigzagging 6.3-kilometre course from the second Bosphorus bridge to Kurucesme Park.

This second and longest stage of the race was a relentless 5-kilometre slog past an Ottoman castle, historic wooden waterfront mansions once occupied by pashas and diplomats and densely populated hillsides that until 50 years ago were farmland and orchards. Swimming too close to the Asian side puts you in a northbound stream, while too far to the European side sucks you into a vortex created by the bay of Bebek from which it is impossible to escape.

The final lurch to the finish line cuts back in to the European side that, if timed right, uses the current to guide you to the finish line. Those who got it wrong, like I did, were swept downstream and found themselves en route to the Sea of Marmara and beyond. Fortunately, I had just enough energy in reserve and just about enough time to swim back upstream and arc back to the finish, where I collapsed, swearing profusely. My wife, a former competitive swimmer on her second consecutive race, beat me by two minutes. She would have beaten me by more had she not also veered off course.

This race, like the park, is for the people and the swimmers' confidence was buoyed by hopes for social change. It also says much about Turks' dogged persistence. For many, despite great adversity, life keeps floating on downstream.