I stopped swimming to poke my head above the waves, trying to figure out where I was. As I tread water, I was met with a horrifying sight — nothing. Through the spray of the 30-knot winds coming off the water, I could make out a cell-phone tower on the opposite shore, but that was it. No boats were in sight. I couldn’t see another swimmer.
This was the point of no return. If I continued only I could get myself to safety. My fate was in my hands. The lifeline was gone and now it was all on me. I was alone.
I looked back as I floated to the crest of a wave and I could see the starting line and the crowds of people cheering for us. They disappeared behind another one of the six-foot waves.
“What the hell,” I thought. I swam on.
At the Hellespont, four miles of water separate Europe from Asia. Last month my challenge was to swim it.
In the tradition of Leander and Lord Byron, the Hellespont swim crosses the four-mile wide sliver of water that connects the Mediterranean to the Sea of Marmara. It is a waterway steeped in history, long considered the fault line dividing the civilizations of Europe and Asia. The ancient city of Troy, the site of Homer’s Ilyad, lies on its shores. It is where Xerxes crossed into Europe to invade ancient Greece, and where Alexander began his conquest of Asia. The battle of Gallipoli was fought here in World War I.
And in 2012 it was the site of one of the most dangerous days of my life.
I have pushed my body to the limit more than a few times, and have been in plenty of tight spots. I’ve completed an Ironman triathlon, run a marathon in Antarctica and summited a 20,305 foot tall mountain in the Nepal Himalayas. I’ve been in two war zones, was kidnapped in Kathmandu as a 16-year-old, and found myself face-to-face with a great white shark in South Africa. But the Hellespont swim linked survival to fitness more closely than any of these experiences.
Admittedly, it was not the most exhausting physical trial of my life. Climbing Island Peak in Nepal in 2011 has that distinction — there really isn’t anything that compares to the exhaustion of high-altitude climbing. The Ironman was a test of fitness, and the Antarctic Marathon was about enduring a high level of suffering for a long time. But the margin of error between success and doom was never quite as slim as in the swift-flowing waters of the Dardenelles.
It shouldn’t have been such an ordeal. In all honesty, I was expecting a casual experience. The swim is four miles long, not an unreasonable distance considering the Ironman swim is 2.4 miles — followed by a 112 mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run. ”If I can do an Ironman, the Hellespont will be a walk in the park,” I thought.
The weather was the curve-ball.
I was part of a group of foreign swimmers who signed up to swim in the annual Hellespont swim race through an adventure travel company, SwimTrek. The race is an annual event held in honor of Turkish independence day. All swimmers convened the night before the swim in the Turkish resort town of Canakkale, located on the banks of the Hellespont just miles from the ruins of ancient Troy.
The Cannakale Rotary Club, the race organizer, hosted a cocktail party and information briefing on the eve of the race. Amid all of the hype and anticipation was a bit of unwelcome news — weather forecasters predicted winds gusting more than 30 knots and seas as high as six feet. The organizer of the foreign contingent warned us,
If you have never swam in conditions like these, DO NOT SWIM TOMORROW.”
We all nervously laughed about the dire warning and rationalized our collective determination to go ahead with the swim by accusing the organizer of being pessimistic. Surely his remarks were intended for the less capable swimmers in our group. He’s not really talking to me.
After the briefing I joined a group of Scottish swimmers for a dinner. The atmosphere was a bit depressing — no one was quite sure what to do. Should we swim? Could we count on the Turkish rescue boats to pick us up if we had to abandon the race? None of us had experienced conditions as extreme as those forecasted. I listened to the different rationales passed around the dinner table for either swimming or not swimming. I wondered just how much my ego was getting in the way of a wise decision. Just how far past my capabilities could I push with desire?
I think collectively we all were waiting for someone to step up and decide the race was off. But no one was willing to let go of their hope and admit pre-emptive defeat after months of training and a trip halfway around the world. My personal plan was this: I would check out the conditions in the morning and make my decision then.
I woke early the day of the race and had an enormous breakfast of pancakes, eggs and a snickers bar. The more calories the better. I walked 15 minutes along the waterfront of Canakkale to the grounds of an old Ottoman fort on the shores of the Hellespont for check-in. I received my bright red swim cap and timing chip and was pronounced fit for the event by a Turkish doctor. Next we boarded a ferry to travel across the strait to the starting area on the opposite shore. It was quite a sight, hundreds of swimmers on a passenger ferry, clad in nothing more than Speedos and swim caps. The tension was palpable. Conversations were muffled and a look of apprehension wore on every face.
The weather was even worse than the forecast, and the ferry ride to the starting area was terrifying. The waves looked enormous. Not only large swells, but the gusting wind kicked the surface into a frenzied mess of white-water and chop. I had never been in conditions like these in a boat, much less as a swimmer. And my first attempt at swimming in these kinds of waves will be while crossing the Hellespont? What the fuck am I doing here?
I sat next to one of my new Scottish friends and we exchanged worried looks. He told me he would at least jump in and give the race a go. If it got too bad he would signal to a rescue boat and be pulled from the water. This sounded like a reasonable theory, but I had serious doubts. There were nearly 500 swimmers about to dive into the Hellespont, and there would be no clear racecourse. We would all simply aim for the opposite shore and swim our hearts out to cross the four miles before the currents swept us into the Mediterranean. How on earth could a dozen fishing vessels keep track of 500 swimmers bobbing in and out of six-foot swells scattered by the current across a four-mile stretch of open water? It just didn’t seem possible. And as it turns out, tragedy would justify my worries.
We arrived on the opposite shore of the Hellespont and made our way to a long concrete dock that served as the starting area for the swim. On one side were the foreign swimmers in their red caps, on the other, the Turks wearing yellow swim caps. We formed two long queues on the dock and waited for the starting gun to go off.
Were we really going to do this? I have to admit I was caught up in the moment. We were overwhelmed by the immensity of it all and our collective misgivings were forgotten in the energy and excitement. I jumped in place and flapped my arms trying to stay loose. I looked out across the churning sea and thought,
If I were here alone, I would never in a million years consider it POSSIBLE to swim the strait in this weather.”
At the sound of the starting gun we filed into the water like a mass of sheep herded to walk the plank. I leapt from the dock and plunged the five-foot drop to the water below. I was engulfed in a hurricane of foamy white. I buried my head and began to stroke and kick as hard as I could. The start was a mess of human bodies tangled and swimming over one another. But we soon scattered. I didn’t know it at the time, but about 50 swimmers abandoned the race within the first few hundred feet, overwhelmed by the rough seas and wisely deciding to call it a day.
I swam hard and pushed to the front of the pack. Despite the waves, I was able to keep my form together. When I turned my head to breathe a wave would sometimes crash over my head and I would inhale a lungful of sea water. This was awful. After a few minutes I learned to keep my mouth shut for a split second before I inhaled to be sure I was opening my lungs to air.
This is where I stopped to take my bearings and decided to press on. I felt alone, and knew that from this point on, my life was truly in my own hands.
After I learned the trick about breathing I stopped inhaling so much water. I found a way of swimming that didn’t fight the waves — there was a rhythm to the swells that I could match with my stroke. Soon the swimming began to feel effortless. The experience drew my mind inward. I was staring down into the dark blue void of the strait’s deep waters. My mental absorption by the void was only interrupted when I popped my head up to take a bearing on the opposite shore.
I breathed to my right, in the lee of the wind and waves. The sun was there, rising from the east. I kept course by keeping the sun in the same spot every time I rotated my head for a breath. I had no concept of time. Had I been swimming for 10 minutes or an hour? The distances never seemed to change, but I felt like I was flying through the water.
Slowly the opposite shoreline grew larger. But still no other swimmers or boats. I had been alone for almost the entire swim. The initial feeling of anxiety, bordering on panic, from the isolation had long since passed. Now I was fully immersed in my thoughts and in the overwhelming physical sensations.
I’ve felt this way before in the mountains. When a sensory experience overcomes you, the mind seems to detach from the momentary physical presence, and the body’s suffering registers on an intellectual level. But you remain unaffected. You feel how strong you really are, and the imagined limits of what your body can achieve that might have stopped you on a normal day, are now only at the threshold of what you can endure.
I pushed on and the end of the race happened in an instant. One moment the shore seemed impossibly far away, and the next I could see individual people walking along the seawall of the port in front of me. I swam faster than I anticipated and had aimed too far into the current, forcing me to parallel the shoreline for a while until the finishing ramp was in sight.
Other swimmers began to appear out of the murk. First one, then another, and then suddenly I was in a group of about a half-dozen bodies churning for the finish. I felt a surge of strength and pushed ahead of the pack. The shore was lined with thousands of spectators and the energy of the finish was amazing. I swam hard. Suddenly, the deep blue void gave way to the rising sea floor. Ten strokes, five, two… I put my feet down on the ground and stood up with a wobble as blood rushed out of my pumped-up upper body muscles and back into my legs. The lifeguards waiting on the finish ramp patted me on the back, and I climbed up the ramp and out of the water.
I was done.
But I was one of the lucky ones. More than half of the swimmers failed to reach the finish and had to be rescued by the motley collection of fishing vessels that served as our lifeboats. And three Turkish swimmers disappeared, likely swept out into the Mediterranean.
That night I reunited with my Scottish friends (two of which had to be rescued during the race) and made fast friends with other swimmers from countries including Great Britain, the Ukraine, New Zealand, Australia and Turkey. We all had more than a few beers in celebration. The challenge of the experience, the sense of doubt and apprehension, and the final realization of success all fused into an overwhelming desire to relate the experience to others.
The greatest moments in life are when you achieve something that you did not think was possible. To truly ignore the risk of failure and test yourself where success is not guaranteed, or maybe not even likely. That is when you discover about yourself an inner strength long dormant and ignored. I wanted it bad enough, and I got it.
Stealing from Jon Krakauer:
It’s not always necessary to be strong, but to feel strong.”
I felt strong the day I swam from Europe to Asia.