Fw: The Hellespont swim: following in Byron's wake
- From: Robinson, Charles
Sent: Saturday, May 08, 2010 1:05 AM
Subject: The Hellespont swim: following in Byron's wake
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The Hellespont swim: following in Byron's wake
Lord Byron swam across the Hellespont, or Dardanelles, in 1810. Two
hundred years later, could Becky Horsbrugh manage the same feat?
Thursday May 6 2010
My passion for Lord Byron's work began in my teens when I studied the
Romantics at English A-level. The erotic adventures of Don Juan were far
more appealing to my adolescent self than William Wordsworth's walks
through fields of golden daffodils. But I only found out recently that
Byron's greatest passion was swimming. Born with a club foot, Byron
found a freedom in the water that he could not experience on land. And
forget poetic or political success: Byron often claimed that his biggest
ever achievement was one particular swim - across the Hellespont on 3
This stretch of water, from the Black Sea to the Aegean, is the most
famous in ancient history, separating Europe from Asia. In Greek
mythology, Leander used to swim across it every night to visit his lover
Hero, who would light a lamp to guide his way. Byron swam across it to
prove it was possible. I have a love for swimming too, so when I heard
that a commemorative swim was to be held exactly 200 years after Byron
had done it, I knew I had to be there.
So it was that on bank holiday Monday I found myself lined up with 139
other intrepid swimmers on the European side of the Dardanelles, ready
to attempt the crossing. They were mostly British, but there were some
other Europeans, as well as Australians and Americans. Some were
experienced channel swimmers; others just recreational athletes - but
all were united by a love of the water. Excitingly, one of Byron's
descendants was there too.
The organisers were anxious. Due to a very cold winter in southern
Turkey, the water temperature was just 13C - a good five degrees lower
than it should be at this time of the year. The Turkish authorities had
kindly closed off the shipping lane for us - the busiest in the world -
but they had also changed the course at the last minute, so it was now
well over 5km rather than four.
At 3pm the hooter sounded and we all plunged into the icy water. It was
choppy and, in the first few minutes, frantic, as everyone jostled for
position. The waves pounded our faces and it was tough working out how
to breathe. I hoped the conditions would calm down at some point.
We had been given landmarks to look out for on the other side of the
water, to guide our path. Every few strokes, when I wasn't taking in a
mouthful of seawater, I looked up and checked I was going in the right
direction. The swimmers began to disperse along the course as the
stronger and more experienced led the way up front.
I admit over the first 500 metres I did have a wobble. It was so hard.
But then I got into a rhythm. I found other swimmers going at roughly my
pace and I almost began to enjoy it. I had no real idea how fast I was
swimming, or how far I had gone. I couldn't see any of the buoys that
were supposed to mark our path, so I just concentrated on the red and
white transmitter mast on the Asian side of the Dardanelles, which we
had been told to aim for. I had no time to think about how deep the
water was, or how far I now was from the shore. I didn't care about the
swarms of jellyfish around me. All my concentration was on my stroke as
I plunged my arms through the waves with as much power as I could
muster, fighting the strong current that always seemed to be against me.
My hands were now getting cold, and at times I clenched them to get the
blood flowing. The first time I looked at my watch I was surprised that
I'd been going for 55 minutes. There still seemed such a long way to go!
The people at the front had been hoping to do it in around 50 minutes,
so that made me anxious. I found out afterwards the winner, British
swimmer Colin Hill, managed the crossing in one hour 27 minutes, such
was the severity of the conditions. He had been hoping to break the
record, which was just 48 minutes.
I kept going, but each time I looked up I felt more and more alone. The
other swimmers were now widely dispersed and there was no one near me.
Just a huge stretch of water, and land which still looked so far away. I
then realised I was feeling cold - very cold. Too cold. I'd been in the
water for an hour and a half by now. I was starting to feel confused,
which I knew was an early sign of hypothermia. Then, like an apparition,
a small Turkish fishing boat that was part of our escort appeared at my
side. It felt like my saviour.
I admitted defeat and made the signal were had been told to give if we
needed help. My hands and feet were so numb, I couldn't even climb up
the steps of the boat. A kindly fisherman with a rough, weatherbeaten
face hauled me out. I was handed some thick blankets to stop my
shivering and we slowly made our way to shore, shepherding the other
swimmers in the hot afternoon sun. I shouted encouragement from the
safety of the boat to the brave souls still in the water, happy that at
least I could help them finish the swim, even though I had not been able
to do so myself.
I had failed in my attempt to emulate Byron's iconic swim, which he did
in one hour 10 minutes - doing breaststroke. But I was still proud of
what I had achieved. I'd managed around 4km in challenging conditions on
my first ever sea swim, and the only thing that had defeated me was the
elements, not my own fitness. And after all, Byron failed on his first
attempt too. Maybe I'll return one day and try again.
? The event was organised by Swimtrek; swimtrek.com
[http://www.swimtrek.com]; +44 (0) 1273 739 713
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