Troubled waters

In the wake of Byron and Leander, Victoria James takes on the challenge of swimming the Hellespont

"I plume myself on this achievement," Byron wrote of swimming the Hellespont on his second attempt in 1810, "more than I could possibly do any kind of glory, political, poetical or rhetorical." His inspiration was an even meaner feat - Leander's nightly swim, so Ovid says, across the Hellespont from Abydos to Hero's tower in Sestos, and back again after hours of love. Byron, no slouch in the sack himself, marvelled at Leander's "conjugal powers", wondering that they were not "exhausted in his passage to Paradise".

These days, as I found out this summer when I swam the Hellespont myself, people make the crossing not for love or glory, but as part of a Rotarian fundraiser.

Rotary Club District 2420, Çanakkale chapter, lies on the eastern, Asian shore of the Hellespont, also known as the Dardanelles Strait. The town boasts a 15th-century Ottoman fort and is dominated by a hillside memorial to "18 March 1916", the day Turkish defenders crushed a British and French fleet attempting to seize the Dardanelles during the First World War. It is the closest modern settlement to the site of ancient Abydos, lying just two kilometres north.

Annually on 30 August the Çanakkale Rotary Club organises the Turkish Victory Day race across the Hellespont. The strait, leading from the Sea of Marmara to the Aegean, is designated international waters, beyond Turkish jurisdiction, so an "ask nicely" policy operates whereby the cruise liners, ferries and hulking, rusty tankers that ply the straits slow their approach to keep the channel between Çanakkale and Eceabat clear for the two-hour duration of the five-kilometre race.

This year, some 120 Turkish racers were joined by what the local press described, to our collective astonishment, as "30 professional English swimmers". We weren't, of course. We were a motley bunch of swimming tourists: a new breed of holidaymaker that likes their vacation a little wetter than the average.

Swimming, particularly of the wild and free variety, is in vogue once more. Many credit the 1999 publication of Waterlog by the late ecologist Roger Deakin, a swimmer's romp through the rivers, lakes, coastal waters and fenny ditches of Britain. Before Deakin, of course, there was Byron's Hellespont crossing, which sent a wave of swimming mania across Europe and first encouraged the notion that swimming was a useful accomplishment, not simply an eccentricity. Later, the Victorians took up the practice with gusto.

And so there we were, an hour past midday, crammed barefoot on the burning iron deck of a local boat carrying the second cohort of swimmers to the starting point, Eceabat Pier. We wore nothing more than our costumes, our numbered race hats, and layers and layers of sunscreen. Shortly before disembarking, the lithe, tanned Turkish youths who made up most of the racers slathered a red gloop over their shoulders: jellyfish deterrent - not something that had crossed my mind during a summer of practice lengths at Tottenham Green Leisure Centre.

I had drunk so much water through the morning that I sloshed audibly as I clambered off the boat and joined the press of near-naked bodies now thronging the end of Eceabat Pier. The race would begin with a lemming-like surge of swimmers into the sea, and already the serious contenders were jostling for a spot at the front - including an immaculate Turkish matriarch of the kind that swimming seems to attract wherever in the world you are. Stylishly bobbed grey hair peeked from under her hat, and she wore tastefully scarlet lipstick. Her north London sisters populate the genteel ooze of Hampstead Ladies' Bathing Pond.

Visible across the water was the enormous red rectangle of the Çanakkale "18 March 1916" memorial. This was not our goal, but should be our target, we had been told at a reception and briefing the day before, because as the further shore approached we would be caught in a current that surged down the coast. Aim for the memorial and you would end up where you were meant to be, a finish point around a kilometre further downstream. Due south of the finish, just beyond Çanakkale's Ottoman fort, was a military zone (we had been waved past to registration that morning by teenagers toting semi-automatic weapons). Landing there was not encouraged.

When the race finally began and the bodies began to fall and splash, I was astonished to find myself the last in - thanks to a craven fear, not of the jump, but of being jumped upon. I figured it meant I could only move up the ranking, and so ploughed along untroubled in the wake of 149 more urgent swimmers. My swimming style, with three-stroke alternate breathing, is positively serene. It also lives up to the name "crawl", for its speed as well as technique.

My principal pleasure when swimming, besides the elegant movement of my usually in elegant body, is to look down into the sea. It's a luxury not to be hurried, race or no, and I was rewarded on the crossing by several jellyfish, luminously milky and freckled with electric blue. The gentle slop and roll of the water was cradling. I thought of Deakin's words that we are "beached at birth", and how science tells us our bodies are more than half water. If swimming for Byron was about glory, or for Leander about love, for me it is a state of grace.

It all ended with a police boat. Predictably enough, I had forgotten about aiming for the memorial. The last time I had looked, I was in the middle of the wide channel; seemingly moments later Çanakkale's fort was looming ahead. Even a hundred metres from shore it seemed that I might make the finish line, but then it swept past me and I found myself staring at a rocky beach and an armed young Turk. A klaxon sounding from behind was not a noisy acclamation of my successful crossing, but the Turkish marine police, who took me away in their orange rib-boat. Bouncing on its inflatable flank, I plumed myself.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble ahead: the crises facing Gordon Brown