Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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The Bosphorus Cross-Continental swim from Asia to Europe is a rare treat for open water swimmers. The 6.5K swim is famous for its tricky currents–which can pretty much half the swim time and sweep you past the finish line into the sea of Marmara, its incredibly blue waters, and the fact that you start in Asia and finish in Europe. An iconic swim, that’s what the Samsung Bosphorus Cross-Continental swim is about.
Of course I looked forward to the challenge, but romantic me was more drawn by the the magic of the name “Bosphorus.” Beyond the swim, this was the opportunity to chart legendary waters celebrated in Ancient Greek myths and to swim past Ottoman palaces and medieval fortresses. Looking at centuries of world history, the swim took on a bigger-than-life and emotional dimension.
On registration morning, we lined up with hundreds of swimmers at the swim village. No less than 2,006 swimmers from all over the world qualified for the 2015 edition of this swim and a fair number was risking a heat stroke next to me to get the registration package. My, was it toasty under the Turkish sun.
The British contingent was out in force thanks to SwimTrek and in the line, we met swimmers from Manchester, London and Bath. How exotic for my husband and I, Londoners. We also spotted Russians, Italians, a few Americans, a team from Turkmenistan, a woman from Lebanon and obviously, lots of Turks. However, very few fellow French swimmers. We later learned that less than 10 French swimmers were there. In addition to French swimmers, we met the French media.
Indeed, SwimTrek had gotten us a guaranteed spot in the swim and an expected perk–a French news team. At breakfast, two French journalists had come to meet us and explained that they were reporting on the Bosphorus for “Grands Reportages” on TF1–Patrick and Matthieu. They offered to follow my husband and I all day on Saturday and Sunday until the end of the swim. Would that be okay? So exciting. Of course! From that moment on, we were followed by a reporter, a cameraman and a French/Turkish translator/manager, which felt awkward at times but they were super nice so we tried to forget that we were speaking to a camera. Other swimmers looked at this dedicated TV crew and I’m not sure what they concluded. The thing is, I’ve rarely been so thrilled to be French.
This is a stolen portrait of Matthieu, the cameraman. At the registration counter, we handed our passport and race number and received in exchange a Samsung-branded sports bag full of goodies–race tee-shirt, Turkish snacks, Turkish delights (rose and pistachio), throw-away slippers, and two essential items without which we could not swim–the swim cap (with our individual number, swell) and ankle chip.
Wandering through the village, we met Number 4. At this event, all swimmers were numbered in decreasing age order, hence the special status and respect awarded to low numbers as these guys were clearly putting us all to shame. Number 1 was the oldest, an 85-year-old Turkish swimmer. Number 4 was a swimmer from Ireland who had treated himself to this swim for his 75th birthday. We wished him good luck for the race and hoped to meet Number 1, a rare swimming unicorn.
On the Bosphorus, we found the finish line, an anti-climactic floating pontoon with nine pool ladders. It looked positively pocket-size compared to other race or swim landings in coves, on the beach or on some sort of coastline. Come on, Bosphorus, why so small? How on earth would we spot it from afar? Fortunately, the Turkish Olympic Committee had all bases covered and the next day, two big inflatable balloons marked the spot high and loud.
From the pier, none of us could stick a hand in the Bosphorus and feel for the water temperature but we all itched to do it. A wise old man found the answer and stripped down to his trunks to dive head first! To his friends on the jetty, he yelled in Turkish, “the water is cold!” How could it be? The water was supposed to be 20 to 24 degrees. Shiver me timbers, the wise old man had better be wrong.
It was time for the boat tour of the swim course. Think “The Love Boat” episode where the boat sinks and nobody drowns and swims to shore. We all boarded a big ferry flying the colors of the participating countries (well, the most important ones) and off we went. A guy spoke in Turkish and English on loudspeakers but the sound wasn’t great and we didn’t understand much. Our neighbors’ comments were the surest indication of what we should look for. Like most other swimmers, we were scanning the water as if it was going to reveal its deepest current secrets but that didn’t happen. The one useful thing we could do was to look for milestones on land that we would be able sight on once in the water.
To give you an sense of scale, this was the Asia-Europe bridge that we would swim under. We would probably look no bigger than bobbing dolls in the water. This bridge was right at the start and by the time we hit its shade, we should already be in the middle of the Bosphorus riding the Black Sea favorable cold(er) current. We all took mental notes and returned to the race village with a lot more questions than we had time for concerning the currents. They played such an important role in the navigation of the swim. How had we not noticed before? When other swimmers commented blog reports they’re read the previous evening, we knew that we were somewhat unprepared. Ah well, let the water gods decide.
Later that day, we met with a family of Turkish swimmers who all four (mother, father, daughter, son) won their age group in 2008 – the Gemicioglu. They were introduced to the French TV crew by the Turkish Olympic Committee and welcomed us at the swimming pool of the Galataseray Club with open arms. The dad (age 73, second left in the picture) was a retired boat captain and explained the Bosphorus currents to us on a marine map. If anybody should know these waters, he should be the one. He even gave us the map, which was incredibly generous and I intend to hang it on my wall at home as a souvenir of this amazing family. If you need inspiration today, know that the parents learned to swim when they were 60 years old! We had a great time swimming with them and listening to their experienced advice on the swim. Cold seemed to be key to hit the right current.
To end the day on a nautical note, we took the ferry back from Asia to Europe and enjoyed the most amazing sunset with the Blue Mosque and Saint Sophia in the background. We then boarded a tram to see the last sun rays of the day from the top of the Galata Tower.
What wasn’t our surprise to find in the queue, right in front of us, four Russian swimmers sporting the Samsung Cross-Continental tee-shirt and one golden boy already wearing the ankle chip. Such an eager beaver! My oh my, swim prep went far beyond swimming for some. Time for us to call it a day and get our beauty sleep.
Race morning, get up, get up! Truth be told, I didn’t sleep well. I never do before big swims, must be the stress. I looked one last time at the map and went out of the bedroom for breakfast. In the dining room on the 18th floor of the Point Hotel Barbaros, almost everybody wore the race tee-shirt and feasted on big plates to fuel up for the swim.
At the village, we met Number 1 (right on the picture) and regretted that we couldn’t spot Number 4 to introduce the two men.
The Italian contingent was putting on the biggest Italian show outside of Italy, bringing down the house with spirited Italian songs and a lot of proud flag displaying. These guys were on fire!
In front of the ferry, the atmosphere was more subdued but the tension still palpable. If you can picture horses stomping in stables before being let loose on a field, you’ll get the idea. These swimmers needed water.
IN THE FERRY
During another two hours, we waited and answered questions for TF1’s second TV crew, Julie and Gaspard. While Patrick and Matthieu were going to hop on the press boat and cover the finish and other people, Julie and Gaspard would board the swimmers’ ferry and film until we jumped. No pressure!
With a great sense of relief, we finally boarded the ferry. Next to the entrance, our friend Number 4 was waiting as he’d been told that seniors went first. I’m not sure how that panned out. Green swim caps were for 35 years and younger, yellow swim caps for 35 and above. Though it was stifling hot inside, we preferred to stay on the ground level to be closer to the exit. Also, we were afraid to overheat outside. Since the waiting game was not finished, sitting was a good option. Next to us, the Italians were still singing songs and entertaining at least half of our level. At last, we docked but we still had an hour to go before the swim start at 10am. Excruciating!
About 10 minutes before the start, everybody started clapping and cheering. I got up and looked outside. They had opened the doors for six special swimmers, the disabled swimmers, and they were finding their spots on the start platform. I felt very humbled when I saw one of them removing his prosthetic leg to get ready to swim. Real heroes, these guys, and judging by their results, champion swimmers to boot!
At 9.55am, we were all off our seats and more than ready to swim. Still wearing our disposable slippers, our human sea was waiting for the signal to flood the doors and spill into the Bosphorus.
10am! The doors of the ferry opened. It was a mad dash. Fortunately, our ankle chip would only be activated until we stepped on the blue carpet. The order of departure didn’t impact your end result. Still, we all wanted to be in the water and there’s no denying we all somewhat unceremoniously pushed for the door.
I kissed my husband good luck and did not turn back.
Looking for an empty spot, I got ready to jump and right as I was air-borne, saw a head coming back up to the surface under me. I’d thought the way was clear but it wasn’t. Go, go, go!
By the time I hit the water, there was nobody underneath but I was only too aware that the same thing could happen to me. I didn’t dawdle and tucked my GoPro in my swimsuit to leave the ferry as fast as I could. The first goal was reaching the middle of the bridge. As the water was a delicious temperature, a tad too warm but much cooler than the air, swimming was easy. Though a few gung-ho swimmers acted as if the race was a combat sport, most people treaded water in a civilized manner. No kicking, no pulling, no elbowing–thanks, you guys.
The first thing that I noticed in the clear blue water was jellyfish. In fact, a scattering of jellyfish at various depths, graceful white globes pushed by the current and sweeping past us swimmers. They were everywhere and looked harmless, so I just enjoyed the jellyfish show. Throughout the swim, I observed three different kinds of jellyfish–moon jellyfish, barrel jellyfish and the elegant comb-jellies, some translucent white (beroe ovata) and others veined with purple lines. A real treat for the marine biologist at heart!
Though swimmer density was still high before the bridge, I was finding my pace and sticking to it. Swimming was a real pleasure and felt effortless.
Just before the sun disappeared behind the bridge, I looked at the miniature trucks crossing the divide and reflected on how small they looked from 65 meters below. I’m ot even sure we were visible from up high. I entered the shade of the bridge and the water turned dark. Goal one,check. The next was to try to stick to the current though the meandering Bosphorus and head for an electricity tower on the Asian side at Kandili, while avoiding getting sucked by counter-currents on both sides.
I didn’t pay attention, drifted too far on the European side and hit a fierce counter-current. Swimming in stationery mode, I had ample time to admire the 15th century Rumelian Castle, a fortress whose sturdy walls were my sole right-side-breath sight during 10 minutes or so. I managed to outswim the current and get back into the mid-channel but had lost precious time. I knew about the 2-hour time limit after which boats started pulling you out. No way I was getting pulled out. I doubled my efforts.
Little by little, the red roofs of the Kandili point arrived and then, they were behind. I lost all notion of time.
At one moment, I felt something squishy in my right hand and knew I’d just grabbed a jelly. The GoPro was tucked in the front of my swimsuit and captured the moment before I felt something soft in my palm. I had a quick pulling reflex and kept on swimming.
Past the point, I could now see the second bridge and the finish with its two inflatable balloons. It looked both comfortably far and nerve-wrackingly close if the current stayed as strong. Again I made a bad decision and positioned myself too far out on the European side, which made me hit more current resistance than I ought to if I’d stayed on course. I’m not as strong a swimmer as many and had one fear–to be swept past the finish line by the current. That’s why I made the decision to go as far right as I could in the mid-channel, to be closer to the European shore. Adverse winds made sighting more tricky as we hit some short waves.
Still sighting on the middle of the second bridge, I kept a close eye on a man-made island past which we were supposed to swim at 45 degrees in order to hit the finish line. The counter-currents would be strong there, I had been warned.
And so they were.
I found that the easiest way to get across was to swim parallel to other swimmers who were making progress at the same pace as me. It seemed that they too were encountering serious resistance in the rough water but nothing insurmountable. In a deja-vu moment, I spent 10 minutes glancing at a Turkish flag on top of a hill on every right-side breath. After a while, I found the sight slightly discouraging and went all underwater breaststroke. I needed a change of scenery and it worked. With underwater breaststroke, I was making good progress and got closer to a small green-and-white buoy I had seen the previous day. The end was near.
From the buoy, I alternated front crawl and breaststroke and never relaxed my efforts until I held the pool ladder in my hands. Gleaming, silver, shiny ladder rails. Done!
I finished in 1 hour and 57 minutes, just shy of 2 hours. It was longer than my 1 hour 45 goal but my navigation choices probably worked against me. Behind me, 126 swimmers finished and 3 dozens were swept beyond the finish line.
The fastest swimmer won in 1 hour and 1 minute, taking 50% longer than last year’s event on the same course (39 minutes). Many blamed the adverse winds that neutralized the effect of the fast current. All things considered, I’d done as well as Pippa Middleton in 2014 based on the winner’s time. Yay!
My husband finished in an honorable 1 hour and 35 minutes. Our Turkish friends did wonderfully, with the son ranking 2nd in his age group at 1 hour and 7 minutes, the dad in 2 hours 2 minutes, the daughter in 1 hour and 30 minutes and the mother in 2 hours 11 minutes. And since you wonder, Number 4 finished in 2 hours and 24 minutes (whereas Number 1 didn’t). Troopers!
HATS DOWN TO THE ITALIAN PARTY ANIMALS
La vita e bella, there’s no other way to describe the scene of the Italian swimmers after the race. While an older guy was boasting that his hunk friend was “the most beautiful man of all Italy” (nothing less, ladies), the others were regrouping for more songs, hand-punctuated discussions and congratulations.
I want to be an Italian swimmer in my next life. They have all the fun. Or if I can convince 150 swimmers from the south of France to come along, that should do the trick.
Last but not least, congratulations to the Turkish Olympic Committee for the best swim race organization I’ve ever seen, and thanks for the French TV crews who looked after us and rejoiced with us as new-found friends in Istanbul.