SWIMMING THE BOSPOROUS
It was in 1999 that I first visited Istanbul. It was then that I learned that once every July, the Turkish National Olympic Committee works with the Turkish Coast Guard to close the Bosporus to shipping for four hours. This is to allow for the annual Bosporus Swim, from Asia to Europe. It was then that I also knew that I had to participate when given the opportunity.
That opportunity came in 2001. After a few months of regularly swimming a few kilometers without stop, I visited a Turkish doctor for the mandatory certificate stating that I was fit for swimming the Bosporus. Then I sent in my paperwork and registered for the event. When the day came, I was signed in at the Ortaköy Swimming Club, was given chartreuse swimming cap with the number 328, and was boated across with the other swimmers to the Asian side of the Bosporus.
Because the waters of the Bosporus are on the cool side, a lot of the swimmers put on some kind of protective oil to supposedly keep them warmer. Swimmers passed around the ointments and oils, but I decided to go without it.
The big moment came for us all to splash in the Bosporus. It was mass confusion at first. I jumped in and felt the rush of coolness envelop my body and started swimming for Europe. Our crossing was more diagonal, swimming southwest rather than west.
Two bridges span the Bosporus, and our starting point was near the northern one. It wasn’t long before I was swimming under the long shadow of the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. A lot of the swimmers were well experienced in swimming this crossing and were able to take advantage of currents to bring them to the finishing point efficiently. I, on the other hand, had no experience with this race. The crossing from Europe to Asia didn’t last long at all, looking back at it. The crossing was over and I was on the European side enjoying the stunning views of the Rumeli Fortress and the waterside mansions that line the Bosporus.
Where were all the other swimmers and their chartreuse swim caps that I had seen bobbing out of the water? It turns out I had swam too much to the west and not enough to the south. Now I had to swim south to the finishing point. The bay at Arnavutluk opened up to my right and the European shore became more distant as I continued to swim south.
Helicopters flew overhead to keep an eye out for distressed swimmers. I continued my swim south, changing between freestyle and breaststroke. As I swam by the Galata Saray yacht club, crowds of people cheered me on. I also found myself back with other swimmers at this point.
It seemed that it wouldn’t be long before I would be out of the water and standing on dry land again. That was when I hit the counter current. Waters were rushing so fast northward that I couldn’t get through. I tried again and again and always found myself stuck at the same point, making no progress at all.
An emergency boat came by to see if I was exhausted. Did I need to be fished out of the water? I said ‘no’ and a rush of adrenaline allowed me to push my way through the counter current with my best free style stroke. Once I got through that counter current, it was easy swimming again. I reached the party on the European side and was given a souvenir towel and t-shirt, to celebrate my crossing of the Boğaz. The Turkish name for the strait linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara is Boğaz, which means throat or strait.
The name Bosporus (Βόσπορος) comes from a Greek myth. (Βοός + Πόρος = cow in Ancient Thracian + passage). It relates to the myth of Ious (Ιούς) who was turned into a cow and swam across the strait to escape the wrath of Hera who was upset again at another of her husband Zeus’ love affairs.
As for me, I wasn’t escaping from the wrath of anybody. It just felt great to be on dry land again and to dry off. The winner had accomplished the crossing in about 50 minutes. He was a middle-aged, cigarette-smoking, pot-bellied Egyptian. Shall I blame it on my lack of knowledge with the Bosporus currents that I didn’t arrive in Europe sooner? I was happy to have completed the crossing nonetheless, despite my unimpressive one hour and 20 minutes. A lot of the swimmers didn’t make it at all and returned via boat since they were too exhausted to complete the swim.
Perhaps next year I’ll participate in the Isla de Lobos to Corralejo crossing that takes place in October.