As two boats packed with swimmers pulled away from Kuruçeşme Park last Sunday, plenty of advice was being swapped about how best to swim the Bosphorus.
'You see the currents off Arnavutköy – stay away... Don’t get caught up in Bebek cove, where the current reverses... You see the two towers of the Military High School – don’t get too close to those or you won’t be able to cross in time... Once under the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge, head for the huge radio tower above Kandilli, then towards the midway point of the Bosphorus Bridge.'
'I grew up in Istanbul,' one man told me, 'but my parents never allowed me to swim in the Bosphorus. It was too dangerous.' A Turk who emigrated to New Zealand, he had now returned to defy his parents. 'I’m the kind of person who, when I see any body of water, I have to swim in it,' someone else said. I grinned, prone to that particular addiction myself.
'First, swim straight out to the middle,' another Istanbul man told me as the boat nosed into the starting point at Kanlıca. 'You will feel where the water is colder. That’s where the strongest current is – stay with that.' Old-timers were greeting each other as if they had just walked into a coffee shop, slapping each other on the back. And politics were not forgotten. A shout went up from someone in support of the Gezi protests and was taken up lustily by contestants on both boats.
The first race took place in 1989, with four women and 64 male swimmers. Today it is organised by Turkey’s Olympic Committee and there are 1,532 competitors. We had electronic tags secured with Velcro around our ankles, and bathing caps numbered according to age: 001, the most venerable among us, was a fit 83-year-old; 051 was the American ambassador.
Electronic mats activated timers in our electronic tags as we eagerly plunged off the pier in Kanlıca, churning the surface of the water like a great school of fish, or seals. But so great is the Bosphorus that even before passing under the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge I found myself completely alone, with only a single elbow rising out of the water here and there, a yellow or green cap, but all quite far off. The water was an ethereal yellowy colour and very clean. I looked down. The Bosphorus is 360 feet deep in the middle. Raising my head again, I panicked – but there was the radio tower, and the Bosphorus bridge, and some 6.5 kilometers downstream from the start, large balloons floated above the small finishing pontoon.
Passing Rumel Hisarı it seemed to me that the water became darker and faster. Bebek and Arnavutköy passed too fast. I could see more swimmers now, mostly much further to the European side. I wondered what had made me strike out on my own course rather than stick with others. I could see the two towers of the military high school and I was swimming toward them, but they also seemed to be coming too fast towards me. I started to cross over, my angle tightening as I realised just how fast the current was. A Turkish friend had advised me: 'Swim verev into the current,' which she explained is a sewing term for an angled cross-stitch. I swam verev. I swam straight. I swam verev upstream. But I could see that I would not quite make the finishing pontoon.
I owe my completion of the race to a single man in the rescue Zodiac, hovering beyond the pontoon. I looked to him, ready to be picked up, heaved unglamorously over the rubber side and motored to shore. But he waved cheerily. Now I could see six or seven other swimmers who had overshot, all of them struggling to get back. And many more were coming. I turned, put myself into it, and spent what seemed like the next ten or 15 minutes swimming as hard as I could upstream. There was the finishing buoy, the pontoon, the ladder. There were hundreds of swimmers coming in behind me, eager to get out as fast as they could and step onto the electronic mat that would clock their time.
The swimmers were given towels and bottles of water. They crowded onto the pontoon, congratulating and hugging each other. Quite a few were discussing a strong back current just off Galatasaray islet. A huge billboard displaying results told us a Turkish man, Hasan Emre Musluoğlu, had won the race in 39.13 minutes. A Greek 16-year old came in at 41 minutes. The oldest contestant, Levent Aksüt, made it in 1:32. The American ambassador in 1:12.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen my own name on a billboard before. There it was: 1:05 minutes and 24 seconds; 28th in my age category for women and 1060th overall. Next year, I’ll be giving other swimmers advice.
Photographs by Tim Cornwell