In Byron's wake

Inspired by a legend, a poet and a close shave, Whit Mason swims from Europe to Asia.

Once upon a time, when men walked or rowed to war and closed with their enemies at the length of their spear, a youth named Leander lived on the Asian shore of the Hellespont, the strait we know today as the Dardanelles, next to the Gallipoli peninsula. One day, at a festival, Leander caught sight of a beautiful priestess of Aphrodite named Hero, who lived in the town of Sestos, on the European side. The two fell madly in love but were not allowed to marry. Instead, they met for nightly trysts, Leander swimming across the swift current to Hero and back again each night.

Alas, even the keenest lovers have their limits and one night the current proved too strong for the depleted Leander and he drowned. Hero found his body washed up on the shore and in her despair threw herself from a tower into the sea and perished.

Two hundred years ago, Lord Byron found himself becalmed in the Dardanelles while sailing to Constantinople in the frigate Salsette. A dashing young aristocrat, the very prototype of the modern celebrity, Byron was already well on his way to establishing his reputation as one of the greatest of the Romantic poets, as well as a legendary lover and adventurer.

Described by one besotted girlfriend as ''mad, bad and dangerous to know'', Byron couldn't resist the chance to emulate the legendary Leander. As he would later write:

His ear but rang with Hero's song,

''Ye waves, divide not lovers long!'' -

That tale is old, but love anew,

May nerve young hearts to prove as true.

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Byron first attempted the swim in April 1810 but he and his mate became too cold and had to climb into an accompanying boat halfway across. On May 3, he and Lieutenant Ekenhead, a hearty new companion from the ship, plunged into the strait well above the Roman fortress that stands at the narrowest point - from where he'd begun his previous attempt and where the current is too strong. An hour and 10 minutes later, Byron reached the Asian shore, having traversed a great 4.5-kilometre arc. Biographer Benita Eisler writes that for Byron the swim was ''a feat that, as much as anything, assured him fame throughout his lifetime and immortality thereafter''. In the process, Byron made swimming the Hellespont the ultimate romantic adventure. The venerable Bulfinch's Mythology, first published under that title in 1913, declared: ''Since Byron's time the feat has been achieved by others; but it yet remains a test of strength and skill in the art of swimming sufficient to give a wide and lasting celebrity to any one of our readers who may dare to make the attempt and succeed in accomplishing it.''

I had heard the tale of Byron's famous swim when I was a young daydreamer and had always hoped that some day I'd do it, too.

When Byron swam the Hellespont, he had the advantage of being 21 and a lifelong swimmer, not least because a club foot ruled out land-based sports. The feat was made harder, however, by technique and temperature. Byron used the breaststroke, the fastest stroke Britons knew at the time but less efficient than the crawl used by modern ocean swimmers. It was introduced by native Americans to Britain in 1844 and refined by Australian professional swimmer Dick Cavill.

Byron noted that the current was ''very strong and cold''; for the bicentenary swim, which was on May 3, the water was 13 degrees, compared with about 26 degrees on the day of the understandably more popular annual swim on August 30. This being Turkey's Victory Day, commemorating the final battle of its war for independence in 1922, all shipping in this busy channel is stopped for 90 minutes.

A moderate mastery of technique is the key to being able to manage the distance. In June, I couldn't have done it. I breathed in shallow gulps and after 10 minutes would get a whopping headache. I took two lessons with a good swim coach, then joined a training squad for two months for twice-weekly sessions of more than three kilometres. It worked.

As our group gathers a few days before the swim at a collection of small hotels in the town of Canakkale, near the finish line on Turkey's Asian shore, I discover that the motivation of most of the swimmers isn't so different from Byron's - glory, and glory of a sort that might outlive our mortal selves. One very fit South African had been training for a couple of years to make the swim as he turned 60, and some ageing Channel swimmers were doing it as a kind of reunion with their younger selves.

One young Englishwoman and two of her friends swam to honour the life of her brother, who was killed by a booby trap last year in Afghanistan. This coincided improbably with my own impetus for doing the swim: a flight over northern Afghanistan in May when I thought we would crash, then, back home 10 days later, hearing that same plane had crashed with no survivors. The next time I faced a sticky end, I wanted to be able to think back on having done this.

Each year, a growing group of Hellespont swimmers is hosted by SwimTrek, a British-based business founded by Simon Murie, who started the company after pining for the sea when he worked as a mining engineer in Mount Isa. He takes us good-naturedly through a couple of days of relaxed swims, health checks and briefings leading up to the big event. There are optional excursions to the site of ancient Troy and the battlefields of Gallipoli, both nearby, led by Kenan Celik, who guided Les Carlyon during his research for Gallipoli, his magnificent history of the crucible of the Anzac legend.

Several of us have become mates by the eve of the swim, when we're shepherded to a briefing by the organising committee, sponsored by the local Rotary club. At the time, the briefing seems to drag on a bit but, in retrospect, the Rotarians' grandiloquence was part of the charm of the whole experience.

''The main goal of this project,'' one Rotarian proclaims, ''is to maintain a legend in a loving atmosphere''. More than 470 swimmers, almost half of them foreign, have taken the plunge this year to help do that.

A Turkish oceanographer who has studied the hydrology of the straits for 42 years warns us: ''Swimming in the Dardanelles is … fun but you should be careful, especially of the streams.'' By ''streams'' the interpreter means currents. A map of the straits shows a number of large arrows in the middle pointing emphatically towards Africa, along with a few smaller arrows aimed at Russia. If we don't heed his instructions, the gentleman warns us, we will be swept south and never reach the shore. The perfect weather we have enjoyed is set to continue, he says, unless one small weather system makes an appearance.

Daybreak shows this adverse weather system, carrying a trace of rain but mostly high winds, has indeed arrived. We have our blood pressure checked, stow our belongings near the finish at the naval museum in Canakkale, wearing nothing we won't be taking into the water, and board a ferry. The 20-minute ride to the start on the European side, near Eceabat on the Gallipoli Peninsula, traces the course we will swim and reveals a sea turned, in Byron's words, ''short, dashing and dangerous''.

In fact, as we later learn, the wind is stronger and the waves consequently bigger than ever before in the 24 years the swim has been organised. As we stand in the shallows waiting for the start, Murie says he has to advise us against attempting the swim; he will organise an alternative swim later that afternoon of the same distance but in less hazardous conditions. More than 30 swimmers immediately pull out, leaving 441, in various groups, who start the race.

The waves might trouble people prone to seasickness but it's wonderful to think there are no sharks for hundreds of miles and that the roller coaster we're on is ultimately harmless. The water is like champagne: effervescent and just cool enough to be refreshing. Those of us who aren't really treating it as a race stop to compare notes about our course; I'm surprised to bump into one of my new mates, almost exactly halfway between Europe and Asia.

In the end, 260 of us cross the finish line. The rest are picked up by boats part-way across, like Byron on his first attempt, or else swept beyond the finishing line on the Asian shore. I'd be lying if I pretended that the unusually low completion rate didn't make reaching the finish line that much sweeter.

But managing to finish has at least as much to do with navigation as stamina and navigation involves a lot of luck. (Though, as in most things, the best swimmers are also the luckiest.)

Everyone I talk with afterwards had understood that we would swim about two-thirds of the course heading straight east, aiming for a huge antenna, the only thing big enough to see from the start. On reaching a boat stationed to mark the spot, we would make a sharp turn to the right and head for the finish.

As we all discover, there is no turn; you continue swimming east as hard as you can and where we imagine ourselves turning, the current picks us up and carries us swiftly south towards the peninsula and the finish line. If you realise in time that the current has found you, you can reach the Asian shore; if not, you're swept towards the Mediterranean. The current at the end is so fast that everyone is either facing or passing the finish line before they were expecting it, so no one has a chance to sprint. I find myself on the wrong side of a pier beside the finish line along with about a dozen others and I expend much of the energy of the entire swim in five minutes' clawing my way around the pier towards the line.

After about an hour of hard swimming, we finish feeling strangely energetic and euphoric. Australian swimming legend Murray Rose, who at 71 finished several minutes before your humbled correspondent, tells me he's never finished an ocean swim with so much energy to spare.

After swimming the Hellespont, Byron wrote to a friend: ''I plume myself on this achievement more than I could possibly do on any kind of glory, political, poetical or rhetorical.''

For me, following in the wake of the immortal poet made me feel a great deal better prepared for anything that might happen - an intense celebration of being alive in a place crowded with the spirits of the dead, from Troy to Gallipoli.

Love couldn't save Leander and Hero but, by helping to keep their legend alive, each of us has tasted immortality.

Whit Mason swam courtesy of SwimTrek.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Etihad flies to Istanbul for about $1650, to Abu Dhabi (14hr) and then Istanbul (5hr 15min). Fare is low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including tax. Australians obtain a visa on arrival for about $20. Turkish Airlines flies from Istanbul to Canakkale for about $300 one way, and there are frequent buses (6hr).

Swimming there

SwimTrek arranges the annual Turkish Remembrance Day Hellespont swim in August, with activities planned over four days based in Canakkale, on the Asian side of the Hellespont. It costs from £400 ($645) a person for accommodation, breakfasts, coaching clinic, race entry fee and pre- and post-race celebrations.

The British-based company operates 10 week-long swimming trips in Dalmatia, Baja, Turkey, Malta, Greece, the Red Sea, the British Virgin Islands, Sardinia, Cornwall and, for the hearty, Scotland, as well as open-ocean swimming training trips in Mallorca and Malta. See www.swimtrek.com.

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