Slippers, shipping lanes and overcoming the psyche.
It takes something to stop a shipping tanker. It takes a whole lot to bring a shipping lane to a stand. And it takes some bloody mindedness to swim from one continent to another, down the middle of that shipping lane!
That’s what I have just done and I’m not sure if I am in a sense of achievement mode or in a sense of relief! I took part in the Cross Continental Bosphorus Race which has been hosted annually in Istanbul since 1988. Over a course of 6.5km the race starts in Asia and crosses over to Europe using the shipping lane that connects the Mediterranean with the Black Sea and Russia.
This year was a sell out, organised by the Turkish Olympic Committee, the swim saw 1,700 competitors from 47 nations take to the Bosphorus. The event was meticulously planned and had to be. The shipping lane is a main artery for goods to Russia and also how the Russian Navy gets about, both on the waves and in the deepest depths of this part of the Bosphorus.
My planning for the race started months out with training and completion of some rigorous paperwork; doctor’s approvals and swim fitness tests all had to be verified before being accepted for the race.
Competitors checked in the day before where we were all given timing chips, personalised swimming caps with our race numbers, t-shirts and even slippers to protect our feet in the competitors village. At noon on the Saturday we were escorted via boats to review the course. Ebb tides, flow tides, currents and sighting points were all explained as we made our way against the tide to the distant starting point. We jostled up the shipping lane along with tankers, ferries, sightseeing trips, mega yachts and smaller craft.
Our return trip took a more serious note, it was very much ‘business’ as the next day we would be swimming in this direction! The stunning palaces and villas on the hills were no longer of interest, this time there was silence as we listened intently to the best course to take and where the currents were that could literally stop any progress.
We disembarked more hushed than we had got on, to what we initially thought to be a jolly boat trip! For me, and it turns out everyone else, the afternoon was spent contemplating the route, balancing buoyancy with the carb intake and wondering what had made us enter.
The next day it was an early start – a closed shipping lane waits for nobody!! The weather was stunning, brilliant sunshine and the course, empty of any boats, was like a millpond. At 9am sharp we were loaded on to the ferry to take us the 6.5km to the starting point, 1,700 swimmers wearing all but swimwear and slippers were loaded. The boat made off as spectators were left behind in the temporary event village.
Glorious sun spirited us up the course as landmarks were pointed out and final adjustments were made to swimming goggles. At the starting point the boat was attached to a special barge with mats that would set off our timing chips.
At exactly 10am the barriers to the starting pontoon were dropped, slippers flew in all directions and the melee of swimmers dived headfirst into the sea. It took me a good minute to get off the boat and to take the plunge. Immersed, the pressure was on! Were my goggles still in place, were they letting in water and in the washing machine start of a swim like this, was there room to manoeuvre the first stroke?
I set off at a good pace with one side or the other of my goggles intermittently filled with the Bosphorus. The water was clear, fresh and as you hit the current it dropped markedly. The right current in the right direction gave the best times. If the water was cold, you were aided and were in the correct deep channel of water. If it was warm you were likely to get nowhere fast! The trick was to swim in cold water heading for the landmarks. After 15 minutes, I’d achieved bridge one and had lost sight of any fellow swimmers. I could see the next sighting point in the distance and veered to the left of the cold water. Occasionally I hit the currents creating a very different type of swim as I hit waves and an undercurrent. I was resolute in keeping to the middle of the shipping lane, however, the psyche tells you to swim close to shore. This became mind over matter coupled with a long swim! We had been told that at the finishing point to swim past an island for 150 yards and then swim in towards the European shoreline. Easier said than done, when after an hour, I headed for the island assuming it was the finishing line. When you are at sea level it’s very difficult to distinguish much!
I soon realised I’d misjudged and over-egged the finishing point – so I put my race face back on! It was only as I approached the grandstand and the spectators I began to see more swimmers as we honed in on the finishing point. We were literally all focussed on getting up on to a 20m pontoon and back on to terra firma!
At 1hr 29 I finished, I was 38th in my age group and 311th out of 1300 males. The achievement was great and looking up the course to see a thousand or so swimmers pounding down the world’s busiest shipping lane was a ludicrous sight!
The important thing was that I was doing the race to help people with far fewer abilities but far greater mental drive than me. I drew on my mettle to get over the finishing line, but what really struck me was how lucky I am to be able put myself in this kind of situation.
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