For Leander and Hero, love was hell in the Hellespont, but today the Dardanelles offers swimmers a magical journey at the crossroads of east and west, past and present.
On 3 May 1810, British poet George Gordon, better known as Lord Byron, took an immersive approach to learning whether one of antiquity’s most enduring and tragic love stories was physically possible. He plunged into the cool turquoise waters of the Hellespont at Sestos, Turkey, then part of the Ottoman Empire, and began stroking toward Abydos on the other side.
Swimming a practised and steady breaststroke, Byron got across in a little over an hour. Arriving at the Asian side of the narrow channel that separates continental Europe from Asia, Byron had proved that the ancient Greek tale of Leander and Hero could have happened, and that he was an excellent swimmer himself.
Leander and Hero
Greek mythology abounds with tales of star-crossed lovers separated by potentially tragic or exceedingly trying circumstances. In Hero and Leander’s case, that challenge took the form of the Hellespont, now noted on maps as the Dardanelles, a thin sliver of water that runs between the Gallipoli peninsula in the southern part of East Thrace on the European side of Turkey and Troad, the western coast of continental Asia. The tapered 61-kilometre long Dardanelles ranges from 1.2 to 6 kilometres wide and joins the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean Sea. For centuries, this slim body of water has been a point of transit between Asia and Europe for trade, and in Leander and Hero’s case, love.
The story goes that every evening, Leander, a young man from Abydos would swim across to visit Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite who dwelt in a tower near the shore at Sestos on the European side. Hero would light a lamp in the tower to guide Leander in his pursuit. Shortly before dawn each morning, Leander would take his leave and return to his home on the other side of the strait. This routine worked well for them for a steamy summer, but then, one night, a storm rolled in. It blew out the candle that Hero had lit, and Leander lost his way and drowned in the rough surf. Upon learning of her lover’s fate, Hero threw herself from the top of the tower to reunite with Leander in death. No one ever said Greek mythology was a dispassionate affair, but their tragic story became an enduring symbol of the power of love and open water swimming.
It wasn’t so much love of a particular woman (indeed he wasn’t terribly particular about who he sought sexually) as it was adoration of an ancient culture that enticed Lord Byron some 2,000 years later to try his swimming skills in the strait. The famous poet, politician and staunch supporter of Greek independence also possessed a notoriously voracious amorous nature and, just like Leander, Byron was a comfortable swimmer. Born in Dover in 1788 with a deformed foot, Byron walked with a limp his entire life and struggled with his weight because movement was sometimes painful. But in the water, he was free to move with the ease gravity denied him elsewhere. Byron was once quoted as saying, “I delight in the sea and come out with a buoyancy of spirits I never feel on any other occasion.”
For most of his short life, Byron traveled extensively throughout Europe and the Mediterranean region, and lived for several years in Italy. He once swam the length of the Grand Canal in Venice – a distance of about 4.5 miles that he completed in 4 hours, 20 minutes in 1818 while supported by a gondola escort craft – and swam across the Tagus River in Portugal in 1809. But it was during a period of travelling through parts of the Ottoman Empire – today’s Albania, Greece and Turkey – that the then 22-year-old poet-swimmer inadvertently gave birth to our favorite sport by testing the theory of whether the Hellespont could be swum by a mere mortal.
He set out in late April with a companion, Mr Elkenhead, but the pair had misjudged the current and had to abort the attempt halfway across. A week later and much wiser in the ways of that water, Byron and Elkenhead finished the swim. Afterward, he wrote that the crossing was easy. “We were not fatigued and did it with little difficulty,” but according to the poem he wrote after the swim, “Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos” the swim may have been a little tougher than he let on: he came down with the “ague,” or ‘flu soon thereafter.
Byron was also reportedly quite proud of his accomplishment, the crowning gem in his own “triple crown” of swims. According to a story published in May 2010 in the Independent, Byron wrote to his mother several times about his feat, finally saying simply: “I plume myself on this achievement more than I could possibly do on any kind of glory, poetical, political, or rhetorical.”
Although Byron died at the tender age of 36 in Missolonghi, Greece, felled by a severe fever that may have been associated with sepsis from contaminated surgery tools, his legacy lives on today.
Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos by Lord Byron (1788-1824)
If, in the month of dark December,
Leander, who was nightly wont
(What maid will not the tale remember?)
To cross thy stream, broad Hellespont;
If, when the wint’ry tempest roar’d,
He sped to Hero nothing loath,
And thus of old thy current pour’d,
Fair Venus! How I pity both!
For me, degenerate, modern wretch,
Though in the genial month of May,
My dripping limbs I faintly stretch,
And think I’ve done a feat to-day,
But since he crossed the rapid tide,
According to the doubtful story,
To woo—and—Lord knows what beside,
And swam for Love, as I for Glory;
’Twere hard to say who fared the best:
Sad mortals, thus the gods still plague you!
He lost his labour, I my jest;
For he was drowned, and I’ve the ague.
Swimtrek the Hellespont
Inspired by Byron’s original open water swim, lured by the vast history, and ready for the sheer challenge of swimming between continents, Simon Murie, an Australian now living in the UK, endeavoured to swim the Hellespont in 2000. “To me, the Hellespont is the ultimate open water swim. It’s the oldest open water swim in the world. It’s got history, mythology, and it’s geographically significant,” Murie says. “It’s the Matterhorn of open water swimming,” with its swift currents, unpredictable weather, challenging logistics, mythic charm, and its status as the blueprint for so many other modern open water swims.
As a kid playing water polo, Murie says he remembers “hearing stories of [Byron] and this open water swim, and I was intrigued by that.” Sometime in his 20s, Murie read Byron’s poem about swimming the Hellespont and decided that “when I turn 30, I’m going to try to do that swim. That was 16 years ago, and I went over and did the swim.”
Murie had a wonderful swim, but was surprised by how arduous securing the necessary permissions and organising support was. “It’s a heavily militarised area and you need naval permission, but also permissions from the town council, which was the trickiest thing to organise. It only took an hour to swim across it, but a week to organise it and that imbalance in time gave me the idea after I did it to help other people do the swim.”
And thus the idea to found his thriving swimming tourism company SwimTrek was born. Today, SwimTrek organises and leads swimming trips to 40 different locations around the world, but the Hellespont is the original location, and one that holds special status for Murie. “It’s about the joy of the doing and the completing rather than the competing,” he says. SwimTrek has been organising trips there for 14 years and helping people bathe in the same storied, international waterway as Leander and Lord Byron.
For about five years, SwimTrek organised multiple swims across the Hellespont annually, but it’s a busy shipping route and eventually blocking off the channel to let swimmers pass frequently became too difficult. Now, SwimTrek leads an annual trip to the Hellespont to take part in a massive swim across the strait held each August by the Çanakkale Rotary Kulübü, a Turkish rotary club that’s hosted an annual swim for more than three decades. The event attracts about 600 swimmers each year, and Murie says SwimTrek brings “all the foreign swimmers to the Hellespont.”
The current Hellespont crossing course is very similar to Byron’s, starting near Sestos, about “a kilometre down from where Byron started, because where he started is now an overgrown area with no beach access,” Murie says. Swimmers finish on the Asian side at Çanakkale, not far from where Byron finished. “The route, point-to-point. is 4.5 kilometres and you swim in an ellipse. You cover 5.5 kilometres, but you’re actually swimming the equivalent of 4 kilometres because of the favourable current. You swim across the current for the first half and then with it for the second half. If there’s any wind, it comes from the northeast,” Murie says. That wind can be brutal, sometimes making for an incredibly challenging crossing.
When swimmers do arrive on the other side to much fanfare they can look back across the water and maybe see into the ancient past just a bit. “You’re swimming from Europe to Asia, near the battlefields of Gallipoli and the ancient city of Troy at the crossroads of Europe and the history of it all – it just ticks a lot of boxes and it’s still a relatively challenging swim,” Murie says.
SwimTrek has been organising trips to the Hellespont for 14 years and helping people bathe in the same storied, international waterway as Leander and Lord Byron