The Spetses swim challenge offers warm water, a fantastic atmosphere and free pasta. By Simon Griffiths
The Island of Spetses, just off the southern tip of the Peloponnese, is perhaps not the easiest place to get to for a swim, but a trip to take part in the Spetses Swim Marathon is well worth the effort.
The event takes place on the same weekend in October as the Spetses Mini Marathon, a popular 25km running race around the island, and several shorter events including a children’s run and a stand up paddle board relay. However, the two swimming events are much more than just a sideshow.
Spetses abandoned the idea of developing mass tourism in the 1980s, which means it has retained a natural charm. Being only a few hours from Athens, it mostly caters to Greek travellers along with the super-rich who moor their expensive yachts in the picturesque harbour. The main town, with a population of around 4,000, is the only significantly inhabited spot on the island, and can easily (and enjoyably) be explored on foot.
We arrived on the Friday afternoon before any of the main events had taken place, but already there was a vibrant festival atmosphere. The cafes and restaurants along the seafront, overlooking the swim course, were packed with swimmers and runners soaking up the warm autumn sunshine and fuelling themselves for the challenges ahead.
That night, a sudden and unexpected squall blew through the town, flattening many of the exhibitors’ banners and displays. Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny, but with a stiff breeze still blowing. The sea was rough and a rumour spread that the swim would be cancelled. The organisers postponed the start for a couple of hours and the decision was vindicated when the wind calmed down shortly before lunch.
Swimmers had two options: a 3km swim from the mainland to the island or a 5km swim starting from the island, heading almost all the way to the mainland and then returning to the island. I chose the 5km swim thinking this would be the most popular but it turned out more people had entered the 3km race. There’s definitely something satisfying about crossing a channel, and I think with hindsight the shorter race may therefore be the better option. That said, the 5km was still a fun swim and I had a great race against some strong swimmers.
Dr Marina Coutarelli, the indefatigable event director, had promised me clear blue 25-degree water. Being October, and already cold in the UK, I hadn’t believed her, but it was true. Around 70 swimmers crowded on to the small beach to the left of the main square for the start of the 5km. Meanwhile, over in Kosta on the mainland, some 500 swimmers had just set off for the 3km swim after having been shipped over by ferry about an hour earlier. The quay was packed with cheering supporters, music was playing and the sun was shining, and instructions were called out in both English and Greek so I knew what was going on.
Looking across the channel between Spetses and Kosta, the route was clearly marked with tall cylindrical buoys. You couldn’t normally swim here safely because it’s a busy shipping lane and frequently criss-crossed by high-speed sea taxis, but all boat traffic (except for safety boats) had been stopped for the swim. The hooter sounded and we were off.
One swimmer – the eventual winner – sprinted off and was out of sight within a few minutes. I joined the following pack of about 10 swimmers. The first 100m or so were frenetic, as is often the case with swimming races, but at least the water was calm. However, that changed as soon as we cleared the protection of the quay. I don’t think it was the roughest conditions I’ve ever swum in, but it wasn’t far off. Never mind. The water was warm and clear, the sun was shining and there were no jellyfish.
Navigation wasn’t easy. Although the buoys were large and reasonably well spaced, it was often hard to see over the waves. My strategy was to stick with the pack and trust in the wisdom of the crowd. I’d also picked out a landmark on the mainland that was visible above the waves, so knew we were going in roughly the right direction. Eventually we reached a boat that marked the turning point where we had to scan our timing chips to confirm we hadn’t turned too soon.
The swim back was harder because the direction of the sun made it even more difficult to spot the route. My pack had now thinned out to about five swimmers with a couple pushing the pace hard at the front and slowly opening a gap. I did my best to keep them in sight as that was the easiest way of keeping on track. We passed a couple of sailing boats where water and energy drinks were available but I didn’t stop.
Towards the end we started to catch the backmarkers from the 3km swim (who had followed the same route as the second half of the 2.5km swim). Due to the clarity of the water the bottom was visible from some way out, which prompted me to start my finishing sprint perhaps a little too soon, and then it was all over. The beach was crowded with 3km swimmers so it was hard to tell where I’d finished. I initially thought it was fourth; it turned out to be fifth but it didn’t really matter. I was surrounded by people who, despite all talking in a language I don’t understand, were clearly buzzing from their swim. Open water swimming seems to do that wherever you are in the world and whoever you are. It’s even better when the air is warm, the sun is shining and the surroundings are beautiful.
The day’s events were followed by a presentation evening and a free pasta party on the town square. We then heard that a strike by Greek air-traffic control meant we might have to stay a few days longer. It was a slight disappointment when the strike was called off!
How to get there
From Athens there’s a high-speed hydrofoil that takes about two and a half hours to reach Spetses. However, you will need to transfer from the airport to the port at Piraeus, which takes around an hour. Bus is the cheapest. You can also connect via the Metro or take a taxi (which costs around €45). Alternatively, hire a car in Athens and drive to Kosta (and do some sight-seeing on the way) and from there take a sea taxi for the short hop across to the island.
What else to do
Spetses is a wonderful place to kick back and relax. The waterfront and harbour area has a range of eating places serving local food and the town is pleasant to stroll around. If you’re feeling particularly energetic you could sign up for one of the running races – in fact there’s the ‘Ultra-SMM’ challenge which follows the 5km swim on Saturday morning with a 10km run in the evening and the 25km round-island run the next. Alternatively, hire bicycles and cycle around the island. The coastal road is a little hilly but smooth and wonderfully scenic. Best of all, private cars are banned so it’s almost entirely traffic free. There are a few other beaches you could explore too if you wanted some additional swimming.