Overshooting the continents
Bosphorus Cross-Continental Race, July 15, 2012
Photo A - This just shows you how many people over-shot the finish line. The finish line is actually to the left of this shot and the current is running left to right.
Lee McMahon joined 1,100 other punters to swim from Asia to Europe...
Pics from Cross-Continental Swim website (see link below for full photo gallery).
On 15 July 2012, the Turkish Olympic Committee held its annual 7km ocean swim from Asia to Europe across the Bosphorus Strait. This event has been running since 1989 but has picked up considerable international interest from swimming groups from all around the world over the last five years. The event (which includes rowing and canoeing in addition to the swim) is part of Turkey’s strategy to show the world that they are a destination for large sporting events (which coincides with their bid for the 2020 Olympics). This year the event attracted 1,100 swimmers.
For the average ocean swimmer (like me), the thought of a 7km swim was daunting enough let only swimming in the Bosphorus with strong currents and (depending on who you ask) questionable water quality. It didn’t take long to realise that my concerns were unfounded. It was evident from the moment we got onto the boat to do our pre-race course tour that the water quality was absolutely no issue which you could see from the clear, fast flowing water and the many pods of dolphins swimming alongside the boat. Further, it was great to know that for much of the race, we would be swimming "with" the current which, from the boat, you could see was surprisingly fast. If anyone doubts just how helpful the current is to the average swimmer, you only had to peruse past race results to see finishing times averaging between 55 mins to 1 hour and 20 minutes. However, although it is definitely helpful it can also be a hindrance, which I will explain later.
Despite knowing that the current was strong, the pre-race tour (organised for the day before) covered quite the distance. Once we started to take into account the landmarks we would pass during the swim you realised this was a long course.
The key thing we were told by the veterans of the race was to map out your race carefully. The Bosphorus can in some parts be about 1km wide and the water current flows directly down the middle (generally speaking). We were told not to overshoot the finish line and to ensure we began the journey across to the finish line well in advance of logic (as seen in the course map).
On race day, all competitors boarded ferries at the finish line (based on your age category) and we enjoyed a nice cruise to the start line – you can imagine it - a ferry full of people with only their swimmers and swim caps who were all sucking down a pleather of instant energy supplements and powerades. Given that there were only two toilets on board the boat for 350 swimmers and everyone was wearing their tight racing shorts or triathlon body suits, I saw many strained faces by the time we got to the start line.
The race started on a floating barge and all the keen swimmers tried to cram into the far corner closest to the bridge. For my age group (the 30-40 category), there was some confusion about the start. There were about 10 boats floating around near the starting line, some were media, some were rescue crews and others were event organisers. The entire group of swimmers waited on the barge patiently for the gun to sound. Unfortunately, a badly timed horn blow from one of the boats set the whole group off. It was a bit of a "lemmings" moment where once a few people jumped in, everyone just followed the leader. Apparently we all "jumped the gun" by five minutes.
We quickly realised that once in the water you had to rely on the different water temperatures to broadly guide you. You knew when you were in the current, as it was quite cold (indicating the water flowing from the Black Sea), and then it would change to a few degrees warmer when you were out of it. In a lot of oceans swims, unless you are the leading swimmer, you often just "follow the leader" or have buoys to guide you. However, in this race, it is almost impossible to follow anyone other than perhaps a single swimmer (which would require constant checking). It didn’t take long before we were all out in the middle of the Bosphorus swimming, what felt like “alone” (I literally looked around me and thought I was the only one in the water it was a bizarre feeling – the fast moving water and choppy surface combined with how large the body of water we were swimming down disguised all the other swimmers). There were no "buoys" to aim for or turn at but simply a rough guide of landmarks (you noted the day before) to guide you to the finish line.
Now having completed the event, I can tell you that this is not a race solely about speed and fitness. It is more a combination of speed, fitness, strategy and planning. It turns out that if you took a slight wrong turn, or followed the route as the bird flies to the finish, you would find yourself in counter-currents which could affect your times, anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes, depending on how far you overshot the finish line. You can see in the photo labelled ‘A’ just how many swimmers over-shot the finish line and had to swim against the very fast current (despite all best intentions, I was one of those swimmers). I think about 75 per cent of the swimmers overshot the finishing line this year and, for some, the current was just too strong and they were pulled out by the safety boats who sat under the bridge.
The race day was well organised and offered a great atmosphere for the competitors. The whole race was streamed live on a big screen on the water’s edge for those who were spectating and the footage was taken from the air via the race helicopter and the media boats which slowly made their way down the Strait.
I would have to say that this is one of the best "ocean swim" races I have competed in and I would highly recommend anyone who wants to combine a holiday to the amazing city of Istanbul with a fantastic strategic, different and challenging swim to join next year.