Friday, 19 November 2010

Hellespont race report

All – I hope you are very well. Back in August I just about managed to swim from Europe to Asia across the Hellespont. I’ve finally got around to sorting out the competition winners and hoped that you would be interested in:

· The race report from Çanakkale
· The winner of the Lord Bryon poetry competition
· The *** shock result ***of the Greatest Asian Explorer poll
· Sponsoring Guide Dogs for the Blind

Guide dogs received no government funding. It costs 40k to train a dog and I would be grateful of any donation – great or small. Many thanks to the people who have already donated more than £1,400.

Race Report

I have often thought that the safety briefings for this type of event can be more physically and mentally challenging that the race itself. The organising panel consisted of seven serious looking Turkish Rotary members who convened a “mandatory” two hour briefing at the local university. The scene was somewhat reminiscent of the UN. Clearly unwilling to establish a hierarchy among the committee members, we were treated to broadly the same speech seven times. Personally I would have opted for one who spoke English, but perhaps that’s why I am not a diplomat.

The only interesting part of the briefing concerned the tides and current in the Hellespont. Apparently the currents would be very strong. “If you don’t follow the boat with balloons on top, you will be washed away. Ha ha ha!” said the one who looked a bit a cross between like Colonel Gaddafi and Bob Dylan. “This happened to lots of people last year”, he concluded, looking unreasonably pleased at the idea.

As an additional part of the comical health and safety regime, swimmers were required then to undergo a “medical”. The rigour of this procedure varied considerably based on gender. Male swimmers were passed as fit based on their ability to stand up and generally appear alive, whilst female swimmers required close inspection of their chest with a stethoscope in a private room.

Anyway, the next morning the field of 414 swimmers arrived at the starting beach to be presented with a large fleet of boats with no balloons at all. I concluded that the Turkish version of Woolworths must have also gone bankrupt, and it is of course much harder to buy balloons in the post-financial crisis world. Overnight the wind had also picked up considerably and was gusting force 5: quite a big sea, normally described as “lumpy” by swimmers. The English organiser attempted to tell the foreign swimmers that it was too dangerous to attempt, but frankly the assembled Australians weren’t very interested in listening to that, and in the melee a Turkish boat started firing off flares which the field took to signal the start.

The field departed the shore and very soon I could see swimmers being pulled into safety boats. It was far too choppy to see properly, and I wondered where I might finish up. The assembled safety boats became a liability and I started to wish that my Turkish phrase book contained the translation for “Please could you move your large propeller a little further away from my ankles, Giuseppe”.

After an hour or more the coast came into sight. I could feel the tide and current ripping down the coast line and managed to sprint into the shore finishing a rather poor 9th place in my age group. More than 200 people missed the end point all together and were picked up miles downstream – a completion rate of only 50%. To my delight a Turkish chap (long arms, short legs) overturned the Australian favourites to win the race by several minutes: a fitting result on the Turkish Victory day.


With thanks to: Swim trek, the Turkish Rotary Club, Freda Streeter, Chrissie Thirlwell, Sean Dilley, Nick Adams, Clifford Golding, Barrie and Irene

Thursday, 26 August 2010

About Lord Byron

"I plume myself on this achievement more than I could possibly do on any kind of glory, poetical, political or rhetorical.”Lord Byron: 1810, after successfully crossing the Hellespont

George Gordon Noel Byron, 6th Baron Byron was born on 22nd January 1788. A particularly dissolute father Captain “Mad Jack” Byron saw him fritter away his wife’s fortune and whose subsequent death in 1791 left his unstable wife and son in certain penury. Combined with such behaviour and being of ill-health, Byron’s contempt of his aristocratic relations and his affliction of his club foot left an indelible mark on his pride and sensitivity.

Having inherited the family title and estate in 1798, Byron spent a life seeking the difference between the high goals of idealism set against the less important realities of experience. To compensate Byron became a maverick in every sense. His physical disability was nullified by his physical passion of swimming.

It has to be noted that Byron’s swims appear to be the first recorded open water swims of modern times. Swims in Cambridge as an undergraduate led to adventures in the Grand Canal in Venice, the Tagus in Lisbon Harbour and his most famous, the Hellespont in Turkey.

Lord Byron Poetry Competition

Byron wrote one of his famous verses “Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos” in recognition of his swim and in praise of Hero’s nightly crossings to his beloved Leander (below).

See if you can do better than Byron to win some Falafel and Hummus. Entries should be submitted by 10th September via email or blog comment.

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 wintry tempest roared,
He sped to Hero, nothing loath,
And thus of old thy current poured,
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 today.
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.
Lord Byron: 1810

(Ague: malaria or fever)

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Manhattan Island Marathon race report, 6th June

After arriving in Manhattan on Wednesday, Friday was spent a compulsory pre-race safety briefing on Governors Island. 5 hours of tedium ensued, although I am sure that the procedure for evacuating the Hudson River in the event of nuclear war will prove useful at some point in the future.

Race day itself – 4am start. Rocked up to Battery Park and put on loads of Vaseline and paced about a lot frowning. There were loads of Australians knocking about who have evidently done a lot more training than me and the scene generally resembled the set from Land of the Giants. NYPD turned up – they all have bad hair cuts for some reason – they proceeded to eat donuts and swear at the boat officials.

In the East River, mid-town with Rick, kayaker #1

7.15am the race finally got underway. Slight delay to the start – who knows why. The swimmers jumped in the water and the organisers swiftly removed the steps, hence ensuring there was no turning back. I was escorted by two kayakers and a boat. We hooned it up the East river (pictured above) with a strong tidal assist. The water in the East and Harlem rivers was pretty warm (64Fish) although it was considerably colder in the Hudson possibly due to the Atlantic. Swimming under the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges proved an immense experience.

Having passed the UN - no sign of Ban Ki-moon despite appeals for a wave - we entered Hell’s Gate. Three rivers meet and the currents are going all over the shop. It proved very hard to get through and 3 or 4 swimmers were pulled out. Thereafter the Harlem River – and the dead dog sampling began. I worked on the assumption that anything which touched me in the river was a dog. I did an Economics degree so wild assumptions come easily. 3 dogs encountered by the time we passed the Yankees stadium plus lots of bits of wood too.

In the Harlem River – drinking Maxim and appealing for pain killers

My crew did a tremendous job of preparing feeds and motivation. To swim for 8 hours, you have to drink a lot of Maxim, a carbohydrate liquid drink. It tastes awful, makes you vomit and destroys your stomach for at least a week, but is otherwise highly effective. I had 13 feeds in 8 hours and limited the feeding time to about 15 seconds each. You are not allowed to touch boat or crew whilst feeding and it’s actually quite stressful trying to take as much liquid as possible in a short period whilst avoiding swallowing river water.

Finally we cleared the Harlem River and entered the Hudson. This was the only time it got choppy and I recall having my left and right arms in completely opposite currents. We made it to mid-town on the Westside and I was cheered by thoughts of Ronan Keating. I finally finished in 8 hours 19 minutes and 44 second in 11th place (of 25). The Australia winner, John van Wisse, has finished more than an hour before and was looking unreasonably fresh - Australia won the men’s and women’s races by miles – not a good omen for the Ashes.


I would like to thank: Chrissie Thirlwell, Matt Jackson, The General, Nick Adams, The moo, Irene and Barrie, Cliff Golding, my parents, Otter Swimming Club, the German, Rick and Len (kayakers) and Swimtrek for all of their generous help

The competitions:
How many Deads Dogs are in the Harlem River?

The winner goes to ****David Blackwood who guessed 5 dogs****. The answer is in fact 3 dogs and a giraffe which is a visiting circus “dropped” in the river two years ago. NB - I am assuming a ratio of 1 giraffe to 2 dogs so David wins. The ratio may be ridiculous but so is the competition so no appeals please. Special commendation goes to John Weiss who’s estimating methodology was impressive but ultimately wrong– see here*. He wins some bonus onion rings

Why is Otter Lane 3 the Best?

Easy really – the answer is C – “’cos we’ve got the German”. ****Fiona Marshall wins a bottle of Veuve Cliquot and some onion rings****. Commendation to James Peaches for his critique of other lanes…apparently there are high volumes of dead dogs in lane 5 too (his words not mine, ladies). He gets some onion rings.


Finally – the small print. I am compelled to acknowledge that Conor Rowley is (presently) a better swimmer than me and that I will pay 75 quid to a charity of his choice. I can only say that he should get a job and stop messing about doing so much training

Tuesday, 9 June 2009


Saturday was a beautiful day of sun and I managed to get round manhattan in 8 hours 19 minutes and 44 seconds. I finished 11th which I was pleased with (although I got thrashed by Conor, the young pup).

The results can be found on

Race report to follow in a day or two.


Thursday, 4 June 2009

Manhattan Island Swim

On Saturday morning, 6th June, I intend to swim around the island of Manhattan, New York City, in aid of Guide Dogs for the Blind. Starting from Battery Park at the southern tip of the island, the 28.5 mile route takes in the East, Harlem and Hudson rivers to complete a full circumnavigation of Manhattan.

The race - known as the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim - consists of a field 25 solo swimmers from all over the world, armed only with standard swimming paraphernalia - one swim suit, a pair of goggles and a hat.

Training with the General

Over recent months I am lucky to have been trained by Freda Streeter, the Channel General (pictured below). Freda's advice is always concise and to the point: she is a keen advocate of keeping plans simple. Following my final training session on Sunday - 4 hours in Dover harbour - she advised "Right boy - Get through Hell's Gate as quick as you can, and watch out for the dead dogs in the river". With that I was dismissed.

Rob pictured below with Freda Streeter, the Channel General, Dover May 2009

I suppose the plan is slightly more complex than Freda’s standard English Channel briefing which consists solely of "Right boy - get your f***ing down and don't stop until you get to France."

Not easily impressed, the General, she has only ever said "well done" to me once. For that I had to swim for 7 hour in Dover harbour in what I recall as near hurricane conditions, contrasting only slightly with the General's observation that "there was something of a light breeze out there today".

Her daughter, Alison Streeter MBE, holds the world record for completing 42 successful English Channel swims, including a 3 time way swim involving swimming from England to France, France to England, and then England to France again without stopping – a distance of more than 65 miles. This record is unlikely to be broken any time soon.

Guide Dogs

Guide dogs for the Blind receive no funding from the government and enable blind people to lead a more normal life. It costs nearly £40,000 to train a guide dog.

80% mental
It is frequently said that Channel Swimming and other long distance events are more of a mental challenge than a physical one. Having done rather limited training, I guess I am about to find out.
Race report to follow.

How many dead dogs are there in the Harlem River?

Simple competition to win the bottle of champagne. Please provide details of your estimating basis and I will judge based on my primary research on Saturday.

Respond by email or blog comment.