Istanbul! Great capital of commerce and culture, city of the Romans, Constantine and the Ottomans, the gateway to Asia, the pearl in Europe's crown! Like Sydney and San Francisco it's built around a great natural harbour, and like them it's blessed with a sunny and welcoming population. It's a city that is a joy to visit and be part of, even if only briefly. And it's a vast and busy working city; my job is in shipping, and as my friends and I stood looking out on Saturday at the "ship porn" shuttling between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara I couldn't help murmuring admiringly "Will you look at the cranes on that!" as yet another bulk carrier went by.
For the Bosphorus is one of the world's busiest shipping channels, and yet, once a year, in July, the Turkish authorities do a wonderful thing; they close the strait completely to maritime traffic for half a day so that 2000 nutso swimmers can jump into the water on the Asian side just north of the Faith Sultan Mehmet bridge and swim 6.5 km down with the current to the Europe side just north of the Bogazici, or Bosphorus, bridge. It's a fabulous sporting event, one of the world's great iconic swims in one of the world's most beautiful cities, and if you've got any kind of open water skill or ambition, you'd be mad not to do it.
In the run-up to and aftermath of the race, Swimtrek were awesome. They smoothed out all the lumps and bumps in the road and organised everything so that all their 200 swimmers had to do was to turn up where and when they were told (and do a bit of swimming, of course!). I can't praise the Swimtrek reps enough. There were three of them manning the Swimtrek stand at the event venue and looking after us, in addition to the local reps organising transport, and they remained unfailingly cheerful and helpful despite long days in 35° heat with, unlike their charges, no prospect of a swim. Having them there to look after us made all the difference. If you're doing the Bosphorus with them, I have one acronym for you: RTBE! (Read The Blooming Email... :-)). They provide you with all the information you need to get to and from the swim and through the registration process and the initial preparations. If you read everything they send you, you'll be well set.
And what of the race itself? Well, first off, it's fantastic. The Bosphorus is glorious, and to swim down it on a glittering summer day through one of the world's iconic cities is a magical experience. The water is clear blue and, for British swimmers, gloriously warm - I must admit that our group of hardened outdoor swimmers had a bit of a giggle at the advice in the event manual for swimmers to "swim continuously so as not to get cold" and to ask for help if overcome by "unstoppable cold and trembling". Looking down as I swam I saw numerous beautiful and harmless moon jellyfish, tiny fish glittering in the sunlight and the occasional shadow of a bigger fish further down. The water is perfectly clean and brackish, so you get a nice bit of buoyancy without having the unpleasant scouring effects of true seawater. The current should make it a fast six and a half kilometres, although the day we did it there was a cheeky headwind which added twenty minutes onto the fastest time compared with the year before and turned it into quite a solid swim. And you are part of a sporting event which is the equivalent of the London marathon; as you go about the city you see posters for the event, media helicopters hover overhead as you swim, and when you come in there are crowds lined up along the side cheering the swimmers. It's quite an experience.
Race day! An early start, nervous preparations and then crowding onto to the site with 1,999 other swimmers plus hundreds of supporters, officials, sponsors and media. How the Turkish officials managed to get 2,000 of us changed, marshalled and ready, timer chips on, hats and goggles to hand, on board the boat to the start by 9am I have no idea, but they did. We thought the boat trip to view the course the day before was crowded but it was nothing to this, with swimmers crammed absolutely everywhere, jammed on the rear platforms, taking up every seat, sitting on the floor and on the stairs, standing and carrying out big swingey pre-race stretches that endangered the health of anyone unwise enough to try to squeeze past. Adam Walker, a celebrity swimmer, went through the boat and was roundly cheered, particularly by the British contingent. We docked at the start point at 9.30 and endured a long, nerve-wracking wait while first the elite swimmers and then the disabled swimmers went off. Swimmers jammed the stairs, desperate to start. One of our party commented "I do wish we could get on with it." "Nervous, huh?" "No, I'm dying for a wee." And then, bang on ten o'clock, the hooter went for the start of the race, and the mass of swimmers started to shuffle towards the door onto the start pontoon.
And then it's wish your mates good luck and settle your goggles and cap, shuffle shuffle shuffle towards the exit over heaps of discarded towelling slippers, given to us in our registration packs specifically for the journey to the start, and slip your own slippers off and then you're on the pontoon! and the water stretches before you, huge and blue and smeared with comet tails of white from hundreds of yellow-hatted swimmers heading out into the strait.
Find a gap, wait for space in the water and jump! And the water rushes up past you, bubbles rising, spot some jellyfish further down and then up, breaking the surface and start to swim, striking out towards the middle of the channel with swimmers everywhere, swimmers to the left, to the right, in front, coming past you from behind, crossing you, bumping into you. I was very glad for my open-water training (with the awesome Dan Abel for Swimtrek at Tooting Bec Lido - highly recommended!) but it wasn't long before it emptied out and I was following the crowd towards the middle of the enormous span of the Mehmet Faith Sultan bridge.
It's ridiculous, given that the start is only a little way upstream from that bridge, but a number of us commented that it seemed to take for ever to reach it. Swim swim, sight, swim swim sight, on and on and the bridge remained stubbornly distant. Things weren't helped by the fact that I was having trouble with my goggles at this point and had to keep stopping to empty them and try to fix them. Then suddenly the shadow of the bridge was over me, my goggles were sorted and I could settle down and enjoy the swim. It's amazing how 2,000 swimmers can get lost in a piece of water as big as the Bosphorus (not literally - the fantastic Turkish rescue craft did a lap of honour for the crowds at the end of the race, hooting and waving, before sweeping back up the course, presumably to make sure that no swimmers were still plugging away before they reopened the shipping lanes). For much of the swim I felt as if I was swimming alone, although raising my head to sight usually revealed a reassuring number of yellow caps ahead and to either side.
In the run-up to the event our little group of swimmers was abuzz with rumours, particularly about the end of the swim, with dire warnings circulating to the effect that if you missed the finish you'd be stuck in an unswimmable current sweeping down towards the Bogazici Bridge and have to be ignominiously fished out by the rescue boats. Our route research the day before, which involved studying the race map and making sure we took the boat trip up the course so we could pick out landmarks to sight by, had indicated that one should start one's turn into the finish at the far end of Galatasaray Island; in fact I started a bit earlier as I was well out into the middle of the channel as I passed Galatasaray and was worried that I wouldn't be able to get in before the current swept me past. In the event it was fine and I was able to steer a more or less perpendicular course into the finish, although the headwind probably mitigated the effects of the current somewhat.
And then I was swimming past the crowds on the bank, one of dozens of swimmers approaching the steps out, and climbing out, handing over my timer chip and making my way up into the athletes' village to be greeted by friends who had already finished and exchange hugs and high-fives. We did it! We swam the Bosphorus! And then waiting for times and results, and hearing the medal ceremonies over the tannoy, and discovering that amongst our little group were two bronze medals for two of the women who each came third in their age group. These girls can!!! But in the end all of us were winners, hugely proud of ourselves for having completed such an iconic swim.
One final word - when you do the swim, don't forget to enjoy it! On the day I enjoyed most of it, but there were bits, particularly towards the end, where I was worrying about how I'd cope with getting into the finish and I forget to really appreciate the moment. In the event, all the practice and training I did really paid off; as a swim it was well within my capacity and I wish I'd worried a little bit less and enjoyed a bit more. Learn from my experience and if you've prepared well, remember to fully appreciate the moment. And appreciate it you will - the Bosphorus Intercontinental Swim is a magical, bucket-list thing to do and Swimtrek are the people to do it with.