Swimming the Bosphorus by Swim Coach Andrew
Swimming the Bosphorus is an annual Cross Continental open water swim event between Asia and Europe in Istanbul. At 10am on the third Sunday in July, one of the worlds busiest shipping lanes briefly closes. Nearly 2500 competitors from all over the world then swim the 6.4 kilometres course in a maximum of two hours to try and complete the distance. Those who take longer than two hours are pulled from the water. on 22 July 2018, I swam the Bosphorus, a swim like no other and easily the most enjoyable swim I have ever been apart of!
Why did I find swimming the Bosphorus so special?
The Bosphours event is run by the Turkish Olympic Association and so was clearly very well organised. Being held on the Sunday allowed for a 3 day trip to Istanbul. This meant the swim was just one part of a really enjoyable weekend with like-minded people. However, the pre-race boat trip, jumping into the Bosphorus to get started and navigating the best route down a seriously wide river was certainly an exciting finale.
Gaining a place on the Bosphorus swim isn’t easy. Either a successful ballot place is required or as I did, signing up through a swimming holiday company some 8 months in advance. We were told that for the 1000 overseas entry ballot places there were 24,000 applications. Even with an entry place, swimmers have to undergo a medical and get signed off by a swimming coach. Having a place to swim the Bosphorus was therefore definitely an excitement and an achievement in itself!
On the Friday evening around 280 of the swim holiday company participants met in a roof top bar for welcome drinks. It was great to meet like minded swimming participants. We also had an informative talk from the tour leaders who have previously swum in the event. It was only then that I began to really get an understanding of the technical challenges of the swim. This wasn’t an A to B swim in the docks, but instead an event with technical, tactical, endurance and speed all thrown into one. The river currents sounded enduring.
The day before the Bosphorus Cross Continental Swim
We were up early on Saturday morning. In hindsight, choosing to continue on in the local bar with a couple of other competitors until 2am probably wasn’t my smartest move of the weekend! However, somehow the drinks added to the atmosphere of the weekend further, the event had definitely become about more than just the 6.4 kilometre swim. Throughout the weekend, there was a genuine excitement amongst the group about all that we were about to achieve.
Saturday morning was spent picking up our race bags with timing chip and hat from Cemil Topuzul Park. We then took an official boat trip along the swim course of the Bosphorus. The boat trip allowed us to learn the best route to take, though it was at this point I made my error for the weekend. We were receiving the course information in 3 languages and I understood the boat was taking the fastest route back to the finish. However, come race day, I was clearly too far to the right hand side after the first bridge and lost time there. Not to worry.
Saturday afternoon and early evening was spent sighting seeing with a small number of the group.
Swimming the Bosphorus Event Day on Sunday 22 July 2018
We were picked up at 07:45am and taken to Cemil Topuzul Park, just north of the Bosphorus Bridge in the European side of the city. The Park was also the finishing point of the race. By 08:45am I was on the boat, sat ready to be ferried up the river to the Pier of Kanlica in the Asian part of Istanbul. The event organisers split the participants into age order with the oldest participant being number 1. The participants were roughly split into half with the over 35’s on one boat and the under 35’s on the other.
Unsurprisingly, for Istanbul in July, the boats are hot and toilets are very limited. Carrying a drink onto the boat is therefore highly recommended, though water is supplied on board too. My top tip for the boats is to find a seat in the shade, on the deck with the exit and to carry on being seated right up until the doors open for the start. I was in the second boat, with the orange hats, and we only started our swim about 30 minutes after docking at the Pier of Kanlica. My second error of the weekend was to stand up in the masses for much longer than I needed to!
Once the boat doors opened we rushed out onto the attached pontoon and we were off, jumping into and swimming the Bosphorus. The first task was to get out and away from being on the Asian side of the Bosphours. By the river side the water was choppy, currents were forcing us back and eddies were being created. The start was arguably the hardest section and we aimed for going under the middle of the first bridge, as here was where we could swim with the fastest river current.
Heading for the Bosphorus Bridge
After bridge one, the top swimmers headed towards the lowest point of an electricity line crossing the Bosphorus. Unfortunately this was where I found myself too far to the right hand side. It took time for me to swim towards the coldest and therefore the fastest river current. Once I had found the current then the swim was blissful, keeping long and strong strokes as I glided and reaped the rewards of the current. I was quickly onto overtaking many of the green hatted over 35’s. Here I was navigating my way towards the Bosphorus bridge, constantly feeling the water temperature on both sides of my body to find the coldest sections.
The end of the swim has a notorious reputation for taking prisoners! Each year tens of participants literally miss the end of the swim and have to then try and battle back to the exit steps against the current. Some swimmers do make it back, though the physical cost on their time is immense. The tempting part of the swim is to stay with the fastest flowing central current for too long. However, I cut to the right in plenty of time and didn’t take risks on not completing. In hindsight, I could have stayed more central for perhaps another 500 meters and if I compete in 2019 then I will.
Climbing out of the steps and onto the pontoon at Cemil Topuzul Park, I was met with a really buzzing atmosphere of delighted swimmers, spectators and officials handing out swimming the Bosphorus branded towels. Awesome. As the results board quickly updated, I got my time of 01:03:18, finishing 28th out of about 300 in the male 30-35 category and 149th out of about 2500 overall. Will I be back in 2019? I certainly hope so!
Perhaps you might feel inspired to take up open water swimming? Join us for a Swim Coaching Session with Turner Swim at the Docklands Sailing and Watersports Centre by Canary Wharf. We offer both one-to-one and group open water swim coaching sessions for all those who can swim 50 meters or more. So whether you are new to open water swimming or are an experienced competitor, we can help you with your swimming.
A huge thank you to Charlotte and Zoe at newbody Osteopathy for their excellent treatment and care. In the 10 of the 17 days before the event, they were treating me for a facet lock that was putting me out of training. Charlotte and Zoe are highly recommended.