We are indebted to Rory Slater who undertook a gruelling swimming challenge across the Cannakele Straits to raise funds to benefit the DBF.
As you will see from his wonderful write up of his experience, Rory had been inspired by “Reach for the Sky” and had also exchanged letters with Sir Douglas many years before. He also, coincidentally, had a connection with RAF Kinloss, one of our favourite Young Aviators Day venues and site of both the start and finish of our Flying Day events for 2017. This is why he chose the DBF to benefit from his efforts and we are deeply grateful to him.
Read on for Rory’s own story in words and pictures….
2 Swim Challenge – Rory Slater
About 15 minutes after entering the water, I looked up to see the amazing sight of the dual-carriageway middle Bosphorus bridge some 200 feet above me. Looking down the Bosphorus, I could just make out the first bridge about 7km away, and which lay just beyond the finishing point. By this time, land lay about 600m to my left and right, and ‘the bottom’ about 120m below me; at that point, puffing and panting, I confess to a moment of panic and self-doubt!
It had seen such a good idea some 8 months before to enter one of the world’s most iconic open-water swims; although I consider myself a strong swimmer, I had never swum outside of a swimming pool except for when on beach holidays.
The Bosphorus, the strait that connects the Black Sea in the north to the Sea of Marmara in the south, runs right through the city of Istanbul, separating the European and Asian continents. With much of the city spread along the hills overlooking the Bosphorus, Golden Horn and Sea of Marmara, the setting is spectacular. The annual inter-continental “race” from Asia to Europe, held towards the end of July each year, is organised by the Municipality of Istanbul and the Turkish Olympic Committee and is sponsored by Samsung. The 2017 event, the 29th cross-Bosphorus swim, saw 2277 swimmers entered from 49 countries – the ‘international swimmer’ quota of about 1000 was filled within 16 minutes of the website opening!
The race is the one time of the year that the Bosphorus is closed to what is otherwise a Piccadilly Circus-like procession of ships big and small in both directions. The swim starts 1km north of the second of three bridges, and ends about 1km north of the first bridge (now named The July 15 Bridge, in memory of those who died on the bridge in the attempted ‘coup d’etat’ on that day in 2016) and follows the north to south direction of the main Bosphorus current. If you judge the course correctly, the distance is 6.5 kms. If you don’t …
In the lead-up to this event, and in a moment of possible over-confidence, I had also entered another cross-continental swim, this time from Europe to Asia, similarly about 6.5km, and crossing the Canakkele Straights (previously the Dardanelles and which runs from the Sea of Marmara to the Mediterranean) between the towns of Eceabat and Canakkele and both known for their successful resistance to the British/French naval attempt to break through the Ottoman sea defences en route to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915.
So, mid-Bosphorus and feeling distinctly uneasy, it was a matter of believing that if I swam for only another hour, I would be at the finish! Slowly, the landmarks as pointed out to us on an organised boat recce two days previously, passed by: the second bridge, the headland with the large Turkish flag, the crossing overhead power cables (aim for the lowest point which indicates the middle and, therefore, the location of the strongest current), the Galatasary island – the point to turn right and aim for the finish! Less than 1km to go! And then it was the fight to the finish point, firstly against the opposing currents that first wanted to sweep you beyond the finish and then back north again and away from the finish, and secondly against the other swimmers all desperate to get to the closest exit steps and to save themselves precious seconds! This was a bizarre moment as, although I knew there were over 2000 other swimmers in the water with me, I had seen no one from about 10 minutes after the start until now – about 60 minutes later! However, my 3 work-friends and I all successfully finished in times ranging from 1 hour 12 to 1 hour 25…..I was 1.17 and disappointed.
However, personally, I was now very nervous at my own ability to complete the Canakkele swim, an event well known to be considerably more challenging and technical owing to the stronger and more variable wind, currents and wave height! But I reasoned that aiming to raise money for a charity would provide me with another incentive other than just personal pride – but which charity from the myriad that exist! I decided that I wanted it to be a smaller, lesser-known charity, and also involved with children. Trawling the Internet for ideas, I stumbled across the Douglas Bader Foundation and, more specifically, the Bader Braves! What could be more appropriate, for it had been reading Reach For The Sky at the age of 8 that had created my ambition to fly in the Royal Air Force, further fostered by a number of letters between Sir Douglas and myself, the last in which he congratulated me on being accepted into the Royal Air Force at Cranwell in 1981 and from where he had graduated in 1930! The final coincidence, that sealed this charity as my choice, was that only in March 2017 had the Bader Braves held a flying event at (RAF) Kinloss where I had served, flying on Nimrod aircraft from 1985.
At the end of August, my wife and I drove just over 200 miles to Eceabat before crossing over on the ferry to Canakkele. At the pre-event briefing the night before, it was pointed out that concerns over the strong winds forecast for the following day had led to the decision to start the race 30 minutes earlier in the morning; my phone App told me that the forecast winds of 25 mph would lead to waves of about 3-4 feet! Oh great!
Needless to say, I hardly slept that night as I worried about the weather conditions, stories I had read about unsuccessful swimming crossings (including the story from mythology about Leander who was in love with Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite. Every night, he swam the crossing to see her until one night, in a terrible storm, when he drowned), and possibly failing myself and my sponsors. Safety was not really too much of a concern as I knew that there was a fleet of safety boats, either side of and lining our route!
The morning dawned windy as forecast and by 0730, the swimmers were all on the ferry back across to Eceabat; we would be swimming back about 90 minutes later! I chatted to a number of other swimmers, approximately 480 of whom only about 20 were non-Turkish! One lady told me that it was her third swim, that she had almost given up before finishing the previous year, and that the weather this year was far worse! The waves did look awfully high…..Oh, how my confidence was not rising!
Anyway, it was not long before the start was called; we all rushed down and onto the beach, crossing the timing mats, and into the water. Similar to the Bosphorus, there was an initial melee of thrashing arms, legs and bodies……then only an occasional sight of a pink limb through the murky water. However, unlike the Bosphorus, the water was very rough. One second up, the next down…..one breath completed, the next a wave crashing over your head just as you breathe in! However, I remember it as quite funny……and drew on other readings of how to try to ‘learn’ the wave pattern in order to expect the next impact. I was also remembering the navigation tips: aim for the tall mast on the other shore until at least 500m across, don’t turn right too soon or you stand the chance of being swept down the straits and past the finish, aim for the football stadium lights when you do turn, then look for the finish point! I found it amusing again when, raising my head to look ahead, my view was often totally obscured by an oncoming wave that served to break over my head. Wary of turning right too early, I was soon aware of a whistling to my left; one of the safety boats was shouting and indicating to me to turn…..I was over halfway across! The minutes passed by…..on each sighting ahead, the coast got a little closer……..but each time I looked up, my target landmark was in a different place…..maintaining a straight line whilst front-crawling in that current was very difficult.
Suddenly, it seemed, I was approaching the finish from the north rather than the north-west…..I was being sucked into the coast and found myself swimming towards a Turkish naval frigate moored a hundred metres or so from the finish. Being buffeted from the waves bouncing back of the ship’s side, front crawl was impossible; resorting to breaststroke, I was then aware of a line of bemused Turkish sailors looking down at me as I was trying to avoid hitting the metal sides. And then I was past the ship and heading to the finish point – a hand railed gangway up onto the finish timing mats. As at the Bosphorus, it is a real test of balance suddenly standing up after a period of lying on your front! Looking at my stopwatch, I saw that I had finished in 1.07…..10 minutes faster than the Bosphorus and feeling so much better too!
So, in hindsight, two fantastically fun events….challenging in their own ways. Most importantly, I was delighted that I could turn to my wonderful sponsors and say that their money had been successfully earned and was going to contribute to giving some wonderful people some amazing memories, and a chance to taste something that both Sir Douglas and I loved……flying.
It’s not too late to add to Rory’s hard-earned donation if you’d like to support his efforts retrospectively. You can click on the link to access his JustGiving fundraising page.