Intercontinental Swims


I am aware of three intercontinental swims that can truly be called “Intercontinental.”

The first is the Dardanelles in Turkey, from the European side to the Asian side, not very far from Istanbul.  It is not a very long swim, but it is difficult for two reasons.  First, there is a lot of commercial traffic between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.  Second, it is not easy to get permission from the Turkish government to swim there.  (Another nearby possibility is an organized swim in the Bosporus, in Istanbul.)

When I did it in 2001 I had obtained permission, I had a good pilot and was trained and ready.  My route was from the Gallipoli Peninsula to the town of Canakale on the Asian side.  Aside from my pilot boat, there was another boat full of looky-loos and journalists watching as I walked to the end of a pier.  When I looked down into the clear water I was shocked to see thousands of six-inch jelly fish carpeting the surface.  No backing out now.  I prayed and I jumped.  Whew!  Aside from catching hold of a slimy one every few strokes, they were harmless, just icky.

About three quarters of the way across, my pilot shouted that I had to make a left turn, FAST.  There was a massive Russian LNG supertanker, much bigger than I, coming fast, right across my path.  Left turn, 300 meters, then a right turn across the churning wake, and resume my swim.  The problem was that I was now well off course.  When I touched shore I was now on a Turkish military base, with three screaming soldiers waving Kalashnikovs headed my way.  I did a quick u-turn and swam south to Canakkale, a half hour late, where my friends doused my head with champagne.

The second intercontinental swim is in the Bering Strait.  It is a cheater because it does not actually touch the Asian and North America continents.  But because it is between a Russian Island (Ratmanova) and an Alaskan Island (Little Diomede) it qualifies.  The distance is about four kilometers.  The water is normally 35°-45°F in the summer.  The north bound current can be quite strong.  But the big problem is that it is a very sensitive political area for the Russian government.  The great American swimmer, Lynne Cox, had made the east-west crossing several years before me.  No one had ever done the swim from west to east, Russia to Alaska.  (This swim was actually a leg of my non-motorized circumnavigation of the earth.)

Little Diomede is a very difficult place to visit.  It took four flights to get there.  Moses Milligrok, the head man of the local clan of Diomede Eskimos was my host and my guide.  We set out from Little Diomede in his umiak on 20 July 1993, crossed the International Date Line, and arrived at Ratmanova, Russia, on 19 July.  I will not go into details about the legality of the swim, but let it suffice that on that day I became the first person to swim from Russia to Alaska.  The sun was shining, the water was predictably very cold.  I wore a wet suit, hood, gloves and booties.  I even saw a whale during my swim.  (If you want to read the whole story, please see Chapter XII in my book, “With a Single Step.”)

The third intercontinental swim is between Europe and Africa, across the Strait of Gibraltar.  This swim is more of a classic, and requires permission from both Spain and Morocco.  A group of six of us had permission from Spain to do a relay to Morocco.  But there was a little problem about the sovereignty of a group of islands, the Persiles, claimed by both Spain and Morocco.  They were having a shouting war over the islands.  As a result, the Moroccans refused the request by the Spanish authorities for us to land on Moroccan soil.  A solution was at hand: Spain still owns two colonial cities on the coast of Morocco, the cities of Ceuta and Melilla, several miles to the east of the Strait.

So instead of doing the classic swim across the Strait of Gibraltar, we did a new never-before-done swim from European Spain to African Spain, ending in the city of Ceuta.  Rafael Gutierrez Mesa, the Port Captain of Tarifa, Spain, gave us a pilot boat and a Red Cross zodiac with two lifeguards.  The water was delightful.  There was heavy traffic, but our pilot kept us on a course to avoid the big ships.  All the way across we were accompanied by a school of playful dolphins.  When we reached Ceuta on the African coast, we were welcomed by the locals for making the first ever crossing.  What a day!

There is actually a fourth possibility for an international crossing, and I do not think that it has ever been done.  The distance is about 50 kilometers from Saudi Arabia on the Asian side to Egypt in Africa.  The route would pass the southern coasts of Jordan and Israel on the Gulf of Aqaba.  The problem, of course, is that both Saudi Arabia and Egypt are currently ruled by tyrannical governments and getting permissions would be difficult at best.  But maybe, someday, when the world comes to its senses, maybe a swim across from Asia to Africa would be possible.  Maybe.  It is something to hope for.  Want to join me on a relay swim when and if it ever happens?

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