“We Enter on our Nautical Existence” – The Birth of Marathon Swimming – Part 1

I had intended this article to cover further the articles shared by Nick Adams from the turn of the last century, but I realised that I would have to digress from those accounts and go back to the classical origins that inspired the sport and thence to those whom the origins inspired. Hence, I’ve altered the sequence and called this the first (of two parts covering this part of the story), and will change the previous (initial) part to third, to be followed by a fourth and possibly fifth with the contemporaneous late 19th and early 20th century accounts.


Those interested in swimming history usually differentiate open water swimming and marathon swimming, with marathon swimming of course being those swims over 10 kilometres. But marathon swimming is the child of open water swimming, so to speak, open water swimming itself being the original and once the only version of the sport of swimming.

Open water swimming generally considers George Gordon’s (Lord Byron) crossing of the Dardanelles, then known as the Hellespont Strait, in 1810, to be the birth of the sport. But why did Byron cross the Hellespont?

Detail of a black and white painting of Leander Swimming the Hellespont by Bernard Picalt

Leander Swimming the Hellespont by Bernard Picalt

The Greek myth of Hero and Leander tells that a young Greek man called Leander, of the city of Abydos on what we’d now think of as the Asian (south-east) side of the strait, fell in love with Hero, a virgin priestess of Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love who lived in a tower in the city or town of Sestos on the European side.

Having apparently successfully used the Ancient Greek version of “hey, how you doin?“, he convinced the young Virgin Priestess to sleep with him, and thereafter he would swim the Strait every night through the summer. Until one night in autumn, a storm blew out the lamp in the tower where Hero waited. Lost in the storm, Leander was overwhelmed and drowned. And of course Hero killed herself, as this is a tragedy.

Incidentally, the Hellespont had gotten its name from Helle, a prince who fell from a flying golden ram, (which was the later source of the Golden Fleece that Jason, of Jason and the Argonauts fame, sought) into the Strait and drowned and the Strait was subsequently named after him.

Oil Portrait of George Gordon, (Lord Byron)

Portrait of George Gordon, (Lord Byron)

From his young days Byron (his name was George Gordon. Byron was the British Barony of which he was Lord, and is used as his name) was an avid swimmer. The scion of a wealthy family, he had the public-school classical education common to his class and a birth defect of a deformed foot which caused him perennial chronic pain and psychological misery. He endured it and didn’t let it slow him as he was became quite athletic and became an excellent boxer, horse-rider and of course swimmer. He wrote that the only time he felt relief was while swimming, and he swam everywhere he could, especially as a young man.

In 1810, at the age of 22 while travelling on the Grand Tour, a trip around the classical centres of Europe carried out by the wealthy and one of the origins of modern tourism, and doubtless aware of the story of Leander and Hero from his classical education, Byron attempted to recreate Leander’s swim. On his second attempt on May 3rd, successfully swam the Strait.  He had previously been unsuccessful on his first attempt a week earlier. The Strait varies from about a mile (1600 metres) to six kilometres wide, and he later described the swim as being approximately a mile, to which we’ll return to later.

An Oblique Map of the Dardanelles formerly known as the Hellespont strait

Oblique Map of the Dardanelles

The swim was later incorporated the second canto of one of his most famous poems, Don Juan, written in 1819. This part of the poem described a sea voyage in which the eponymous hero is the sole survivor of shipwreck who swims to land and safety, where early on in the canto Don Juan describes the Spanish Coast receding as they sailed out to sea:

I can’t but say it is an awkward sight
To see one’s native land receding through
The growing waters; it unmans one quite,
Especially when life is rather new:
I recollect Great Britain’s coast looks white,
But almost every other country ‘s blue,
When gazing on them, mystified by distance,
We enter on our nautical existence.

While the stanza above could describe any English Channel swimmer, similarly it would describe any ocean-goers leaving any coast, even myself swimming directly away from the shore on those rare days when such a mood takes me.

He offers some advice I haven’t seen yet tried by seasick swim crews though:

The best of remedies is a beef-steak
Against sea-sickness: try it, sir, before
You sneer, and I assure you this is true,
For I have found it answer—so may you.

This stanza below reminds me of the tale of the Wreck of the Sea Horse in Tramore that I recently covered, and the desperate attempt to swim to safety by some few of the crew.

The water left the hold, and wash’d the decks,
And made a scene men do not soon forget;
For they remember battles, fires, and wrecks,
Or any other thing that brings regret,
Or breaks their hopes, or hearts, or heads, or necks:
Thus drownings are much talk’d of by the divers,
And swimmers, who may chance to be survivors.

An influential poet, Byron is still much analysed, but I wonder how many have read the relevant section purely to see how Byron described the sea or swimming or more importantly, the birth of a sport.

Eventually, after many stanzas, which are a mix of mild humour and description of ship wreck and desperate survival of a few aboard a lifeboat, (which is instantly recognisable from many ship-wreck tales, like the aforementioned Thomas Redding’s first-hand account of the Sea Horse or Nathaniel Philbrick’s whaleship Essex), Byron finally reaches the point where he conflates himself with both Don Juan and Leander. Mr Ekenhead mentioned below was his travelling companion, and who also swam the Hellespont that first time, a name forgotten in swimming history.

But in his native stream, the Guadalquivir,
Juan to lave his youthful limbs was won’t;
And having learnt to swim in that sweet river,
Had often turn’d the art to some account:
A better swimmer you could scarce see ever,
He could, perhaps, have pass’d the Hellespont,
As once (a feat on which ourselves we prided)
Leander, Mr. Ekenhead, and I did.

I would note that nine years had passed between the swim and the poem and it’s difficult to believe that the poem is reflective or any real description of that first Channel swim across Hellespont, especially as the poem’s protagonist doesn’t actually swim to shore but is washed there on wreckage.

But my belief that Byron may have forgotten was shown to be mistaken when later in a letter in 1821, Byron responded to criticism from a Mr. William Turner (not the artist):

‘Lord Byron, when he expressed such confidence of its practicability, seems to have forgotten that Leander swam both ways, with and against the tide; whereas he (Lord Byron) only performed the easiest part of the task by swimming with it from Europe to Asia.’

He described how he and his companion (Mr. Ekenhead in the above quote) sought to prove if the Hellespont could be swum at all, as the tale of Leander and Hero had described.

My object was, to ascertain that the Hellespont could be crossed at all by swimming, and in this Mr. Ekenhead and myself both succeeded, the one in an hour and ten minutes, and the other in one hour and five minutes. The tide was not in our favour; on the contrary, the great difficulty was to bear up against the current, which, so far from helping us into the Asiatic side, set us down right towards the Archipelago. Neither Mr. Ekenhead, myself, nor, I will venture to add, any person on board the frigate, from Captain Bathurst downwards, had any notion of a difference of the current on the Asiatic side, of which Mr. Turner speaks. I never heard of it till this moment, or I would have taken the other course. Lieutenant Ekenhead’s sole motive, and mine also, for setting out from the European side was, that the little cape above Sestos was a more prominent starting place, and the frigate, which lay below, close under the Asiatic castle, formed a better point of view for us to swim towards; and, in fact, we landed immediately below it.

Further he responds to the assertion that anything thrown into the Hellespont will eventually reach the far Asiatic side, an assertion some English channel swimmers may recognize; that a log thrown into the sea at Dover will eventually reach France. He says it’s possible, but equally or even more likely that the object may be blown out into the Aegean Sea (the Archipelago).

This is so far from being the case, that it must arrive in the Archipelago, if left to the current, although a strong wind in the Asiatic direction might have such an effect occasionally.

Then the discussion becomes more interesting. We gradually realise that Mr. Turner tried the swim and did not succeed and therefore asserted that Byron must have lied.

“Mr. Turner attempted the passage from the Asiatic side, and failed: ‘After five-and-twenty minutes, in which he did not advance a hundred yards, he gave it up from complete exhaustion.’ This is very possible, and might have occurred to him just as readily on the European side. He should have set out a couple of miles higher, and could then have come out below the European castle.

Byron goes on:

I particularly stated, and Mr. Hobhouse has done so also, that we were obliged to make the real passage of one mile extend to between three and four, owing to the force of the stream. I can assure Mr. Turner, that his success would have given me great pleasure, as it would have added one more instance to the proofs of the probability. It is not quite fair in him to infer, that because he failed, Leander could not succeed. There are still four instances on record: a Neapolitan, a young Jew, Mr. Ekenhead, and myself; the two last done in the presence of hundreds of English witnesses.

I find this quite interesting. We see here and later two notable points, one which we encountered in the article about Webb’s first Channel attempt.

  1. The importance of witnesses. The unnamed Neapolitan seems to have had none such, at least that recorded the event, unlike Byron and Ekenhead, and by the presence of such, was immortalised in swimming.
  2. The use of the shorter geographical distance as the measure of the swim, not the distance actually swum.

Thus when Diana Nyad asserts, as she did on that infamous review panel in which I took part, that she was unaware of the requirements for official observers, she was not just contradicting the sport as it is since the early days of the 20th century, she was in fact contradicted something that was important right back to the very first channel swim by Byron and Ekenhead, right back at the birth of the sport.

“With regard to the difference of the current, I perceived none; it is favourable to the swimmer on neither aide, but may be stemmed by plunging into the sea, a considerable way above the opposite point of the coast which the swimmer wishes to make, but still bearing up against it; it is strong, but if you calculate well, you may reach land. My own experience and that of others bids me pronounce the passage of Leander perfectly practicable. Any young man, in good and tolerable skill in swimming, might succeed in it from either side. I was three hours in swimming across the Tagus, which is much more hazardous, being two hours longer than the Hellespont.

Here we see Byron talking as a swimmer, an experienced open water swimmer, talks about planning and calculating routes.

I have long held the yet-to-be-shaken belief that a fraudulent swimmer will be given away before they ever set foot into the water, as much by what they don’t say as what they later claim. There is something in how distance open water swimmers talk that is unmistakable to another real open water swimmer. So modern frauds always seem to get the minutiae and even more importantly the tone wrong.

In the next part, we’ll look at Byron’s other seminal swims.




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