Stretching 30 kilometers, the Bosphorus is a narrow, natural strait that unites the continents of Asia and Europe.
Every year for the last three decades thousands of swimmers from around the world have come to Istanbul, Turkey to swim from one continent to the other.
Today, we’re taking you behind the scenes of one of the most exhilarating open water races in the world!
What is the Bosphorus?
The Bosphorus unites the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara off the coast of Istanbul. It’s one of the busiest waterways in the world, due to its strategic importance connecting the east and west.
Related: How I Swam From Asia to Europe
Istanbul is home to over 15 million residents and has been the capital city of three empires! First Byzantium, then Constantinople, and finally Istanbul. These empires each left incredible landmarks on the city’s skyline. From the Bosphorus, you can see countless palaces, mosques, churches and monuments that mark Istanbul’s rich history and culture.
Every year, 2,400 swimmers from around the world travel to Istanbul to compete in the annual Cross Continental Swim. The race covers 6.5 kilometers of the Bosphorus in the heart of Istanbul.
On the morning of the race, the strait completely shuts down for three hours. It’s just enough time to clear all the ferries, yachts and ships!
Tens of thousands of spectators line the Bosphorus on both the Asian and European sides to see a truly spectacular sight. Nowhere else will you see one of the busiest shipping channels in the world shut down so swimmers can race across it.
The backdrop of Istanbul’s magnificent Mosques, castles, and rich history adds a unique flavor to this one-of-a-kind spectacle.
All of the swimmers load onto two massive ships on the European side before being transported to the starting dock in Asia. Onboard the ship, you can feel everyone’s energy and excitement. Once we leave the dock, here’s no turning back!
We wear nothing but our swimsuits, goggles, caps, and tracking bracelets. The ships are divided by age group, and after a 15 minute cruise up the Bosphorus, we dock at the starting point. A starting platform is built in a matter of minutes, and it’s almost time for the race to begin!
When the starting gun goes off, the first wave of swimmers dives into the vibrant, blue waters of the Bosphorus. The older swimmers begin their journey back to Europe first while I wait patiently alongside 1,200 other swimmers. Within the first 30 seconds, over 500 swimmers have already started racing.
I don’t recall being nervous. I was more excited than anything. What was once a vision of swimming between two continents was about to become a reality!
After a few minutes, most of the swimmers had entered the water, and finally, it was my turn to take the plunge.
I walked to the edge of the starting platform, looked out at the nearly two thousand swimmers scattered across the Bosphorus, and dove in! From afar, we looked like thousands of piranhas nipping at the surface.
I felt strong, the water was cool, and I knew my sense of direction. Within a couple of minutes, I passed under the first bridge.
The Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge carries over 150,000 cars between Asia and Europe every day. I could barely believe I was swimming underneath it and I couldn’t help but swim a few strokes of backstroke to gaze up at this 8-lane suspension bridge — one of the largest in the world.
Moving past the first bridge, it became clear where the current was strongest. Veterans of this swim advise following the cool water flowing from the Black Sea for the fastest swim. If you can catch the cold water, usually right in the middle of the straight, you’ll be able to swim nearly twice as fast!
If you miss the current and swim off to the side, you may get sucked into a negative draft on the shoreline and go practically nowhere.
Sure enough, I found the cold current and got into rhythm. I felt good. The view was magnificent, and the sight of Istanbul’s architecture was something else entirely. Every breath I took gave me a new perspective.
Although I was one of the last swimmers to leave the starting platform, I wasn’t concerned because I knew the final race time was based on my timing chip and not when the first swimmer entered the water.
I used this to my advantage, and over the next 30 minutes proceeded to pass approximately two thousand swimmers by the time I reached the second bridge.
As I approached the finish, the current intensified. It was so strong, I felt like I was flying! I’ve never experienced anything like it.
The current is so powerful, in fact, that a series of safety boats position themselves just past the finishing platform to catch swimmers who get swept past the finish line. This happens to a couple dozen swimmers every year, and knowing this, I made sure to position myself accordingly for a strong finish.
As I neared the platform, I could see and hear thousands of spectators from the bleachers and shoreline. There were drones, helicopters, and fans at the park cheering for all of us to finish.
I took my final few strokes into the platform, and climbed out. I did it! I swam from Asia to Europe.
I placed third in my age group with a final time of 53 minutes and 36 seconds, and was the fastest swimmer from the United States across all age-groups. I averaged 48 seconds per 100 meters.
For context, the world record in the 100-meter freestyle is 46 seconds, meaning I swam at nearly world record pace for almost an hour. This isn’t to say how fast I am, but a comment on how strong the current is in the Bosphorus.
Related: Cenk Arioz | The #AskASwimPro Show
Most swimmers take anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes to complete the swim. The record time for this swim was set in 2006 at 39 minutes, or 36 seconds per 100 meters.
The race is followed by a televised awards ceremony hosted by members of the local government. Family and friends gather to watch and congratulate each other on completing the cross continental swim!
Why You Should Try the Bosphorus Race
If you’re considering this race, I highly recommend it! It’s incredible. The swim is well organized, the views are magnificent, and the city of Istanbul is amazing!
With international participants from over 50 countries, many travelers, including myself, take the opportunity to explore the beautiful city of Istanbul.
It’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, with a mesmerizing culture, delicious food, and a breathtaking skyline. I spent the week after the race exploring the city with my parents and it was truly an unforgettable experience.
Do you want to try this race? Let us know in the comments!