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Original Issue

Anybody Here Ever Swim the Bosporus?

A noted novelist, fresh from a great athletic feat, meets the world's meanest bartender

If you happen to be in Istanbul, swim from Europe to Asia. It doesn't take more than half an hour of your time. All you need is a swim suit, a boat to get back and a few friendly witnesses. More or less inadvertently I swam the Bosporus one autumn day in 1953. At the time, Florence Chadwick was in Turkey, getting ready to swim the Bosporus—the strait connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara—and the Dardanelles, which link the Sea of Marmara to the Aegean. Fred Zusy of the Associated Press and I drove out to the wedding-cake hotel by the Bosporus where Florence was staying.

Zusy, who is built like a walrus but cannot swim, made a proposal: "You swim across and give me a good story. I'll pay for a motorboat, and Florence will come along for glamour," he said.

Florence acquiesced cheerfully, showing not a trace of annoyance that I was going to swim the Bosporus ahead of her.

The water was rough that day and the sky was cloudy. A wild breeze scudded erratically across the gray-blue surface, whipping the contesting currents into a white chop. The Oriental beach seemed a long way off.

My backers took several pictures of me in my bathing suit. Then they rowed out to a hired motorboat and waited for me to dive in.

Hearing me dive but seeing no sign of me, my supporters whirled in their seats. I had passed under them like a submarine, catching them unawares. "Start swimming," called Florence. Zusy cupped his hands and shouted, "And stay on the surface, will you?" He seemed fearful that he would lose me altogether.

I started to swim. I used the crawl, Florence's stroke for conquering the English Channel. The chop, every time I raised my head, kept cuffing me in the mouth. After about 40 strokes, punished for each breath by a wave in the face, I was puffing. To recover wind, I changed to the side-stroke. Both wind and current sported with me. I kept getting watery jabs in the face every time I tried to sip air.

When it seemed I must be nearly halfway to Asia, I decided to treat myself to a good long rest. I turned over on my back and floated shamelessly. Even when I floated into a whirlpool, I didn't care. I simply spun round and round, like a ball tossed into a roulette wheel.

This circular method of endurance swimming strained the morale of my backers considerably. I heard the launch draw near, its motor stilled to a quiet mutter. Fumes of gasoline drifted across my face. "Hey, are you all right?" said a voice across the waters. I couldn't think of an answer, so I went on floating disdainfully southward, rotating smoothly, silent and detached, beyond struggle and beyond care. I sensed that my witnesses were not very happy with my performance, but I had ceased to care about their feelings.


I began to see that Asia was not, after all, quite inaccessible. A headland with a castle was coming up on my horizon. I swam toward this promontory as hard as I could. When I was very weary, I took another spin on my back among the comfortable whirlpools. When I looked again, I had floated past the headland, and the castle was traveling steadily north. I had lost my chance.

My backers saw that I had missed too and brought the launch in closer. But Florence was still smiling. "Never mind," she called. "Give me just 20 strokes more!" I did, and looked up to see what Asia now offered. Having missed the headland, I was presented with a stony Asian bay with some new villas, barred by a frothing cross-rip. "Fine, give me another 20!" shouted Florence. The 20 was only 16, but Florence didn't mind. She kept smiling. "Ten more!"

It seemed a long, long time later when I noticed that the water under me was turning pale green. The paleness turned to stones, gray pebbles, the shore of Asia. Suddenly the shingle came up at me, hard, undeniable, real. My feet accepted my weight. Shakily I stood up on the slanting shelf, panting. I felt dizzy as I stumbled up the bank.

A few Turkish soldiers were washing their brown shirts in the waves, spreading them on the rocks. I waved at them gaily, full of comradeship and triumph. They merely nodded, a little calmly, I thought.


Discarding hard-won Asia without a pang, I waded out to the launch and was hauled aboard. The reception was generous. "Great! You were great!" said Zusy. Florence produced her best white bathrobe and wrapped it around me, murmuring, "Good swim, really." "Your time across the Bosporus," said Zusy, "was 23 minutes 15 seconds."

Later that night Zusy and I drove out to a nightclub, run by an elderly Greek friend of his. The cloakroom was quiet, the girls had already gone home, and the drummer was unscrewing his cymbals. We bounced in, full of triumph. "Big night, Kosta," said Fred. "I brought you a hero for guest of honor."

"Hero? Which hero?" asked the Greek suspiciously. He was a small, wasted Byzantine, with a very cautious manner.

"You know what my friend here did today?" said Zusy, pointing to me. "Swam from Europe to Asia. How about that, hey?"

"From Europe to—" began Kosta in a puzzled way. It was clear that he smelled something illegal. Then his face cleared. "Oh, you mean he swam across." Across is a familiar Istanbul expression.

"Right across the Bosporus," chortled Zusy. "And in less than half an hour. We want to celebrate."

The elderly Greek struggled to find some logic here but failed. Aware that he was disappointing us, he tried to be companionable. "I used to like to swim across too," he mumbled softly, getting out his keys to lock up the liquor for the night. "When I was younger, in my 60s, I was swimming across every day, almost." We looked at each other in unconcealed dismay. Zusy recovered first. "How did you get back?" he asked sharply.

"I swam," said Kosta. "How else? You think I would pay a whole ferry ticket? Just to get across, I would pay those robbers? Never!"