‘This morning I swam from Sestos to Abydos, the immediate distance is not above a mile but the current renders it hazardous, so much so, that I doubt whether Leander’s conjugal powers must not have been exhausted in his passage to Paradise…..‘Lord Byron
On this day in 1810 – Byron swam across the Hellespont in search of his own Hero and while not seeking confirmation of his conjugal powers – his epic swim certainly affirms his prowess in the water.
The Hellespont is the famous and perilous stretch of water between Europe and Asia and of mythical importance for according to Greek legend, Leander would swim from Asia to Sestos in Europe every evening to visit the love of his life Hero the priestess of Aphrodite.
In anticipation of Leander’s visit Hero would light a lamp to guide him on the journey and on one stormy winter’s evening and with the light extinguished – Leander drowned and in her grief, she threw herself into the sea and to her death.
‘My dear Hodgson, – I am on my way to Constantinople after a turn through Greece, Epirus &c. and part of Asia minor….‘Lord Byron
In May 1810 Byron and his Cambridge friend John Cam Hobhouse had been enjoying their Grand Tour since the previous summer and the intrepid travellers were on board the frigate Salsette waiting for a favourable wind in which to sail on to Constantinople.
‘We have undergone some inconveniences and incurred partial perils, but no events worthy of commemoration unless you will deem it one that two days ago I swam from Sestos to Abydos…‘Lord Byron
Despite an abandoned attempt on account of the freezing water the day previously – on the morning of Thursday May 3 and along with a crew member from the Salsette Lieutenant Richard Ekenhead – it took Byron one hour and ten minutes to swim across the warm and calm ‘broad Hellespont’.
‘Mr. Ekenhead took the lead, and kept it the whole way. He was much the best swimmer of the two, and by far the more powerful man.
He accomplished his task, according to Lord Byron’s account, in an hour and five minutes. I timed him at one hour and ten minutes, and his lordship at one hour and a quarter.
Both were fresh, and free from fatigue; especially Ekenhead, who did not leave the water until Lord Byron arrived.‘
And it is a feat still emulated today and despite the advantages of a swim in the 21st Century with wet suits, goggles, first aid, and training – the world’s fastest crossing of the Hellespont in just under 40 minutes surpasses Byron’s record by only 30 minutes.
For me, degenerate modern wretch,
Though in the genial month of May,
My dripping limbs I faintly stretch,
And think I’ve done a feat to-day”
Written After Swimming From Sestos to Abydos (May 9 1810)
Although Byron accomplished quite a ‘feat to-day’ – many have tried to emulate his swim of 1810 in the years following but not all have emulated his iconic quest to imitate the legend of Leander including the actor Rupert Everett in The Scandalous Adventures of Lord Byron and the journalists Harry Mount and Becky Horsbrugh.
Byron’s Letters and Journals Vol 1 1798-1810 Ed, Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1973)
The Life of a Sailor Frederick Chamier (1832)
The Works of Lord Byron The Wordsworth Poetry Library (Wordsworth Editions 1994)
Hellraiser, Poet… and Champion Swimmer! Harry Mount (The Daily Mail May 2010)
Swimming the Turkish Hellespont: Alex Preston (The Telegraph August 2018)
The Hellespont swim: Following in Byron’s Wake Becky Horsbrugh (The Guardian May 2010)