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by Kate Mulligan

November 1, 2006

Swimming between the Greek islands

“We’ll actually be swimming between the islands,” I told a curious woman from Atlanta, Georgia standing next to me at the Temple of Zeus.  She had misunderstood my answer to her question, “Where are you headed after Athens?” and thought we meant we’d be taking a cruise between the Greek islands.

This was a fairly common reaction when I told people we were going on a swimming vacation.  The only people who didn’t question our decision were from our local Masters’ swim team in Northern California.  Hey, they thought, why hadn’t someone thought of a swim adventure earlier? After all, global bike trips were well-known due to Backroads bike adventures started by our neighbors in Berkeley. 

For our fellow “pool swimmers,” a swim adventure didn’t seem that outrageous, but the first thing they asked was, “Are you worried about sharks?”  We never saw one, but we did spot a sea turtle and a ray during our week in the Greek island chain known as the Cyclades.   However, we did practice navigation skills around small jellyfish that saturated some of the shallow, warm waters.

Along with the six of us pool swimmers were five swimmers who make the chilly waters off Santa Barbara their “pool.”  Two ocean swimming veterans from Ireland completed our group.  Sea life didn’t worry them. Their only question was, “The water is really THAT warm in Greece?”

During our week of swimming in the beautiful Agean Sea, the water temperature hovered at 69 degrees; except for the last day when we enjoyed a balmy 73 degrees in a large bay on the island of Paros. 

When our group booked the trip in January, we had six months to prepare for the daily swim distances and the June water temperature in the Agean.  Swim Trek, a London-based outfit that organized and led the trip, provided training tips.  Our goal was to be able to swim the average daily distance of 3.5 kilometers, or just over two miles by the time we reached Greece.  For some that was a long way; for others, it wouldn’t be a challenge. 

Our group of 13 ranged in ages from 25 to 68, and our swimming accomplishments started with “I’m just happy to make it through a workout… now, let’s go get coffee,” to a former collegiate star.  Given our various backgrounds and abilities, each of us began the trip with a set of expectations and trepidations. 

On our first night together, Simon Murie, our trip leader and found of Swim Trek explained, “Safety is critical to the success of our trips, so we have an escort boat and guide along side the swimming groups to make sure everyone is doing well during the swim and stays on course.”

The faster, more experienced swimmers became Group A.  The second group was nicknamed the “Scenic Group” and later, “Bob’s Babes.”  (More about that later.)

The next day we set out across a narrow split of water that separates Ano Koufonissi from Kato Koufonissi, two of the lesser known islands in the Cyclades.  The two used to be one island, but now the smaller Kato Koufonissi is home to goats, beautiful bays, a church or two, but no roads. 

The first of three swims that day took about 15 minutes after which we “trekked” around the island to a bay for lunch.  Martin, our other English guide who was co-leading his first trip after being a swim trekker himself, followed along the coast in the escort dinghy.   He and Simon expertly prepared a traditional Greek salad and picnic lunch that we enjoyed by a secluded, idyllic bay surrounded by impossibly blue-green waters that only the ancient Greek god, Poseidon, could have conjured.   

That afternoon we swam from our “lunch” bay to another, trekked back to the beach where we landed earlier in the morning, and finished off with a swim back “home” to Ano Koufonissi.   After a shower and a rest, we all headed off to a local taverna where we shared meza, (appetizers), Greek wine and beer.

Our days were spent much the same way – swimming, trekking, sailing and eating dinner together.  Some days we finished an island-to-island swim and sailed to the next destination.  Some islands, and small, locally-owned hotels, were our home for two nights so after a morning swim, we were free to explore or relax.

Each swim had a different twist depending on the weather.  In June, the wind was the big factor.  We couldn’t always follow the scheduled itinerary, so we got used to hearing Simon say, “OK, guys, here’s the plan,” which was frequently different than the previous plan.  

We’d usually start out early in the morning before the wind picked up.  Simon would show us our destination across the water:  “See the white church with the blue dome at about 1 o’clock? Head towards that.”  As we closed in on the church from the water, we realized it was on an island, something we couldn’t see from the start.  We’d regroup at that point and Simon and Martin would toss us water bottles from the support boats filled with a mix of warm water and energy powder to keep us hydrated and warm.  Then we’d set off again, this time we were told to aim “…just to the right of the sail boat masts you can see at about 3 o’clock on the far shore.”  When we got close enough to see the masts and boats they belonged to, we saw our landing spot -- a beach just below another picturesque blue-domed, white church on a hill.  

On all our swims we usually stopped every 20 or 30 minutes to regroup, re-hydrate and listen to any new navigation instructions.   During one swim we could see a ferry in the distance taking passengers to the island we just left.  We lived SwimTrek’s motto that day:  “Ferries are for wimps.  Let’s swim!”

One afternoon we anchored in a shallow bay on Schinoussa and Simon took underwater video of each of us swimming.  That evening we gathered around the TV in our small hotel and got feedback on our strokes – more distance per stroke, less vigorous kicking, more hip rotation, cleaner hand entry, higher elbow.

After awhile a few of the local residents came into the lobby and watched the home movies.  Gossip spread quickly amongst the small island community that Olympic swimmers were training on the island!  Seeing our own strokes and comparing each other’s technique gave us visual pictures of how to achieve a more efficient open water stroke.  Plus, now we were famous and felt like we could swim all the way to Athens like Michael Phelps in the 2004 Visa Olympics commercial! 

The most challenging swim came on a very windy day along Keros, an uninhabited island with coastal cliffs.  The wild, meltemi winds generated unpredictable waves that seemed to keep us from reaching the end of the four kilometer swim and our destination – our own sail boat. 

About an hour and forty minutes into the choppy swim, Simon yelled, “Only 400 meters to go!”  He was trying to be encouraging, but all agreed Simon was very distance-challenged.  The sail boat kept moving farther and farther away from our two groups in hopes of finding shelter from the wind and calm waters around the back side of an island.    We were cold, tired and hungry when we finally climbed on board 20 minutes later, but a hot cup of coffee and Greek cookies rewarded our efforts.

Later, we affectionately referred to the tough swim as “400-meters-to-go-day.”  

It was at the end of this seemingly endless swim that the “Scenic Group” was renamed, “Bob’s Babes.”  Bob, a novice swimmer, came on the trip to accompany his ocean-swimming wife and planned to spend his vacation on the boat supporting her.  Not only did he complete every swim, but his stroke, confidence and endurance improved throughout the week.  He inspired the women in his group and everyone else. 

On our last day Simon asked Bob why he changed his mind.   Bob said, “I didn’t feel pressure from anyone to be fast, I could go at my own pace and Simon told me I could get out of the water at any time.”  Simon commented, “No one should be intimidated by the swims.  We emphasize the fun factor.  After all, you’re on vacation.” 

Bob’s experience summed up the trip perfectly.  During our final dinner Emilio, the philosophical, senior member of our group, made a toast.  “For six days we have braved the ocean waters as a group… and the determination of a group is extremely strong,” he reflected.  “However, during a swim each one of us was alone and alone we made it to the other side.” 

We swam through the Greek islands, equaled only by the immortal Poseidon.  We didn’t leave Athens with seven gold medals like Michael Phelps, but each one of us certainly felt Olympic in our accomplishment.