THE LIFE AQUATIC
Tom de Castella swims around the Cyclades in the blue heart of the Aegean Sea
BENEATH me is the deep blue abyss of the Aegean. Eyes, shoulders and mouth are respectively stinging, chafing and dried by the salt. But I’m into my rhythm, stretching out my newly improved stroke, pulling my arms through the water until the tips of the fingers brush my thighs. Every so often I can make out the island of Schinoussa and the white houses on a high plateau we are aiming for. I wonder where the others are.
My fellow green caps and I have set off together but now I’m alone. I don’t look too hard; we know where we’re heading and there are two rescue boats to look out for us. In this warm but not enervating water, propelling oneself from island to island, I feel a sense of purpose and calm.
My girlfriend Jeanette and I have signed up with Swimtrek, a travel company specialising in swimming holidays across the world. The list of destinations is varied and growing: the Isles of Scilly, Croatia, the Bavarian lakes, Malta, the Inner Hebrides, Turkey and the Virgin Islands, among others. But for us there is only one choice: the Cyclades, literally ‘‘ the circling’’, a cluster of two dozen Greek islands in the heart of the Aegean.
The concept is to swim two or three hours a day from island to island, accompanied by safety boats, making your way around the circle.
Of course holiday logistics mean it’s not quite that simple; to avoid moving hotel every night, you often hitch a ride back to the day’s starting point on the company’s yacht, Even so, you’ll be in the water for two or three hours a day: swimming is your raison d’etre and your means of transport.
Despite not offering any trips in the Antipodes, Swimtrek has a strong Australian link. Simon Murie, its founder, was born in Sydney and tells me the company averages two Australians a trip in groups of about a dozen; Gozo (Malta), Croatia and Greece are the favoured destinations. Murie, who moved to Britain as a child, has never really got the Pacific out of his system: ‘‘ My father was a lifeguard on Sydney beaches for a few seasons so that’s where I think my love for open water swimming comes from,’’ he explains.
He spends his life exploring new locations to expand the Swimtrek list of destinations. He has real swimming pedigree to call on, being one of only 900 people to have swum the English Channel: ‘‘ I had the idea for Swimtrek before doing the Channel but it does give you credibility with the swimmers. It’s a bit like knowing your mountain guide has climbed Everest.’’
We start on the island of Antiparos. At the seafront hotel, we meet the two guides and our nine fellow swimmers and head to the beach where, Speedos, hats and goggles in place, we are asked to swim out to the headland and back. It’s a chance for the guides to measure our abilities.
For the past three months we’ve been keeping to a training schedule. But an indoor pool or a cold pond is a far cry from the Aegean. We wade out through the beautifully warm shallows. The water temperature here allows Swimtrek to run this trip from mid-May to the end of October. It’s the last day of June and it is already 26C. As we begin swimming, I notice the water is far saltier than the Atlantic.
That evening we are briefed and handed different coloured swim caps: yellow for the ‘‘ scenic swimmers’’, green for the middle group, which includes Jeanette and me, and pink for the three women who are way out in front.
At dinner the first night the talk is of triathlons, vegetarianism and the perils of drinking too much. Later in the room, contemplating a 7.30am swim tomorrow, we wonder if it’s not a tad too wholesome. Have we ended up on a holiday for health freaks?
There are strong winds next morning and the yellow caps are to forgo the crossing but green and pink caps will forge ahead on this 1.5km loosener from Antiparos to Paros. It feels a bit surreal to be walking down to the little port in Speedos at this hour on a Sunday morning. We head through the water to moored boats at the point, then past the headland, where the waves hit us. With spray all around, I fix on the sea bottom to measure progress and am shocked to realise the current is sweeping me to the right but I am not moving forward. It is sobering to swim at full pelt and apparently not go anywhere.
Slowly but surely land becomes closer and I reach the small island in the middle of the strait where the pink caps are already waiting. From there we swim on to Paros, still battling the current until we clamber through the rocks on to the sandy shore. We are all a bit stunned. This isn’t the Greek island-hopping adventure we expected, but when we discover even the ferries are cancelled, our morale is boosted. Nothing else will prove as demanding as this first short crossing.
The following morning we move on to Koufonissi, where we join up with Akis, our smooth Spartan yachtsman, who we learn owns an olive grove and a fast-food joint but has decided to devote his life to sailing and fishing. The afternoon is spent watching dolphins from the yacht and doing a coastal swim beside a remote island, watched by intrepid goats grazing on a sheer cliff. The colours are stunning. One minute the water is pale green, the next a wall of deep blue as the bottom falls into a steep canyon. We almost have to stop swimming, sensing we are about to fall off a precipice.
The next morning there is the dreaded stroke analysis in the hotel pool. To my surprise it turns out to be one of the highlights of the week. We each swim two widths and one length of the pool while Melissa, our Australian guide, films us. Then after breakfast we watch ourselves. I look like I’m on speed, all flailing arms and swivelling head. ‘‘ Slow down your stroke, stop crossing over your hands, breathe less and follow through properly with your arms,’’ Melissa advises.
Then we cross to Schinoussa, where we spend two blissful days. It is the most isolated and the loveliest of the islands, with a winter population of just 80 inhabitants, and home to the wonderful Margarita restaurant, where Greek cuisine is given a modern twist. The hotel, as with all of the Swimtrek accommodation, is comfortable and beautifully situated at the top of the hill overlooking the sea.
By now the ambience is relaxed and less competitive. We’re a mix of ages, abilities and eccentricities, and the holiday is the richer for it. Thursday, our last day of swimming, is the big one, Paros to Naxos, a 5.5km swim through one of the busiest shipping lanes in the Cyclades. ‘‘ Yellow caps, you’ve got 15 minutes before you start,’’ Swimtrek’s Kate shouts. The adrenalin is pumping. Naxos looks a good 16km away. It will be a challenge not just swimming the distance but dodging the huge ferries that thunder across.
But, no, Akis feels the swell is too strong. Instead we will do a 4km coastal swim around Paros via the wreck of a German ship torpedoed in World War II. I’m gutted. The whole week has been building up to this challenge and now it’s off.
However, 20 minutes later, the disappointment lifts. It is one of the most beautiful swims, through sunstreaked water, exploring dozens of little inlets with constantly changing underwater topography. Because we are not going head to head with the ferries we can take it as fast or slow as we like. I linger in the cave, while Jeanette flies off in tandem with one of the pink caps.
The last night is spent on Naxos, the biggest and liveliest of the Cyclades, and the four least abstemious members of the party hold a beer-fuelled postmortem. We are disappointed we didn’t do the Paros to Naxos swim and not everything was as we expected. It wasn’t really a case of swimming from point to point and there was a lot of sailing, which most of us loved, but not the guy who got seasick. But Swimtrek has invented a great concept that binds one not just to fellow swimmers, but to the surroundings.
The following morning we climb 1000m Mt Zeus. Through the heat haze we can make out the islands we have swum to and from, spread out like dusty sleeping lizards on a huge blue tablecloth. Many travellers have covered the Cyclades through the years, but there’s a certain satisfaction in knowing we have done it under our own steam. Tom de Castella was a guest of Swimtrek. www.swimtrek.com www.visitgreece.gr
In the swim: Island hopping in the Aegean, two-stroke style
Sea legs: Swimtrek participants wear different coloured swim caps based on their prowess in the water, left; whitewashed ports dot the Cyclades, right