By Mark Gallop

A short article in the December-January 2005 edition of SwimNews, talking about ?SwimTrek swimming adventure holidays?, acted like a pebble tossed into the pool of my imagination. The ripples from that pebble kept lapping in my mind through three winters, mostly in the form of a bookmark on my office computer to the SwimTrek website (www.swimtrek.com), which I visited whenever I needed to dream a little.

I?ve traveled a lot, often with commercial operations that offer opportunities to get active and off the beaten track (trekking in Patagonia or sea kayaking off the coast of Belize, for example). While I always appreciate the opportunity to lace up a pair of hiking boots and enjoyed sea kayaking, what I?m truly passionate about is swimming. Some people grumble at the constraints of lane ropes and tile walls. I never have, especially this summer as my masters team is swimming in the outdoor pools constructed for 2005 world championships and gloriously set in Montreal?s Expo islands. But here was a company that would take me to exotic corners of the world and see the sights through my goggles!

It must have taken a great deal of foresight on the part of SwimTrek's founder, Simon Murie, to imagine that enough people would have an interest in spending a lot of their vacation time face down in water. And only a Brit would envision an enterprise with some of the trips to colder water destinations such as the Inner Hebrides or the Isles of Scilly (both with summer average water temperatures in the 15 range: wetsuits provided by SwimTrek.)

It was the warmer water trips that most attracted me, with a 6-day offering to swim from Greek island to Greek island in the Aegean Sea at the top of my list. After much comparing of schedules and flight options, snow was still on the ground in Canada when Lindsay (MSC board member and designer of the Million Metre Challenge) and I finally had our bookings to head to Greece in early June. We spent our first week in Athens on our own where, amongst other sites, we paid our homage to the god of the sea at the Temple of Poseidon. We then proceeded by high-speed ferry to the Central Cycladic Islands where the water temperature would be in the low 20s.

My prior hiking trips often provided moments of trepidation when the time to meet the group drew near. We had little cause to worry with our Cyclades group however. The shared passion for swimming meant that we had a lot in common. Most SwimTrek trips have a maximum of 14 but ours was unusual in having a few empty spaces with 10 participants (many trips are fully booked months in advance). The majority of the group was from the United Kingdom, but also included an ex-patriot Scot living in Cyrus, an American and of course, two Canadians.

Lindsay and I share a strong dislike of early mornings (we both swim with masters teams with evening practices - Bleu et Or of Moncton in his case and Montreal A Contre Courant in mine). This was an important factor in our deciding to arrive on Andiparos, the island where our group would convene, a day early rather than catch the very early morning ferry from Athens that would carry most of our group the next day. We weren?t the only ones to arrive at Andiparos early however, as we soon crossed paths with Will, the American. A former varsity swimmer, now about 30, he had informed the group by e-mail before we met that he was blind; the result of a stroke 4 years ago. He did have very limited sight so could swim along side a guide.

We met more of the group next morning, when they arrived fresh off the ferry. Lindsay, Will and I were exploring the small port of Andiparos when we turned around to the cry, ?You look like swimmers!? We had expected to have a quiet day prior to the evening gathering at the hotel, but quickly got swept up in the enthusiasm of the group with a port-side lunch and our first dip in the sea. The last of the group to arrive was Anna. Although she hadn't yet met them, she had been on the same morning ferry as the rest, but had slept through the stop at Paros and had been taken on to the next island. In addition to this distinction, she also became noteworthy within our group when she talked about her training regime to swim the English Channel this August.

At 5 p.m. we convened in the hotel bar and met our guides; John Coningham-Rolls, a successful English Channel and around Manhattan Island swimmer and Simon Murie's business partner at SwimTrek, and Melissa Cave, new to the job and full of Aussie enthusiasm. The formalities were few. We introduced ourselves, chose our feeding bottles and mandatory bright neon SwimTrek caps (to make it easier for the guides to track us in the water), reviewed the safety guidelines and then were told to get on our suits for an evaluatory swim. This covered only about half a kilometre but was designed to help the guides judge our relative abilities. After drying off and changing it was time for a drink and dinner at a local taverna, the Greek food and especially the seafood on the islands, being one of the many things I had looked forward to on this trip.

We awoke the next morning to brilliant sunshine (which stayed with us throughout the week) and a stiff breeze (which abated, fortunately, after the first couple of days). One of the many things that impressed us with the SwimTrek organization was the degree to which they adapted the trip to the swimmers and conditions. While the trip notes lay the swims out in a geographically logical clock-wise progression from one island to the next, if wind or current conditions aren?t right then the direction of the swim can be changed or the swims can be reordered. As a result of the wind, it was decided that we would tackle our first and shortest (about 1.5 km.) open water swim in the other direction, by taking the short ferry ride back to the bigger island of Paros and swim back towards Andiparos.

The swells seemed high and there were certainly whitecaps, at least for the first half of the swim after which a point of land would cut the wind down. While I have a fair degree of endurance from my pool swimming, my open water experience is very limited. I had also agreed to be Will?s guide for the first few swims as we seemed to be of a similar speed. I felt disoriented and unsure of my abilities over the first few hundred metres, as did others, I found out in our post-swim chats. Eventually I settled into a rhythm and started to enjoy my surroundings, marveling at the unique blues of the Aegean Sea. There wasn?t much undersea life to provide distraction on this or our other swims, other than the occasional school of smaller fish, although one swimmer did spot a turtle on this swim and someone else saw a ray on a later swim. There were a couple of crossings where dolphins are said to be common, but alas, they didn?t make an appearance for us.

The next day we were introduced to the Caterina, a 30-something foot sailing yacht, and Akis, her captain. The Caterina would be our primary mode of transport (other than swimming) over the following five days. At different times we proceeded under sail and motor. This left us torn, for the winds that gave us the sailing experience would also whip up the water we would soon be swimming through. Our longest swim of the trip, 5.5 km. from Paros to Naxos, was on the agenda for this day, however the water in that stretch was deemed to be too rough. The Caterina gave the guides the flexibility to take us around to swim one of the crossings on the list for later in the week. I was, frankly, relieved. The Paros-Andiparos swim on the first day gave me some confidence but I wasn?t sure I was ready to immediately quadruple the distance.

We instead swam the still challenging but more reasonable 4 km. from Iraklia to Schinoussa. The procedures for the rest of our swims were established here. Vaseline was on offer to anyone worried about chaffing. The first group into the water was the slower swimmers, escorted by one of the guides in a motorized rubber dingy. The second, faster group was sent off in due course, with the Caterina following us as the two groups converged towards the end of the swim. John was an excellent judge of ability and worked to time the departures and swims so that everyone arrived at the other shore within a span of about 15 minutes. He was also a great coach and cheerleader. Later in the week we received more formal stroke feedback from John and Mel thanks to a videotaping session in a hotel pool.

And so we continued on for the week, gradually increasing our distances and confidence, until our last full day with the group when we found ourselves under sail making our way around the south side of Naxos to see whether the conditions would now be right for the Paros-Naxos swim. This time our worries that the good sailing conditions would be less so for swimming, were not borne out. By the time we reached our starting point by the shores of Paros we were facing a relatively calm sea, but warnings that a current through the channel would require swimming in an arc and a distance a bit further than the 5.5 km. advertised. Boat traffic was heavier on this crossing than on any of the others, so the guides and Akis were on the alert and particularly focused on keeping the groups together and on track towards our objective.

A danger of harbouring a dream for years is the risk that the reality doesn't live up. SwimTrek came thorough for us in spades however. I knew Lindsay was impressed when he started talking about the possibility of our ?next SwimTrek trip? (the trip to the islands off the Dalmatian Coast perhaps?) I won't soon forget the feeling of accomplishment that washed over me as I swam through the last few kilometres of that long swim from Paros to Naxos, stroking as strongly as I had at the beginning of the swim. I came home with the confidence to follow up these Aegean swims by registering for my first open water race. Six weeks later, while visiting Lindsay in New Brunswick, I swam the annual 3.5 km. race in the tidal estuary at Tracadie-Sheila, on the Acadian Peninsula.

SwimTrek website:
http://www.swimtrek.com/

Trip photo gallery:
http://www.swimtrek.com/gallery/thumbnails.php?album=118