CHAPTER 1 excerpt
I HAVE NEVER BEEN A PROFESSIONAL ATHLETE. I’m just a guy who enjoys swimming—a mere mortal who goes slow on land and in water, eats too much, has not had a coach since playing water polo decades ago at the University of Michigan, feels pain when the water is cold, and doesn’t seek any medals or accolades. This book is written for the mere mortals like myself; yet more god-like swimmers will enjoy my swims as well.
Nevertheless, I am an experienced swimmer in pools and open water, particularly around the Greek island of Crete, birthplace of the immortals such as Zeus and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean. I swim when the water is warm, approaching 27 ˚C (80 ˚F), and rarely swim for more than 90 minutes at a time. The same goes for lap swimming in a pool, where I typically spend 60 minutes swimming—again as a mere mortal—without a coach or a training schedule, and rarely more than three times a week.
Given my humble aquatic existence, why am I qualified to write a book on swimming? Well, this is really a book about swimming tourism in the amazing coastal waters surrounding Crete, located “in the midst of the wine-dark sea,” as the ancient Greek poet Homer wrote nearly 3,000 years ago. I have spent three decades swimming all around the island and my swims are selected for the pleasure of exploring a new coastline and looking down at the sea floor through water that quite often offers visibility of 15 meters or more. My favorite swims have destinations that may be small islets, sea caves, Venetian fortresses, or the ruins of a civilization that thrived thousands of years ago. What you read in my book is the information I would give you if you happened to meet me somewhere on the island and asked for my top swimming recommendations, along with any safety concerns. Kayakers and stand-up paddlers might also want to eavesdrop and venture out on my recommended routes.
There are times when I’m in the other person’s shoes—I am the tourist, I have just arrived on a coastline that I’ve never seen before, it looks great for a swim, but I wish I had someone to ask for advice. Such as:
Is it better to swim along the coast to the left, or to the right?
Is there anything I should worry about?
What about boats? Currents? Jellyfish?
Are there any caves to explore?
Is it worth circumnavigating that small island over there?
If I come here at night, will I find bioluminescent plankton?
And, by the way, can I park my car here?
Where should I go for a drink and something to eat afterwards?
CHAPTER 3 excerpt
Artemisia’s Swim – Plaka to Spinalonga
This swim from the town of Plaka to the Venetian fortress of Spinalonga (also known as the island of Kalydon) qualifies as an “insider’s swim” given that my mother’s side of the family came from the town of Plaka, and my grandmother Artemisia (1902–1952)—a talented swimmer in her own right—swam this course over a century ago.
Sometimes I wonder if she was drawn to the sea because of another Artemisia who lived 2,500 years ago and became the most famous and accomplished female naval commander in history. Allied with Xerxes I, she wowed everyone with her brilliance and valor in the Battle of Salamis between the Persians and the Greeks. My grandmother Artemisia Drettakis (née Papastefanakis) is now buried at a small church (Agia Marina) a stone’s throw from Plaka’s shoreline along with my great grandfather Panayiotis Papastefanakis, from the nearby village of Louma, and great grandmother Maria (née Grammatikakis), from the nearby village of Fourni. I think Artemisia would be delighted to know that her grandson and great grandchildren are continuing the family tradition—she might say that the sea water flows in our veins. (Το θαλασσινό νερό ρέει στις φλέβες μας.)
Studying a map of Crete, one notices that the beaches both north and south of Agios Nikolaos are protected from the prevailing westerlies and north westerlies. Indeed, a sea plane called the Short S. 17 Kent Flying Boat used to land in these waters, called Mirabello Bay. However, at the north end of the bay where Plaka is located there are strong winds that can pick up unpredictably. Thus, when I previously wrote that the northern cove of Hersonissos had the most protected swim on the north coast of Crete it was because the Plaka area, even though it appears equally protected, nevertheless has some strong winds that come and go, adding greater risk to the swimmer.
The entry point for Artemisia’s Swim is at the northernmost beach (35°18'07.1"N 25°43'36.6"E) of the northernmost village of Plaka. From Agios Nikolaos one drives north past Elounda and keep going along the shoreline, passing through Plaka, until you get to a dirt parking lot along the shoreline. If you drive any further than that the road will curve left, and you will start ascending into the mountain.
The swim is 1 km east-southeast from the beach (which has large rounded rocks) to the Venetian fortress which in recent history (1903–1957) served as a leper colony. The nice thing is that you can get out of the water at an unused pier of Spinalonga (35°17'52.9"N 25°44'12.2"E), and if you are properly prepared you can enter to tour the place.
As noted in Chapter 1, Spinalonga is the island featured in the modern novel called The Island by Victoria Hislop and the location of the 2010 television series To Nisi which is Greek for “The Island.” Hislop writes that the distance to the island is a “500-metre journey” when in fact it is no less than 700 m. So the swim is a bit farther than what the book says, yet the experience of Artemisia’s swim is greatly enriched by having a wonderful novel to go along with it.
CHAPTER 4 excerpt
The Galactic Night Swim
The Galactic Night Swim does not take place at a specific location. It’s a concept; a surreal experience, more than a place. In this swim, we will contemplate the nature of reality, our place in the universe, the eternal questions about consciousness and the spiritual, and our relationship to all living things. Who knew that a swim can do all that for you?
The key is that we will be swimming in near total darkness, yet our senses will be astonished by pinpoints of light shining from the billions of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy above and the thousands of phosphorescent plankton in the water below. The weightlessness and warmth provided by the sea will diminish our attention to our body and free our mind to explore whatever themes it chooses to explore. Years later, we will remember the Galactic Night Swim as a place and time that recharged our soul.
The center of our Galaxy is in Sagittarius, a constellation that represents a half-man, half-horse centaur holding a bow and arrow. To most people it simply looks like a tea kettle. A curved line of stars to the right of Sagittarius make up the tail and stinger of the constellation Scorpius, the scorpion. The brightest star in Scorpius located at the head of the scorpion is named Antares, or “opponent of Ares.” Ares is the Greek word for Mars. Both Antares and Ares have a reddish hue, but for different reasons. Ares (Mars) is a nearby planet in our solar system with a solid surface that is composed of reddish dirt. Antares is a very distant red supergiant star burning its last remaining gas, which will culminate in a spectacular explosion that astronomers call a supernova. In the meantime, it’s amazing to ponder that when you look towards Sagittarius, you are gazing at the center of our Galaxy which contains a black hole—one of the most incredible phenomena in nature—though we cannot see it directly. The fabric of spacetime surrounding a black hole is so distorted that light can never escape and time itself appears to have no meaning.
As a night swimmer, the heavens will follow you as you dive into the water and thousands of blue-white stars flash in front of your hands and arms. These are bioluminescent plankton that need to be physically disturbed in order to glow. That’s why you will see them appear, each for a split second, around your moving arms and legs. The ancient text De Mundo (Περὶ Κόσμου) that was attributed to Aristotle stated, “there are exhalations of fire from the sea” (γίνεται πυρὸς ἐν τῇ θαλάσσῃ), and this could have been an observation of this very same marine bioluminescence. These plankton are probably dinoflagellates, which marine biologists refer to as “dinos.” Thus, you can tell your friends that you swam with the dinos at night.