WE ARE SEA-KAYAKING through history. My partner is a big man from Casper, Wyoming, named Jon Huss. I called him at the suggestion of an astute neighbor who said, cryptically, “Jon is the guy for this journey.” We'd never met.
I called Jon up and told him I wanted to kayak down the Dardanelles, circle the Gallipoli Peninsula, and then cross over to Troy, and that I had no idea if it was possible. Did he want to go?
The Dardanelles is that improbably thin strait that cleaves Asia from Europe. Thirty-eight miles long, varying in width from four miles to less than a mile, it connects the Sea of Marmara (and farther north, beyond the Bosporus, the Black Sea) to the Aegean. The Aegean becomes the Mediterranean, once the portal to new worlds.
From spices and slaves and silk to oil and automobiles, the Dardanelles has been one of the most significant shipping lanes on earth since there were ships. Which makes it strategic, and thus the nexus of one war after another for the last 3,000 years. Troy, scene of one of the greatest tragedies, or triumphs, of ancient history, lies four miles southeast of the mouth of the Dardanelles in Asia. The Gallipoli Peninsula, scene of one of the greatest tragedies, or triumphs, of the 20th century, lies in Europe, four miles across the strait.
“The Hellespont,” Jon told me. “That's what the ancient Greeks called it. It's where Xerxes built a bridge of boats and, according to Herodotus, marched across an army of two million to invade Greece and conquer Athens. But the Athenians were defending their homeland, and they routed the Persians at the battle of Salamis.”
Jon, a 43-year-old civil attorney in the midst of an extended sabbatical devoted to adventure, had read Herodotus's The Histories in Greek. One of his favorite books from boyhood chronicled the 19th-century excavation of Troy by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. He also happened to be a veteran kayaker.
I said that I would be leaving in 72 hours. He rang back in two to say that he'd booked his ticket. We flew to Istanbul and bused south to the fishing port of Gelibolu, near the top of the Dardanelles on the European side. We assembled our nylon-and-aluminum tandem kayak in the town square. A crowd carried our craft to the water.
I'd read that there was an implacable current gushing down the Dardanelles. During World War I an Allied submarine had been trapped in one of its eddies, spotted by a German plane, and shelled into oblivion. Gales had shattered boats a hundred times the size of ours on the rocky shores. The wind sometimes blew 50 knots down the channel.
“We'll find out,” said Jon.
Six-foot-four and still built like the rower he had been at the University of Pennsylvania, Jon sat in the bow. He was the self-described “hammer,” and I, in the stern, was the helmsman. We clicked paddles only a few times before hitting a rhythm that would last the whole trip.
Down the center of the strait was the two-way traffic of the colossal cargo ships. We were in the seafaring equivalent of a bike lane. We stayed well to the right of the channel, but still, whenever one of these behemoths plowed past, two minutes later a three-foot wave would hurl us sideways.
Paddling hard, assisted by the ferocious tailwind and strong current, we could sometimes outpace sailboats. One afternoon, caught up in the joy of carving through the water, we inadvertently veered into the shipping lane. A supertanker, bulldozing down right behind us, blasted her bullhorn and sent us hightailing it back toward the shoreline. In the Narrows of the strait, where the water is funneled in tightly and practically roars, we found ourselves, as Jon put it, “surfing the banana”—shooting our frumpy, too-flexible vessel down the faces of big waves. We ran the Dardanelles in three days.
But rounding the horn and coming back up the peninsula was another story. The wind and current now became our enemies. They pushed us too far offshore, and we found ourselves battling six- to eight-foot swells. Jon never changed his calm, steady stroke. He would turn his head just before he was smacked in the face by a wave. Sometimes our aluminum-boned boat would get high-centered and make the most horrible cracking sound. Once, when the kayak groaned and then shrieked as if it were about to break in two, Jon suggested, “You might want to bring 'er a little closer to shore.”
The boating was great sport, but it was also something more. The history of the Dardanelles is a maritime epic. Every battle ever fought there was fought over control of the seaway. Every war was a war over the water. It seemed fitting to explore such history by boat; the scars on the land had largely healed, but the sea was still the same sea, the same incandescent blue waves that soldiers had seen and smelled and touched through the ages. Several times a day we pulled up onto a famous beachhead and hiked off to a battlefield or a castle or a monument to take another class in the classical history of war.
The entire Gallipoli campaign—directed by Churchill, then Britain's First Lord of the Admiralty—was one massive flanking maneuver. Force the Dardanelles, take Constantinople, push on through to the Black Sea, reinforce the Russians, and induce the Germans to fight on two fronts. On paper it was a good plan. It might have put an early end to World War I and saved hundreds of thousands of lives. If the British generals had not been incompetent or cowardly. If communications had been better. If the Turks hadn't been so willing to die for their country. If an unknown commander named Mustafa Kemal—later to become Atatürk Kemal, father of modern Turkey, its George Washington, his bust in every village—hadn't been so ruthless and so right. Instead, the Gallipoli campaign was an Allied disaster in which some 50,000 soldiers were killed and more than 200,000 wounded. Churchill, discredited and nearly disgraced, was demoted and sent to fight on the Western Front. In helping to plan the successful landing at Normandy nearly 30 years later, Churchill remembered the terrible lessons of Gallipoli.
But Gallipoli was a tragedy only to the losers. To the Turks, it was the beginning of their war of independence against foreign domination, the birth throes of the modern Turkish state.