9.06 Sunday morning, August 2012. First sea swim, Port Phillip Bay in winter. It’s 11 degrees and grey. Into a plastic box go wetsuit, towels, goggles. The idea of being in the water is seductive; curiosity, excitement and the idea that this may be a good thing to do on Sunday mornings outweigh the not insubstantial anxiety of the new. I like the idea of getting in the water but am little frightened again, maybe of the cold but I’m not sure exactly. Just do it. The first step. Not what will happen next. Just the immediacy of each bit of this new thing. So I head to the bay determined.
Through the half empty streets of the city, damp after last night’s rain; past the King Street brothels, clubs and disused office blocks transformed into backpacker joints, then down Kings Way, past the State swim centre to South Melbourne Beach. Along Albert Road, ornamental plum trees are in blossom. The sky lightens toward the beach.
I search for a spot to park, somewhere that I can get changed. On the Esplanade, a group of disheveled young men hang around an unlit barbeque on the wet grass, stubbies half empty or fallen on the grubby brick edging grey and discoloured by grease. I drive on a couple of hundred metres and find a spot to park outside the South Melbourne lifesaving club. Get my wetsuit on and walk down to the water.
There is not a single other swimmer to be seen. Plenty of walkers, joggers, beach volley ball enthusiasts and dogs, a group of sea kayakers down near Kerferd Road pier and at Port Melbourne in the opposite direction, the Spirit of Tasmania moored at Station Pier. It seems solitary after the cameraderie and familiarity of the pool but conditions are perfect. Flat, metallic sea surface. No wind. Clumps of brown seaweed roll with the wash along the shoreline, slimy underfoot. I nearly slip, caught unaware after the friction of sand. But it’s a treat to be barefoot and to feel the textures of the sea and later, I remember the nautilus shell that Louis and I found here ten years ago.
The second I am in the water my feet are chilled to the bone. But the wetsuit is brilliant; nicely buoyant and completely blocking the sheer coldness of the water. Hands and face feel the chill but after a dozen or so strokes seem to equilibrate with the water temperature. Once in, the water is thick and brown and I am more worried about being poisoned than getting cold. So dense and treacly that I can’t see my hands. Kerferd Road pier doesn’t look too far away and it’s easy to swim in the wetsuit. I pick out a tall apartment block in the distance to sight and swim toward it. It’s easy to get into a rhythm but hard to sustain and keep the building in sight as well. It’s annoying and even after a dozen or so strokes, easy to run off course. Although after a while I start to relax and enjoy the swim.
On the way back, losing sight again, I nearly run into a group of young men in shorts, footballers I’m guessing, huddled but cheerful, standing ten or fifteen metres in from the shore for no apparent reason. Fifty metres further along, another identical group is gathered, arms crossed and hugging torsos, waiting for instructions. I think I am a welcome distraction. They must be freezing.
Back at South Melbourne, I am so pleased with myself that it’s effortless to walk up the beach and back to the car. Mantled in cold but still buoyant from the water, it occurs to me that now I have a wetsuit I can swim any time I like. It seems ludicrous not to have thought of it before. Strip off in the shabby concrete changing rooms, rinse under a thin stream of cold water and pack my stuff back into the plastic box. I am elated. It’s 10.34. Swimming at the end of the day sets wrongs to right; swimming at the beginning of the day sets its course.