Musee des Beaux Arts at Sandridge, with apologies to Auden

Sandridge beach is the very last beach before the docks.  A crescent of sand squeezed in between Princes Pier and Webb Dock with a large modern life saving club and cafe, reasonably civilised changing rooms and free car parking.  Sandy tracks thread through re-planted native vegetation.

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By 9.30 am on a mid-week day in January, it’s already 300 but Sandridge is sheltered from the hot, northerly wind.  The beach is quiet, only about a dozen people are scattered around the sand and a few are in the water.  There is the sound of traffic in the background and occasionally, the squawk of a seagull.  A couple of kayaks glide languidly through the deep green water and a couple of kids splash around in the shallows.  A single red giraffe crane looms above Webb Dock. At any moment, white legs might disappear into the green water.

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A squad of young men in fire truck-red shorts are doing some sort of training. Swimming between yellow markers a few metres off shore and running between others impaled further up the beach. They gather on the shore to listen to the trainer’s instructions. He is upright, muscled. Fit and balding, gold chain and blue Speedos. A thinning crop of white chest hair. He explains the manoeuvres carefully to the thirteen young men, who are beginning to flag in the heat. Instructive, even-voiced and clear. He sprints back and forth to consult with two other men and to re-position plastic sticks and discs in the sand. The young men lie face down in the sand, heels together, elbows bent, hands beneath chin and heads down. On the word go, they leap up and scramble to retrieve a stick spiked into the sand about ten metres away. There are more sticks than boys and those that failed have another go, grinning at each other.

The water is calm but not cold. I am hesitant about swimming all the way out to the yellow marker about 200 metres off shore. I tell myself I am worried about being sliced to ribbons by a jet ski but in truth, that’s not really the reason. In the end I swim about half way then change course and swim across toward the beach berm built from black, volcanic rock and then head back in to shore. Surfacing, I catch the eye of another swimmer in a wetsuit, wading through the shallows. We smile and start chatting. He has travelled from Sunbury for a swim but is interested in the Williamstown group, preferring to find people to swim with. And here’s the difference between pool swimming and open water swimming. In the pool, swimmers are self-absorbed, concentrating on their stroke. They rarely talk to one another and concentrate on getting the laps done. A boy could certainly fall out of the sky unnoticed at a public pool while someone else is just swimming dully along. It’s different at the beach. There is a shared love of swimming in the sea, the sun or the cold, the excitement and sheer joy of the third thing.

Back on the beach the young men are finishing up. The trainer claps and congratulates them. Well done. They look pleased but keen to be relieved of the hot sand.

A Middle Eastern family has set up camp under the wooden shelter. They are well equipped for the day with a beach tent, a fluorescent green umbrella, fold up table and an enormous esky. A small child, entrapped, hangs from a sling within a circular plastic contraption and three boys run back and forth between the camp and the water’s edge. The father sits at the table munching a sandwich. The mother is covered from head to toe in a purple Islamic swim suit.

It’s getting hot so I decide to have another swim, this time out to the marker, encouraged by the thought of the man still in the water. A little bit of critical mass. Swimming out is fine but when I reach the buoy and look back toward the beach it seems like a really long way, in spite of knowing that it’s only a couple of hundred metres. A moment of fear creeps in when I realise that I am without the buoyancy of a wetsuit. It’s a reminder of how dangerous water can be. I turn around and head back to shore, upping the pace to make it happen a bit quicker and focussing on the green umbrella in the distance. Progress seems slow through the bottomless yellow green and I swallow a few mouthfuls of saltwater but eventually, coils of sand worms and the rippled sea floor come into focus.

The squad of young men in the red shorts is just dispersing from the changing rooms. Chatting to one of the trainers I discover that they are a soccer team, in the State league third from the top. But they can’t progress and the coach in the blue Speedos has been brought in to work with them. He is German and specialises in this sort of thing.

“The team has it in them”, says the trainer, “the German will get it out”.

It’s all about mind, a psychological barrier endemic in the team. The trainer is confident that they can and will do better. His faith is touching. The young men are clearly a bunch of working class kids mostly from Middle Eastern backgrounds. I voice my reluctance about swimming alone out to the marker but he’s not having any of it. He clearly thinks that this is ridiculous.

“What’s there to worry about”?

I mumble something about an irrational and unfounded fear of sharks, since it seems too complicated and out of place to explain my anxieties. He opts for a rational explanation to do with sharks being found only in the channel at the heads. Except during the dredging, when some strayed into the outer reaches of the bay. This is not all that comforting, I didn’t think there were any sharks at all in the bay. I am about to point out that I’ve just swum about fifty times further than any of the young men and am old enough to be his mother, but instead I wish the team well and we say good bye. Thanks guys, he says. Don’t think his mind’s been on the job. Maybe the German will have better luck.

Later in the year I swim at Sandridge with Tony one Sunday morning, a cold and bleak day, the only swimmers in the water on a deserted beach other than a couple of life savers messing about with an inflatable boat.  We swim to one of the yellow markers then across to another one and back again, then into shore.  I remember the day in summer when I met the other swimmer, Mike, now a good friend.

It had rained the night before and the water is a little cloudy, although with enough clarity to see for a metre or so beneath the surface.  Emerging from the water, we agree that on days like this, gloomy, with no-one else in the water or on the beach, it wouldn’t take much to feel afraid.  Suddenly and shockingly afraid.   An unexpected shadow cast by the sun disappearing suddenly behind a cloud, or a wad of seaweed appearing at the periphery of vision.

I think the sea provides expression for a fear of nature which I believe sits beneath the conscious surface.  Most Australians have very little experience of landscape but everyone goes to the beach.  But fear of sharks is a fundamental part of the psychological landscape of the beach.  Not drowning, sunstroke, or polluted water but fear of some unknown aspect of nature which in truth, is at best remote but more likely, impossible.   Perhaps it’s a lack of control over the environment, sometimes there is residual unease that stays with even some of the most experienced, veteran swimmers.  For me, being able to see through the water at this time of the year has added a dimension of curiosity to swimming.  Knowing what lies beneath the surface has stripped away some of the uneasiness.  But unable to see beneath the surface, swimming becomes an act of faith.

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