The weather has caught everyone by surprise on the Labour Day weekend. After a week or two of coolish days, it’s back into the low thirties again. There are few people on Sandridge Beach though and even better, no jet skis. Maybe it’s the predicted strong northerly and the early onset of a southerly that has kept people away.
Vince and I have swum together 87 times at Williamstown beach. Occasionally, we talk about swimming from Sandridge to Princes Pier. Since both of us are keen to make the most of the last of the warm weather, today’s the day.
The on-shore wind and outgoing tide make for a bit of chop, but just enough to add to the work out. Looking east, we plot a course. At the same time, a couple of jet skis take off from the next section of beach. Oh well, it couldn’t last for long.
We decide to swim out to the first yellow marker, around a yacht, hug the first breakwater, then move in closer to the beach. From there, our course takes us diagonally across to the pier. The water is mint-green and still warm enough to swim without a wetsuit. The currents and swell feel somehow different to Williamstown, just across Hobsons Bay but the wake from motor boats is noticeable. Once, my hand brushes the dome of a blubber jellyfish, which is surprisingly hard. Like a rubbery bowling ball.
The jet skis keep their distance but are a constant source of concern, in spite of a swimmer having been killed at Port Melbourne only a couple of years ago. The unimaginable horror of a daughter, seeing a crowd gathering in the water where her father had been swimming, her view blocked by a jet ski, stays with me for a few days.
We swim on toward the pier. Soon we are at the edge of the “forest of piles”, the sculptural remains of the original structure which, during the pier’s restoration a few years ago, were retained by the architects to preserve its original length of 580 metres. The original piles were over 70 feet long, sharpened ends driven firmly into the sea floor. In total, 5,000 turpentine piles supported horizontal jarrah beams and red gum decking.
Today, naked against the sky, they sway in the current, bases sheathed in colonies of mussels. Rotting stumps, ghostly just below the surface of the water are loosely bandaged in sea lettuce and ribbons of kelp. Suddenly, it seems really spooky. Beneath the stares of sea birds, and with some hesitation, we breast-stroke through the forest and into the deep water of Beacon Cove.
What must Vince’s dad have thought, nearly fifty years ago, arriving at this very same pier as a Calabrian migrant on Monday, February 27th, 1967?
War, and swimming, dominated the news.
The USA had announced a new “systematic bombardment” of North Vietnam. On the weekend, George Day from Warrnambool won the Renault iron man contest at the Portsea surf carnival.
Harold Holt was Prime Minister, but would disappear off Cheviot Beach later that year in December.
Princes Pier was at its height as the point of disembarkation for migrants. Was Australia a good place to come to live? Forever? Reported on page 3 of “the Age” that day, in his Sunday address to the congregation of the Scots Presbyterian Church, Ringwood, the Immigration Minister Billy Snedden said:
“Migrants are ordinary people…Generally they have acted on the urge to come to a country which they believe will provide greater opportunities, if not for themselves then for their children.
They have their individual problems to surmount before they change from ordinary people who are migrants to ordinary people who are Australians.
In the early period of adjustment, for some, these problems become distorted and magnified and they especially need warmth of welcome, friendship and understanding”.
Was it a compassionate and even forward-thinking speech? What about that whiff of assimilation? Or the hint of greed for labour in a population of only 12 million, excluding Aborigines, not yet included in the census, since the 1967 consitutional referendum was not scheduled until May that year.
“Migrants had a long tradition of dedication to their faiths. This enriched Australia’s spiritual life and served to preserve the unity of the nation.
In the two decades between 1947 and 1967, Australia’s population had grown by four million and of these, half consisted of new settlers and their children.
We have a homogeneous people sharing essentially the same aims. We have no oppressed minorities and no racial discrimination. We are indeed, a single Australian people”.
Snedden became Minister for Labour and National Service a couple of years later during the Vietnam War, the aftermath of which would more than test Australia’s attitudes to refugees well into the future. What would he have said to those Presbyterians today, as Immigration Minister?
In State politics, a few weeks after Ronald Ryan was hanged, the Higginbotham by-election in the Legislative Assembly was won by Liberal candidate Harold Murray Hamilton, a bachelor accountant, who lived with his mother in Bentleigh and was in favour of capital punishment.
Hanging by the neck until dead. It seems unthinkable now. It was unthinkable then. Just as unthinkable as allowing ordinary people to drown in the sea as refugees; to be “processed” in secretive, offshore camps rife with violence and abuse; or despatched back to their persecutors with cold-blooded efficiency.
Vince and I turn around, swim back through the forest and make our way toward the beach. Breathing to our right, we swim past the high rise apartment buildings and sparkle of sun on car windscreens along the Boulevard; in the distant shipping lane to our left, ships from all over the world crawl toward the Port of Melbourne. We are guided back to shore by the yellow cardinal markers. Progress seems slow through the bottomless yellow-green and I swallow a few mouthfuls of salty water but eventually, coils of sand worms and the rippled sea floor come into focus. Like all swims, it is about D. H. Lawrence’s “third thing”:
“Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one,
But there is also the third thing, that makes it water
And nobody knows what that is”.
Anyway, the jet skiers clearly haven’t read that because one comes dangerously close to me, enough to make me relieved that we are almost back in the swimming only zone in front of the Surf Life Saving Club at Sandridge Beach.
There are a few more people on the beach now. Covered women and girls wade in the shallows, their families picnic on blankets spread out under umbrellas, or under the meagre shade of shrubs planted between the car park and the sand. Ordinary people. Just a little further on at the far western end of the foreshore, men deal in sex and drugs along well-worn paths between copses of coastal scrub.