eavesdropping

Sitting in the airport lounge, I consider calling my friend to see if she got home ok after dropping me off.  She’ll know I’m really calling to see if she crashed my car.  I decide against it, although I know she’ll find it funny.

Because I am flying to Launceston, the plane is full of Tasmanians.  A long queue forms instantly the boarding call is made.  Two women are taken aside.  They have too much hand luggage – only two pieces are allowed and they have three.  Rather than swear, they say “oh sugar!”  Later, they wriggle into the seats beside me at the back of the plane.  The one closest to me begins an elaborate explanation of how she had to stuff one back pack inside another to meet the luggage rules.  With ill humour, I ignore her.  Our bodies are packed tightly against each other in the too-small seats on the discount airline.  Even so, I always enjoy the feeling of having permission to remain separate on a plane and I want to make the most of it.  Guiltily, I pull my book out and pretend to read.

I am a shameless eavesdropper.

The two women settle into conversation once the plane is high above Melbourne’s industrial suburbs.  Insulated from everyday life by the bank of thick white clouds beneath us they recount their experiences of being single.  One is a widow, the other divorced.  The former feels her dead husband’s presence in the garden, or his encouragement when she struggles with the lawn mower or repairs around the house.  The other talks about her girlfriends’ experiences of on-line dating.  They both talk about loss of intimacy.

Sometimes I eavesdrop between laps at Fitzroy Pool.  Or is it people-watching?  Occasionally I hear the dull snap of goggles fastened over silicone caps and a little smack of water as swimmers lower themselves into the pool and kick off toward the deep end.  Others emerge and wrap themselves in a towel, shoulders hunched and balls of their feet flexing up and down on the warm, wet cement.  A man wearing pink Crocs squelches along the pool edge as another climbs out of the water in impossibly baggy brown bathers, dripping crotch sagging almost to knee level.  One woman picks at the knot of a polka dot 1950s style two-piece halter neck then re-ties it with an irritable sigh; girls half giggle as they tug self-consciously at miniscule bikini bottoms.  An older mother tells off a couple of teenage boys in board shorts doing clandestine bombs when they think the pool attendants aren’t watching.  The loud splash they make engulfs her voice.  An older, barrel-chested man in tiny black Speedos strategically evaluates which lane to use, and at each end of the pool sleek, athletic young women in tight one-piece trainers silently tumble turn.

One day, there are lots of kids having swimming lessons.  One group of five year olds lines up around the edge of the childrens’ pool.  Another group, slightly older, perhaps about seven or eight, clusters at the shallow end of the main pool.  The younger kids are ducking up and down learning to feel confident in the water, the first step in defeating fear.  The instructor is young, upbeat.  He claps his hands to snag the attention of the giggling group: “let’s go, let’s go…hey my favourite fish – the flounder!”  The kids shriek as they break the surface of the water and take a gulp of air.  The other group is serious and silent.  The instructor is older, slightly gruff, business-like, attentive and careful.  He gently cradles the heads of the young swimmers as they kick on their backs for about five metres, then judges whether they are ready to be let go.  Some are; others are shepherded safely back to the edge.

After the lesson, he leaps out of the water.  He is a man in his sixties, fit from a lifetime of swimming.  Tanned and muscled.  He is relaxed now and laughs and chats to a woman watching the younger group.  He seems pleased.  The younger instructor grins and the older man half jumps into the small pool.  The two men splash around with the little kids.  I have just witnessed a new cohort of swimmers at the very beginning of a lifetime of amphibious pleasure.

Last year, I fled the Yackandandah Folk Festival for a swim at the public pool on the outskirts of Albury, about half an hour away.  In the main pool, the under 14 girls water polo match was in progress.  A good turnout of spectators was cheering the Sharks (blue and black) or the Tigers (orange, with black stripes), to victory.  Water polo is a rough game and frustrating to watch.  Players thrash, rather than swim across the pool, since they need to keep their helmeted heads above water in pursuit of the ball.  The rest of the game seems to involve a lot of jostling and elbowing.  Men in white trousers with whistles jammed in their mouths refereed the game, while the gilded youths of Albury slouched against the grubby wall of the kiosk at the other end of the pool, drinking coke and eating dim sims.

I swam 30 laps freestyle in the smaller pool.  I could hear the sound of cheering each time I turned my head to breathe.  I flipped over and swam another ten laps backstroke.  The sunlight refracting through the water droplets on my goggles created shafts of light so bright that I had to close my eyes.  Once showered and changed I asked the pool attendant for permission to take some photos of the water polo players.  He treated my request with suspicion and directed me to the women keeping score.  They were pleased to have someone photograph the girls.  The match finished and Sharks and Tigers marched proudly to the changing rooms around either edge of the pool, to loud applause from the crowd.

On the plane journey home from Tassie, I listened to two strangers finding common ground.  Their conversation started with small talk then found its way to a shared love of Victoria’s high country.  Soon it was obvious to both that they were starting to know each other.  Becoming intimate.  I hoped they would manage to overcome some initial awkward moments but as their conservation progressed, I was disappointed.  He was into horse riding.  She was a bushwalker.  Each had a different experience of landscape which didn’t align the other’s.  I sensed a change in her tone as this philosophical gulf widened and she struggled to regain the connection.  He talked on, unaware.  Knowledge of geography is a poor match for knowledge of place.  Involuntarily, I felt sad when I heard the withdrawal in her voice.  He talked of sleeping in a swag, carried by vehicle since they are so weighty; she slept in a tent, carried on her back.  The talk turned to chainsaws, she knew how to use one, he didn’t.  He mentioned his children; younger, she foundered with a polite response.  Their conversation ebbed away with the plane’s descent to Melbourne airport.

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Driving Mr Kelly

Tony Kelly comes swimming with me some Saturday mornings.  We used to play Monday evening tennis together and one night, between games, started chatting about swimming.  I told him if he ever felt like a dip in the sea with the Williamstown Mussels he’d be more than welcome.  A few months later he rolled up on his bike one Saturday morning after I offered him a lift over to Willy beach.

As the expression goes, half the fun is getting there.  Our route is the western ring road – a grey ribbon draped across the industrial landscape at the western edge of the city.  Presiding over it all is the Bolte Bridge; a bridge which is part of a freeway; a bridge with no pedestrian access; a bridge in the style of fuck-you-Kennett-era architecture.  But a bridge with a great view.  I never tire of seeing the massive cranes which straddle the docks.  Often, I find myself distracted from our conversation by the impossibly ludicrous, giraffe-like structures lurching above the clutter of containers stacked and crammed along the wharves.

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We chat away in the car.  Tony has an interesting job, dry humour, is well read and a member of his family is famous.  But we don’t mention this, or rather we didn’t for over a year, until one morning his cover was blown by the others in the swimming group, after a TV documentary conspired with genetics to let the cat out of the bag.  Someone started playing air guitar.  Tony stalked back to the car, scowling.

I drive and Tony buys take away coffees if we need to get back straightaway and get on with the demands of modern living.  Sometimes I like to hang around with the others and as a concession to this, Tony waits around too, but I can see that he is impatient to get going.  I am constantly astounded at how busy and well-organised his life is.  To the extent that he already knows, weeks in advance, what date he will next be able to make it for a swim, which he duly notes before hopping on his bike to cycle home.  The secret to this, says Tony, is getting up at 5 am.  Seriously?  By comparison, I know I am a malingerer and each week resolve to make better use of the ample time I have on hand, but which never seems enough.

Heading east towards home, I have a small buzz of excitement approaching the West Gate Bridge.  Tony is five years younger than me and grew up in Adelaide so has no memory of its collapse.  Already forced to witness the realities of the Vietnam war when moratorium marches clogged Bourke Street, and confront the ugliness of illegal abortion when the Wainer years played out on black and white televisions each evening, Melbourne was brutally shocked when the grand project proved only as good as the smokescreen that concealed its deadly flaws.  One Saturday morning, driving over pier 5, just past the point of collapse, we notice that below us, a huge chunk of industrial landscape has disappeared.  The remains of corrugated iron sheds are piled up around the edges of the site but mostly, there is scraped earth and bare concrete slabs.  A little piece of the journey to Willy has gone and I think we both regret that we can’t remember exactly what was there.

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It gets cold in the water in winter.  Tony made mention of this in an article he wrote for the Big Issue (Ed # 448) about swimming on his fifty-second birthday, the age his father reached when he died and when Tony was still only a little kid; a year younger than my niece when her father, my brother, died.  I remember how her grief intensified when she could no longer remember his face and my helplessness, knowing that no amount of photographs or stories could ever restore his image in her mind.

Tony feels the cold more than most people I think.  At first, I was a little worried that he’d chicken out of winter swims owing to the ache of chilled sinuses, numb hands and feet and immobilised facial muscles.  However, he makes up for this on the way home, by cranking the heater right up so I nearly suffocate.

We’ve swum at Sandridge too.  One Sunday morning, on a cold and bleak day, we were the only swimmers in the water on a beach completely deserted other than by a couple of life savers messing about with an inflatable boat.  It had rained the night before.  As we swam, the cloudy water suddenly darkened when the sun disappeared behind a cloud and a wad of seaweed appeared out of nowhere.  It scared the shit out of both of us.  Emerging from the water, we agreed that on days like this, gloomy, with no-one else in the water or on the beach, it doesn’t take much to feel suddenly and shockingly afraid.

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 Of course, we analysed this incident in great depth.  Does the sea provide expression for a fear of nature which sits beneath the conscious surface?  Is it about the things you can’t control?  Why is it that most Australians are not concerned about drowning, sunstroke, or polluted water but rather, fear shark attacks which in truth are at best remote, if not impossible, at least close to shore in the bay.  Does knowing what lies beneath the surface strip away some of that uneasiness?  Does being unable to see beneath the surface make swimming an act of faith?

Not everyone is up for this kind of post-swim debrief.  The other Willy Mussels are simply happy with morning tea.

But all of us are hooked on sea swimming.  In spite of, or owing to, the icy wind on the beach in winter, sunburn, or mouthfuls of salty water when it’s rough, there is always a feeling of having no limits.  Being able to do almost anything whether it’s swimming in ten degree water, or swimming three kilometres when you thought you could only do one, or getting out of bed after a late night, or swimming with people who you thought you’d have nothing in common with but in fact have everything that counts in common.

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We’ve swum on Grand Final Day, on Cup Day, on Labour Day and on Christmas Eve.  We’ve swum over reefs and crossed the sandy sea floor in water which was sapphire blue, milky green, thick and soupy, or littered with dead birds and debris spewed from storm water drains after spring storms.  We’ve swum with jellyfish, stingrays and puffer fish.  We’ve swum on our birthdays.

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Each swim and each drive to Willy, Mr Kelly, has been a pleasure.  

 

THE SWIMMING SIXTIES

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.

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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.

DSC_0045 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.

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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.

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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?

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 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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

DSC_0066 Against an industrial backdrop of boxy giraffe-like cranes and steel containers, semi-trailers grind along Todd Road to Webb Dock, while the sea breathes in and out like a giant green lung.

Webb Dock from Sandridge Beach

Webb Dock from Sandridge Beach

Willy winter

I have an overwhelming desire to go for another swim today.  Yesterday was Saturday and I swam, as I do pretty much every Saturday, at Williamstown.  The last few weeks we have done three kilometres, yesterday a little less but I’m guessing, still well over two.  The water was cold and clear, calm for most of the swim until the swell picked up in the last half hour.  So clear that when we swam over the reef, we gazed at the swaying seaweeds, the anemones and starfish fixed to the rocks, forgetting, for a while, the chill seeping up our arms.

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Today, Sunday, I have things to do.  I need petrol.  I don’t want to wash a whole lot of neoprene.  Again.  There are garden cuttings that need dealing with and I’m hesitant to swim alone.  I am supposed to be walking, to stretch the knotted muscle behind my knee, a result of a kayaking mishap in surf last week.  Compared to the sea, walking seems monotonous, the inner urban landscape predictably dreary.  Wet grass, cafes, joggers.

I assume there will be other swimmers in the water.  There is always someone plying the water between the yellow markers and usually someone at the life saving club.  In any case, I want to have a think.  So, I gather my stuff together.  It’s a bright, sunny winter’s day.  The desire to be in the water pulls me toward Willy and I’m in the car.

The instant I turn into Nicholson Street, I’m snared by a line of cars, momentum arrested.  Not exactly traffic, just cars spread out in crooked single file across two lanes, the way they do in Melbourne.  It’s a habit drivers have of hedging their bets so if the right hand lane becomes blocked by someone making a last-minute right hand turn, they have monopolised enough space to avoid getting stuck.  The feeling of pushing against the tide lasts until I am well over the bridges.

By the time I pass the Williamstown tennis courts, my mind is starting to become bogged down with doubt.  Will the water be cold and rough?  Scary, alone?  Willy beach comes into view.  The water is calm but there is not a single other person swimming.  A couple of torso-hugging kids in hoodies stand thigh deep in the water and walkers in puffer jackets with little fluffy dogs on leashes make their way along the Esplanade.  A few others sit hunched on the sand.  The life saving club is deserted.

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Still, I’m here now.  I have brought my old wetsuit and just as I unpack it in the change rooms in the clubhouse, I realise I’ve forgotten my bathers.  I have a spare pair in the car but put the wetsuit on anyhow, wondering if having nothing on underneath is going to look obvious.  It seems to take ages to get changed and forgetting I’m alone I nearly lock my keys inside with the rest of my stuff.

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Almost immediately, the anticipation of a swim lifts me out of my mood.  Wading in, the water seems warmer than yesterday but still deliciously cold.  My old wetsuit is better than the new one and once in the water I realise it gives me much more buoyancy as well as more insulation.  That sense of immersion kicks in and the swim out to the first marker seems effortless.

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After that it’s across to the second cardinal marker.  The water is clear and green and I can see the sea floor most of the time.  Perhaps it’s the calm water but soon I’m there.  Looking up, there is a clear view of the distant You Yangs and the ragged outline of Altona, across the bay to the south.

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I think about writing a job application. I think about sea kayaking.  I think about finding work, again.  Unwillingly, I think about a whole lot of stuff that I want to put out of my mind so I concentrate on the sea floor.  I map out a triangle by changing direction and heading toward the shore.  Sighting, I can see a couple of people on the beach watching me swim.  I am still pre-occupied with earning a living.  Kayaking during the week is all very well but it’s recreation, not work.

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I do a second lap, about a kilometre all up.  Breathing to the right I can see the lumpish building at the footy ground and Sirens restaurant at the northern end of the beach.  I kayaked there with a friend a few weeks ago.  Wet and sandy, and to our surprise, we were allowed inside for a coffee.  Not that the waiter cared; we guessed he was most likely a backpacker on a working holiday.  Worked for us anyhow.

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Once out of the water, I have a little tinge of regret that the swim has finished but the thought of swimming alone for another lap doesn’t appeal, especially since I know I’ll start to get cold and irrationally, I worry about drifting away hypothermic and unseen.

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The clouds have thickened now, their coppery underbellies suggesting that the warmish northerly wind will swing around later.  A few kids play on the beach with their mothers.  One family has a kite.  The three year old holding the string is pulled along the sand after it.  Whether through luck or mastery, everyone is pleased with his success at keeping it high in the air.  We all cheer as it dodges the down drafts and surfs the gusts.

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Smug in Uggs

The last time I owned a pair of Ugg boots was at the age of about 14.  In those days, my girlfriends and I bought sheepskins, cut them up and somehow sewed them together to make our own, then pretended we were surfie chicks.  Even though we lived in Tyabb and weren’t allowed to go out.  Why oh why has it taken so long to fully appreciate the joy of warm feet, that only a pair of Ugg boots can bring?

Firstly, like some, I have resisted the idea of owning Ugg boots.  Mistakenly, I had assumed that Ugg boots were uncool footwear worn only by inhabitants of other suburbs.

Not so.

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Ruffle the winter clothing of anyone at all, and you will find a pair of Ugg boots not far away.  This is because they are the absolute best footwear ever.  Ugg boot owners have a special air of smugness, a kind of insouciance known only to those who have toasty warm feet, during even the most bitter Melbourne winter days.

Post-swim or post-kayak cold feet are awful.  I thought it was normal and had to be endured.  Until last week.  While downing coffee and carbs after a swim with the Williamstown Mussels, I happened to glance toward the ground.  Meeting my field of vision were Ugged feet.  Brown, pink, black, blue and purple Ugg boots.  Same after a kayak trip.

One trip to Vic Market later and I’m in the Ugg club.  I wear them to the beach and I even wore them to the supermarket this week.  If I want to feel uber-smug, I relax in my genuine Danish Deluxe 1970s black leather recliner and read the Guardian on my iPad, feet happily cocooned in lambswool and suede.

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Ugg boot centre of diversity unfortunately concealed by the table. But they are there.

A short swim on a long night

It feels odd, catching a tram to a pagan event.  It takes an hour to get to St Kilda beach on the Number 96. I stand at the tramstop, inhaling other people’s cigarette smoke and worrying about hypothermia.

Somehow, I need convincing that this is supposed to be fun.  It’s expensive fun at $55 a ticket to swim 300, 500 or 1,000 metres off St Kilda Beach on the night of the winter solstice.  Included in the price is a warm-up in the pool at the sea baths and a discount pizza at an adjoining café.  How things have changed since the Neolithic.

It’s a cold, grey, mid-winter day.  I’m guessing the water will be around 12C and while I’ve opted not to wear a wetsuit, I have stuffed a minimal amount of neoprene into my day pack in the form of kayak shorts and vest to ward off the cold and add some buoyancy.  I’m also worried about the cold water exacerbating anxiety.

The tram grinds down Nicholson Street.  Youths in hoodies slouch in their seats; others stare out the window.  One woman is putting on make-up.  At times, trams are like someone’s loungeroom.

I plan to meet Angela at the beach so that we can swim together, which is a relief since neither of has done a night swim and have no idea of what to expect.  A few of the other Mussels are going as well, and some of the Bay Open Water swimmers.  All are doing the swim in their bathers, with a few in skins or tri-suits.

The tram threads through the glittering towers of South Melbourne.  People come and go.  Some disembark and head toward dark apartment blocks, others occupy the empty spaces and the tram fills up again.  Most travellers are fiddling with their phones.  One man reads the Herald Sun and it strikes me how unusual this is.  Friday night, the end of the working week.  Going home, going out.  Very few, however, are going swimming.

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Once off the tram and scooting across the Esplanade once there’s a break in traffic, I head toward the sea baths to search for Angela, who is waiting near the door to the beach.  We make for the beach through automatic, sliding doors and leave glass, concrete, bitumen and traffic behind.  We are on the beach, the lights of the bay ring the dark, still water.  Swimmers gather on the sand, apprehensive, excited and nervous.  Some scan the water but it’s dark except for the occasional light on a yellow cardinal marker.

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I’m surprised that a couple of the good swimmers have opted for the 500 metre course over the one kilometre.  Angela and I are both doing the 500, which doesn’t look too far.

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Then the wait is over and we’re in the water.

Tentatively, we wade out.  The water rises from ankle to knee to thigh, then waist, upper torso and finger tips but it’s not as cold as I expected and it doesn’t take much effort to go under.  Cold.  But nicely so.  And then, into the gloom.

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Everyone disappears. There are no thrashing arms and legs, only the faint smudge of body as swimmers melt into the darkness.  It’s quiet and calm and dark.  So much so, that the unanticipated pleasure of stillness soaks up any beginnings of anxiety and substitutes instead, a sense of wonder.  I can just make out the texture of the sea floor through the inky green water.  There is the sense of gliding over the vague ripples of sand and odd, patchy shadows.  And nothingness.  Just gloom.

Sighting the course is difficult since the orange lights fastened to the markers flash only occasionally and are hard to make out. Ridiculously, every other light along the shore of the Bay is the same colour.  Sooner or later, I separate from Angela but I don’t want to stop for too long in the cold water, even though I feel quite warm.

In a short time, I’m separated from everyone else as well.  In fact, everyone loses their bearings and occasionally a swim cap appears out of the dark water, its occupant looking helplessly for a course marker.  The support kayaks have disappeared entirely.  Cocooned in darkness, I just swim on.  Gliding through the darkness, I feel like I am swimming really fast. Sloughing off the icy water.  Generated by an inner warmth.  Soon, the ripples of sand on the sea floor sharpen and it’s over.  Suddenly clumsy, swimmers stagger out of the water and on to the beach.  A stiff breeze blows across the sand.  No-one feels how cold it is.

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Labour Day to the pier

The weather has caught everyone by surprise on the Labour Day weekend.  After a week or two of coolish weather, it’s back into the low thirties.  Although coming to think of it, it’s the anniversary of the swim to the “Harbour Masters Harbour”, when it was just as hot.  Surprisingly though, there are only a few people on Sandridge Beach and even better, no jet skis.  Maybe it’s the predicted strong northerly that has kept people away, or the early onset of a southerly.

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Vince and I swim regularly on Saturday mornings with the Mussels but rarely venture beyond Willy.  It’s not for lack of enthusiasm but rather finding a day which suits everyone.  Both of us though, are keen to make the most of the last of the warm weather.  A couple times, we have discussed swimming from Sandridge to Princes Pier.  Today’s the day.

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The moderate on-shore wind and outgoing tide make for a bit of chop, but just enough to give a twist to the swim and add to the work-out, since it’s only about 850 m to the remains of Princes Pier.  Looking east with Station Pier in the background, 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.

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A swimmer was killed by the driver of a jet ski only a couple of years ago between Lagoon and Kerferd Road piers, off Port Melbourne.  The unimaginable horror of Robert Brewster’s 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.  Astoundingly, there is very little authority, or even concern, over jet ski conduct in spite of numerous reports of harassment from swimmers, sailors, fishers and kayakers, even on inland waters and are banned from all waterways in Sydney Harbour.  If only.  On the Bay, it is usual to see jet skis hooning just offshore at high speed, unchecked.  While swimmers are crammed into a small section of beach, jet skis have the run of the place.  The speed restriction of 5 km per hour close to shore is frequently ignored.  Today is no exception.

We decide to swim out to the first yellow marker, past a yacht which is moored a couple of hundred metres off the beach, hug the first breakwater, then swim closer to the beach to avoid being sliced to ribbons.  From there, our course takes us diagonally across to the pier.  A little further off, the Spirit of Tasmania is moored at Station Pier.  Strictly out of bounds.

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The water is mint-green, still warm enough to swim without a wetsuit.  The currents and low swell feel 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 but with a gelatinous surface.  Like a rubbery bowling ball. Otherwise, the swim is reasonably uneventful and the jet skis keep their distance.

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Every now and again we stop and check on each other but all’s good and we swim on towards 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.  Suddenly, it seems really spooky.  Same in a kayak, and exaggerated by seabirds who we imagine are staring malevolently at us.  Time to swim through and out the other side.

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The construction of the pier was approved in January, 1912, at a cost of £105,097.  It was designed by Mr W. Davidson, Inspector General of Public Works and would be known as New Railway Pier.  By that time, the cutters, brigs, schooners and barques, common in the Bay only ten years earlier, had been mostly displaced by steamships.

Melbourne ports were busy places.  By 1912, the number of sheep exported had doubled in 35 years since 1877.  Greasy wool was the highest export, along with wheat, butter and gold.  Flour, leather, mutton and lamb, geldings, biscuits, books, newspapers and apples were also valuable exports.  Hardwood timber, bags, bark, cement, lime, sand and shell, soap, tallow and grains were unloaded from overseas and interstate.

That year, the  Melbourne Harbour Trust Commissioners reported good progress on the pier’s construction.  The first section, 1,252 feet long and 186 feet wide, was completed by June 1914.  The second section extended the length of the pier to 1,902 feet, to provide four berths “capable of accommodating the largest vessels visiting the port”.  Four lines of rails and a central roadway with a footpath each side, overhead travelling gangways to carry passengers to the vessels and electrical lighting sealed the new Railway Pier as state of the art.

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The deep water ports near the mouth of the Yarra shortened the distance between Williamstown and the City and with the release of land for sale in the Port Melbourne area, the Melbourne Harbour Trust Commissioners saw an opportunity to provide dock accommodation in the locality.  However, by 1914, with the outbreak of war, revenue and trade were thrown into chaos.  Ships were requisitioned as troop carriers, documents for consignments of goods failed to arrive or were at best irregular, leaving cargo stranded on the wharves.  The Port of Melbourne was stretched to provide berthing accommodation for transports, fitting up and embarking of troops and horses.  Nonetheless, the Commissioners proudly announced at the close of the financial year that it “happily proved equal to the occasion”.

By 1916, New Railway Pier was fully commissioned, although the initial section had already been deployed for war-related shipping traffic.  Although trade was disrupted, during 1917 fifty-one vessels berthed at New Railway Pier, on average for seven days.  Exports were diverse, but were dominated by wool and wheat, a trend which persisted well into the future.  Other major exports included ale, horses, biscuits and cakes, butter, dried fruit, jams and jellies, superphosphate, frozen rabbits and hares, skins, and tellingly, Red Cross goods.

By the time the Armistice was declared in 1918, nine of the 193 volunteers from the Melbourne ports had been killed in the war.  Steamships dominated the northern Bay although occasionally a barque, ketch or schooner still sailed into port.  In 1919, when the volume of wheat and wool export doubled and other exports increased to record levels, the Port Melbourne piers were the second busiest after the River Yarra piers, earning almost £24,500 from 300 ships in revenue.  Minor compared to Victoria Dock but significantly higher than other piers at Williamstown.

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Trade continued to improve over the years.  Imports related to the motor car and construction industries, as well as increased disposable wealth, brought in substantial revenue from wharfage rates in the form of timber and softwoods, drapery, cotton, paper, rice, woollen goods and glassware.  In 1921 nearly half a million tons of wheat were exported out of Melbourne.  New Railway Pier was formally re-named Princes Pier in 1922, after the visiting Prince of Wales aboard the HMS Renown two years earlier.  Twenty-five thousand people crowded onto the pier to see the royal party and the HMAS Australia, also berthed at the pier in 1920.  The Harbour Trust Commissioners reported with pride, that the water was deep enough not to have to wait for high tide for the Prince’s ship to depart, in spite of the Marine Engineers’ strike earlier that year, which had disrupted coal supplies and hence dredging operations in the Melbourne ports.

Today, the piles sway slightly in the current.  At the outermost end of their ranks, they 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.  They are ghostly beneath the surface and sheathed by colonies of mussels.  Stumps of rotted piles sit just below the surface, loosely bandaged by sea lettuce and ribbons of kelp.  Under the stares of sea birds, we breast-stroke through the forest and into the stretch of water between Princes Pier and Station Pier.

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The swell is suddenly different in this section, perhaps because of a relatively strong current which persists around the Station Pier and toward St Kilda.  We have a sense of the deep water.  We turn around and swim back and somewhat relieved, but also somewhat reluctantly, head back toward Sandridge.

What must Vince’s father have thought, nearly fifty years ago, arriving from Italy as a Calabrian migrant on Monday, February 27th 1967?  The weather was unusually cool for February – 650F, with early isolated drizzle patches, then a fine, mild day with morning cloud and a south-easterly breeze.

War, and swimming, dominated the news.

Harold Holt was Prime Minister, until he disappeared swimming off Cheviot Beach at Portsea at the end of that year.

The USA had announced a new “systematic bombardment” of North Vietnam, using land, sea and air power to target crucial infrastructure and disrupt supply lines to the south.  Controversially, the Federal Opposition Leader Gough Whitlam was reported as backpedalling on the Labor Party’s policy of withdrawing troops from Vietnam, unless under an armistice agreement via negotiated settlement.  On the weekend, George Day from Warrnambool won the Renault iron man contest at the Portsea surf carnival.

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Princes Pier was at its height as the point of disembarkation for migrants.  Was Australia a good place to come to live?  Forever?  On page 3 of “the Age” in his 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”.

It’s hard to know what to make of this speech.  On the one hand, it comes across as compassionate and even forward thinking.  On the other, the whiff of assimilation is not far from the surface, as is the barely concealed 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 spritual 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”.

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And all this from the man who famously “died on the job” shagging his son’s ex-girlfriend.

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.  What would he have said to the Presbyterians today, as a Liberal Minister?

On the other side of the world, in Massachusetts, Albert de Salvo, who claimed to be the Boston Strangler, was re-captured a couple of days earlier after escaping from what is described in The Age as Bridgewater mental hospital.  Dressed in sailor’s clothing de Salvo walked into a shop and asked to make a phone call.  He later told police that he had fled from the hospital to draw attention to his need for psychiatric care and is reported to have said “maybe people will know now what it means to be mentally ill”.

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In State politics that same weekend, 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 Camberwell and was in favour of hanging.

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Makes you wonder who most needed psychiatric care.

Like all swims, this one feels good.  In spite of, or because of the cold, the waves, each other’s company, the icy wind on the beach in winter, sunburn in summer, or dodging the jellies, there is always a feeling of having no limits.  A feeling of being able to do almost anything whether it’s swimming in 8 degree water, or swimming three kilometres when you thought you could only do two, or swimming with people who you thought you’d have nothing in common with but in fact have everything that counts in common.  It is always though, about D. H. Lawrence’s  “third thing”, famously quoted in part, by Roger Deakin:

“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”.

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Anyway, the jet skiers clearly haven’t read that because on our way back, one comes dangerously close to me, enough to make me glad that we are almost back in the swimming only zone in front of the Surf Life Saving Club at Sandridge Beach.

Of late, there has been some discussion about the nature of anxiety in the water.  I think I feel it most intensely but at the most unexpected times.  For me, it is never about deep water but for others, Deakin’s thoughts may hit the mark:

“Once in the water, you are immersed in an intensely private world as you were in the womb.  These amniotic waters are both utterly safe and yet terrifying, for at birth anything could go wrong, and you are assailed by all kinds of unknown forces over which you have no control.  This may account for the anxieties that every swimmer experiences from time to time in deep water…The swimmer experiences the terror and the bliss of being born”5.

Being immersed in water.  Swimming can be intensely private and intensely joyous.  The undulating autumn sea has just the right amount of movement after the more dynamic summer swells.  Swimming is a little more gentle now and in a sense, reminiscent of kayaking in a following sea.  True immersion takes some time to experience I think, it’s more than just being physically within water, and it’s more than your body moving with water around it, as Deakin describes.  Immersion only truly comes at the point when your mind is also immersed, unseparated from a new world where there is no horizon and no firm ground, only fluidity and motion.

There seems to be a few more people on the beach when we emerge from the shallows.  Sandridge is a strange mix.  The beach is popular with Muslim families.  Covered women and girls wade in the shallows, other family members picnic on blankets spread out under umbrellas, or beneath the shade of shrubs planted to revegetate the area between the road and the beach.  Yet just a little further on, men deal in sex and drugs along the well-worn paths through the copses of coastal scrub at the far western end of the foreshore.

Against the macho industrial backdrop, with its boxy giraffe-like cranes and steel containers, there’s the sound of grinding lorries hauling cargo along Todd Road to Webb Dock.

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