At the local pub there is a photograph of swimmers at the Fitzroy Pool which sits above the fireplace in the public bar, dated 1926. In it there are five men, in the swimming costumes of the day, or naked, grinning for the camera.
Fitzroy pool was made famous by Helen Garner in her first novel “Monkey Grip”, later a film. Set in Carlton, it is a seminal work about communal domesticity, addiction to drugs and destructive relationships and places which defined Carlton in the 1970s. Fitzroy pool is one of those places. The words “Aqua Profonda” and above, “Danger Deep Water”, on the wall at the west end of the pool, were painted in the 1950s as a warning to Italian children, continually being fished out of the deep end and close to drowning. The sign is registered by Heritage Victoria as having historical significance as a rare example of the early acceptance of migrants into the dominant culture of the time. Hooray for Mr James Murphy, the pool manager at the time, whose care and concern for young post-war migrant swimmers, lives on.
Fitzroy pool is open, spacious and has the air of a real pool. On the other hand, the old Brunswick Baths where I swam before they closed for renovations, could not be more different. Ten metres away, trains roared past; bombing was ignored; the double lap lane was a study in perpetual motion. No-one cared about the deep end at Brunswick. And it was very deep. A relic of more reckless days when a diving board was in place. Somehow it all worked. Kids competed to touch the bottom, suspended motionless and puff-cheeked above the dirt-encrusted tiles. Surfacing triumphantly. But when the Brunswick Baths re-opened in 2013, the deep end was gone forever.
Plying up and down the Fitzroy pool, I became more and more curious about open water swimming. Not just going to the beach but swimming distances in the sea. I had read Roger Deakin‘s ‘Waterlog’, to this day my favourite book and was entranced by the idea of just swimming.
The Scottish Hebrides seemed like as good a place to start as any.
What was I thinking?
I had no experience of open water swimming whatsoever, much less 1.4 km across the 70 metre deep Corryvreckan whirlpool. The weather was cold and rainy, we camped in flimsy tents which eventually blew over in gale force wind. Then the porridge oats ran out. Who would have thought it, in Scotland? By now, I had come to fully appreciate a carb-loaded breakfast as I shivered into my cold, clammy wetsuit each morning. Thankfully, most of the swims were eventually called off and substituted with boat trips and walks around the Isle of Scarba. I will always remember, with deep gratitude, the central heating and thick tartan carpet at the B & B in Oban where I eventually thawed out and dislodged ticks infested with Lyme’s disease from under my skin.
In spite of it all, I was hooked on sea swimming and when I returned home, I found a bunch of people to swim with in Port Phillip Bay, at Williamstown. Over the months I began to feel more confident and lost the anxiety which plagued my early swims, leaving my legs weak and my lungs breathless. As the seasons progressed, we swam under warm, sunny skies; through piercingly cold winter water; in rough, choppy waves and in two metre swells on Grand Final Day. We swam on Labour Day, on Christmas Eve, over reefs and across the sea floor in water that was sometimes satin-sapphire blue, sometimes milky green, sometimes thick and soupy, sometimes littered with dead birds and debris spewed from storm water drains after spring storms. We swam with jellyfish, stingrays and puffer fish. But most of all, we swim for sheer pleasure.