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.
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.
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.
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.
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.