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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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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Kilt factor high

People ask why I have to gone Glasgow for a holiday, which I haven’t. I’m a bit taken aback by this so mutter something about how friendly and nice it is. It’s true. Men in lane ways, barking down mobile phones, aggravated, sucking on a cigarette and glancing sideways. They all have crew cuts and pink cheeks. Good stuff in the shops and music in the streets; a mix of hipster, poverty, and the genteel; old fashioned courtesy, energy.

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Scotland clashes with Serbia this weekend and Glasgow is filled with kilted football devotees. Men, women and kids all kilt-kitted, topped off with sports shirts. A party atmosphere prevails. By evening, everyone has retired to the bar. It was a nil-all draw. Glaswegians take it on the chin and get on with the business of laughing and drinking.

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Buildings are weighty in Glasgow. Pink sandstone, neo-classical, framing Glasgow’s merchant precinct. At its edge, toward the eastern end of the city, they are replaced by ramshackle shops and houses around the Barras market. The interstices of the streetscape are filled with poverty, mental illness and pregnant teenagers.

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A few people wander around Glasgow University on Saturday afternoon. A small group of Asian students and some Americans. The sound of traffic is muted in the distance. Green lawns, elms and oaks. Iron-framed leadlight, turrets piercing the sky, elegant cloisters and quadrangles.

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Next morning, most of the football fans are in jeans but still cheerful and tucking in to the all you can eat breakfast.

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At St Mungos Cathedral, the Sunday morning congregation lingers over tea in paper cups. Approaching the nave, my passage is blocked, politely but firmly by a middle-aged woman who gently informs me that the cathedral is closed to tourists during services. I hope that as a lapsed Presbyterian, an exception might be made. The woman gives me a look as if to say she’s heard it all before. It’s Health and Safety, she says. We chat for a bit but she has the vacant smile of the religious. She gives me a photocopied information sheet, with our love she says.

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After a quick spin around the Museum of Religious Life and the oldest house in Scotland, it’s off to Buchanan Street then to Jura by bus. The journey begins in the usual way, waiting in queues with backpack growing heavier by the minute, but there is an affable, congenial air among the travellers.

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A few hours later the bus arrives at Lochgilphead, then there is a taxi to Tayvallich and the ferry to Jura. The ferry is actually a speedboat and I share it with three obnoxious English public school types and their Sloanish woman companion. They load on boxes of French champagne and reminisce, loudly, about ‘last year’. Their forced, self-conscious humour suggests they are a little nervous about the crossing. This is played out later on.

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Through a two metre swell, rain pelts down on the boat. As it crashes between crest and trough, Jura emerges. Embroidered with white cottages along the sea front, the distillery and pub, the grey Paps and low, dark clouds. The weather doesn’t look so good.

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The hotel is warm and comfortable though and the smell of malt from the distillery drifts in through the open window in my room.

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Later, I can only remember, with clarity, the size of the jellyfish in the Corryvreckan.  At the time, I thought they were all different sizes but that was only because they were floating along in layers of currents, in their jellyfish world, at different depths.  The Corryvreckan is 70 metres deep, reputedly, and the water is crystal clear; the smallest jellyfish were really the ones at greatest depth.

We waited in line to jump into the water, as the boat lurched from side to side.  Jean first, nonchalantly stepping overboard and calmly breast stroking away but making absolutely no progress and under threat of being washed up on the rocks, oblivious to the shouts from the boat to swim faster.  The rest of us jumped in one by one, slower swimmers first.  Even now I can’t believe that I swam the 1.4 kilometres to the other side, especially since I know now how tough it is swimming in choppy water and not knowing that the weakness in my legs was anxiety.  Julia swam with me and Iain returned and swam circles to stay with us.  We had 40 minutes to get to the other side before the tide changed and the whirlpool returned to life.

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A day later, after the next, longer swim between Scarba and Luing was cancelled at the half way mark owing to bad weather, we revisited the Corryvreckan.  Turned toward the stinging, salty spray and clutching the side of the boat, the group stared in disbelief at enormous, white-capped waves swept up out of the swirling steel-grey water, released like some unchained, roaring creature from the depths beneath.  Each day, within only an hour or so of the tide changing, the remarkable transformation dramatically plays out within a unique confluence of current, tide and the topography of the submerged coasts of Scarba and Jura.  The boat skimmed and shied over the waves at its periphery, advancing then retreating as Duncan manoeuvred away from the thrashing beast to the safety of the rocky Scarba coastline, where the rough sea from the day before seemed suddenly ordinary.

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Swimming in Switzerland

One a hot day in France, Anna and I decided to head to Switzerland for a swim. Baguettes, cheese, fruit and beer, picnic rug, sunscreen, a book or two were tossed into day packs and we were off. The day before, we had walked along stony alpine tracks to Lac Blanc above the Chamonix valley. It was hot but the views were breathtaking. We stopped for lunch at a smaller lake just before the main lake where salamanders floated on the surface like tiny plastic bath toys. At the lakeside cafe we downed a coke then sauntered back to the carpark and drove home to Ségny, the small village beneath the Jura where Anna and Seb live.

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At Lac Léman we spread out on the grass under Tilia trees suspended between the end of flowering and fruit formation, too late to collect the mildly sweet blossoms for tea. Mid-week sunbathers, mostly middle aged couples, single men or women, mothers and children stood chatting on the shore or lay on the grass in that meditative, freshwater state. Yachts were anchored and stationary, in the distance the Jet d’Eau monotonously spurted an endless stream of water into the void, planes cruised noiselessly into Geneva airport. Time standing still.

The lake is aquamarine and beautifully translucent; the water cool but seductive. Inevitably, a pontoon was anchored about twenty metres off shore but getting into the water meant navigating the sharp stones which blanketed the shoreline and grew into even more painful larger pebbles, until the water was deep enough to start swimming. A slow breaststroke out then back to beer and baguettes on the rug.

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The next day it was time to head off for a while so I travelled down to Annecy, south of Geneva but still part of the Haute-Savoie, before catching the train back to Chamonix and ultimately, the Aguille du Midi by cable car and a telecabine ride over the alps for a brief but memorable visit to Italy. The trip was a few hours with a change of trains at St Gervais les Bains to a single track metre gauge line.

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Most passengers were tourists, slightly anxious that something might go wrong and they would end up in another part of France altogether. I chose a seat in an almost empty carriage and opened my book. A few minutes later a man in about his early forties sat in the seat beside me. His manner was cheerful and courteous but slightly assertive and it was clear that he intended to sit right next to me, in spite of there being another thirty or so unoccupied seats. I was taken aback and slightly annoyed, although not unpleased to have some company. He asked if I minded that he had occupied the seat. He realised immediately that I was not French so switched to English, in that self conscious way that the French have, always the perfectionists, when they converse with a native speaker.

He was an engineer working in Iceland, returning to his home town of Chamonix to visit family. After a while he explained why he had chosen this seat. I had only vaguely noticed that in addition to the large windows lining the sides of the carriage, glass panels connected the roof and the walls, to maximise the view of the surrounding mountains. The train climbed steadily upwards and the broadleaved forests and river valleys gave way to steeper slopes cloaked in conifer forest. Unwittingly, I had chosen the best seat in the carriage. This man had done the trip many times but his anticipation grew as the train climbed up the narrow gauge track. The late afternoon sun streamed into the carriage as we chatted. Blue blue sky and clear air; snowy mountain peaks appearing above deep green. A happiness settled over the man and I found myself going home as well, in a foreign country with a stranger, sharing his connection with place.

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South Melbourne

9.06 Sunday morning, August 2012.  First sea swim, Port Phillip Bay in winter.  It’s 11 degrees and grey.  Into a plastic box go wetsuit, towels, goggles.  The idea of being in the water is seductive; curiosity, excitement and the idea that this may be a good thing to do on Sunday mornings outweigh the not insubstantial anxiety of the new.  I like the idea of getting in the water but am little frightened again, maybe of the cold but I’m not sure exactly.  Just do it.  The first step.  Not what will happen next.  Just the immediacy of each bit of this new thing.  So I head to the bay determined.

Through the half empty streets of the city, damp after last night’s rain; past the King Street brothels, clubs and disused office blocks transformed into backpacker joints, then down Kings Way, past the State swim centre to South Melbourne Beach.  Along Albert Road, ornamental plum trees are in blossom.  The sky lightens toward the beach.

I search for a spot to park, somewhere that I can get changed.  On the Esplanade, a group of disheveled young men hang around an unlit barbeque on the wet grass, stubbies half empty or fallen on the grubby brick edging grey and discoloured by grease.  I drive on a couple of hundred metres and find a spot to park outside the South Melbourne lifesaving club.  Get my wetsuit on and walk down to the water.

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There is not a single other swimmer to be seen.  Plenty of walkers, joggers, beach volley ball enthusiasts and dogs, a group of sea kayakers down near Kerferd Road pier and at Port Melbourne in the opposite direction, the Spirit of Tasmania moored at Station Pier.  It seems solitary after the cameraderie and familiarity of the pool but conditions are perfect.  Flat, metallic sea surface.  No wind.  Clumps of brown seaweed roll with the wash along the shoreline, slimy underfoot.  I nearly slip, caught unaware after the friction of sand.  But it’s a treat to be barefoot and to feel the textures of the sea and later, I remember the nautilus shell that Louis and I found here ten years ago.

The second I am in the water my feet are chilled to the bone.  But the wetsuit is brilliant; nicely buoyant and completely blocking the sheer coldness of the water.  Hands and face feel the chill but after a dozen or so strokes seem to equilibrate with the water temperature.  Once in, the water is thick and brown and I am more worried about being poisoned than getting cold.  So dense and treacly that I can’t see my hands.  Kerferd Road pier doesn’t look too far away and it’s easy to swim in the wetsuit.  I pick out a tall apartment block in the distance to sight and swim toward it.  It’s easy to get into a rhythm but hard to sustain and keep the building in sight as well.  It’s annoying and even after a dozen or so strokes, easy to run off course.  Although after a while I start to relax and enjoy the swim.

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On the way back, losing sight again, I nearly run into a group of young men in shorts, footballers I’m guessing, huddled but cheerful, standing ten or fifteen metres in from the shore for no apparent reason.  Fifty metres further along, another identical group is gathered, arms crossed and hugging torsos, waiting for instructions.  I think I am a welcome distraction.  They must be freezing.

Back at South Melbourne, I am so pleased with myself that it’s effortless to walk up the beach and back to the car.  Mantled in cold but still buoyant from the water, it occurs to me that now I have a wetsuit I can swim any time I like.  It seems ludicrous not to have thought of it before.  Strip off in the shabby concrete changing rooms, rinse under a thin stream of cold water and pack my stuff back into the plastic box.  I am elated. It’s 10.34.  Swimming at the end of the day sets wrongs to right; swimming at the beginning of the day sets its course.

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Madame Butterfly

The Point Leo Swim Classic is held on Boxing Day. There are two main races, the five kilometre and the 1.2 kilometre race; a beach run of four kilometres and a nippers’ swim over four hundred metres. The race is beginning just as I arrive and take a vantage point on top of a sand dune. The starting gun goes off and swimmers race to the water, crashing through the waist-high waves close to the shore, then seaborne and away, a peloton of thrashing arms and legs.

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Almost immediately, one swimmer is far ahead and soon after that, two others are neck and neck in second and third place. Three enormous red plastic inflatable cubes mark the apices of the broadly triangular course, with smaller red markers in between to keep the competitors on track. Each lap is just over a kilometre, four laps complete the course. The remaining forty-seven swimmers soon spread out, ploughing their way between the first and second markers but as they head out toward the third, occasionally disappear in the swell. The leader is going to take about fifteen minutes to swim a lap, a crew of life savers in a blue kayak keeping pace alongside.

But then, bizarrely, it seems there is one swimmer doing butterfly. Life guards cluster around on boards and kayaks. The announcer sees this at the same time and with disbelief, alerts the crowd over the loudspeaker. Everyone on the beach is enthralled: five kilometres of butterfly is an heroic feat and for a while, attention is deflected away from the leader who is now on the second lap and about to overtake the slower swimmers yet to finish the first. Smooth, powerful strokes, breath on each and unflagging rhythm. The butterflier curves and crests above the water.

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Spectators accumulate on the beach, untidy clusters of teenagers lie face down on towels, and competitors ready for the next race mill around talking to each other, or look intently out to sea. The surf lifesaving club has set up blue, white and orange marquees around the finishing line. A couple sitting near me on the sand dune, just downslope, are arguing. The woman is barely controlling her voice.

“I wasn’t being difficult. I was trying to be both things to both families”.

He turns from her, feigning disinterest but eventually, he argues back. The wind carries his voice away. Then she is on her feet, kicking sand out her Birkenstocks and leaning over him, thrusts her arms forward as if about to place her hands on his shoulders. They fall short in mid-air, outstretched and rigid, but unanchored. Speech leaves her and abruptly, she walks off. He stares out to sea, trying to pretend nothing has happened, then gets up and leaves as well, his stroll determinedly casual.

The butterflier is about half way around the second lap. But the announcer has run out of things to say and the crowd is bored with the pace now. The breeze has picked up, lifting the red plastic cubes out of the water but the lead swimmer is powering through the fourth lap, focussed, internal. The blue kayak sticks faithfully close. Suddenly, he is upright and at the shore, running across the wet sand to the finish line. The crowd cheers. Sam Sheppard is barely out of breath. He competes at national level and training for a ten kilometre swim in a couple of weeks. It’s serious business.

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The next two swimmers are out of the water a few minutes later. They are the crowd favourites and have swum inseparably throughout the entire course. The second place getter wins on the sprint up the beach. He is 32, the other is a 14 year old boy. Both are exhausted. The older swimmer is congratulatory and cheerful, the younger stunned and seasick. It was a remarkable effort. The boy joins his parents on a sand dune and curious, I walk up to him a little while later to congratulate him on the swim but by now, his father, in a broad Glaswegian accent, is talking him up for the 1.2 kilometre race in an hour’s time.

The announcer reminds the nippers to find their goggles and caps before they make their way, with anxious parents, to their race which is about to start further up the beach. The gun goes off and they scramble to the water, frantically swimming flat-out around the four hundred metre course. But the crowd’s attention is mainly on the adult swimmers, still finishing the five kilometre race. One by one, or in small groups, they emerge from the sea and cross the finish line. At one hour 50 minutes, two are still in the water with about two hundred metres to go and seven minutes later, a young woman, perhaps about thirty, and an older man in his sixties stagger out of the water together. He wraps himself in a towel printed with the Australian flag. She slumps against a sand dune, reaches into a day pack and starts sending text messages.

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The butterflier will be the last to finish. Arms, wing like, arc over the water, perfectly imitating the insect for which the stroke is named. Torso rising above the water, legs fishtailing, disappearing every now and again in the rising swell. Finally, eventually, a woman emerges from the water and jogs to the finish line. Ignoring the crowd, she looks around to find her way through the marquees and back to the sand but is approached by the announcer for an interview. After the long wait for the finish, everyone on the beach is waiting to hear what she has to say.

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“It’s just what I do. Five kilometres is my minimum training distance”.

The crowd is disappointed, hoping for an insight into why someone chooses to go against the grain and swim such a gruelling race, knowing they will come not only last but last by a long, long way.  Understandably tired and probably bored with the same old questions, she turns from the announcer to find her towel.  Later, I bump into Sue from the swimming group, getting ready to compete in the shorter race which is about to start. She mentions “that bird” who did the butterfly. I am appalled.

I decide to buy a coffee while I wait for the 1.2 kilometre swim to start. The warring couple are running the kiosk. They are very busy. She darts around coordinating the kitchen orders and counter staff while he is stationed at the cash register. I have to tell him three times which sort of coffee I want and am irritated by his vacuity. I decide to take it down to the beach with a bacon and egg sandwich from the surf living saving club stall. Mistakenly, I jump the queue and get told off.

It’s not the Peninsula of my youth and I wonder how many locals are on the beach.  Later, I am relieved to be home in the city. But the feeling remains for a while and is hard to shake.

From pool to sea

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.

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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.

The deep end, Fitzroy Pool

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.

Jura

Jura

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.

The Corryvreckan whirlpool, not a good time for a swim...

The Corryvreckan whirlpool, not a good time for a swim…

Looking over the Grey Dogs, Scarba

The Grey Dogs, Scarba

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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.

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