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

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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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Around Princes Pier

Today is a test run of my new sea kayak.  I launch off Sandridge and paddle gingerly toward Williamstown. I have resolved to fall out (on purpose), get wet (obviously) and get back in (hopefully) again.  The aim is to become sufficiently confident to go off on my own.  So the plan goes.  However,  I can’t resist the idea of paddling off into the void of the bay.   The water is flat and grey and every now again the kayak is gently lifted and lowered by the swell.  I look behind me.  The beach is suddenly distant and soon we are almost around the point toward Webb Dock.  The kayak moves unexpectedly fast, skimming past a solitary fisherman fiddling with his line, glancing up and tracking the kayak with an anxious gaze, concerned that we might become tangled since I am sticking close to shore where if the worst happens, I can swim the boat in.  So I like to think.

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Rounding the point, Williamstown is laid out along the edge of Hobsons Bay.  For a moment, I don’t recognise it, until I spot the bristle of  masts around the yacht club, then identify various landmarks:  wharves, sheds, a naval destroyer and the cluster of houses along the Strand.  I realise I’m at the edge of the shipping channel close to Webb Dock, not too far from the mouth of the Yarra, with a sum total of about twenty minutes sea kayaking experience.

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Williamstown across the shipping channel

Webb Dock is an outlier of the docks along the Yarra.  It has a couple of enormous boxy cranes, a few containers and a ship.  Signs direct stray watercraft to keep a distance of 75m, which I am inclined to obey under the circumstances, with the expectation of the water police appearing and swamping my boat.  So I turn around and head back toward the glittering towers of Port Melbourne.  The sea is slatey grey-green and the clouds are starting to thicken overhead.  The bridge is slumped over the north western skyline.  I don’t feel like going in yet so I paddle toward the ruins of Princes Pier.

Webb Dock from Sandridge Beach

Webb Dock from Sandridge Beach

From the water below only ranks of weathered pylons are visible.  Panicky seabirds shriek in protest at the disturbance, sweeping from one spar to another, settling, squawks receding with one last, huffy, fold of wing.  There are surprisingly more pylons than I had thought; the pier must have been enormous.  In fact it was over half a kilometre long and intricately linked not only to movement of cargo in and out of Melbourne by rail and sea, but also human movement to and from wars in the northern hemisphere.  The recent restoration project has rebuilt some structures and deliberately exposed the original pylons by removing part of the old decking,.  It honours the industrial, maritime and social history of Port Melbourne.  Paddling deeper into the skeleton and surrounded by the ruins is eerie.

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The water is clear, almost aquamarine.   Beneath the surface fronds of kelp move slowly with the current which winds among the stumps.  The wood is fissured from the salt and at the waterline its surface is braided with glossy black mussels and crusted with cream coralline algae.  Paddling toward the other side, it’s weirdly quiet; the birds raise and settle their wings in half-hearted protest then return to sentinels and gaze out to sea.

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As ever, the bridge is a constant on the skyline.

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Back close to the shore, I practice falling out and trying to get back in again.  It’s difficult but I eventually succeed although the next day I am covered in enormous bruises and it does little to increase my confidence since I realise how much harder this would be in rough sea.  

Better to learn to not fall out in the first place.

Better find someone to paddle with I think.

Then Ron showed up. How easy was that?

Princes Pier Google Earth