Saturday, April 10, 2010

Lessons from Tama...

Ploughing through the sea en route to Shark Point, one became aware, as one rolled to breathe to the left, of a helicopter remote, high in the distance. As one stroked, breathing right, then breathing back left again, the helicopter homed in, closing in on one, until it got to the point where it seemed almost right above our heels. As we watched it, we thought, That’s what helicopters do when they’re homing in on a shark! We dismissed the thought, however, not because we thought there wouldn’t be any sharks in that area – we were heading towards Shark Point – but because we had other things on our mind, and we knew that, even if there were a shark in the area, it wasn’t likely to be a threat to us. We’ve long regaled awed observers with the line that, “We don’t run ocean swims at shark feeding time…” And that’s true: anyone who swims at 6am, alone and in the vicinity of places like Shark Point, is asking for trouble. Just as are those who swim at 8pm, such as surfboard riders. But even if sharks are around the place, at 1130 AEST, on an April morning, they’re more likely to be curious and peripatetic than hungry and aggressive. We hold to that line. Still, in the long experience of ocean swimming in Sydney, we are unaware of a shark ever really being a problem. There have been plenty of sightings, but none have been a real threat.

As it turns out, according to the organisers of the TamaCloey 2.5km Cliffside Odyssey, there was a shark hanging around, maybe three of them – depending upon which account one listens to – and it was that shark, or those sharks, that the Lifesaver helicopter was watching. We were, at the time, perhaps half way between Broant Beach – as our friend Gordo overheard US servicemen on leave from ‘Nam pronounce it back in the early ‘70s – “Where should we go?” one said to the other. “Bondee, or Broant?” -- schlepping through the kind of water that most wouldn’t dream of traversing by oneself in mid-summer. It wasn’t sharks that held our attention. It was technique. Specifically, technique in real ocean conditions, in chop, against a breeze, through backwash from a rock platform colliding with ocean swell.

About that time, we passed our water safety cobber, Tama’s John “Sigh” Macleay. Sigh said to us afterwards that our stroke looked “tired” at that point.  We could understand that, although we know we didn’t feel particularly tired at that point. We’d latched onto a match race: a boofhead who rounded the first booee off Tama just after us, passed us as we took pitchers with our Brownie Starflash-in-a-plastic-bag, then paralleled us as we trekked along the cliff-face, around Shark Point, over the bar into Cloey and along the bay to the finish. The match race pushed us, and we loved it. We’re still not sure which of us got there first. And we were quite impressed with Sigh’s observation. Perhaps Sigh was mixing up “tired” with “relaxed” and “loping”. We wish. We know we certainly didn’t feel particularly tired at that point. We had been focussing, until so rudely distracted by the helicopter, on achieving the perfect technique for getting through conditions disrupted by rolling swell and turbulent backwash. It was, we remember thinking, just the time when we need to bring our streamline into play.

We recall a time when we were boaties, many years ago. We were boaties at Broant, in fact, and we remember how we practised our long, languid strokes when we were pulling into a chop. Long, languid strokes are the equivalent in surfboats of streamline in swimming. In ocean swimming, we thought, it’s the swimmer with the better streamline who will do best. We recall the late Coach Sandra telling us, poolside at Sutho one weekday morning, that “Swim training is all about swimming faster with less effort”. That means streamline. Streamline is the fastest, easiest way through the water. Imagine you’re a torpedo: arms out in front, head between the arms, chin almost on chest, toes pointed… That’s streamline, because it presents the body through the water offering the least resistance. It’s possible, with a good streamline, actually to propel your body through the water through rhythm and suppleness, without even pulling a stroke. The best swimming, indeed, is the stroke that minimises the disruption from the streamline. This brings into play the concept of catch-up, by which the leading arm stays out there virtually until the recovering arm catches it up, before the leading arm then pulls through while the recovered arm stays out in front, straight but relaxed and supple, becoming the leading arm itself. And the recovering arm stays close to the body, the elbow high, the wrist hanging nonchalantly below it, the fingertips trailing gently through the water, also maintaining as much as possible the body in streamline. To little kiddies, the streamline is presented as the “torpedo”, for you are doing your utmost to present your body as a torpedo to the resistant force of the sea. It’s not for nothing that torpedoes are shaped like cigars. Torpedo, streamline, is the easiest way through any water, but it’s especially the easiest way through choppy seas.

This is what we were thinking of as the helicopter hovered above our heels. Sharks occurred to us, but they didn’t occupy us. Around Shark Point and into Clovelly, the swell came from behind, picking us up as we pulled in towards the bar at Cloey, and throwing us forward. You’re pushing along, and you feel a following swell pick up your feet. Your toes rise higher than your body, you’re heading downhill, so your body accelerates. A supple body, too, melds to the shape of the swell. The swell travels the length of your body, for it’s travelling more quickly than you can possibly hope to travel, lifting your body as it goes, so that the highest point moves forwards, from your toes, up your legs, along your torso, past your shoulders, your neck, your head, and out your fingertips at the end of your outstretched leading arms. This, too, is where streamline and suppleness become all important, where it’s critical that the impedance to your progress through the water is minimised by a good torpedo body position. And the better your body can meld into the shape of the water, the more supple it is, then the more push you will get from that transient swell. That’s when you’re surfing at sea.

You can measure your success at this by how you pick up speed from following swells relative to the coves around you. It’s not uncommon that you can pick up half a body length per swell, even more, against an adjacent swimmer who doesn’t offer the same skill set. Different swimmers will get different benefits from sea surfing like this, but much depends on your skill, your ability to offer to the sea a technique conducive to working with it, not agin it.

And that’s what we thought all the way into Clovelly Bay.

A similar thought had struck us as we headed out through that monstrous break at Glamarama at the start of this swim. We had stood there on the rocks watching the first half dozen waves hit the break. In they would wade, stridently, until they hit the first half difficult set. The power of those waves was clear. They weren’t all big waves, but they pushed back most of those whom they hit. Locals had told us beforehand the way to get out at Tama that day: stick as close as possible to the rocky northern point, head out over the rock shelf, then dive under the swells and let them take you out. The starkest implementation of this advice came from Maurice Westerweller, who picked his way on foot over the rock platform, then slid into the sea near its point, finding a benevolent trench in the rocks feeding into a current that rushed him out. On the rocks, he’d been behind the leading swimmers beside him in the break. But once in himself, within metres he’d established a clear advantage over them. So it was good advice, but advice that many swimmers seemed unable to implement. Tama’s always is a difficult break: there is a drag and a rip to the south, but it will take you onto the southern cliff before it sweeps you out. You have to hug the northern rocks to find the outward current there, then pick your way through the sets. It’s a question of finding the middle ground: between the northern rock platform, while keeping out of the southerly drag.

When we started, we understood immediately why all those punters went backwards when they hit the break: those swells, broken or unbroken, were very powerful. Some breaks are like that. Big or little, broken or unbroken, the waves rush at you. Most punters at Tama, too, would wade into the water, crashing through the swells defiantly. Few went under them until they found much deeper water. And each time a defiant ocean swimmer met a wall of Tama whitewater, they went backwards. The cost wasn’t just yardage – metrage – it was in energy, too. Standing up to those swells took energy, and with a longish swim ahead through unco-operative chop and backwash, the unnecessary expense of energy in the break at Tama would take a toll later in the swim.

For ourselves, we took a slightly different route to most when it was our turn through the break: we veered away from the rock platform before we reached its tip, heading into the slightly deeper water to the right where we could dive under the waves a bit more deeply, and where the breaking waves hadn’t quite reached their zenith of power, breaking into slightly deeper water. We went under one wave… two waves… three waves… while still on the rock shelf. The rocks were covered in sand, and there was weed growing from them, and this gave us something to grab. We remember our Uncle Bonehead giving us our first lesson in bottom-grabbing on a biggish day at Caves Beach when we were littlies. We remembered his example, and implemented it. It was good, effective. But something else struck us, too: that as we went under those waves, and as the force of those waves hit us in the face… it did just that: it hit us in the face. Every time it hit us in the face, we felt it push us back, and we gave up some of the precious distance we’d just gained heading into the wave, thrusting ourselves forwards and under it. It hit us in the face. The wave hit us. Then the epiphany hit us.

We’ll take you back to an exchange in the oceanswims blob on TamaCloey, where someone made a smart comment about how swimmers should learn to dive under waves, and another smarty retorted that the idea of diving under waves was a dazzling revelation: it had never occurred to them! The original comment was not far from the truth, however, and it didn’t deserve the sarcastic response. Some people should think before they react (us included, very often). For the epiphany that struck us whilst our fingertips grappled with the sand and the weed and the rock off Tama’s northern point was all about technique and streamline. As we dived under a wave, we felt the wave rush past us. It was a good feeling; we felt omnipotent. The wave could do nothing to us. We were smarter than the wave. But as most mugs do, we were lazy, and our head drifted up. And as soon as it drifted up, the force of the wave hit us in the face and drove us back. Holding the bottom hadn’t been difficult whilst we maintained our streamline, but it became a struggle immediately we lifted our head, and the wave drove us back. Next wave, we did the same. But we were more aware of it this time: we dived, head between the arms, grabbed the bottom, felt the water rush past, then our head drifted up, we felt the force of the whitewater in our face and our grip on the bottom tenuous… And we dropped our head again abruptly, placing it back between our arms, our chins almost nuzzling our furry shall-we-say-white chest, and the force dissipated… Suddenly, holding the bottom was easy again, we held our ground, and – more importantly – we didn’t have to struggle to stay there. We rose up again after the wave, ready for the next one. And this time, unlike the wave before, we felt refreshed, energised, we were winning the battle… And we went down again, under the next wave… We kept our head down this time… And suddenly, this break wasn’t half the challenge it had been just two waves before. It occurred to us then, thinking always as we surged through the sea, that most punters, ourselves included, approach these demands unthinking. We go under the wave but, undisciplined, we lose our streamline all too easily, and that’s when the problems arise. Next time you’re at the pool watch the average punter dive in: how many of them make a splash because their head is up and their legs are flailing? Watch the punter who dives, head between arms, chin on snowy chest, legs and toes pointed behind – not stiffly, still supply – and see the difference it makes to the disturbance of the water on entry. Transfer that across to the sea, and you start to appreciate the difference in resistance to a swimmer streamlining through the water, and one ploughing through messily and thoughtlessly, head lifting lazily in the face of a demanding sea.

The Tama swim has but a short history, but already it has proved regular and fertile ground for us in learning lessons. Two years ago, when the swim was called off due to heavy seas, we learnt the importance of warming up, particularly the growing importance of warming up as one grows older. Two years ago, the seas were bigger than they were on swim day in 2010, and they were more even, breaking heavily onto a bank. While the swim was called off, many mugs ventured into the break to test themselves. We were caught by a couple of large sets on the way out, diving repeatedly under them, coming up for air through the turbulent backwash, spinning around crazily, out of control, at the mercy of the sea, gasping for breath just as the next wave crashed through, and we were diving down again, and again… one after the other. The sea was much more beautiful that day, but it was much more dangerous than on Easter Monday, April 5, 2010. The space between the waves gave us no time to gather our breath, the breaking waves threw us around the sea floor more violently, and they held us down for longer. We had much less time to breathe, recover and to dive deeply under each wave as it came barging through. And it occurred to us how easy it must be for an unprepared, an “unwarmed” swimmer to lose control in conditions like that. And that one really needs to warm up before one tackles a break such as Tama on a largish day. One really needs to develop a cycle of breathing, to take one’s deep breaths, to fall into a rhythm that will carry us through, under and past the break. The problem with Tama, of course, is that there is nowhere to warm up apart from through the break itself. It’s Catch 22: you need to warm up in order to tackle the break, but you can warm up only in the break.
This is one of the great challenges of this event, and it’s why the organisers were right to stagger those starting waves, to restrict them to just 10-20 swimmers each. Imagine tackling that break, exhausting yourself, having yourself thrown around breathlessly, and more and more waves of mugs coming in after you and all around you in what really is the narrowest of corridors for the safest passage out the back. It could have been disastrous. Just ask Glistening Dave, who sports a shiner still from a contretemps with an adjacent swimmer out of control.

And it allows us to make the point that plenty have made in the oceanswims blob: that being a fast swimmer doesn’t mean that you have the faintest clue about how to tackle a break such as Tama’s. Conversely, being a slower swimmer doesn’t mean that you’re less skilled in handling a break such as Tama’s last Monday. Being a fast swimmer means that you are a fast swimmer. It doesn’t mean that you know how to tackle the sea. Remember a few years back at North Bondi, when the organisers – not the current North Bondi organisers – called off the swim for the over 50s? That was one of the dopiest decisions we've ever seen in ocean swimming, albeit no doubt made in good faith. The over 50s are the eejits who’ve been up to this caper all their lives; they’re the ones who actually know what they’re doing in a break; they’re the ones who’ve most likely been hanging around beaches and difficult breaks all their lives. You cannot equate speed through the water with surfing skills. Just as you cannot equate youth and natural fitness with the ability to swim, or to swim in the ocean, or with being surf-smart.

This goes to one of our favourite aspects of ocean swimming -- that it's a wonderfully egalitarian sport, in which the focus is on the journeyperson, not the elite. It's a rank-and-file participation sport, a sport in which one's skills do not depend on the depth of one's pockets -- one of the reasons why we detest and despise wetties and fastskins and their cohort as the cankers that they are -- and a sport in which you can rub elbows and eyesockets with the highs and lows of society as you plough through the sea. When you stop to enquire of a sibling swimmer treading water off Shark Point whether they need help, you may be enquiring of a millionaire or a pauper, unless of course you're swimming in the Cole, then for sure you'd be enquiring of someone of means, because ordinary punters can't afford to enter the Cole... but that's another debate. We don't pay much attention to elite swimmers on, because they are not the soul of this sport. Some of our best friends are elite swimmers, of course, and we respect them mightily, and the effort they put in, particularly with stuff all support from Swimming Stray'a, who have now cancelled their national 10km open water series, and all 25km open water races at the national level, such is their apparent disdain for a discipline that has produced a string of world champeens over the years.

We digress. We grow teary-eyed about this sport for its egalitarian nature, its depth of character at the rank-and-file level, for the opportunities it presents for ordinary mugs, boofheads and bums to experience something special, without the reliance on approval from higher authorities or elites. The truckie from Greystanes or Liberty Grove has as much opportunity in this sport as the anaesthetist from Birchgrove or the barrister from Palm Beach or the midwife from Shepherds Bay. That's why it was disappointing at Tama that there were a whole lot of enormously competent and capable rank-and-file swimmers who didn't get to experience the TamaCloey swim. Fortune smiled on us, for we decided to go earlier than our scheduled Wave 19 (Sub-wave 1). We arranged it with the timers and we experienced perhaps the most satisfying senses of personal achievement that we had ever had, particularly after the helicopter hovering over our heels and all its corollaries.

That said, it was the organisers' call on Easter Monday, subject to direction by the Waverley Council lifeguards: they have swimmer safety foremost in their minds, along with a desire to allow the swim to proceed if at all possible. They have an enormous responsibility on their shoulders in the duty of care to look out for all us mugs, competent and incompetent alike. None of us have signs on our foreheads distinguishing between the two extremes.

The wave system employed by Tama is a noble idea, but it had some bizarre manifestations:  how some of those swimmers got into the faster waves is beyond comprehension. And why the Tama organisers set aside some of the earlier waves for on-day registrations – as some alleged in the oceanswims blob -- is simply ludicrous. What was the thinking behind that? We note that the response from the Tama organisers to comments raised on the oceanswims blob does not appear to go to that issue – we didn’t notice it, anyway. No doubt it was decided in good faith, but on the day it was unfair and unfathomable.

One of the good things about the TamaCloey swim – and there are many good things about it – is that it is a swim run by swimmers. The entire organisation is an attempt to offer a swimmer-friendly swim, and a swim with a difference. Tama has a pod of ocean swimmers called Tossers – Tamarama Ocean Swimmers, or something like that – and they provided the driving force, as we understand it, behind this event. We wish there were more swims like this. We note all the comments about the Easter Monday swim on the oceanswims blob, both positive and negative. For our part, we can’t wait for next year. This was a real ocean swim. It had everything: nasty break at the start, tossing turbulent sea in the middle, shark scares, and a truculent finish over the bar at Cloey into the cradle of ocean swimming in Stray’a, by Tom Caddy’s Steps. Please, organisers, please find a way to link the Caddy heritage with this swim: it’s crying out for it.


  1. Well said os.c.

    There should be more swims like this one. Hopefully without the sharks next time.

  2. What a fantastic piece of writing, Os dot com! Brilliant.
    In my current state I'd have drowned for sure, but sounds thrilling. Shark presence usually guarantees a bit of adrenalin, so that's useful.

    Sorry to have missed you this season, this just reminds me of all the fun I am missing. I have an exhibition next month though, May 12th, which partly accounts for my absence.

    See you at Sth Curly (?)

  3. os.c you couldn't have put it better. As for blogs "alleging" the organisers kept earlier waves open for late entries, they admit it in their own response on their site.

    "Waves 7-9 and 17-19 were left open for late entries in order to keep the integrity of the matching system, so that swimmers can be slotted into waves that better suited their abilities."

    On this occassion I only wished I went late entry to gain access to an earlier wave. "to keep the integrity of the matching system" what a joke!

    Enough said on this....see you all at the "non tsunami affected" Long Reef swim on Sunday

  4. Where's your exhibition fifi?

    See you at Sth Curly.


  5. Thanks os.c you've restored my faith. As one of the majority who didn't swim, and wanted to do this swim because I've swum at these beaches for 35 years, I envy your memories. Your description is the next best thing. Oh well, on to Dee Why next Sunday.

  6. An interesting read (and I’m guessing a bottle or 2 of red valiantly gave its life in the writing of these memoirs :-)

    No offence intended but I'm guessing it’s been a while since Mr Ocean swims has really been a "torpedo".

    It was at Wedding Cake swim this year that I saw him bobbing around out the back with his brownie-starfish-in-a bag and I dutifully tried to pose for a snap as I passed (lest he accidently get one of my atrocious stroke and have him dissect it later on this blog).

    On I proceed thinking I wasn't doing "too" bad for a 30 something reasonably fit but new ocean swimmer when gliding past at near twice maybe three times the speed came an old codger slipping lithe through the water but with a significant ballast below.

    I recognised the togs as belonging to the self appointed king of Ocean swims himself. To tell you the truth it actually gave me the sh*ts but I slugged on knowing that at least he would be at the finish line and if I hammed it up enough there might be chance of a second pic if I emerged from the water looking happy/drowned enough.

    Alas I wasn't famous enough to be featured that swim I was just flogged by a fat guy with an obscene stroke.

  7. Thanks os.c, for reminding us why we do this.
    If it were perfect I have no doubt there would still be numerous complaints.
    It is never going to be perfect for everyone.
    That was a cracker of a swim for me and I can't wait to do it again. Tama is Tama, and when it's 'on'you know what you're in for.When you see the guys on shortboards jumping off the rocks you know to keep your head down!

  8. Boynxdor - I am still laughing. You would be awarded the blog prize if we knew your true identity. How game are you?

  9. No, if it were perfect, there would not still be numerous complaints. There were numerous complaints because it was further from perfect that the usual ocean swims.

  10. but Glama to Cloey is no 'usual' ocean swim my friend...if it were I doubt there would be such a level of debate on this blog..clearly it is one people are passionate about and one we should all hope to see run again...should the organisers not feel too bruised by the blog debate..bring on 2011's swim...

  11. Just reading this makes me realise how lucky we are to have someone like Mr Ocean Swims - ocean swimmer, photographer and writer extraodinaire!!
    Who is going to nominate him for a queen's birthday award???

  12. Great writing.
    I was one of the many left on Tama itching to get into the ocean at it best. I was a little annoyed at the sharks who stopped playtime! I suppose it is their ocean after all and we are just guests.

    See you at South Curly this weekend. Yay!!!

  13. I did come away from the tama swim irked and annoyed that it had been cancelled, personally I’m not interested in food or show bags or whatever, the tossers would present as experienced ocean swimmers and I was pleased that they had put on a race on my patch. Tama beach is tough and they would have known that to put on a race during an outgoing tide on a beach well known for treacherous conditions was dodgy and liable to be cancelled,
    Brian standlick

  14. crap......sharks are there every with it or don't go in the event. I've here for 45 years swam every day, your as bad as Russell Crowe, what a epic of crap


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