Sunday, May 6, 2012

A swim to remember

Many will have varying views of the Byron Bay swim in 2012. It was called off on the beach, at the start at Wategos, just a couple of minutes before the first wave was to leave the beach. We reckon few would argue about it being called off. The start was difficult, but the finish, with a rising swell dumping onto a shallowing bank, was a nightmare. There was no doubt that the organisers had to make that decision the way they did. But why leave it until punters were waiting on the beach ready to start? Anyone watching at Byron main beach could see what the swell was doing on that bank as the tide dropped. It was a decision that could have been made a couple of hours earlier. Mind you, had they called it before we schlepped around to Wategos, we wouldn't have got to swim the course at all.

It is one of the great traditions of ocean swimming that, if a swim is called off, we swim the course anyway, conditions permitting. And so it was today. Indeed, it was a glorious swim, rolling through the swells over the bomboras as we were sucked from east to west in a ferocious sweep.

But there were three little issues along the way. At the start, those who tried to crimp the distance by starting at the western end of Wategos found themselves swept back into the rocks by the sideways sweep. Some were pulled out by lifesavers (which points to the other issue in organisers' minds when they call a swim: the safety of their own volunteers, particularly life savers on water safety duty). What you had to do, and what experienced swimmers did, was to head straight out from the lighthouse end of the beach for 50-100 metres until finding clear water, then head west towards main beach. Indeed, you had to follow the course set by the booees. If you did that, the sweep took you around The Pass into main beach, not into the rocks before The Pass.

Then, half way across the bay, there was the little issue of the bomboras. On the dropped tide, one of those bomboras was exciting but benign. But the other, shallower bombora, was boiling. One very good swimmer told us afterwards how he helped to rescue a punter who'd been caught on the shallower bombora. He'd gone under twice. Probably didn't know himself the danger he was in. The swells were rolling through, but out the back there, they were big and they packed a punch. This punter was lucky there was a strong swimmer close by with the presence of mind to support him.

Then the dump at the finish... The tide was dropping, the sweep was ferocious, the swells were standing higher in the dropping tide, and crashing onto the bank. The unwary or inexperienced would have been mushed like overcooked peas in that break, so easy it was to break your back or your neck.

So it was right that the organisers called off the swim. No argument there.

But they said it was a postponement, not a cancellation. Normal policy for the Byron Bay swim is that any postponement is for a month, with the rescheduled date a month after the original date. This would make it June 3. Indeed, that's what the event's downloadable entry form says and what is reported the following day, Mondee, in the Northern Star, the local newspaper. For many, if not most visiting swimmers, however, it is a cancellation since they can't get back to the Bay for the re-run.

Most cancelled swims provoke some complaints, but most swims are clear in their entry conditions that if seas force cancellation, there are no refunds. Even the cheapest swims provoke whinges from some -- Warriewood at $20 provoked two punters in particular to whinge to us to high heaven. Byron Bay at $65 would be expected to prompt more complaints.

Many, if not most visiting swimmers will not be able to make the postponement date. Many shape their ocean swimming season around a finishing swim in Byron Bay, planning the air travel, the local accommodation, etc, around it. Most cannot come back from Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, even Perth at such short notice. At least there is a postponement date. Most swims in Sydney, for example, don't have such luxury because the season is so jam-packed that no other dates are available, not to mention the difficulty in re-assembling their volunteers for another, unexpected day.

That said, now the Byron organisers are saying their "midweek" meeting will consider whether to re-run the swim at all. So much for the long-standing one-month postponement policy. The swim has raised a lot of money for local charities. We reckon, by a quick calculation, around $130,000 in entry fees alone, without taking into account sponsorships. Swimmers would appreciate knowing where these funds go. Who gets them? What charities benefit? What are the swim's overheads? This should be something all swims are only too happy to disclose.

The Byron swim 2012 will go down in folklore.