Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Boiling Pot that is Coogee

Behind the island.
We heard the announcer at Coogee tell us several times over the PA that the swim in from Wedding Cake Island was tough. He said it was because of currents and an out-going tide. We agree it was a little tougher than the swim out, but we disagree about the reasons. And the reasons why it was tougher coming back are why swims at Coogee are some of the most befuddling on the circuit.

Mind you, this swim was not as difficult as most Coogee swims, which are in November, when the sea breeze blows and the swell usually runs from the sou'-east. This time, in April, there was a light offshore breeze and a very slight swell from the nor'-east. The sea was smooth, so the conditions we describe below -- the standard Coogee conditions -- were not as pronounced as they are normally. But the story remains the same. All things are relative, after all.

It's easy to stand on the promenade at Coogee, gazing out over the sea, and think, "This swim will be a doodle". Coogee is a sedate beach. It rarely offers a significant sea, at least not one that breaks onto the beach. We've seen one only once in our lifetime, back in early 1974 (we lived at Coogee when we first lived in Sydney, straight out of school).

Coogee is protected by Wedding Cake Island, which breaks up the worst of any swell. But this also makes it one of the most difficult stretches of water in Sydney.

But before we go into that, let us also say that, whatever the swell size, Coogee always offers a challenge in the break. Perhaps because of that protection from significant swell, Coogee also lacks banks, which means whatever swell there is surges up towards the beach and just dumps onto an edge so steep that it immediately washes back into the sea, gaining momentum from the steep beach. We felt this as we wallowed in the break taking pitchers of finishing mugs. One moment, we wed "out the back", the next, we were in knee depth water dodging the shore dump. Then suddenly we were back out behind the break, none of this with any help from us.

No matter the size of swell, Coogee always offers a shore dump, which can be dangerous, particularly to those with balletic necks. This is not a problem, but it is an element that must be factored in to how you handle this beach. It's a deceptive break, particularly when you come back in through it. Going out isn't so difficult, because you can see what you're heading into. But coming back, whatever swell there is tends to sneak up, suddenly rearing as it nears the beach and just dumps. You never turn your back on the break, but you especially never turn your back on the break at Coogee, sedate and protected as it is.

Coming home.
But that's not the reason why this is some of the hardest swimming water in Sydney. The reason is that it's some of the bumpiest water in Sydney, and that's also because of Wedding Cake Island and the rock shelves at either end of the beach, particularly the long shelf to the south which wends its way to the horizon, when looking from the beach. This is why the swim back from Wedding Cake Island is tough.

When the swell enters Coogee Bay between the island and the northern headland, where Giles baths used to sit on the rocks, and between the island and the southern rock shelf, where Wylies Baths remains one of the pearls of Sydney, and the Ladies Baths sits coyly between Wylies and the surf club. The swell surges around the island; it bounces off the rocks at both ends of the beach; and it washes back from the beach after surging in and dumping, sucking back seawards where the reflections and rejections from the rocks at both ends already are mixing the sea into a bit of a boiling pot. Mix that with the back wash from the beach, and the bounces off the inside of the island, and you have the bumpiest water in Sydney, no matter the size of the swell. It's second only to that stretch of water at the narrowest point of Sydney Harbour between Millers and Milsons Points, where the current and the chop from traffic mixes with the bounces off rock walls on either side of the harbour to foment a surface that is ferociously choppy. Have a look next time you get the ferry from the Quay.

Back at Coogee, we don't believe that the difficulty of that swim back was caused by tidal currents. High tide on swim day was 10:46am, and it wasn't a big tide: it was 1.3 metres. Most swimmers would have been heading back to Coogee Beach from the island whilst the tide, at worst, was on the turn. Tidal currents would not have played an appreciable role at all. There was a north-south current running behind the island, though, and that would have affected the first part of the run in as it washed around the island, providing a bit of push-back as mugs emerged from the island's shadow on the southern side.

Shore dump.
But the real difficulty was that bumpy water, particularly at the closest points to the rock shelf between Wylies and the Ladies Baths. That's where it became harder, as the swell bouncing off the rocks mixed in with the surge around the island, the swell bouncing off the island -- remember, the swell washes around the island and meets on the other side, creating all sorts of turmoil -- and the backwash from the beach. At Coogee, in that bump, no matter the size of the sea, no two strokes are the same. And that's what makes it difficult.
But we felt that effect only for a couple of hundred metres from Wylies to the Ladies Baths.

So, no excuses for slow times, if they were slow times. Coogee is like that. It's one of the elements that makes all swims so different and interesting. Who'd a thunk that a benign beach like Coogee could serve up such treachery?

How was your swim?


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed today's swim in the golden weather conditions. As you have said so often, autumn is the best time for ocean swimming.

    As for my time in the 2.4km swim, I have no idea whether it was fast or slow as it was not recorded. I definitely wore my timing chip and handed it in at the end. Perhaps there was a problem as a friend of mine who swims similar times to me is also missing from the results.

  2. What a wonderful swim! Perfect conditions and yes, a bit bumpy coming round the corner, but it eased up coming in.

    Note to the organisers though; the start of the 1km was a debacle. Heading off 10 minutes early with less than a minutes warning wasn't a good idea. Having 2 large waves (150+?) for the 1km is also a poor way to treat new swimmers. They're paying as much as the 2.4km swimmers and should be given similar consideration.

    Even in the 2.4km we couldn't hear a word of the briefing from the North end and had no idea what the waves were going to be. Fortunately it's all fairly straight forward - jump in, swim round the island, come back...

    That said, we all had a lovely day and water safety were brilliant - it's still one of my favourite swims.

  3. None of the times of my group of four is on the listing, and two of my friends I met at the event - entered independant of me etc, their times are not recorded either. The girl I finished with had a chat and exchanged names. Her time wasn't up either. One or two missing is excusable but there seems to have been a major malfunction with the timing chips. Are the organisers aware of this? It took a long time for the results to go up on the web making me wonder. Can someone offer an explanation?
    Apart from that the swim was fantastic in fantastic conditions. It made me thank the gods that I lived in Sydney!

  4. Just perfect autumn swimming.
    For me Coogee was the highlight of the season, very competitive events and challenging water movement as Paul has already noted.

    My only suggestion for improving this event is to run the 5 year age groups right up to and including the 60+. There were 92 participants in the M50-59, enough to justify the 5 year split I would have thought.

    Anyway my gripe is insignificant, this is a really well run event, plenty of water safety and such a well marked out course. Now all we need is the same organising team to take hold of Coogee to Bondi and we could be back there on the 25th.

  5. What a great swim - perfect day, nice conditions, I even got a decent parking spot!

    I didn't find the swell too bad. I heard others talking about it but I must have had the best of the conditions as it really wasn't that bad. Certainly no Freshwater a few weeks back, which itself was no Bilgola - there have been tougher this year.

    I did however prove that I'm still an ocean swimming novice at the end. After a great battle coming in with a bunch of mid-pack blue caps, I thought I'd just got ahead, got to my feet for the run up and whack! Smashed by the shore break. Next time I'll have a look around. Should be an interesting photo that one, not too flattering...

    Also had another fear realised - goggles broke on the starting line. Had some spare which I had no idea if they'd be any good. Thankfully there were. Anyway, great day out.

  6. Coogee turned on great weather

    But what a mess the start of the 1km swim was - in particular the first wave leaving 10mins early, with some swimmers way behind the starting position or yet to put on their goggles

    As 1km is often the starting place with swimmers waves of 190 are un-acceptable !!

    Why not send off 4 waves, let's not discourage our new / younger / inexperienced swimmers. Perhaps we could go back to male only & female only waves to encourage new swimmers & us older swimmers...... unfortunately the men are often happy to elbow a girl in the face as they run past & are more likely to swim over the top of another swimmer - let us reduce the contact in ocean swimming and keep encouraging more to join such a fantastic sport

  7. The 1km was disorganised chaos. Starting 10 minutes early and changing the wave starts (men then women was announced - and apparently changed but I didn't hear the change).

    It was $50 if you entered on the day. For that kind of dough entrants could expect proper marshalling.

    Having said that, the 2.4km was throughly enjoyable!

  8. Yes a slight surprise at the start of the 1k. The bigger waves weren't all bad though - perhaps they might be better as three waves (elite, then all male, then all female).

    Interesting too how fast the field was compared to the elites - being relatively calm out there I wonder if their relative strength advantage was diminished?

    Sensible having the largest buoys out the back and close together too - also having them ordered in threes of similar shape/colour was a helpful touch.

    All in all a pleasant day out. I wonder if they'll run three events next year (November, January, April?)

  9. There were six of us in the 50 - 60 age group who are not on the results suggesting our timing anklets did not work. The first comment relates to the same issue. Can the organisers please provide some feedback or recognition of this problem? It was a wonderful swim but the lack of a time reduces the pleasure of comparing your personal performance from past years; or any of the many added satisfactions that knowing your time brings.

    I feel some information and response in regard to this issue is necessary - either from the organisers or the suppliers of the timing chips. Without this, should we expect a slap dash attitude to timing chips in future events we go into?

    1. We have responded to this issue: early Monday morning, we asked on Twitter -- which feeds onto our home page -- all those whose times are missing to contact us. Perhaps you didn't see this. Normal practice, as many others have done, is simply to email us. Please do so: Tell us names, races numbers, if you know them, age groups. We are passing this information to the timers so they can investigate. So far, we have over 50 swimmers in this position.

  10. Bummer about the timers. Mine worked. But wish it didn't.

  11. Loved reading Mr OS.c’s blob about Coogee Beach. This is our favourite beach and where we regularly swim. It’s very protected so it is very rare that it is closed to swimming. The drawback is we don’t get much surf practice, however, we are very familiar with that shore dump and the need to take care. Big seas at Coogee are rare and when they do occur they are worth seeing. I recall a couple of years back we went to Coogee when big seas were pounding the coast. It was high tide and the sand and water had been whipped up to create fluffy brown foamy bits along the shore line. There were board riders in the bay surfing – a rare sight for Coogee. Though some only caught a couple of waves before getting out, I imagine because it was very challenging getting out through the break.

    It was Wedding Cake Island though that was really putting on a show that day. Large waves were breaking off the southern end of the island, and there was a group of surfers out there riding them. I’d never see anyone surfing off the side of the island before, and just had to get a closer look from the southern headland. The waves were large and powerful, with large amounts of water moving in all directions as it bounced off the island and the headland. And then we saw a surfer wiped out. He seemed to be under water forever, before (thankfully!) he resurfaced. The next question was, how was he going to find his white board in the white water (knowing how hard it can be to spot big bright orange buoys when swimming in a large swell)? After many minutes he found his board and started the long paddle back to the beach, obviously having had enough for the day. By now a number of onlookers were on the point watching proceedings and we couldn’t believe it when he suddenly changed course and started heading to Wylie’s. No, surely he wasn’t going to try and take a ‘short cut’ over the top of the rocks and the pool wall with the pounding ocean all around him. He spent a good few minutes contemplating how this might be done before common sense intervened and he continued his long paddle to shore.

    But Coogee is rarely like this. It is usually as Mr OS.c has described it. However, it can also be unbelievably benign. Reading Mr OS.c’s newsletter last week reminded me of this and that wonderful informal winter swim around the island last year. I still feel very lucky that I went to the beach that day to swim in such perfect conditions. Usually this informal group swims out to the island, has a look around, regroups, and swims back in. On this particular day, however, there was barely a ripple off the island and the temptation to swim around was just too great to ignore. The water was smooth and clear and we swam right up close behind the island, checking out the reef with its fish and gently waving seaweed. Mrs Sparkle said hello to a big blue groper out there.

    So how could I not do Sunday’s Coogee swim? A swim there across the bay on Saturday in lovely conditions with lots of fish, and I thought, “yep , I’m glad I’ve entered”. I wasn’t disappointed. The Weather and Ocean gods put on a great show for Sunday’s swim. Coogee behaved as you would expect it to, getting bumpier as you got closer to the island, and then a lot of bouncing about around the other side, and finally gentle water once again inside the bay to finish (and no big surf break to worry about, just the usual shore dump).

    I found the swim to be very well organised (I did the 2.4km), with quick registration, a well marked course and a vigilant water safety crew who I saw assist a couple of people during the swim. A big thankyou to all the people involved in putting on this swim, it was a great day! Thankyou also to the white cap age group, who were very well behaved, especially at the start when we were crowded together.

    Susan Tutt

  12. Enjoyed the swim. It was a magic day for it.

    But that was easily the roughest start i have had in 3 years of ocean swimming. To the person who dragged themselves over my back (grabbing my right shoulder starting on my left and ending on my right), that really is deliberate and dangerous... you could have easily caught my elbow... Also was bleeding after catching watches in various places on my legs.

    I think more than 3 minutes between the swims would be good. as we hit the pack of the wave in front very quickly and it was pretty heavy traffic the whole way being in the M35-39.

    What was the deal with people in wetsuits? They were in wetsuits in my wave and i know they weren't put in a separate category.


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