Monday, December 30, 2013

No swim at Bongin. Was that wrong?

Dawn at Bongin Bongin Bay. Just after dawn, anyway... Well, quite a way after dawn. The wind is howling.
This morning -- Sundee morning -- we went for a swim. But we didn’t swim. And we’re just trying to work out whether that was wrong.

We went to Mona Vale to swim in Bongin Bongin Bay with our good friend, Glistening Dave. Dave has been away for 10 days, in Adelaide for Xmas, and we’d missed him. Normally, Dave swims at Bongin every day with his cobbers.. Yes, Dave has cobbers... Yes, yes, we’re surprised, too…

Dave and his cobbers refer to themselves as the Dawnbusters, swimming at Bongin every weekday morning of the year at 6:30, and at 7:30 on weekends. All year ‘round, summer, autumn, winter and back into spring, cold days and balmy; stingers or clear. About the only thing that will stop the Dawnbusters, according to Dave’s daily reports, is a sea that makes crossing the bombie that lies in the centre of the bay foolhardy.

It’s just a short hop across from the spit at the southern edge of Bongin to the headland, just a few hundred metres. The Dawnbusters usually swim over to the headland and back. On weekends, they will go out of Bongin, around the rockshelf with the Mona Vale pool and into the beach at Mona Vale proper. On Sundees, they’ll head south towards Warriewood then swim or walk back along the beach, to get a bit more distance. Once a year, the Dawnbusters marshal their significant others, who drive them over the hill to Bungan, on the other side of the headland, from where they swim back to Bongin. It’s the Bungan to Bongin swim. It’s barely a kilometre itself around the headland, but it justifies the annual Dawnbusters barbie in the park behind the beach afterwards.

Otherwise, the normal daily swim is barely half a kilometre. Not a long distance; not a big ask. But it’s every morning; it’s a swim; it maintains their feel for the sea; it forms the raison d’etre for a whole bunch of mugs to get out of bed every morning; and it performs that vital function: it qualifies the Dawnbusters for that climactic culchural phase of ocean swimming: the morning cuppa, which they take at one of the caf├ęs just off the beach past the other end of Mona Vale surf club.
Show me your huddling, seething masses, for they will swim, whatever the conditions.
 There are groups like the Dawnbusters on every civilised beach in Stra’a. In more populous areas, there’ll be several groups, and they’re made up of a wide diversity, a disparity, of ocean swimming mugs in the ultimate egalitarian environment: in the sea, dressed only in cossies.

This morning, we took our other friend, Jane -- yes, yes, we have another friend, too -- and all three of us left Meadowbank at 6:30am for the hour’s drive to Mona Vale. We knew when we left that all was not well: when we arose from our beds at 6, the southerly was blowing briskly up the river. And if the breeze is brisk at Meadowbank, an hour from the beach, at 6 in the morning, then it’s likely to be howling over Bongin at Mona Vale.

We could feel the wind strengthening as we headed, within the speed limit, along Mona Vale Road, through S’nives, past the showground, past the Sundee morning cyclists with their colourful lycra stretched tight over their expanded middle-aged bellies, by the Bahai temple and down the hill into Mona Vale. The drive was across the wind all the way. We felt it blowing the vehicle around, the gusts swirling around us as we dropped down hills through gullies and rose up the other side again. The wind was so strong by along the Terrey Hills highlands, we wondered how some of those cyclists – some of them in particular – managed to stay upright as they pushed across it.

We were amongst the first to the beach. It was truly howling there. A couple of punters braved the pool. One or two hung around the car park overlooking the beach, huddling in the shelter of fatted pine tree trunks. We stayed in the car, fogging up the windscreen from inside. Or was that the salt deposited in layers by the angry southerly that blurred our view? As we sat there, we could feel the wind, gusting, rattling the vehicle, rocking it from side to side. We wondered about the physics of motor vehicles, and how strong a wind need be before it flipped a car over. The surf was blown out. It wasn’t a heavy swell; it was all wind chop. It came in from the sou’-east, blowing what waves there were onto the beach and across the sandspit, picking up the salt and layering it across our windscreen, and whipping up the sand, dropping it into Bongin Bongin Bay.

7:30 ticked over. There were a dozen or more punters here by now, including Dave, who greeted them all effusively. Much more effusively than he greets us, in fact, leaving us with a tinge of jealousy. Maybe… maybe Dave has other friends who are more important to him than us… Just wondering…

Mrs Sparkle and Jane, who doubles as our roadie when we haul our branded tent along to weekend ocean swims, jumped out of the car to greet the assembling, shivering Dawnbusters. We alighted gingerly. We didn’t like the look of the sea, the sky, the feel of the wind, or anything much outside our cocoon. As we stood there in the wind, we lost three layers of skin from the back of our neck, sandblasted by a smash repairer’s hose.

The sea looked worse from outside the car. It was blown-out flat on shore, on the southern edge of Bongin Bongin Bay, but as wind reached across the bay, the chop rose up again towards the headland. It would be a quick trip over, but it would be a blustery, barging, head-butting swim back.

The Dawnbusters readied themselves. They were going in. Weather doesn’t stop them. They shifted onto the beach, like a sandhill inching across the desert. They disrobed, pulled out their goggles, and shoved their towels into the packs. Some of them clutched fins under their arms. A lonely dog, a beautiful patchy collie/border collie, was left, tied by his master to the fence. The puppy panted with worry. He couldn’t see the beach from behind the overgrown grass that followed the fence line, and he didn’t like it. He knew his master was down there somewhere... He barked that high-pitched, squeaky bark that dogs do when they sense a loved one is in peril.

The Dawnbusters launched themselves into the sea. They surged through the break, blown almost completely flat by the southerly, and they plunged across the bay, a series of grey splashes against the grey sea and the grey, grey sky marking their patchy tracks. They swam across the bay almost to the headland. Then they turned and swam back, much more slowly this time, for the return journey was like squeezing through a gap in a wall, repeatedly.

It was blown out.
We didn’t swim. We stood on the grass between the carpark and the beach sullenly, watching the brave, dour Dawnbusters straggling from the sea, the wind blasting the water from the amongst the greying hair on their middle-aged bodies – and that’s not an easy thing to do -- our emotions a mixture of relief, that no-one had forced us to go in; and guilt: that we hadn’t swum just because the weather was no good, that we hadn’t taken upper body exercise since Xmas Eve, five days before; and that we’d disappointed ourselves, yet again, because we’d failed the test of “What would you do when conditions turn bad?”

We’d looked forward to a swim at Bongin – we’d been telling ourselves for months that we wanted to get up to Bongin early one morning to swim with our good friend, Glistening Dave – but we swam often enough that we didn’t feel the need to discomfort ourselves in such unpleasant conditions just to prove a point, whatever that point might be.

We went all that way, and we didn’t swim. Even more brazen, we still had a cuppa afterwards.

Was that wrong?

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The usual spirited exchange following a cancelled swim

We endured a spirited exchange of emails the week before Xmas a punter aggrieved that the Bilgola swim was called off due to heavy seas. He was not the first aggrieved punter to complain about a cancellation, and he certainly wasn't the first to feel he'd been ripped off.

We can understand the disappointment felt when a swim is called off. It happened twice that weekend: North Curl Curl was cancelled on the Sat'dee, then Billie was called off on the Sundee. Last season, there was a rash of cancellations and postponements that left hundreds and thousands of us swimless for weeks and lighter in pocket. Last season, one punter complained that he'd entered himself and his bride into the Bondi swim, only for it to be postponed due to seas. After the postponement was announced, he entered himself and his bride into Long Reef, which then was cancelled. The weekend cost him a bit, and he didn't get to swim.

We can assure you that amongst the most disappointed at cancellations are the swim organisers, who've toiled for months to bring these events to you, only to be thwarted at the final moment by the weather. Postponements are almost as bad. One of the hardest jobs for the awgies is to find the voluntary day labour. It's very hard, sometimes impossible to get them back for a second day.

Swims face significant costs just getting to swim day, which is what we explain to cranky punters after a cancellation. The vast majority understand and they accept it. But you get one or two who take it to another level.


When we're accosted by aggrieved punters, we notice one thing in particular: almost invariably, they are new to ocean swimming. We mention this not to put them down -- to be sneering, as one punter accused us, we think unfairly, a week or so back -- but to highlight the phenomenon that newer ocean swimmers aren't as acquainted with and accepting of the traditions, the conventions, and the exigencies of ocean swimming in the way in which regular swimmers are. Ocean swimmers essentially are generous: in our experience, the vast majority of you like the fact that, by entering an ocean swim, you're supporting a charity, to wit a surf life saving club. That's one of the reasons -- a big reason -- why most of you understand and accept when a swim can't go ahead: the funds are going to a good cause. Organisers of swim in the ocean cannot predict the seas (which is something the people at Fairfax Meeja overlook when deciding that earlybird entries should close seven weeks ahead of the Cole Classic). Ocean swimmers generally know this and accept it. The unpredictability of conditions on race day is one of the reasons they get up to this caper.

Some don't get it, however. They think all the money goes to a private organisation, and usually they think that is us. They can't understand, or accept, or they don't want to understand, or accept, that in the vast majority of cases of ocean swims, the awginizahs are surf life saving clubs who can ill afford the cost of a swim without the revenue they receive from entries. For when a swim is called off, there are some costs they still cannot avoid, such as the food for the barbie that they'd planned to sell you, the swim caps they've bought and had printed, the promotional leaflets and entry forms, and so on. That still must be paid for.

Punters generally get all this and understand.

Various punters have tried different techniques to get their money back. One punter a couple of weeks back claimed, several days after he'd missed a swim that took place in unpleasant weather, that we'd got the date wrong on therefore he'd missed the swim, therefore we should refund his money or credit it to another event. We reckon he just couldn't be bothered getting out of bed on a rainy day and this was a try-on. Another punter, after the cancellation of The Big Swim (Palm-Whale) a few years back, tried a technique that we won't tell you about, because sure as hell some smarty pants will mimic it. This punter got his money back, but not through any honest dealing. We paid for it. We haven't seen his name pop up on the online entries list since then.

Where it goes

We take online entries on behalf of swim organisers. They are the oganisers, not us. The funds are theirs, not ours. As soon as online entries close, we prepare an acquittal of those funds and we pay them over to the events. In the cases of larger swims, we pay the funds over in instalments as entries come in prior to swim day. (We retain a commission from the funds, which represents the prime source of income to But we don't retain the funds. When grumpy punters accost us afterwards for refunds, the funds almost invariably already have been paid over to the organising surf life saving clubs.

The numbers of grumpy punters are miniscule, but they make a lot of noise and cause considerable grief, such as the bloke this week who, last we heard, was complaining about us to the Department of Fair Trading. Even amongst those miniscule numbers, however, most of them are accepting when we explain the situation to them. Most swims have a clause in their waivers stating that there will be no refunds in case of event cancellations, and every punter agrees to this when they submit their online entry. That doesn't stop them trying to renege on their agreement after the fact, however.

Why are we telling you all this? Because while we have a reasonable understanding of the conventions in ocean swimming, some out there don't, and we want the word to get around.

Happy New Year to you all, and thank you for supporting us.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Thoughts and distractions in Cabbage Tree Bay

My thoughts and distractions during an ocean swim...

Jen Gwynne's GPS-in-a-plastic bag measured the 2km swim at 1.67km.
Manly LSC Blue Dolphins

The starting line
the rope in the sand
the feet on the start
getting a photo
clearing my goggles
listening to the briefing
5 booees
count down
go - press start on the watch
running into the water
knees up
dolphin diving
starting to swim
sighting the booee
finding a path through the swimmers
trying to get a good rhythm
trying not to go too hard at the start
forgetting all that
other swimmers in front and next to you
swimmers' togs
other swimmers' kicking
swimming pace
breathing rhythm
the clarity of the water
sandy bottom
ripples on the sand
other patterns caused by shifting sand on the seabed
the booee
around the booee
getting a heading across the bay
rocks of the bower
sandy seafloor
sunlight patterns in the water
other swimmers nearby
the commotion in the water from swimmers
patterns on the rocks
fish in the rocks
feeling the pull of the ocean
thinking maybe it's faster over to your right
not worrying about it
swimming with the ocean
booees again
the crush of swimmers
finding a space again
red togs
finding a pace after turning the beach booees
seaweed now to look at
finding fish in the seaweed
wondering if I will see the groper
or the turtle or sharks
more fish
red togs still
yellow building to sight the booee
still fish
round another booee
divers down underneath!
a Santa hat (did I really see that?)
neon fins very bright
would be a good photo
they could take a good photo of us!
too late
more fish
very colourful fish swimming right around me
sighting the final booee
red togs still there
another pair of red togs on my left
wondering if I can get a better pace
taking on water when trying to breath
changing your stroke to get your pace right
forgetting to keep that rhythm
trying again
realising the swim's almost over
remembering to actually try harder
getting a better catch in the water
forgetting about that when you go past more fish in the rocks
turning the final booee
sighting the shore
aiming for the waves
feeling the pull & push of the ocean
swimming with it
going nowhere
catching waves
missing waves
touching the sand
catching the last wave
running up the beach to finish
That was fun.
Jen Gwynne

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The "sore shoulders swim"

Did anyone see him?  The ghost with the lump of coal on his shoulder where the chip should be!

Old Pat Date.  Died 2 days after he retired in 1987.

Railway Man. Hard as nails!

Novocastrian… Old Newcastle!

He used to say that there were 2 types of people in this world: “Those who come from Newcastle and those who drive past.”

I reckon he saw the entry list and the addresses of the Sydney-siders and it was he who blew that southerly in just before the start.  Just to make them welcome and know they’d been to Newcastle.
He loved his footy played in the forwards too.  Hard! Uncompromising! Simple!

And that was what this swim was today. 2.5km straight into a southerly breeze, not a buster because that would be rude to our guests, but strong enough.  Hard!

No 2 strokes were the same. There was no length to the swell; chop, chop, chop. You had to concentrate to maintain stroke and momentum otherwise you’d stand still.  Especially when you were tired.  You could see who the pool swimmers were. They struggled.  Uncompromising!

I spent most of this swim not taking in the scenery (this really is a postcard swim) or watching the ever-changing sea bottom but instead I went back to my youth rowing surf boats recalling lessons from Mick & Don Ellercamp (osc.c’s uncle) “long and strong” and “catch and drive”.  This was secret to today’s swim. If you got a bad stroke, make sure the next one was better.  A long stroke with a good catch to get drive you through the chop and the rips coming out of the Cowrie Hole and Shark Alley. Simple!

This was a swim that demanded attention to detail and your stroke.  This was an Ocean Swim in the best way.  Most of the talk on the beach and in the sheds was disbelief.  ‘How hard was that?’  What about the chop!’  ‘My bloody shoulders!’  But the faces told a different story; smiles and a glint in the eye were the order of the day.

I loved seeing the old photos on Nobbys and Newcastle surf clubs and again being immersed in Old Newcastle.  Good to compare with my alma mater Caves Beach SLSC.  Same but different!

Then into New Newcastle for breakfast with The Hyphen at Scotties.  Bacon and eggs with coffee.  Simple but fancy.  I reckon Old Pat would be happy with that.

The Grey Nurse