Monday, January 27, 2014

A real ocean swim

Froth and bubble.
And that was about it, really: the story of The Big Swim. It was a bit of a chunderous start at Palm Beach, heavier sets dropping onto a bank as the tide reached its nadir, then a glorious, rolling sea, smooth at times, sometimes glassy, occasionally bumpy, carpets of froth off the point, a head current rounding Little Head into the bay, rocking and rolling back into Whale Beach, then a chunderous finish through heavier sets dropping chunderously onto a shallow bank as you come in through a break that most haven't seen onto Whale Beach.

What more can one say: it was what an ocean swim is supposed to be about.

We've often admired the judgment of The Big Swim organisers, because they'll run their swim in conditions from which many other organisers recoil. But most people, those who think about it, head to Palm Beach knowing that conditions can be difficult, and that's what happens when you swim in the ocean. The Big Swim organisers are themselves swimmers and have been doing this swim, themselves, since its inauguration in 1974. They know the sea and the breaks here reasonably well.
Mind you, the organisers can't claim credit for a sea that was fresh, invigorating, sometimes glassy smooth, rolling, bluey-free (we heard reports later of masses of blueys on the Eastern Suburbs beaches), and a swell that was sometimes dangerous, but always interesting.
Looking down on the great washed.
We were caught out at one spot, coming in at Whale Beach: caught on the bank, we turned and dived back under a dumper, grabbing the sand, only to find we were in water just a couple of feet deep, far too shallow to secure protection from depth and the bottom slipping liquefactionally through our fingers. The whitewater picked us up, threw us around, tried to dump us on our heads, and twisted our legs and hips a little alarmingly (we're just over 12 months from a double hip replacement... but you don't need to know about that).

But, hey! We survived. You have to stay relaxed in these situations. And you must never, ever -- and this is a message to all those CanTooers who probably completed their toughest ocean challenge at The Big Swim -- you must never turn your back on the surf without knowing exactly what is coming. When you're approaching the break from sea, and when you're coming in through it, you must keep turning around and watching. You must always know what's there behind you.

We proffer this gratuitous advice because we saw more than a few CanTooers -- we can identify them from their cossies, of course -- grateful to be almost finished, simply heading in through the break oblivious to what was coming behind. Disinterested, even. Focussed only on getting to the beach. Most of them time, you can get away with it. But Whale Beach will keep you honest on a day like this.
Isn't it terrific to see all these older gents out and getting stuck into it! Some of them try so hard, although their faculties aren't what they used to be.

One other thing we should say is a comment on the booees that the Pittwater swims have been using the past few weeks, Avalon, Mona Vale and now The Big Swim. The organisers borrow them from the local yacht club for free, which is nice of the yacht club and it's a bit of a saving for the organising clubs. But, really, those booees are not good enough for an ocean swim. They're the wrong colours -- honestly, who can see British racing green, particularly on a grey day in a swell? Even the "yellow" one used this weekend was too dull to be seen, merging into the sandy background -- and they're too small. Since those clubs have banded together to form their Pittwater Series, why can't they at least band together and buy a set of suitable booees? It would cost them a couple of hundred dollars each, and would pay off over time. It's not just a question of saving a couple of bucks here and there, fellers. It's a question of safety first and foremost.

(We declare an interest: knowing that individual surf clubs can't afford to buy a full set of booees for one day per year, we have a full set (11) of big, bright marker booees (up to 2m high and 1.5m thick) which we rent out to interested organisers. Whale Beach have used our booees sometimes, but generally they use the yacht club's booees. Ours are yellow and fluoro orange, which, in our experience, are the only two colours that can be seen reliably. And they're cylindrical, which means the bit you need to see, if you're a swimmer, the bit at the top, can be seen clearly. Other clubs use pink booees, conical booees, purple booees, blue booees, all of which are shite for our purposes, conical booees, especially. You can always tell a swim whose course has been set by someone who is not a swimmer, when they use conical booees. The only fat bit with conical booees is at the bottom, and swimmers can't see the bit at the bottom. We'd have thought insurers, at least, would have a word to organisers about this.

Our booees are available to the Pittwater clubs, but if they don't wish to use them, band together and buy a set that can be seen by swimmers. And memo to organisers: just because you can see them from the beach, or a boat, or from a board, doesn't mean you can see them when you're in the water as a swimmer. This is a matter of safety; it's more important than saving a few bucks.
The product of a chunderous break: we spot some very, very good gogs here in the arms of the lost property chaps at Whale Beach, including a pair of near-new Fully Sicks and several pairs of the world's best all 'round goggle, the Selene.

Now, have your say... click the comments button and vent your spleen...

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Warriewood wonders

Many moons ago Warriewood to Mona Vale was one of my first ocean swims. I well remember the panic that sprang in my breast as I surfaced for the 18th time (or so it seemed) to face yet another wall of surf roaring towards me. Nor the sense of relief and exhaustion that I felt when I finally got out past Warriewood's challenging break.

Oceanswims states  "The break at Warriewood at the start can be difficult, with rips, undertoads, gutters and shifting banks." and Paul is right (although I'm not 100% sure what an undertoad is - just spotted that in my cut and paste from the website) - it can be very challenging.

So in line with my new philosophy of avoiding swims that make me feel in imminent danger of drowning I checked the conditions on Saturday and decided - sadly too late for the on-line entry deadline - that my enhanced sense of self preservation wouldn't be challenged by a small swell at close to high tide. Foolish boy.

In fact, the waves weren't particularly powerful and not too big - but gosh, there was a lot of them to navigate. Luckily many of them were weak enough to swim over, but I still had to dive under four of five before hitting clear water - or as clear as it got.

Warriewood is a lovely beach and from the nicely positioned cafe - the only spot of shade near the beach on a hot and sunny day - Mona Vale seems just a hop, skip and splash away. Which indeed it is if you walk; less so if you have to swim out to the final tunring buoy positioned close to the headland.

So after forking out $40 including the $10 "missed on-line deadline" fee, enjoying a leisurely bacon sandwich and long black, watching the first couple of waves go out and doing a perfunctory warm up swim, I plunged in with the final wave of green-hatted wrinklies (it's strange how everyone in my age group looks so much older than me) to brave the pounding seas.

As mentioned it was a bit of a challenge getting out - not as scarifying as my first swim there some aeons ago, but hard work. Once I got into my stroke in the pleasantly warm ocean the medium swell from the north east was not particularly distrubing but somewhat less than helpful - on a scale of "flat as a tack" to "a perfect storm" it was around a "noticeable enough to be slightly annoying" level.

Prior to the swim I'd asked a local if the right line from the first buoy was to aim for the headland and had been answered in the affirmative. I'd also, rather unusually, listened to the pre-race briefing that stated all the buoys apart from the first and last were for navigation only and could be passed either side.

So I'm not sure why, when I was happily slogging into the wind and aiming for the rather large and easy to see headland, and a helpful water safety person told me I was heading too far right, I didn't just stick to my line. (It may have been that on the aforementioned swim years ago I did veer a little far out to sea, only realising it when I saw the high rise buildings of Aukland).

Whatever, I did listen and follow the new line with the result I swam too close to shore and had to readjust my line once I saw the final pink buoy far out to sea. I swear it cost me at least 60 seconds, not that my adjusted time would have improved my ranking just inside the top 90% of swimmers.

(This doesn't include a fair number of DNFs - I presume people who found the break a bit too challenging to get past. They have my sympathy and understanding.)

What looks not far from the shore can seem an awful long way in the water and such was the case getting to the final pink buoy. The run in from there to home, however, was relatively short and thankfully dump free.

For a comparatively short 1.6k it was quite hard but, waves and misdirections notwithstanding, rather enjoyable.

The respective surf clubs do an excellent job, the Harris Farm fruit was plentiful, the water safety (my tormentor excluded) excellent and it was a lovely day at two very pleasant beaches.

I don't normally have time to stay for the presentations but there were so many prizes available in the free lottery that I felt compelled to stay - needless to say I didn't win anything, unlike what seemed like 75% of the people there. Many thanks to the organisers for another great event.

It's also worth mentioning Pittwater Council. It's easy to knock councils - particularly Waverly Council, where they seem to think Bondi swims are put on to attract more ionospheric parking fines for their velociraptor-like parking fiends/inspectors - so many thanks and kudos to Pittwater Council for waiving parking fees when their various ocean swims are on.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Making swims special again

It’s interesting to watch the numbers each week, each year: which swims grow in popularity; which swims diminish; where the growth is overall; and so on.

The Cole Classic, for example, has been falling dramatically in numbers over the past few years, but at the same time its 1km swim has continued to grow so that, for the last two years, it’s been bigger than the Cole’s 2km swim.

We recall when the Cole first ran a 1km swim: it was after the Cole family switched the swim to Manly. Can’t recall exactly what year that was, but six or seven years ago. The Bros Cole weren’t sure how well the shorter swim would go in the marketplace of ocean swimming, but it was an immediate hit with, from memory, 650 punters on its first outing.

It reminds us of the very first Bondi-Bronte swim, which drew 850 on a poor day. It was a natural course; an iconic journey. Originally, the Bronte organisers intended to run over a circuit inside the bay at Bronte. The decision to start around Mackenzies Point at Bondi made that event an icon swim.

The schlepp along the beach is part of the beauty of Avalon.
It seems to show that certain things will draw swimmers. One of them, these days, seems to be shorter distances, which are attractive to new ocean swimmers. Another is interesting courses: especially journeys over circuits.

Ocean swimming has been booming, as the sports writers would put it, for years, but the growth particularly has been with shorter distance events: 1km or even shorter. Newport offers an 800m swim these days, which drew 30 per cent of their field this season. Even The Big Swim (Palm Beach-Whale Beach) now offers The Little Big Swim at 1km.

It appears that new swimmers prefer shorter distances to kick off their careers.

Around NSW, traditional distances have been around 2km, so 1km is very much the shorter event. In Victoria, traditional distances have been 1km+, such as 1.2km (the distance of last Sat’dee’s Lorne Pier to Pub, which drew 4,465). There, new events tend to be longer distances complementing the existing shorts.

Up at Whale Beach, the Big Swim is around 2.5km, but its numbers, too, have been dropping over recent years. 

Bondi-Bronte is just 2km, which is not long for these parts, but its numbers have been falling, too, until this season when they introduced shorter options, leading to reversal of the downward trend overall.
Head Babewatcher, James Goswell, was impressive in his start. (There, you happy with that, James?)
We’ve mentioned the Cole, which might be a withering event at their entry fees but for the 1km course holding up the event overall. (We acknowledge the significant role that the Cole plays, backed by Fairfax Meeja, in bringing new swimmers into the sport. The pity is that Fairfax does stuff all to tell those swimmers about other events that are available to them, most of which are run by the kind of charities they say they support.)
It’s the shorter distances that appeal to the swimmers who make the sport grow: new ocean swimmers.
The other appeal, we reckon, is interesting courses. 
Bondi-Bronte, a relative newcomer, is similar conceptually to The Big Swim, from Palm Beach to Whale Beach, this year celebrating its 40th outing: it’s a journey swim around a landmark. 
This laydees wave start was the most sedate we've ever seen in an ocean swim.
In the olden days, when we set up (coming up to 15 years ago), there were just 17 swims on the NSW calendar, costing $20-$25 each to enter. No-one, as we recall, offered different distances (the first shorter distance added to an existing, longer event in our experience was Shark Island at Cronulla, which introduced a 1km swim to complement the 2.3km journey around the island). While new swimmers, particularly, found this attractive, it took a few seasons before regular punters recognised the shorter option for the opportunity it was to warm-up before the main event).
At rates of $20-$25 per entry, punters had little trouble accommodating the entire season. Swimmers still do on average fewer than two swims per season, so little has changed in that regard. But regular swimmers are a different story. This season, we have 95 events on our books in NSW (many with multiple swims) and 227 ‘round Stra’a. Those swims generally cost $35-$40 to enter. If you did 10 swims in 2000/01, it would cost you, say $250 spread over the season running from mid-December through early March, maybe with Byron in May tacked on to the end. Now, those ten swims will cost you $400, or more if you do the Cole, whose base entry fee this season is $65 for the 2km (although you can get cheaper entry through early entry. The fact that the Cole this season offered a sliding scale of fees ranging from $50 when entries opened last year to $65 in the last few weeks suggests they are sensitive to this price issue. At last.)
The weed tickled our fancy in the run-out at Avalon.
The points are that it’s much more expensive to pursue your career as an ocean swimmer these days; there are many more choices to make about which swims you do, and swimmers are making more choices: you can't assume that if it's on, they will come; and newer swimmers prefer shorter distances.
Swimmers appear to be becoming more discerning about the events they choose for reasons both of season cost and of availability of options. They won’t drive as far: anecdotal evidence surrounding last weekend’s clash between North Bondi (1,158 finishers), in the eastern suburbs, and Avalon (450 finishers), up on the northern beaches, suggests that distance to Avalon was a common factor in punters’ decisions to stick closer to home at Bondi. In the olden days, a trip to Avalon was special. These days, there are plenty of opportunities to swim at special places. As well, North Bondi offered their Combo entry, which made it possible, at its extreme, to get four swims for an average $22.50. Avalon can’t do that. But they could do that if the five Pittwater swims, now loosely tied together in their Pittwater Series, also offer a Combo entry: do all five; or pick your four or your three, at reduced rates. Organising clubs might have to accept a little less per entry, but they may end up with more punters, and greater economies of scale if they combined costs, such as caps and timing. This seems to us a gimme.
Huey watches over us at Avalon.
We’ve long regarded Avalon as one of our favourite swims. We love the January trek along the northern beaches and Avalon, perhaps more than any other northern beach – apart from Bilgola – oozes exotica. Avalon is not a particularly expensive swim -- $35 this season, a price that’s held for a few years – and while a circuit swim, not a journey, it offered something special. For us, it was the January trek, and the northern run-out.
We’ve raved about the start at Avalon ad nauseum over the years. It’s our favourite in ocean swimming. The swim starts in the northern corner of Avalon beach, where a runout whisks one briskly seawards. Some years, we’ve swum so close to the rocks – yes, yes, we know, you’ve heard all this before – that we’ve felt the tickle of the waving weed on our bellies. It’s a sensation like the mischievous caress of the lip on our backs as we scurried along the face of a rapidly breaking wave. In our younger days. 
Hiding behind the water sculpcha.
At Avalon, we even knew the lifesaver who was stationed each year on the rock just by the start to keep the mob from straying too far over the rocks, and to pull out those who did. He was a photographer, Tim Hixson. We saw Tim shortly after we arrived at Avalon this weekend. We said, “We’ll see you on the rock, Tim”. But, “No,” Tim said. “I won’t be on the rock today. We’re starting you back along the beach.”
Incredulous, we just couldn’t believe it! We asked why? It was to do with a lady who injured her knee at the start last year, Tim said. Later, others said it also was to do with the Avalon club losing, or almost losing a rubber ducky – an IRB – in the break near the rocks the year before last, when the seas were running and the start was hairy for inexperienced swimmers. Remember that day. Our enduring image was of a little boy, who’d missed the start, crying on the beach. 
So the Avalon organisers pulled the start this year back from the northern corner, about 100m south along the beach. Mind you, they left the first booee in the same spot off the headland, so the start was on an angle across a shallowing bank as the tide fell, through the break, which was so small it almost wasn’t there at all. That was strange in itself: it meant that starters at the northern end of the line had a distinct advantage over the field. You could argue that everyone had the option to start at the northern end of the line, but thank goodness they didn’t because the crush would have been chaotic. It would have made more sense to bring the first booee south, too, so the start was straight out. That would have shortened the course, but then the booee could have been taken a bit farther out to sea, so the distance overall could remain largely unaffected.
A very noice recovering arm. Little kiddies, take note.
The mob remained free to walk or run along the beach to start in the northern corner if they wished, and we saw some do so. But that would have put them behind the peloton, particularly with the only gentle runout operating on a very small day.

We did that, too: we stood on the bank taking pitchers of the wave starts, which weren’t all that interesting given the shallowness of the bank. Before the sub-codgers and codgers got going, we gave up, came out of the water, and trudged along the beach to the northern corner. We entered the water as close to the rocks as we dared, and we swam out through the runout, such as it was, over the weed, the headland – Indian Head, so named for the face carved by naytcha into its face in profile, whom we prefer to regard as Huey watching over us – looming over us. So we still got to start in the runout, but most didn’t.
It is that runout that makes this swim special to us. Without it, even allowing for what a lovely place Avalon is, the swim becomes just another circuit. 
At times of diminishing numbers with inversely growing discernment amongst swimmers towards which swims they’ll do, we reckon the Avalon people need to have a close look at how they run their swim. We can understand their aversion to the risk of swimmers injuring themselves on the rocks in lively seas, but those seas did not obtain this year; the risk was minimal. If you take out that wonderful start, you need to have a very good reason for doing so. 
They might also consider offering a shorter distance. The main event is only 1.5km, which ain’t long, but it is to someone who feels anything over 1km is an ask for one of their first swims. Avalon ran a 500m Fins swim this season, but that’s not for everyone, as suggested by the fact that it drew only 12 punters, most of them kids. They need to do something to give their swim that special something that makes them different.
You'll have to watch that shoulder, comrade.
Avalon regularly clashes with North Bondi. Sometimes, earlier there are five Sundees in January, those swims get their own dates. Now, with Newport claiming the first Sundee in January, North Bondi must weigh up who’d they rather run against, not to mention the value or weight of running too close to New Year. Chances are that these two swims usually will clash again.

There is another course, however, which either swim could take. Sydney is devoid of swims on the weekend between Xmas and New Year, or the public holidays surrounding them. There’s nothing in Sydney between Manly on the third Sundee in December, and Newport on the first Sundee in January. 

In Victoria, there is a tradition of making a virtue of this holiday period: the Xmas-New year week sees a run of good swims at Pt Leo on Boxing Day, then Anglesea and Pt Lonsdale later in the week. Granted, these swims run on Victoria’s holiday coasts. But plenty of punters travel down from Melbourne to take part in them, as do holidaymakers in situ.

Someone should have a look at that space in Sydney. There are plenty of swimmers around. At the moment, Yamba runs around that time, way up on the North Coast. Who will fill the void in Sydney?

One thing is certain, as they TV news people say, only time will tell… er, they would get the date to themselves, and that, on the ocean swimming circuit these days, is one of the most precious commodities of all.

Our GPS-in-a-plastic-bag said 1.62km.

Go left old man

In days of yore, when waves thundered onto the beach, the North Bondi Roughwater earned its name. Just making it past the break by diving under repeating sets was far too onerous a task for an ageing Pom so on those days the Bondi Express was a valued friend. Run far left from the start, into the rip and over the rocks and voila - a few strokes and a couple of waves to negotiate and you're spit out near New Zealand - or at least pretty close to the first buoy.

Yesterday, however, the person who crossed out "Rough" and replaced it on the whiteboard with "Smooth" (plus a smiley) had it pretty much right. If you're looking to test yourself against pounding seas and a high swell the conditions were less than ideal. If, on the other hand, you're an arrant coward like me fearful of waves, cold water, bluebottles and Mitchell Johnson, conditions were close to perfect.

Pity the poor Bondi Express on such days, reduced to a shadow of its former self. But I'm not one to abandon a friend so on hearing the 10.48 old farts gun I sprinted (well, lumbered) sharp left, past tourists frolicking in the shallows, toddlers gurgling happily in the 6 inch waves and more water safety craft than there are freckles on Ron Weasley, into the place where the Express begins.

If it shoots out like a Bondi Tram on rough days, this day it was more like an all stations on the North Shore line with track work going on. There was minimal, if any, assistance, but it did get me away from the madding crowd and thrashing arms of disturbingly fit geriatrics and out to the first buoy unhindered.

In past years the Bondi water safety has had a tendency to herd the peleton in narrow channels but, at least for me, they were sweetness and light, paddling out of my way as I ploughed a lone furrow over the rocks and clearly visible seaweed on a perfect day. In fact the water safety people were numerous, polite, excellent and had very cleverly chosen exactly the same shade of orange vests as the buoys to add a touch of challenge to my navigation.

Due to the light swell - just enough to make it interesting and to stop the water from resembling a duck pond (as well as the absence of ducks, of course) - it was easy to see the buoys from a long distance, so it was only the confusion of orange dots on the water that allowed me to maintain my traditional zig-zag "where the f am I going?" trajectory.

From the beach the far buoy, towards Mackenzie's Point, looked further than in previous years, leading me to expect a long course, but in the water it didn't seem that far at all, aided I'm sure by the warm water and excellent conditions.

My condition at the next buoy at South Bondi was less than excellent however as, slipping briefly into breaststroke to check directions (well past the buoy, of course, I'm not one of THOSE) my calf began to cramp up. Faced with the alternatives of swimming on or looking like a wuzz I chose the former and luckily it eased off.

The trip back was easy - loooong but easy - thanks to the yellow flag some kind soul had placed on the far cliffs/flats, making navigation simple and I finished strongly, comfortably avoiding the wooden spoon and wading the last 20 metres. It was then that terror struck in the form of a floating bluey, which encouraged my finishing sprint.

All in all a lovely swim - hot sun, warm sea, well organised, all the waves went off on time, lovely people. The new Bondi Club is great with fabulous views and plenty of room, let down only by an absence of decent beer. Put on some Little Creatures (in honour of the bluebottles) and Three Sheets (for the nautical theme) and it would be perfect.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Gerringong... Somewhere on the Stra'an coast

Over the hill to Boat Harbour, to swim start at Gerringong. Werri Beach is one of the more spectacular ocean swim venues.
There’s a bloke down at Gerringong who’s known as Rust. Why’s he called rust? “Because he gets into your car whether you want him to or not,” says a Gerringong local. This is one of life’s vignettes that you discover by going to little swims such as Gerringong’s and enjoying a quiet little drink on the deck of the surf club afterwards, overlooking the beach. You didn’t really need to know about Rust, but it’s nice finding out: one of those whimsical asides that add a dimension to your swim day.

Not that you need more dimensions at Gerringong. It’s a beautiful, even spectacular beach, a long, gently curving arc set between two spectacular headlands, with a rockshelf at the southern end prompting a runout in the corner which can be deadly if the seas are running. To get to swim start, you must traipse up one of these headlands, the southern one, then down through the cemetery on the other side to Gerringong’s Boat Harbour.

Boat Harbour is little more than fjord-like inlet, protected from the worst of the southerlies by another headland, almost an island, which juts a half kilometre or so out to sea on the southern side. Around 150 years ago, there was a jetty at Boat Harbour, where the merchantmen would berth to pick up cedar, which grew on the hills around the town. Those hills are newd now. The merchantmen would take the cedar to Sydney and Brisbane. Now there’s none left, and the jetty is long gone, although there’s a bit of maritime detritus on the bottom off Boat Harbour to remind you of the place’s heritage, to inspect as you swim seaward from swim start on the boat ramp now used by fishos to launch their tinnies.
There once was a jetty where the boat ramp now lies, and Capt. Christie would berth there to collect timber.
 The swim skirts the rockshelf under the headland between Werri Beach, Gerringong’s main beach, and the harbour. The rockshelf is square and bluff at its southern end, generating a backwash that can be problematic and bumpy as you head north. But it eases as you go, and by the time you get to the point off Werri Beach, the bigger problem is the run-out.

The organisers set the final booees off the beach at an angle to the point, so they take you across the run-out rather than making you swim through it inwards towards the beach. When the seas are running, that run-out quickly could take you a few hundred metres seawards. It’s a prime example of the adage that you don’t swim against rips, you let them take you out, around, then let them drop you back behind the break, which is what they’ll do. Or you swim across them. But definitely not into them.

Each time we come to Gerringong – we haven’t been for four or five years – we’re struck by how stunning this coastal town is. The business centre, a string of shops along Fern St, stretches along a ridge above the beach. Towards its southern end, the ridge arcs eastwards, forming a cradle around the flatland and the beach below. At the bottom of the hill, below the ridge, the caravan park and camping area bursts with holidaymakers at this time of year, many of them annual regulars. Many of them spend their lives coming to Gerringong for their holidays, then they move there permanently as they mature into nicely aged grandparents. And their grandkids visit them annually, and they develop affection for the place as their parents and their grandparents did before them.

We’ve seen Gerringong on some blustery, unpleasant days. When the wind blows from the south and the swell rises, it can be a nasty, open beach of shifting banks and nasty breaks and swirling gutters. But on a good day, it’s the ideal of gentle coastal beaches. Today is a good day. Indeed, we don’t reckon we’ve ever seen Werri Beach so beautiful. There was a swell of less than a metre, a cloudless sky, water of 20 degrees, which is cool enough to stop you overheating on a midsummer’s Sundee, but warm enough to be pleasant. Mind you, we carry our wettie built in, so perhaps we’re not the best judges of coolness. We weren’t here five or six years ago when the cold water came in overnight, the black nor’-easter blew, the seas ran, and the swim was shifted around to Gerroa, a couple of kilometres to the south, protected from the black winds. The cold water arrived overnight, literally, and it affected the coast from Newcastle in the north down past Gerringong in the south. Its cause was day after day after day of those black nor’-easters, which pushed the warmer summer current out of place, against the Coriolanus effect, sucking up the cooler water from below. On this day five or six years ago, in mid-summer at Gerringong, the water was 12.5 degrees Celsius. Swim organisers put a 45 minute time limit on the swim at the emergency location at Gerroa. We remember our cobber, Barry “The Lurv God” Lang, who has a problematic history with his ticker, was pulled out as the time expired, and he was glad to be.

No such problem today, however. There was a light offshore breeze blowing in the early morning, which switched to a light nor’-easterly as we left the surf club to head over the hill to the start. The seas’s were smooth. Ish. On the boat ramp at Boat Harbour, the breeze was almost indeterminate in the shelter of the headland, and even as we emerged from the shelter around the rock shelf, it remained gentle. It exploded into a black nor’-easter as the presentations ended, but by that time, it bothered no-one who was there for the swim.

It was good, good water. A little rolly rather than bumpy; clear; cool without being cold; plenty to watch on the bottom; an easy run-out to cross from the point; and after you turned the final booee, there was a nice little swell to run with into the beach. 

To sea, to sea... and the masses surge seawards.
 This swim is named for Captain Christie, who was skipper of one of those merchantmen that would call into Gerringong’s Boat Harbour to collect loads of cedar. In 1879, so the story goes, Capt. Christie bet a crewman a bottle of whisky that he could swim around the rock shelf to Werri Beach. No-one thought he could do it, but he did, and he won his bet. Now, all finishers in the swim also collect a miniature bottle of whisky, to mark the swim’s provenance.

It’s a nice, community swim, with people such as Rust, and Jungle, involved in the background. And the bloke who runs the PA system has been doing it for years, for clubs and schools up and down the coast. There’s a fish auction, when the local fishos sell off their weekend catch with all funds going to the surf club. It used to have a fashion parade, too, but that doesn’t happen any more. The briefing prior to the swim concludes, annually, with a short memorial service for Bob Churton, a Gerringong surf club stalwart, who died some years ago. There’s a memorial garden for Bob in front of the club, where the flagpole’s planted into the earth. They haven’t forgotten you, comrade.

There were 198 starters at Gerringong, paltry compared with the 688 or so who swam the same morning at Newport on Sydney’s northern beaches. The organisers would be concerned if the field grew past 250: would they have the resources to cope with the crowd? But it’s swims like the Captain Christie Classic that give ocean swimming its culture. One of the caper’s beauties is that we can drop into a beach like Gerringong once a year, or once every few years, and the weekend after, we can drop into another beach, likewise visiting only once a year. The following week, another beach. And on we go through the season. We go to places we’d never go to but for ocean swimming. We’ve discovered places that we’d never have discovered but for ocean swimming. Gerringong is special amongst them.