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Indeed. The plan was this: we were escorting Murray Cox, the soul-searching 60-year-old who was spending a good part of this season swimming from Barrenjoey to Cape Banks. Much of the distance, Murray was completing through taking part in formal swims. Then he fills in the gaps. At some point, Murray had to cross the Strait of Sydney, and that point was Sat'dee morning, February 12. Today. Most completes most of his gap swims by himself, then he tells you about them afterwards. Sometimes he has a paddler with him, mooching along nearby, and sometimes he's by himself. Sometimes he approaches local surf clubs for escort. One club said they'd escort him, then quoted him $600 to do so. He hasn't done that swim yet. He has done some stretches of water most would never consider even in autumn or winter. If you haven't checked out Murray's odyssey, do so now -- or when you've read this story -- click here
Along with our Queen, Mrs Sparkle, we had offered to swim with Murray across the Strait of Sydney. Accompanying us was our friend, @RealDeal_Cat, always in search of an adventure. And there were two friends of Murray, Belinda, a marine biologist, and another chap, Matt, a quietly spoken lad. Murray had mentioned the swim to the Boldanbeautiful people at Manly, and they came along, too. A crew of 20-plus of them. The strait was a bit less wild and woolly than we had expected, but this was no ordinary stretch of water. Plenty of room for everyone. The Boldanbeautiful went off in one pod, and Murray and his acolytes went off in another, escorted by the father of wild and woolly ocean swimming around Sydney, John Fallon, who founded the South Head Roughwater as a personal project whilst going through divorce in 2002, and is running it still in 2011. John escorted is in his yacht, Pegasus, and ferried us to the start at Quarantine Beach, just inside North Head. Staying aboard was Murray's bride, whom we'd known when both of us were young reporters on The Sydney Morning Herald in the 70s and 80s. She was known around the newsroom then as Parfait l'Amour. Funny, she doesn't go by that name any more. Nowadays, Carolyn Parfitt calls herself, Mimi. We always had something in common with Parfait, however, since we're both Novacastellians. With them was our very good friend, Glistening Dave, who wanted to document our demises (that's what we suspected, anyway) on fillum. On a cute little wave ski was Dr Nick, Murray's other cobbler who, as a doctor, could tend to our wounds. Dr Nick's wave ski was propelled by a couple of seal fins sticking out of its keel. A remarkable sight under water and even more remarkable that, in the middle of the strait, it didn't attract one of those Men in a Grey Suit.
The funny thing about ocean swimming is that, despite all your doubts and fears before you start, once you start you focus on what you're doing, on you in the environment, and you just do it. Ocean swimming is an enormously therapeutic pastime. It's an individual pastime and it;s a group pastime. You can be with everyone and no-one, you can think of everything and nothing, all at once. It's incidental that you're swimming with others, and almost incidental that you're swimming across perhaps the most frightening stretch of water in Sydney. You just do it. You're in it together; and once you're out, you're committed. There's no getting out -- although we could have, had we wished. Reccie-ing the course beforehand on Google Earth, we worked out that it was 3.1km as the crow flies from Quarantine Beach to Camp Cove, inside South Head, allowing for rounding points. Not too far. Murray thought it would be farther. In the end, the oceanswims.com GPS-in-a-plastic-bag measure the track we swam as 5.34km, which seemed to us to be an exaggeration. Murray, a landscaper, using his trade tools of a piece of string and a Gregory's, worked it out at c. 3.5km. On Cap'n Fallon's advice, we headed to Hornby Lighthouse, which was a distinct landmark on the tip of South Head.
In the prevailing conditions, that meant we were heading out through the heads a little, allowing us to be blown back in by the breeze, washed in by the swell and the tide.
Just get on with it...
So what was out there? It was not an easy swim, quite apart from the distance, it was not your average Sundee ocean swim, not just because it was Sat'dee. The issue was that we were into the wind, the swell and the chop all the way. It was in our faces, directly, coming from both sou'-est, outside the heads, and sou'-west, inside the heads. The wind swirled around the massive landform that is South Head, easing gently down to the promontory itself, which sits quite low on the water, so that it came at us from both directions. So there was no possibility of running across the breeze or across the chop. It was into it, all the way.
In those conditions, it's useful if you breathe bilaterally. Bilateral breathing should be the essential goal of all ocean swimmers -- never mind the meaning of life -- for it makes the difference between comfort and discomfort in ocean swimming, between breathing towards or away from the swell, the chop and the breeze. In a more self-interested way, it makes the difference at times between whether you're gazing across the sea at the horizon all the way, or appreciating the spectacular landforms that make up the Sydney coastline. There are those who have swim the Stanwell Park swim, for example, who've never gazed up at the Illawarra Escarpment, towering over them, because they breathe only to the right.
What was out there in the form of wildlife? By the time we got into the middle, the fishing boat was nowhere to be seen. It had scarpered, leaving its burley bobbing in its wake, attracting fish for hours to come throughout the day. But we didn't see fish. We didn't see much at all. But we felt them: stingers. None that we could see: those gossamer beynon thread-like stinger which feel like bluey tentacles without the bubbles on top. They don't sting as badly, but the sting stays with you. That night, both Mrs Sparkle and os.c came up in rashes on our arms, albeit not in every place we had been stung. They were the kind of stingers that you notice when they sting you, but the sting subsides quickly, and you move on. But they leave a residual tingling, then later some of them come up. It didn't help that one of our rest stops, probably right in the middle of the Strait of Sydney, about where the fishing boat had been anchored, we stopped in the middle of a swarm of these little blighters. They got us good.
That was the grand part of the swim. The beautiful part of the swim came when we reached South Head and swam along one of the most beautiful reefs in Sydney. Lots of fish, weed waving gently in the to-and-fro' current, lots of brilliant, clean sand amongst the weed.
We stopped at Lady Jane Bay. The girls hadn't been there before. They said. Neither had we. Not on the beach, anyway. Indeed, we had been to Lady Jane Bay, in the early months of 1974. And our visit that day, we claim, reverberates through Sydney culcha to this day.
Our place in history
It was a cool, grey Sundee in March, 1974, and we were out for a training row with the Bronte B crew. We were surfboat rowers. Boaties. There was us, Zipperhead, Tommy Teacup, Alastair (no nickname we can recall) and our trainer and sweep, Alec the Crab. We had headed from Rose Bay to Camp Cove, then headed around to South Head, hoping to catch some runs in the boat around the headland. We rounded the point from Camp Cove, and there it was: Sydney in the raw!
We had had no idea about Lady Jane Beach or what went on there. There were a couple of hundred people on the beach, all of them completely newd, and most of them, it seemed, blokes. We scoured the beach for the non-blokes, as good boaties would, gently dolly tapping with our paddles about five metres off the beach, from one end of Lady Jane Beach to the other, and back again. Suddenly, a kid in his early teens yelled at as derisively, "Having a good perv, boys?" Mortified, we lit out, our biggest, strongest, fastest strokes away from the beach, our faces crimson at being unmasked.
At the time, we worked for the Herald, as we noted earlier. Our job then was as legman for Seumus Cunningham, the gifted diarist who wrote the Herald's Granny's Column, Column 8. When we got into work the next morning, we told Jim about our experience and he suggested we write about it in Column 8. Which we did.
A few days later, the wallopers raided Lady Jane Beach, causing a storm of outrage from fashionable Sydney. The Police Minister, a corpulent, highly strung, cherubic chappy named John Waddy, defended the coppers from a public incensed at this infringement of the Sydney way of life. The controversy continued around other beaches, too, and it led to the Wran government, two years later (by our memory) legalising newd bathing at Lady Jane Beach and at Reef Beach, on the north side of the harbour. So, we claim credit for the legalisation of newd bathing in NSW.
So last Sat'dee was the first time we'd been back to Lady Jane Beach since 1974, apart from twice when we'd passed it in the course of the South Head Roughwater. Crossing the Strait of Sydney, however, we called into Lady Jane Beach for a rest stop. You'll see the photograph of it on this page. We emerged from the sea, our first landfall since leaving Quarantine Beach on North Head, and Murray Cox, rising triumphantly to his feet in waist-deep harbour, announced to the bemused, newd codger wandering along the shore, his bronzed third leg bobbing gracefully, languidly, as he walked, "We've just swum from North Head!" To which the newd chap turned indifferently away, as if to say, "And...?"
Never mind. We appreciated the feat. We returned to the sea and followed the cliff around to Camp Cove, where the Boldanbeautiful had formed an honour guard for Murray, and clapped and cheered him generously as he emerged from the water.
Faster ocean swimmers, more deft with technique, can handle such swims with ease, leaving aside the mental issue of the Strait itself. But, into the wind, the swell and the chop, it is not an easy schlepp for a swimmer like Murray who, like most of us, did not have the opportunity as a little boy of developing the technique that stays with good swimmers for life. Most of us are condemned to plod through the sea like a three-legged dog with worms. That's certainly how we swim. But then, Murray ain't out there to break records. He's out there just to do it, with all that that involves. Like most of us.
Check out Murray Cox's blog on swimming from Barrenjoey to Cape Banks, SwimSydney... click here
Thank you to Glistening Dave for the photograrphs.
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