south head, may 15
Beanies, Boats and Bliss
Typical South Head swimmer.
We're embarrassed to say this, but it all started with a tweet. Yep, a tweet, on that blasted twitter thing. Never in a million, billion years did we think that twitter had any uses. We've seen the twat. And we really, really don't give a diseased pig's bum who Paris Hilton is getting her makeup done by, or what Justin Bieber is having for breakfast. In fact, we sincerely hope that we never come across twat like that again.
Nevertheless, one wet and windy day we were checking out oceanswimsdotcom and for some reason (we don't like to admit we did this, but we did) we checked out his recent, err, "tweets". And there it was. A short, fleeting little tweet, that someone was looking for a team and a boat for the South Head Roughwater. Wasn't up there long; for such is the nature of twitterland. But as fate would have it, it was up there just long enough to find us.
And were we keen. Really keen. This was the South Head Roughwater. We shall say it again, in capitals, THE SOUTH HEAD ROUGHWATER. FROM BONDI TO WATSONS BAY. The holy of holies, the glory of glories, the swim of all swims. The most extreme way to get out of Bondi that there is, short of swimming to New Zealand. We'd been keen to do this swim for some time. We had, of course, been planning to do this swim solo. But we had, of course, failed to put in anything near the training needed to do so. So to cut a long story short, we followed up that tweet, and soon had a duo, then a trio, a boat, and a swim entry. The holy of holies was coming our way.
That's James Pittar being guided into the North Bondi Express. James is blind.
Cross to Friday night. The 13th. The swim briefing. Swell prediction: 6 foot plus. A hundred or so folk with teams, boats & paddlers lined up, all chewing their nails and hoping to hear good news. John Fallon, struggling after a trip around half of Sydney's nightmare motorways on a peak hour Friday, but still managing to raise a laugh. The good news: if conditions didn't get worse the swim would probably be on. The other news: our team number was number sixty-nine.
We're not sure what it is about the number sixty-nine that fascinates people. We like the number sixty-nine. According to www.decoz.com, "Few numbers are as responsible and self-sacrificing as the number 69. Political activists and environmentalists often have this number, as do doctors, nurses, and teachers. It is also extremely creative." So we were happy. We could have got thirteen.
Cross to Sunday morning. Early Sunday morning. Much earlier than we would like. When they say this swim is about commitment they aren't kidding. Our boat crew, who we were about to meet for the first time, had been up before 5 a.m. The rest of our trio were either on the way from Newcastle (Liz the Flying-fish) or had been feeding 150 people in a Greek restaurant the night before, then watching the FA Cup final (Demigod Dave Perama).
$6 towels a treat at the start. We won't mention the wettie.
So we were fully amazed when Liz and Dave dealt with the item we hadn't been able to sort; the freezing cold of a south-westerly at 7 a.m. on a Sunday in May. Our estimation of twitterers went up 100 notches when the Demigod announced he'd dropped off some towels at Bondi on the way and the Flying-fish pulled out three woollen beanies she'd knitted the day before. Awwwwww. Wow.
Then the beanies went on. They had ears. There was a moment of shock. The beanies had ears. Our estimation of twitterers was hovering in the balance. Then we realised that our particular beanie did not have ears. We had been forgiven for being a crusty old luddite, and our beanie was normal. Whew. We decided to love our earless beanie, and that twitterers were OK after all.
The boat picked us up at Rose Bay and we headed off into that cold but sunny morning. And what a morning it was. Sydney harbour at its finest. We watched Watsons Bay go past and picked out a few landmarks for the finish. Peered at the breakers rounding the head and speculated at what lay beyond.
Soon enough we were past the head and we saw it all. That straight southerly swell rising in endless beautiful lines in front of us, with the foremost swell higher than the bow. That immense cliff wall, honey-coloured in the morning sun, stretching way, way down the coast. The big blue sparkling ocean that is the Tasman Sea in a westerly in autumn. Speechless, indescribable feeling. Never seen Australia from that angle before.
Our boat skipper (Martin) and his mate (John) got us down that long, long cliff wall with a minimum of fuss and spray, such was their experience, which left us plenty of time to contemplate how far we were going to have to swim back. Hmmm. It looked a long way, alright. Ditched our clothes outside the breakers at Bondi, jumped in and swam to the beach to await the start.
And if it wasn't for the ingenuity of Dave and Liz all our plans might have unravelled at this point. For Bondi was freezing, and the start was some way off. We jumped and jiggled. We walked and stretched. We did everything we could, but the only thing that saved us from a hypothermic death rictus was Dave's five dollar towels placed there earlier that morning. And those beanies. We suspect we were the envy of all on the beach, ears or no ears.
But what we had not planned for was how cold the sand was. Torso was OK, it was in a towel. Head was OK, it was in an earless beanie. Legs were not OK. They were in nothing. They were not present, in fact, from the knees down. Every minute seemed like an hour but finally the start came. We stumbled to the water on our frozen stumps and fell in.
Fell into the churning water and found the North Bondi express. Took us out past the breakers, just like any other swim. Then, at the point where every other sensible swimmer would turn and head south, we headed east. Out to sea. Way, way out to sea. Much further than we expected out to sea. The bottom dropped away. The shoreline disappeared from our vision. Soon it was only us, the ocean, and a scattering of boats ahead of us. Beyond that - New Zealand.
We reached the boat and climbed in. The Flying-fish took the first stretch up the coast while we warmed up and worked out a bit of a course with Martin the skipper. Martin had been checking out the swell direction while we were on the beach and reckoned he had a good course set for South Head, which took advantage of the swell and kept us away from the backwash off the rocks. He was right.
When it was our turn we splashed in and kicked into our stroke. In an instant we felt that swell behind us, pushing us along, strong, unstoppable. We've been pushed along by swell before, but nothing like this. Our spirits were buoyed by the feeling and we swam hard, relishing each stroke, relishing each swell, hammering up the coast faster than we'd ever expected.
And the water wa
s gorgeous. Smooth surface conditions, clear, shafts of sunlight streaking down into the depths. Indescribable. Every ocean swimmer knows the feeling, but here, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, nothing but towering cliffs, bottomless ocean and a boat, it is intensified something fierce.
We looked to the west and saw the towering cliff wall. We looked to the north, and saw the towering cliff wall. We looked to the east, and saw a boat with beanie ears silhouhetted against the sun. Like Viking helmets that had lost the tips off their horns. No chance of confusing our boat with anyone else's.
We took turns going up that long coast, either swimming or soaking up the sun on the boat. Helping John with the occasional bail-out, as the boat had taken on more than a bit of that southerly swell during its manouverings around us swimmers.
We'd like to say that we were completely overawed when, three hours later, we finally reached the Heads and turned that corner. This was a view of Sydney that only our ancestors had seen before, our mothers and fathers and nannas and grandfathers and in some cases great-great-great-grandfolks, when they arrived in this big strange country from the other side of the world. And here we were, swimming through it, Sydney Heads, one of the worlds most iconic locations. We've seen it from the south side, we've seen it from the north side, we've seen in from the inside, but we've never, ever seen it from the water looking in. But all we felt at the time was, well, knackered, and badly in need of a piss.
The final stretch. What a contrast. Out there, clear, blue water and freedom. In the harbour - murk. Murk and traffic. A few astonished fishermen. Some nudists showing us their bums. And, surprisingly enough, other swimmers. For whatever reason, after eight kilometres of coastline, everyone seemed to be rounding that head at the same time. The incoming tide pulled us through the heads and we coasted on through the murk to Watsons Bay and the final turning buoy.
Got there at exactly the same time as a blue-capped team and we all struck out in a race for the finish. Liz the Flying-fish and Blue-cap Man left us well and truly in their wake (we blame the wetsuits). Fortunately for us, the rest of the blue-caps weren't so fast. Also fortunately for us, the Flying-fish and Blue-cap Man knew where they were going; we couldn't figure out where the hell the yacht club actually was through all the boats bobbing backwards and forwards. That' the problem with yacht clubs. Too many yachts.
The finish was something special - a wooden boat ramp leading into the heart of the yacht club with people lining the piers to both sides and cheering. Top feeling. We'd done it.
This is a great event. It is not just a swim, it is a total experience, from getting on the boat at Rose Bay to running up that finish ramp. Thanks John Fallon, we had a great day and we hope you did too. Without doubt up there amongst the best experiences of our life.
The weird thing is that our legs were really stiff afterwards. We couldn't figure it out. But Mrs Sparkle explained it - it' the boat. Bracing one's landlubber legs against the movement of the boat in a two metre swell for a few hours.
Did we buy the T-shirt? Yes. Did we show it off down at the pool later? Damn straight. Would we do this swim again? We'd do it again tomorrow, if we could still move our arms and legs.
Will we start twittering? Not in a trillion years.
Click on Thumbs For larger size shots and Click on Page Number For more shots
See also Murray Cox's blog on his journey over the course of the season from Barrenjoey to Cape Banks, of which South Head was his final leg... click here
And check Tori Gorman's Photo Gallery from South Head... click here
South Head Rough Water Swim, the name says it all.
John Fallon and the Volunteer Coastal Patrol. Well done, lads.
South Head: a Triassic-age set of fractal sandstone cliffs that line the coast from Bondi Beach to the entrance of the Sydney Harbour. They are weather beaten, ocean worn and spectacular in their beauty. Especially so in the golden light of blue-sky Sunday morning in late autumn.
Rough Water: There's no escaping the fact that this is open ocean, the Tasman sea with all its swell and bounce. And this year there was plenty of that. Four -metre rolling swells that fortunately the strong overnight westerly winds had managed to flatten out.
And Swim: Yep, this is the big one of the season. A bit over 10 kilometres. Not the Big Swim but the really big swim. And unlike most ocean swims, there is no embayment for protection from the elements. It's deepwater all the way. Inky dark blue water and very deep with all the vagaries that our ocean planet can come up with. It's well beyond the flags and not for the faint hearted.
For those lucky enough to swim last Sunday's 10th running of the South Head Rough Water swim, it was a menu of delight. A feast of the senses and the sea in all its raw beauty.
Race director and swim founder John Fallon has nurtured his baby to its 10th year and the swim is bearing fruit as an end-of-season classic.
The mid-May date brought with it an unseasonally cool early morning chill, with strong westerly winds that are more common in July or August. But the ocean was still warm at a shade under 21 degrees and quite comfortable without the need of a wetsuit. Sydney ocean swimmers, unlike their rugged southern cousins, are indeed fortunate that they don't need neoprene to keep out the cold for at least another month.
But it was beanie and fleecy top weather for those on board waiting their turn to swim or observing.
Winner for the 2nd consecutive year, Ryan Huckle (right) and 2nd placegetter, Lochie Hinds. We understand from organiser john Fallon (see the results) that Ryan warmed up by swimming Coogee-Bondi beforehand, then from Watsons Bay back to Coogee afterwards.
This writer has returned to the South Head Rough Water swim after an absence of three years, and its growth in solo swimmer numbers and the professionalism of its running was noticeable.
For sheer odds, it has to be the safest swim on the calendar (and that is not to denigrate the other swims in any way) but the ratio of one per boat per team, whether that's a solo swimmer, duo, quad or more can't be beaten.
The involvement of Marine Rescue NSW - formerly the Volunteer Coastal Patrol - adds another element of safety and does the jet ski operated by the Waverley Council Lifeguards. A big thank you is due for all your help on the day. And to John Fallon's team of volunteers and the Vaucluse Yacht Club as the end-of- swim venue for the BBQ, drinks and trophy presentation.
The South Head swim, like its shorter-distance cousin Coogee to Bondi, are the products of an evolving and maturing ocean swim scene ( or culcha as Mr Oceanswims puts it). The calendar is pushing out each side of the summer /autumn season. More swims are filling the calendar earlier in the Spring and later in the Autumn. Next week's postponed Bondi swim is the last hurrah for many Sydney swimmers before Winter. But don't forget the inaugural Evans Head swim on the NSW Far North Coast on the June long weekend and Mona Vale Cold two weeks later.
These are John Fallon's kids, although we know you won't believe that. Young fellow on the right, with dark hair, is John's nephew, and worked as organiser this year.
Ocean swimming has its own inner poetry that only an ocean swimmer can experience. At its best it's being in the zone and relaxing into the moment as you get your rhythm and breath under control. Nothing else matters except what's immediately around you. It's just you as a set of eyes moving up the coast and taking it all in. It's an invaluable Zen experience - even in the worst of conditions. Non-ocean swimmers just wouldn't understand.
It's a joy to introduce new people to the South Head swim. For my merry band of fellow team mates this year, it was their first South Head experience .For me, it was my sixth. Seventh if you include the year that I was a paddler for a solo swimmer.
That's probably much more that I could say but you get the point.
Ocean swims just skim the very micro edge of a very big ocean. On a human scale we are but puny beings on the planetary scale of our seas. But oceans are still very delicate and we need to nurture and respect them.
May the winter be kind to you all.
No doubt many of the 127 South Head swimmers, including 36 solo swimmers will be swimming through the winter, and swimming through the winter in the ocean. That's the mark of a true ocean swimmer. The water is a siren drawcard.
Pics by @_Moose_knuckles, John Macleay, Natalie Peters, and Murray Cox.
oceanswims.com uses Olympus cameras, this time the Tough 810 and PEN E-P1 (and an iPhone 4).
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