Sunday, August 10, 2014

Bending to the break

It’s no secret that ocean swimming is my greatest love, born from my greatest fear.

But it’s only through consistent practice that I’ve learned to love it. So it was with some trepidation, after 5 weeks off surf sessions learning how to be an Inflatable Rescue Boat (IRB) crewperson, that I approached Saturday’s surf session.

I spent part of the morning working on engines with the IRB crew ensuring my mind was in the gutter. Owing to the 6-10 foot sets coming through, Zoe and Kingy wisely choose a gutter session to match where my head was at. When the surf is that big, the water is moving so fast it creates a littoral current that runs parallel to the beach – creating a natural gutter between sand banks. The body surfing gurus, Hossy and Stirky headed out the back. There are those who excel in big waves, and then there are those, like me, for whom they can be an ordeal.

About three quarters through the session I tightened my goggles and decided to join them. This wasn’t done lightly.

Exactly a year ago I completely shattered my surf mojo upon the sand owing to a shore dump spearing. This is what happens when you show up late to a session and miss the warm up. Don't disrespect the coaches by doing this. 

There are four of us heading out, and at one point I lose my nerve and head for home, catching a big broken wave and thinking “this is going to hurt”. It doesn’t and buoyed by that thought I strike out for the back, beyond the break, again.

That moment where you get out the back, you reach comparative safety, when you collect your thoughts and your breath is a truly golden moment. That moment when you realise you’re not out the back and a seemingly monster set is about to break on your head makes you wish you’d worn your brown swimmers.

There is no choice but to dive, dive deep, and hope like hell you can grab the sand and hold on.
When you get it right, the wave surges over you, sounding like a 747 taking off above your head and obscuring the light. Then the spray off the crest speckles the sunlight cascading through the water and there is nothing more beautiful. You come up in the clear water between the waves, take a breath, ready and prepared to dive under the next one.

When you get it wrong, there is nothing more scary. I got under the first two fine, but the waves inevitably build through the set and the last one caught me in the backwash as I dived under. Funnily enough, the thought “this is going to hurt” relaxes me. I give into the wave as it washing machines me every which way, knowing eventually, it will throw me up long enough to grab another gasp of air. Eventually, it will spit me out. So long as I bend to its will. And, for the first time, in a long time, I keep my eyes open through this process rather than screwing them shut. The foam is truly mesmerising.

The wave washes on, leaving me behind, the water clears and I survey the situation. Do I head for shore or back beyond the break? I’m still a long way out so I head well clear of the breakers and wait. I regroup with my buddies. I catch my breath and calm down. And let myself bend to the will of the unbroken waves. Bobbing about like a cork. Until I find a lull in which to return to shore, I'm not yet brave enough to body surf big waves.

The funniest part is, once we returned to shore, one of my fellow not so surf confident friends, who’d been right inside the break zone remarked that he only felt comfortable admitting how scary it had been once “the surf lifesaver” swam up and remarked “oh my god”! As though, in obtaining my bronze, I had somehow managed to vanquish all my fears at once. No such luck. 

But I’ll definitely have a go these days. And that means I’ve come a long way, baby.

Colin, one of my first surf coaches, nailing a wave with Bondi Fit. Photo (c) Bondi Fit. Bondi Fit's head and founding coaches, Spot Anderson, is one of the best body surfers you will see. Longy, another of my first Can Too coaches is also completely at home in conditions such as these.

Watching the wave that built at Mermaid's rock (headland) and broke at the Boat Ramp. Photo taken by the lovely Bel with Kingy's camera. 

Hossy showing off his skillz whilst Stirky (orange cap) watches on and two randoms watch them

Bobbing around out the back.

Thursday, August 7, 2014


I have to admit, as I write this I am a little overwhelmed by my heroes right now. Also a little feeling a little swim fannish!
·      Stuart Johnson is currently attempting a triple crossing of the English Channel, a feat achieved only 3 times throughout human history. On the day that the currents thwarted my attempt to swim to Watson’s Bay, he swam from Coogee to Bondi to Watson’s and then back again. Sending him amazement and best wishes. [Postscript - Stuart Johnson didn't quite make the triple crossing. He did make one of the most powerful acceptance (in the true sense of the word) statements ever and inspire the bejesus out of me and a fair few others:
After a 30 hour swim, Stuart Johnson said "I was tired and close to hypothermic, yes the water was warm but if you spend that time in the water it can happen, and despite my considerable pre-channel girth. Because I had slowed down I was going to miss the cap and go south ...
for 6 hours. The prediction from Reg [pilot] was 14hrs. I was buggered but figured I could rough it out for 6 (and that would be optimistic at best). No way would I last 14, I (and no one else made the tough decision to abort). The good thing is there is not what if for me now, the weather was good, the 2nd turn easy, in fact at that point I felt the 3 way was in the bag. I trained harder than before, and harder than I could (or would again), I had a good feed plan (thanks Tara) and covered everything that had gone wrong before. There are no parameters to tweak. A 2 way I can do, the 3 way is a bridge too far, reserved for a select few." 10.31 am 8 August 2014]


·      Colleen Mallon is following in her brother’s wake across the North Channel (generally acknowledged as the hardest of the Oceans Seven) battling freezing waters and massive jellyfish with my uni buddy Alex alongside. Sending you both best wishes and anti Jellyfish forcefields. [Postscript - she nailed it, almost set a new record time]
 Photographic postscript: nailed it!
·      The 5th person ever in the history of humanity, Adam Walker, completed the Oceans Seven challenge:
o   Cook Strait (26km 14-19 degrees, crazy currents)
o   Tsugaru (19km, 16-19 degrees, crazy currents)
o   Molokai Channel (41.8km, warm, stingy thingys)
o   Gibraltar Straits (20km, warm, crazy currents, boats and chop)
o   English Channel (34km, 15-18 degrees) (big ships, currents)
o   Catalina Channel (33.7km, 17-19 degrees) (currents, sharks)
o   the hardest: North Channel (34.5km, 10-14 degrees, jellyfish)

  • Wyatt Song is swimming in 8 degree water at the International Winter Swimming Festival in  Argentina. After his experiences in Russia and Finland earlier in the year this is comparatively bathlike. [Postscript = Wyatt went on to become Australia's first Ice Miler]

Then there are the exceptional recent achievements:

  • ·      Fellow BSBLSC lifesavers Dori Miller and LochieHinds, recently, respectively, became the 40th person ever to complete a double crossing of the English Channel and the youngest person ever to complete the Triple Crown of swimming (English Channel, Manhattan Island Marathon (45km circumnavigation) and Catalina Channel). Dori did it after the fastest solo of 2008 and 2 previous double attempts. The double took 26 hours and 21 minutes making her the 117th person to join the 24 Hour Club. Lochie takes that crown from Alison Streeter, the undisputed Queen of the English Channel with 43 crossings including a triple and seven crossings in one year. Dori had her amazing partner and coach, Nick, alongside the whole way. Lochie had his amazing folks who support everything he swims!

 Dori's course across the Channel and Back

  • ·      The bloke who set up the Icebergs / South End Rowing Club (SERC) connection, Simon Dominguez who battled the storm of the century to cross the English Channel and set new standards in sartorial style with his robe. He had his mum, dad, sister, daughter and best mate alongside.

  • ·      Kimberley Chambers, who looks set to become the 6th person to complete the Oceans Seven, completing just the most amazing culturally sensitive (she speaks Japanese, of course!) crossing of Tsugaru to complete her 6th of the 7 swims. She had her mum and colleagues from Adobe alongside. [Postscript - Kim completed the Oceans Seven but at huge cost]
  • ·      All of the amazing Vladswimmers who have just nailed their English Channel swims.
  • ·      The amazing EpicBillBradley who had to call it a day. The hardest call but always the right one.

What is just incredible about each of these swims is the way technology allows all of us playing along from home to track their swims. There is a community of supporters, all over the world, hunched in front of screen, willing those tracking dots (and the swimmer attached) forward. You can yell encouragement in real time. And for that swim, everyone of us is a part of something bigger than ourselves.  That inspirational community is cemented by the people willing to spend hours and hours on a boat, alongside those swimmers. Your selflessness is incredible.

And then there the forthcoming achievements:

  • Fellow Bondi lifesaver, all around legend and one of the most generous people I know, Cyril Baldock takes on the English channel to honour his mentor, the late, great Des Renford and become the oldest Channel swimmer. [Post script - Cyril did it, and held the record for a little over a week. He's vowed to return making him a truly epic hero]
  •  All the other remaining Vladswimmers [Postscript - All the Vladswimmers succeeded]
  •  Chloe McCardel using all of her successes and not so successes to mentor a relay team across the English Channel. Chloe beat Des Renford's record of laps of Bondi the day I signed up to be a Bondi lifesaver. His son swam alongside for part of that epic effort. Her achievement inspired one of my greatest challenges.  [Post script - Chloe went onto set the World Record for Longest continuous unaided ocean swim. An absolute bloody legend!]

And then there are the people who have inspired me from go to whoa. Tamera Lang, my Can Too team captain who nailed Rottnest solo and then as a duo with an 8 month old baby. Pete Dunne who tells me I can do anything, when he literally can (so long as the water isn’t too cold). Mel Houghton, Micky Ash, Joe Watkins and Colin Hannah who all soloed Bondi to Watson’s and inspired me to try. Mel Speet and Luke Parr who helped me through a lot of nerve wracked start lines and introduced me to North Sydney Masters. Alice Boxhall who helped me through Can Too and the Bronze Medallion.  Tori Gorman, whose blog is essentially my bible and who encourages everyone. Fyso and Liam who make training a joy. Jacki who made Alcatraz a reality. Too many swim friends to mention (sorry guys).

Some incredible Can Too coaches: Colin Marshall, Peter Long, Big Wave Dave, Susan King, Zoe Little, Goldie, Trish Daly and Victor Lee. The amazing 4Seasons who make ocean swimming accessible to all: Kingy, Zoe, Tamera and Dave. Hiro and John Wynberg at North Sydney and all the Vladswim coaches whom I’m looking forward to getting to know. Including Vlad himself who has worked miracles on my stroke in the past. They inspire with everything they do!

But finally, there are some unsung heroes. They may never swim those kinds of distances, but I have watched their journey through the waves and I will never be prouder of anything I do myself than of what these heroes faced and won. Silpa, Kay, Allison, Anne – I know something of the fears you faced. You faced down those fears and I am so, so very proud of you. It will forever be my greatest honour to have swum alongside you in good times and bad.

Because once upon a time, in 2009, I could not breathe when I swam in open water. I had constant panic attacks. My greatest hero ever, a Bondi lifesaver whose name I do not know noticed and swam alongside me until I could breathe. As I don’t know her name, I can never repay the favour, and so I pay it unto others. Karma rocks.

Thanks heroes. Love your work. Just keep swimming!