Three times a week I mindlessly bashed up and down in a confined, often aggressive space, staring down at a black line enduring nose-blocking chemicals, clipped knuckles from passing swimmers and grazed skin from scraping up against lane dividers.
The Roughwater swim reunited me with the ocean. The bigness of it, its velvety feel, its borderless freedom. The minute I hit the water, the nostalgic, salty smell of my tender years came flooding back. Why on earth had I been swimming in a pool all these years?
After a brief anxiety attack at the start of the swim – it was my first attempt – my youthful skills quickly returned and I negotiated the waves with a competence that surprised me. Out beyond the break the crowd of swimmers quickly dispersed leaving me gloriously alone swimming for the first can.
Rays of light pierced the water and I could see clear down to the ocean floor. I swam over a flat and motionless stingray anchored to the bottom, fish rippling in and out of floating weed, a pyramid of pebbly rocks. The sound of water splashing around the cans, the dull roar of jet skis and the splash of other swimmers was muffled and remote. As I turned my head to breathe, I caught far off glimpses of waves smashing onto the edge of the beach and distant crowds milling around the Pavilion like fragments from a silent film.
There were problems. Without the black line I wasn’t sure I was progressing. I kept losing my bearings and having to ask the water safety crew where I was supposed to be heading. I misjudged the exit by a big margin and embarrassingly came in a couple of hundred metres south of the official finish. But the hook had been set. Apart from helping my grandchildren learn to swim, I’ve never been back to a pool.
The friend who kick-started my oceanic obsession suggested I’d do better in my next ocean swim if I joined the group that swam the Bay, south to north, every morning around nine o’clock. I took her advice and although over the intervening twenty-five years most of the original group has died, retired or moved on, I still find my way down to the beach and swim the bay at least three times a week.
The nine o’clock group was relaxed and casual. The swimmers varied in age from twenty to eighty, swimming prowess from rusty clunkers to sleek champions to speedy thrashing windmills.
We looked out for each other – sort of – but swimmers who joined us had to take responsibility for themselves. On big-wave days we waited out the back until everyone was through, or had regretfully retired back to the beach, but as a rule visiting swimmers were expected to deal with the distance and conditions without being babysat.
Some days dolphins frolicked. Once a whale arrived within touching distance. Every so often we were treated to the hair-raising frisson of a claimed shark sighting. Vast schools of salmon mysteriously appeared and disappeared. Sociable blue gropers hovered around the rocks at North Bondi. Long neck cranes speared the water like jet planes. Blue bottles, the summer scourge, carelessly draped their electric blue threadlike tails around legs, arms, faces and necks.
Every swim was different, each one deserving of its own close attention. The postmortems over coffee and cake went something like this:
‘How about that big one in the middle? Where did that come from?’
‘Am I imagining it or was it hard today? I felt like I was swimming against the current all the way.’
‘Got bloody dumped coming in, lost my goggles.’
‘Aloevera, that’s the best thing for a sting’
‘Rubbish, really hot water, as hot as you can stand for as long as you can stand.’
‘We told those spear-fishers to fuck off and they asked us if we ever ate fish. You know, they just don’t get it.’
‘Where were you headed Robin? Out to New Zealand.’
‘What about that cold patch in the middle? It’s cold enough without hitting ice.’
‘Jeez, getting out down south was enough to make you cry. I kept getting hit. Copped face-full after face-full. Got dragged back over and over again.’
‘And how was that? Champagne or what?’
‘Divine, just divine.’
‘We are sooo lucky.’