Swimming the Coast of Sydney
September 2010 – May 2011
Every man needs a hobby
Story by Murray Cox
Swimming skills are something I don’t possess in any great measure. I have the awkward choppy stroke of the self-taught – after having a friend video my freestyle, I swore I would never swim in public again. So I was surprised to find myself acting on a brainwave I had last year of joining all the dots between the season’s ocean swims and, in stages, swim along the Sydney coast between Barrenjoey Head and Botany Bay.
Here are a few excepts from my blog.
Swim 1. Barrenjoey 26 September
In 1969 I escaped on a plane a couple of months after high school to Asia and Europe for 5 years. Then back to a slow but sure tethering of jobs, study, self-employment, mortgage, marriage and kin. When I started a near ritual of swimming in my late 40s, it was after work, walking out to the flat rock shelf at North Bondi and feeling like I was diving off the continent. By the time I’d swum across the bay the dust and responsibilities of that day were washed away and I was hungry to hunt and gather something for a family dinner.
Swim 2. Avalon – Bilgola 10 October
Stepping from the Avalon sand into the water was like wading into an unmade bed, crumpled sheets dragging at my legs, foaming pillow over my head and a rip of half-remembered dreams pulling me out to sea. The elemental water can do that, split me somehow so I have to go swimming after my other part. By the time I was reunited I was looking down through the murky brine at a stone shelf and then up at the crag of Bilgola Headland.
This is why I wanted to swim along the coast; to have a moment face-to-face, with these rocky faces. From the water it was all forehead; eyes and nose submerged, furrowed brow, sunburn mottled, some follicles of vegetation on top – quite like my own in fact. The sister headland at North Avalon is a whole face, of an eroded-to-the bone Sphinx showing an obdurate visage to the sea, like those temple guardians trying to look more fierce than an approaching foe. This is definitely sculpture by the sea.
Swim 5. Bungan 24 October
These swims are part-bravado and part-meditation. By exploring the physical space of the watery coast along my hometown, I’m hoping to dissolve some old fears and solve something of the mystery, for me anyway, of what goes on between my brawn and brain.
One explanation that struck me simply divided this ‘human being’ into two components: the human and the being. The human, the homo part, is the very durable creature of millions of years of evolution through savannah and ice-ages, a body and nervous system superbly geared to fight and flight on many levels, and also craving stability and warm companionship. On the other hand, the being, the recently evolved sapiens brain-box is a word-working, risk-taking epic schemer. And the resulting combination is like putting a Ferrari in the hands of a teenager.
Swimming today felt like that. My water-logged body was doing all the hard work and my mind had just skipped away from the action, circling back for the odd note of encouragement or comment on the aesthetics of the colour grey before disappearing again. On the beach there wasn’t much of a reconciliation, most of me just wanted a hot shower, food and a lie-down.
I’m using my arms for oars
in the rowlocks of my shoulders
to row this boat of flesh stretched
over bony ribs and buoyant lungs.
With this hull, skull and legs
it’s a makeshift craft without keel or mast,
a barely amphibious body,
no gills, webbing, flippers or fin.
Face down, turning,
breathing from air to brine,
splashing along the meniscus
between sea and sky.
Swim 9. Avalon – Whale Beach. 13 November
Drawing a line along the coast might chart my course, but it can’t delineate the pulsing of the swell or the experience of crawling along that stretch of water. Maps are flat and prosaic. They can’t describe the emotional topography of travelling – we add that – so by opening a map or atlas we are also opening our potential for a journey.
The map we most commonly use is a street directory which just shows the dense web of bitumen and concrete we move on. It tells us very little about terrain. The road map “encourages us to imagine the land itself only as a context for motorised travel. It warps its readers away from the natural world”. (Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places).
Swim 14. Bondi Roughwater 9 January
It’s a calm warm morning after a party night, and it’s my 60th birthday. Down on the sand the denizens walk, lounge and poke about like tropical fish, alternately flamboyant, brazen and timid – showing off and shy. The beach itself is a transitional zone, in geography and culture, a place where everyday inhibitions and conventions can be stripped off, even for a while; it’s a democratic playground for all ages with a minimum of social props, literally a sandpit. There is also a hint of carnival and circus – see the strongman, see the fat lady, there goes a boardrider threading along the wave like a high-wire act, ice-cream jugglers and clowns abound.
It is also possible to be quite private in that public space; sunglasses and a book work quite well, and so does swimming well out from the shore, which is where I find myself after the bustle of the beach and following those bubbling toes around the first buoy. I’m already a tad weary and the water is thick with my personal history of Bondi. It’s shaping to be a long swim.
Swim 15. Dee Why – Curl Curl 15 January
The Tasman this morning has nothing of Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea’ about it; in fact it looks distinctly non-alcoholic and unpoetic. Homer’s phrase comes from the Iliad where Achilles mourns the death of his lover Patroclus. I’ve always been sympathetic to the Trojans and thought of Achilles as a vain, homicidal maniac. Odysseus is more my kind of Greek; making large gift-horses and resisting sirens while tied to the mast, his Odyssey is full of cunning stunts. Today’s odyssey starts as I wade into this bleak and medicinal brew, initially swimming close to the rocks in the rip and then wide into the deep water.
The cray boat is a surprise, dropping pots down to 12 metres or so, a reminder of the bounty still below where unseen marine creatures go about their business with claws and carapaces, tentacles and pointy teeth. The sandstone cliffs have a plateau of real estate on top, homes on the edge. The cliffs themselves, subject to the ceaseless battering of the ocean, look merely resolute this morning – no sunlit glow, no stormy drama, just sand and quartz and clay in patinated muted tones. Looking into the depth of water is another matter. This is an opaque wet realm and diving down into it is like wriggling through the primal soup. I come up breathless and spooked and have to swim breaststroke, head up, counting strokes to regain my equilibrium.
Swim 23. Lurline Bay – Coogee 6 March
Finally I’m at the water’s edge. It took so long to walk I will have to take the mackerel route back. Looking north-east, the sea has a grey sheen, a metallic glare refracted from a myriad shimmering flakes on the ocean skin flickering with the wind. There is no one around, just me and the push-pull personalities that travel with me. Next moment I’m in the sea, was that a push or a pull? Breaststroke out of the bay, getting a feel for today’s water, it’s hard to get a grip with all this chopped up surface. Start rotating the arms for the crawl to calm the heart rate and pulse, I’m on my way and curious to be swimming in this new place. The light is a touch gloomy but the water is fairly clear, so here I am, glimpsing cliffs, underwater rocks and horizon as I roll my arms over and over. When I stop to take a few pictures, the same fishermen I saw on my walk an hour ago are still there, and around the headland the sand of Coogee is just visible.
Swim 24. North Head 12 March
We are kitted out with masks, snorkels and flippers; this is sight-seeing submarine-style, rather than freestyling across the surface with ‘up periscope’ on every breath. Without waves and backwash to deal with, we can hug the cliff edge. About 40 metres high on this NE side, the cliffs have a narrow shelf and then a 20-metre drop to the sea bottom. Visibility is very good, showing an abundance of small bait fish, the occasional groper and kingfish.
He spoke of his native island… Queequeg was a native of Rokovoko, an island far away to the West and South. It was not down on any map; true places never are. (Herman Melville, Moby Dick).
Swim 28. Warriewood 17 April
There is a question as to whether ocean swimmers are extroverts or introverts. For me, I’m an extrovert out of the water and an introvert in it. I like to say I’m the Greta Garbo of swimming – “I swim to be alone”. I love the immersion: in the briny; in my own thoughts – or thoughtlessness; in the rhythm of the crawl, sidestroke, backstroke; in the feeling of being in a wild place, relying solely on self-propulsion to survive. This ocean swimming is to venture into a wild place. You don’t need much – just a cossie and goggles and dive in. Don’t need skis, packs, ropes, caribeeners for the bush or mountains, no parachute, bike, boat and board for a thrill.
Then there are the rips and currents that can keep you swimming on the spot, backwards and sideways. Or the clear sandy bottom where a glimpse of your own shadow sends up that shiver of fear.
The devil that’s between us and the deep blue sea is our own imagining – and other people’s. How many times have I been asked, “Aren’t you afraid of sharks?” Of course I’m afraid of sharks! Being eaten alive is at the top of my list of scary things. But at the rate of one shark attack a year in the Sydney region, with the last fatality back in 1963, I’m happy to take my chances in the ocean.
Swim 30. Coogee-Bondi 27 April
The water is the colour of my polyester suit, a shiny pewter like ancient armour or shark skin. It’s warm in and I can see the sandy bottom and then some rocks. The surface is so bumpy and agitated I get a bit spooked so I take some deep breaths and dive down into the volume of the sea. It’s calm, the yellowtail are idling and the kelp is brooming back and forth. I dive again and start to relax. Soon I’m around the first point. Then I’m right next to the bombora off Gordon’s Bay. I’ve seen it as a reasonable board wave on the half tide and conditions similar to today. Ahead is the cut of Clovelly and I wave to Mimi who has driven around to the headland. Then the arc of Bronte and Tamarama appear as I crawl around Shark Point. This is the first time I’ve seen these beaches while swimming north and they appear as a matching pair of sandy coves. The swell isn’t bustling in there yet and they look benign.
I lay on my back for a while and get that castaway feeling. An odd bit of history floats into mind: I’m in Nelson Bay, named after the one-eyed admiral of Trafalgar, a resolute sailor, though I doubt if he could swim. He was also Duke of Bronte, so doubly honoured on this bit of coast.
Swim 33. South Head Roughwater 15 May
As we face into the harbour, a carnival of spinnaker colours billow toward us. I swim past the nudists of Lady Jane beach, our previous port-of-call after crossing the Heads a couple of months ago. At this point I have connected all the dots to swim the coast of Sydney, so I dive down and claim a handful of sand to mark the moment.
There is some hooting as a red-coloured tanker bulls its way into the harbour through the throng of yachts, boats and ferries. A few hundred metres off Watsons Bay beach the four of us assemble in the water to swim to the finish line at the sailing club wharf together. There’s applause, and we each have a small victory for our efforts. Last place still feels really good.