Friday, 30 January 2009

10 tips to survive the ocean swims season

Sink or swim?
I'm sure that, having read my first blog entry, you are dying to know my time in the Big Swim.

Oh good. You don't really give a toss.

Suffice to say, I was in the bottom 20 of the 1500 swimmers who completed the course (DNFs were not included in the results). My time was around 15 minutes slower than in 2007. The fastest time was 35.56 and the slowest 1.40.34.

You'll be pleased to know that I have moved on (sort of ... small sob) and am now looking ahead to the next challenge, the 2km Cole Classic. But more on that later.

I have compiled a list of 'must haves' if you are new to or considering ocean swimming as a fun alternative to being stretched on a rack or climbing Mount Everest without wearing gloves (just kidding - out demons!).

Seriously, ocean swimming is an amazing sport if you can recover from the disappointment of constantly finishing at the back of the pack.

Follow these 10 tips and success will surely follow:

1. You must be able to swim. And most important, the stroke must be freestyle/overarm/Aussie Crawl*. If you aren't a competent swimmer you won't even make it to the first buoy.
It always looks like a cinch from the spectator's point-of-view, witnessing the spectacle of 600-1200 swimmers dashing out to sea. The below-average swimmer will struggle if the surf's up and the current is strong.
If you're not a good swimmer, get stroke correction lessons, surfing lessons, etc.

2. Show respect for sea creatures and don't be afraid of them. That includes jelly blubbers, stingrays and sharks. I have participated in ocean swims for almost four years and there has never been an official shark sighting - oh, except off the heads at Manly a couples of years ago! But the organisers of the 10km swim, which was to venture into the sharks' territory, quickly cancelled the event. No worries.
Sea creatures, except for yucky bluebottles (these are my one exception - feel free to fear and loathe these creepy stingy things) are mostly harmless creatures doddling along minding their own business.

3. Worship the surf, admire its power and its glory. Well, that's a bit over the top. But it is important to never underestimate the latent force of the ocean.
It's important to be prepared physically and mentally when the conditions are less than ideal. A strong current can sweep swimmers off course. Rough, dumping surf can hinder progress and lead to exhaustion. Swim in the surf as much as you can so as to better understand its quixotic ways.
If it does get rough out there, don't panic. There's always someone - a fellow swimmer or surflifesaver - there to help you out of a tough spot.

4. Commit to a fitness regime and join a swim squad. The squad is on my list of things 'to do' and I feel that not being in one puts me at a disadvantage. A squad is a big commitment, but I'm sure it leads to better results. You'll train with a group of like-minded people, get fit and make new friends.

5. Learn to navigate. An ocean swim follows a set course which is marked out by a number of buoys. The idea is that you swim around or past the buoys to your destination - the beach. However, if the swell is choppy or the buoys are spaced a fair distance apart, they can be hard to find.
But there are ways to ensure that you don't get lost or swim wide of the buoys. If you're a reasonable swimmer you'll probably stay with the pack, which is great because it becomes a game of follow the leader.
But, if you're a bit of a plodder like me, you might lose the pack and find yourself alone.
Before the swim, it is a good idea to study the course so you know exactly where you are expected to swim. You could also look out for landmarks that will help guide you to the buoys. For example, a row of trees might mark the location of the most distant buoy.
I still swim wide and find myself swimming back into the pack, but I think the more swims you do, the better you get.

6. Get the gear. Ocean swimming is a relatively inexpensive pastime compared to most other sports.
Girls need a tough cossie. I've got a one-piece Speedo Endurance that's lasted three seasons and a new Rival - both good quality. Boys need well-fitting (ie: not saggy-bums) budgie smugglers. No more and no less.
Look for a good pair of goggles that won't leak or fog up and try before buying.
When in training, some women and men prefer to wear caps. This is a personal thing.
Fins and kick boards might be useful for training.
For the swim take along bottled water, a sun cream with a strong SPF, a towel, undies (underwear is handy if there's sea lice around. The little buggers tend to cling to cossies and bite, bite, bite where they can).

7. Use This website is the ocean swimmer's bible. It is where I go to find out what's going on in the ocean swimming scene across Australia. Its focus is primarily on NSW, but only because that's where most of the ocean swims are on over the summer months.
However, the site also does a great job covering swims in other states and overseas.
It's also an amazing resource if you're new to the game and seeking advice and information. It has its own blog where members of the ocean swimming community debate a range of issues. Once you're on the email list, you'll receive the latest updates on upcoming swims and more. I am a dedicated fan.

8. Get a support team. It's always nice to have someone to carry your towel and cheer you over the finish line. I recommend you get several non-swimming friends onboard because they're the ones who will stroke your ego with comments such as: "I could never do that. I think it's amazing that you're even out there having a go!"
Milk it for all it's worth.

9. Develop resilience. I just threw that one in because I like the word 'resilience'.

10. If you don't already have one, get a sense of humour and learn to roll with the punches (and kicks).
Ocean swimming should be fun. It's not a race (unless you're a bloody elite swimmer going for the $1000 prize money or the trip to Hawaii).
It's a sure bet that at some point you will be elbowed, runover, kicked and generally jostled. Don't take it personally. Just be thankful you're a part of it.
It's all about getting out there in the elements, feeling completely alive and having a go with a smile on your melon.

*Just recently there have been complaints from some ocean swimmers about those swimmers who use breaststroke when heading around a buoy. As far as I'm concerned it's a whinge about nothing. Go to to check out the debate.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The Big Swim

Totally bloody rooted.

That's how I felt last Sunday as I struggled through the breaking waves at the start of the Big Swim, a 2.7 kilometre trek from Palm beach to Whale beach in Sydney, Australia.

I'll tell you what - I thought about giving up, which I've never done before in an ocean swim. I was buggered, having spent at least 20 minutes being pummelled by dumpers crashing down at 20 second intervals. Each time I emerged from under one wave, another wall of surf dragged me back so I barely made any progress.

A peleton of younger male swimmers (19-29 years) in the 'wave' after my group (the 40-49-year-old women), surged over and past me. I was tempted to grab someone's leg in the hope that the hitched ride would drag me out to the first pink buoy, bobbing about a couple of hundred metres offshore.

I looked back to the shore and saw two purple capped women from my age group. They had given up and returned to the beach. I was tempted to join them.

I really don't know what made me carry on. Maybe it was the thought of my youngest daughter, brother-in-law and two nephews waiting for my triumphant arrival at Whale Beach. Or of the wasted $35 entry fee. Or of the humiliation of having to admit defeat to my smug partner.

Whatever, I kept going and eventually beat the bully surf to get around the first buoy. One small stroke for ageing womankind.

Then I was alone in no-man's land. Deadset, I thought I was the last swimmer. I couldn't see any other arms flailing or colour-coded caps bobbing in the ocean as I swam towards the headland. Oh god, it took forever. I felt lonely. I needed someone to talk to. At this point the ocean was calm. It appeared bottomless and empty - except for me.

Then a surf boat loaded with surflifesavers charged by me and in the distance I spotted a couple more surflifesavers on their boards.

And a pink cap! Hurray! I was plodding along, but the knowledge that there was some other poor sod out there motivated me to pick up my pace. I was not alone!

I got alongside him and waved my arm. "Hi!" I shouted. But the old bastard ignored me. I had wanted to ask him if I could swim beside him but he obviously wasn't interested in a mid-swim conversation (can't blame him, but I do like a chat anywhere, anytime).

I overtook him in an act of retribution (rather than give the rude finger) and continued on my quest. But for what? Last over the finish line?

As I got closer to headland, the ocean became choppy and I swallowed a fair few litres of pure Pacific salt water. I bobbed around like a cork a lot of the time, so anyone observing my movements from one of the luxury homes dotted around the headland may have been confused about my motivation. I was.

After a while I spotted a few more caps - a pink one here, a white one there and another purple cap. I swam towards my purple peer but she was being hauled out of the water by a surflifesaver. I once again considered my options. It would be so nice to get a lift back to shore. The kids would be impressed, but my brother-in-law would be less forgiving.

There was no other option. I had to finish the bloody big swim.

It was a huge relief to get around the headland and to swim by the last three buoys with several other stragglers. Coming into the beach was a lot easier than I thought it would be. The surf seemed to be less ferocious. Maybe this was because I was being pushed to the shore and didn't have to fight against nature but simply move with it.

I walked up the beach to the applause of the few remaining spectators.

I secretly hoped they could see and appreciate the scar on my thigh, a visible reminder of hip replacement surgery. My policy is to use the old war injury to best advantage!

The kids cheered me on and I felt pretty special.

Then my gorgeous 10-year-old nephew piped up with: "The man with one leg beat you!"

Go the one-legged man!