Monday, 29 April 2013

Cronulla Shark Island Swim Challenge 2013: Ms Fivestar takes a trip back to her youth in The Shire

The pond at South Cronulla.

Ms Fivestar used to hyperventilate whenever she returned to her birthplace, The Shire.

But time has healed many wounds and she can now visit the family home (not far from Miranda Fair shopping centre) without experiencing the feeling of dread that used to descend upon her every time she drove across the border - over the Captain Cook Bridge.

The Shire evokes strong emotions in people.  

Those who love The Shire really LOVE it.

It is GOD'S OWN COUNTRY. They live there because it's a great place to bring up kids; it has wonderful beaches and the peaceful Port Hacking estuary with its numerous bays.

It offers the quintessential Aussie lifestyle to those who can afford it.

People move to The Shire to live the dream. It's bursting at the seams with tradies and builders who've "done good". It's suburban and bronzed and blond(e) with lots of filler.

Snags on the barbie. A cold one in one hand and "cardonnay" in the other.

There's nothing wrong with that...  

Then there are those like Ms Fivestar, who choose to move on out. She split as soon as she started earning a wage and vowed never to return. Too much history. 

Call me perverse, but I thought it was appropriate that I do my first ever Cronulla swim around Shark Island and take Ms Fivestar along for the ride.

She was more than happy to drive us to the southern beaches suburb of Cronulla, the location of the Shark Island Swim Challenge 2013.

After we arrived at South Cronulla Beach at 9.45am, Ms Fivestar pointed out one of her teenage drinking haunts, the Cronulla RSL which is up the road from the beach and Cronulla Surf Life Saving Club. In the photo (above) it's the building covered in scaffolding.

From the age of 15 she used a fake licence to get into the "rissole", where her drink of choice was Curacao and lemonade at 40 cents a pop.

I suggest you read Puberty Blues or watch the excellent TV series adapted from that short novel to get the idea.

By the time I registered, the 1km swim that started at 9.30am was almost over. I usually enter both swims but I've been sick with an awful chesty cough for the past two weeks so I decided to give it a miss and conserve my energy for the 2.3km event at 10.30am.

The day was a confection of perfection. A sky so blue you could dive into it, water so clear you could see right to the bottom.

There was no surf to speak of, though, like a fortnight ago at Coogee, the occasional shore dump made an appearance. By the time the main swim got underway, even that had disappeared.

As with Coogee's Wedding Cake Island, Shark Island is not an island but a rocky offshore reef.

Unlike Wedding Cake, Shark is located around the corner from the main beach. You can't see it from the beach but there is a fantastic coastal pedestrian path, The Esplanade, that meanders all the way along (what I guess is) the Port Hacking Estuary 'headland' that separates Cronulla from the National Park. You get a great view of Shark Island along the walk. And there are tiny swimming beaches all the way round to Bass and Flinders Point.

Have a look at the map:

There were 510 participants in the main swim.

Two buoys were set out on the course near the corner of land where we were to turn right.
I couldn't see the rest of the course, but it was well marked with big beach balls also laid out as guides.

From the beach we could see two buoys. The start-line organiser warned us not to swim out to the closer orange buoy but to the yellow buoy, which was just beyond it.

The wave of swimmers before us hadn't listened to his instructions, and most headed for the orange buoy located more to the right of the course. Those swimmers who went to it first then had to veer left and cut across to the yellow buoy. Precious moments lost.

The orange buoy was the one we needed to sight on the way back in.

What's with all the big watches?

The men and women in my 50+ age group started together and, as usual when men and women go in together, it was a melee. Arms and legs floundering all over the place. What can I say about 50+ men? They're as bad as their younger counterparts. You think they'd learn but they bash and thrash and any vestige of etiquette flies out the window as they race against time.

Good grief. Whaddya want? A medal?  

I wasn't feeling the best so it seemed to take forever to get to the first buoy, which had initially looked rather close. Maybe it was a little over 300 metres from the shore? Maybe further.

The water temp was a pleasant 21 degrees (my guess) as I turned right at the first can and followed the other orange caps. For a long while, I felt like we were in the shallows. The ocean floor seemed close - an easy dive down to touch the sand.

This swim was a visual treat. Lots to look at - rocky reefs, swaying reeds (50 shades of green) and schools of tiny fish having their Sunday disrupted by an unruly bunch of eejits out to prove they still had it.

That was the good bit. The bad bit was the argy bargy. And the massive watches some of the blokes wear. During the Coogee swim, one caught me on the arm and I started bleeding.

What's wrong with relying on the electronic timing devices we all wear on our ankles? I would've thought they were accurate 99.9 per cent of the time.

I think it's on par with the cycling craze. Middle-aged male cyclists flaunt their prowess by gearing up in fluoro gear and flash headwear and ride mega-expensive carbon fibre bikes.

In the ocean swimming caper it's harder to show off. An expensive pair of Italian goggles and nice budgy smugglers isn't enough (and you can't wear flashy swimmers because you don't want your mates thinking you're some sort of namby-pamby whoosy boy). That's why the big watch has become popular. It's another way for the male of the species to assert himself. Look at moi. I'm fast. Like really.

Enough rant.

Lots of swimmers seemed to be coming at me on an angle and I got trapped between quite a few males wearing big watches. It doesn't make for a pleasant outing when someone is crawling over the top of you.

Later on Mr Smith of the Smiths of Taree said he was forced to give a 'diagonal swimmer' the elbow. It gave him great pleasure.

The swim back to the finish line was pretty straightforward. Because of a lack of swell, there was no push back in so tired swimmers, like myself, lost momentum.

One of the lovely things about ocean swimming is that anyone can do it. At Cronulla, the oldest competitor was an 85-year-old woman.

Afterwards, Ms Fivestar and I went to a cafe called The Nun's Pool, which has a view of the ocean from the front verandah.

We then walked along The Esplanade and sat down under a shady tree near a beach called The Oaks. This was where Ms Fivestar's family used to come on a Friday night and eat the freshly cooked prawns her dad had bought from the local fish and chip shop.

Growing up in The Shire was a painful experience for Ms Fivestar but she does have some good memories. And time has softened the harder edges of those grainy old memory snaps.

We had a fun day out in Cronulla 2013. And then we left The Shire via The Captain Cook Bridge.

The Oaks.

Shark Island is somewhere to the left, covered by a high tide.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Coogee Island Challenge 2013: the inaugural Cold Water Challenge (which is rather warm)

The ocean is often at its warmest in April so calling this second swim in the Coogee Island Challenge series the "Cold Water Challenge" is a misnomer.

I don't know why I bother getting caught up in semantics; the thing is the conditions on the beach for last Sunday's swim were bloody perfect.

"Bloody Perfect Challenge".

Coogee Surf Life Saving Club usually hosts just the one swim per season, in November. This year, for the first time, the club has introduced another event towards the end of Sydney's carnivale of ocean swimming.

They chose a great day for it.

Cloudless sky, light winds, 21 degrees in the soup and around 28 degrees on da sand.

No surf, except for a shocker of a shore dump. One punter referred to it as a "neck breaker". It gives me a neck ache just thinking about it.

Imagine a massive body of water that, on its arrival on shore, collapses all at once. Immediately, after smashing on to the beach the beast beats a hasty retreat, gouging out a heap of sand as it goes.

It's the opposite of the crystal tubes that form when the waves roll in, in perfect sync, each one furling in on itself in an elegant and gradual fashion. 

Other than the bad-ass dump it was mild conditions though not so glassy further out towards Wedding Cake Island, the famous clump of rocks that sit roughly in the middle of Coogee Bay.

Last year I wrote a spiel on Wedding Cake Island, which can be found here*. It's not really an island - like Gilligan's Island or Treasure Island - but that's what it's called. Misnomers all over the shop. 

On Sunday, Mr Oceanswims approached me (nah, I probably approached him) with his theory on the choppy conditions and uncomfortable swell that often gave swimmers heading out to the island an unpleasant surprise.

He believed the location and configuration of the rocky reef caused the ruckus.

His explanation was far more eloquent than the above. If you visit the oceanswims website and blog, I'm sure he will have a far better explanation of this basic concept.

It's not rocket science. Of course water flowing around a teeny island will be disrupted by its presence.

Swimmers in the 1km swim didn't cop any swell because the course was plotted further in, well away from the island.

I did both the 1km and 2.4km swim. I wasn't going to do the shorter swim if the conditions weren't "noice".

I'd driven to Coogee early. Glorious glorious day. How I love life when the sun shines and it's the school holidays so the roads are empty of cars filled with harassed parents driving their kids to sporting fixtures all over Sydney.

Strolled to the beach with a smile on my face, caught up with some peeps, had a chat and lathered on sunscreen because it was already a scorcher.

I'd never heard of a swim starting earlier than the advertised time but this one began at 9am (it was down for 9.15am). Afterwards I heard a few people complain that their friends had missed the start.

I can empathise, having recently missed the start at Caves Beach (all my own fault). However, it is always a good idea to get down to the beach early so by the time the swim starts you're fully briefed and feeling in control of the situation.

I found the 1km a bolt. I didn't relax at all and felt puffed as I ran up the beach at the end. When I checked my time later it was a respectable 22 minutes and I finished 6th out of 28 in my age and gender group.

Should I mention that 1st, 2nd and 3rd all came in under 20 minutes? But not that much under. It makes me wonder if the course was longer than 1km because the fastest finisher in my age group and gender was 18.06. I expected her to swim faster because she displays piscine-like characteristics.

Since I started competing in two swims per event, I've started 'eating' that gloopy stuff that promises to give you a starburst of energy fuelled by the power of a million suns. I have this delusional belief these packets of caffeinated slime will make me a faster swimmer.

The clockwise course was clearly plotted. A cylindrical green can followed by three pointy cans would guide swimmers out to the island. They would then chuck a right around a red cylindrical can and travel around the back of the island. A right turn around a second red can would direct them from the island towards the shore.

On the way they would pass three more pointy cans before charging through "a gate" formed by two cylindrical cans. A short run up the beach would lead them to a blue pergola and timing pad on the sand.

Simple as.

Mr Oceanswims was right about the chop. There it was, just before the island but it didn't interfere too much with my stroke.

I enjoyed the longer swim more than I thought I would. It's funny though, I didn't see the island at all as I swam around the back. I breathe left, a disadvantage, so made an effort to breathe right. But I couldn't find the bloody thing. I didn't want to stop because all crusty old ocean swimmers know what happens once you stop... yeah, you got it... another old codger cruises by, a winning smile on their mug.

Back on the beach, I was sure I'd gone well in the 2.4km. The slime had done its job.

I had a quick shower and met Mr Mild Mannered and The Lawyer at the Coogee Bay Hotel. We sat in the courtyard that faces the beach, drinking Peroni (them) and Bulmers Cider (me).

The Lawyer beat me soundly in the 1km swim - he made that clear without having to say a word. All guesture - a raised eyebrow, a knowing smile.

Mr MM had opted out of the 1km swim because he can't handle the pressure. It's not because of me (because I am not his equal in the ocean) but I'm sure this loss of confidence has something to do with The Lawyer. That man has perfected the courtroom patter - make 'em feel comfortable before you make 'em squirm.

We didn't then have the 2.4km results.

I arrived home and checked online. I was so disappointed with my time (nup, not mentioning it here). I thought I'd sprinted home, ahead of the pack.

That's it. No more gelatinous gloop. I'm chucking it out. I swear I am.

Next swim will be gloop-free.  

Talking about that next swim, I usually do Mollymook which is on this weekend. But this year I'm having to give it a miss (unless I jump in the car at 6am and drive the three hours down the coast).

The weekend after that (April 28) swimmers are spoilt for choice with swims at Curl Curl, Warriewood and Cronulla. And then it's off to Byron Bay on May 5!

Here's the link to the November swim at Coogee:;postID=2935075405816568596;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=21;src=postname

Here's the low-down on Wedding Cake Island from the 2011 post on the swim:

If you know Coogee, you'll be familiar with Wedding Cake Island; in simple terms it's a big lump of rocks/reef (about 15 metres long and 400 metres wide) that juts out of the ocean about one kilometre from the beach. Check it out at this scuba-diving website:


Sunday, 7 April 2013

Swim for Saxon Ocean Swim - Queenscliff Surf Life Saving Club: dirty water, politics and OH&S

Four surf rescue craft at Queenscliff.
Saxon Bird died at the Australian Surf Life Saving Championships on the Gold Coast in March 2010. During the surf ski leg of the event a stray surf ski hit the 19-year-old. It took rescuers 55 minutes to recover his body in treacherous conditions.

This is the third year of the Swim for Saxon Ocean Swim, which honours the memory of the champion athlete who trained at Queenscliff. 

On the commemorative plaque dedicated to Saxon is a quote from TS Eliot: 

Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

This swim was a first for me. Before today, I'd only ever walked to the far northern end of Manly Beach.  

It's a pretty stretch of sand that ends at a small headland - on the other side is Freshwater.

Manly Lagoon is located a couple of blocks back, next to the golf course. The lagoon isn't usually a problem, except after the rain when runoff flows into the sea at Queenscliff. 

The fund-raising Babe Watch is growing in number.

Sydney has copped a drenching since Wednesday. Today the clouds were still around, bunched like juicy grapes, but the big stretches of blue convinced them to drift out to sea. 

A sign at the ocean pool warned swimmers to avoid taking a dip there for at least 24 hours after the rain. I should have photographed the pool - the water was a yucky green. 

Another sign near the beach had the same message for the ocean. Its advice: wait 24 hours before diving in.

Oh well, not to worry. The organisers weren't. The mild pollution didn't stop them from going ahead with the two swims on offer - 800 metres and 1.5 kilometres. 

Other than murky water, the conditions were benign. The surf was non-existent and the water temperature a warm 23 degrees.  

I'd entered both the swims ($40 for the two), though I wasn't feeling too chipper. Back to my old wine guzzling ways the night before! 

I packed in a high carb energy bar on the drive down to the beach, hoping that would fill the tank with enough fuel for the 800 metre dash. God, I love those bars. They're so junky. This one contained cocoa powder, rice bubbles, brown rice oil and lots of other stuff that, to me, tastes like a compacted bowl of Cocoa Pops. Cocolossal!

Prior to the 800 swim, I noticed some commotion on the sand with a couple of camera crews hovering around. It dawned on me that this is the federal opposition leader's stomping ground. The northern beaches is blue ribbon Liberal territory and Tony Abbott is the hero, the man most likely to become Australia's next prime minister when the nation votes in September. And he's a member of the Queenscliff Surf Life Saving Club. It made good political sense for him to be down on the beach.

In his budgy smugglers.

I would have squatted too. Smart move Tony.

I know I've said it before, but I just love it that our high profile pollies can saunter about in almost the all-together without anyone batting an eyelid. Could you imagine Barack Obama, David Cameron, Francois Hollande or Stephen Harper running around in their swimmers? 

What about Kim Jong Un? I'd like to see the roly-poly dictator with all his milky pale flubber on display. I think it'd soften his image. Add depth. Make the guy more human and cuddly, and less like an overfed nutbag despot with an itchy trigger finger. He might belly flop into the ocean and decide all he wants to do is turn back the boats.That's what a dunkin' in the deep blue does - it gives you a new perspective on life.

Anyway, our "almost" (sorry Julia, but it's pretty much signed and sealed) Supreme Leader is down there on the sand, posing for photos with young children and pretending not to notice the cameras trained on him as he checks his goggles and adjusts his... cap. 

I took a couple of pics. I reckon the old Tone's lost tone (the Abbott has lost abs) and put on a few kilos since I last saw him strutting his stuff in the budgys about two years ago. Take a look at the little handle of chubby love above the hip. And I reckon he's sucking in his tummy. 

That's what time on the campaign trail does to you. Tony's had to throw back one too many schooners and Chiko Rolls to prove he's just an ordinary bloke who'd move to the western suburbs if he didn't have the long commute.

But enough of Tony. He did the 800 metre swim. Dunno if I beat his time. I hope I bloody well did. (He did it in 19.56, which is slow. I did it in 16.43, which is average)

What to say about the 800 metres? Murky warm water. No movement in the ocean, not even a nudge into the shore. 

No fruit or water afterwards.

I bought a red drink and sucked on one of those phlegm-like energy products that promises you an instant buzz.

The 1.5 kilometre swim took ages to start because of the five minute breaks between each wave. 

It was supposed to start at 10, but got underway at 10.15am with the youngest wave heading in first. 

My wave didn't start until 10.45am. 

Every swimmer wore an ankle timer. The organisers could have asked everyone to sign off after the swim to ensure all swimmers completed the course safely, rather than count everyone on the start line. I mean, how do you get an accurate head-count when people are milling around and changing their positions on the start line?

There were heaps of rescue people on the water. And four inflatables.

It was over the top OH&S. Totally unnecessary on a day like today. The worst that could have happened was if one of the swimming tragics (older types) had a little episode.

The second wave sprints to the shallows.

Running through the shallows.

The swim seemed longer than 1.5km but it was just me. Too much red stuff - on the day and the night before.

Because the tide was out, competitors had to run into the water through the shallows. I was mindful of the troughs and worried about twisting my ankle, which slowed me down.

I got out to the first red buoy and lost my way because I didn't have a handle on the location of the next buoy. 

I ended up, along with other swimmers, heading towards the furthest red buoy when I should have been swimming to a closer yellow buoy first. What a pain in the bum.

It was all a bit of a murky blur and the swim back to the beach wasn't helped at all by a total lack of swell. 

I went searching for water and fruit because I was sure the commentator mentioned it was available for free for competitors. But I couldn't find it.

No fruit, no water. 

Rating out of 10: 7.5

Any gripes: No fruit, no water. No nothing*.

Why the late start? And the five-minute wait between each wave wasn't necessary. Nor was the head count, which would've been unreliable anyway. Better to give us a number and call it out. That's a good idea. 

The poor water quality wasn't the fault of the organisers. It was just a shame swimmers had to compete in less than pristine conditions.  

This swim is to honour a beautiful boy who died in tragic circumstances.  I'm aware of that and understand the organisers wanting to get it right. They want everyone to be safe in this swim.

But today the conditions were calm, and at this end of the season the participants are die hards who know what to expect, especially in calm conditions. There's no need to be hypervigilant, unless it gets nasty eg: Freshwater two weeks ago. 

Next week it's the Coogee autumn swim. I've heard the swell is going to be massive by next weekend. Wait and see. 

*Apparently there was fruit and juice - I don't know how I missed it because I wandered around looking for it. My apologies to the organisers for not giving credit where credit is due.

Sausage sambos after but where was the free fruit and water?

Monday, 1 April 2013

Easter Sunday: Bondi Blue Water Challenge 2013

Youngsters head off for the 1km swim
I slept in on Easter Sunday so it was a rush to get out of the house, with my two daughters in tow.

Our last swim together was in 2009 or thereabouts, at Mollymook on the NSW south coast.

Because I'd registered and paid for the Bondi Blue Water Challenge on Saturday there was no getting out of it, even though the day started with an overcast sky and a distinct pre-autumnal chill in the air.

It cost me $65 for the 1km and 2.1km swim, and $40 each for the girls to enter the longer of the two swims. A small bloody fortune for a day out at the beach. The things parents do to keep the family together!

I thought (sort of hoped) I was going to miss the 1km event but we got to the beach in record time, even with the traffic lights working against us all the way up Oxford St.

Down on the beach, the conditions looked good even though the weather didn't.

The complete opposite of Friday's boom-bang surf at Freshwater. Bondi was a bay, with lovely little waves breaking on the shore.

I peeled off my jumper, shivered as the breeze hit my skin, and decided to forgo the warm-up. Brrrrrrrr...

PP and The Hiss were rugged up and quite content to sit the first swim out. We met up with Mr Mild Mannered, who accompanied us to the start line. 

He chose not to do the 1km swim as he wanted to give it his best shot in the longer swim. Same with Mr Smith of the Smiths of Taree and The Masseuse. 

They needed to protect their positions - by maintaining their handicap points - in the top 20 of the Olympus Tough Fine Ocean Swimmers Series (they all made it and are now in the running for the random draws of either a trip to Vanuatu or a trip to Fiji -

They missed out on a beautiful swim. A sigh of pleasure escapes me now as I think about it and struggle to find the words to describe it - without falling into terrible cliches. 

During the swim I watched in fascination as multiple strands of pearls streamed from my mouth and smaller beads up along my pale arms as I coursed through the aquamarine water. I could see the 10 metres down to the ocean floor all of the way. As I swam towards the shore, beneath me the green reeds swooshed back and forward to the rhythm of the breaking waves.

I ran up the beach, feeling rejuvenated. I didn't need to put on a jumper. The swim had warmed me up.

In the longer event, PP and The Hiss started before me.

This became a very different swim to the 1km, mainly because we headed further out, close to Mackenzies Point, and then across the back of the bay before the sprint to the finish line.

You know you're doing a real ocean swim when you can no longer see the bottom. No black line to guide you. No idea what lies beneath.

By the time we got to Mackenzies Point and chucked a left around one of only four buoys (from my bad memory), the sun was poking through the clouds. Its rays penetrated the water's surface to form shafts of ethereal light. The ocean floor remained an unreachable mystery.

My left-breathing habit served me well during the swim and provided an excellent view of the Campbell Parade skyline and of the swimmers next to me. It was a nice clean run to the next turning buoy. I turned left close to it and then hit the chop. Where did that come from?

I think it was more noticeable because we had to cut across the bay on the bias, so we were swimming into the head of the chop. Does that make sense?

Anyway, I swallowed lots of salty water on the way to the final bouy that set me on a straight path to the blue inflatable finish pergola thingy.

Maybe I should have moved more to the left of it because I'm sure I got caught in a rip on the way in. I seemed to be swimming against the current - and not getting anywhere.

It took a lot of effort to break free but I managed to hitch on to a small wave that launched me on to the beach like a flapping fish out of water.

The Hiss and PP were there to greet me after I picked up an apple and a bottle of water*.

PP was surprised to learn she came third in her age group F19-24 as there were only four swimmers in that category!

It meant that we hung around for the presentation, which was efficiently delivered. PP picked up a Bondi singlet and The Hiss caught a Bondi cap that was thrown into the audience.

One of the nice things about the presentation is the free food provided by the Bondi Surf Life Saving Club. We stuffed ourselves with mini-pies, sausage rolls and chicken and lamb kebabs.

How good is that? No other club does it - the one that comes closest is Mona Vale, which provides a fantastic steaming hot minestrone after its winter swim.

April is jam packed with swims and then there's the wonderful Byron Bay swim in May - a wonderful way to end an interesting season.

The Hiss and PP together at Bondi.

*Bottled water is a no no. All ocean swims should hand out water in paper cups.

PS: The natural order was restored yesterday when Mr Mild Mannered finished ahead of me in the 2.1km swim.

PPS: But I beat The Hiss! She wasn't impressed.