Noice day for a swim.
The back reach en route from South Curl Curl to Freshwater was a long, hard slog, particularly for fat, bald gits who’ve done just one squad in the past month. It was into the swell all the way from Curly to Freshie, which we renamed Brackie after tasting the stormwater runoff emitting from the northern end of the target beach. At least it told us that we were drawing close to the finish line. All trying issues have a positive, don’t they.
The positive about the long, hard slog is that it gave us time to think, and to work on our stroke. Drifting into semi-consciousness about the position of the navy blue booee, which we couldn’t see, just like its predecessor, the British racing green booee, we drifted back to our yoof…
As yoof, we rowed surfboats in between stints at the pub. We’d done so whilst at school at Caves Beach, and we uptook it again when we moved to Sydney, after leaving school. The good thing about switching clubs is that it opens one to new practices and views on things; to new ideas. Hanging out with boaties, most of these new ideas were about what beer brands were preferable, and how many one could drink in a session. (One of our crew colleagues was the first person we knew to be breathalysed one morning on the way to work, to find he was only just below the limit, after the previous night’s session on the turps. This is called culcha.) We liked to think that we broke out of this stream, sometimes, in our inner monologue.
Back on ideas, up in Newcastle, for example, boat crews at our surf club had become known for their high stroke rating sustained throughout the duration of a boat race. (Our 2nd For’ard at Bronte, Tommy Teacup, used to call long boat races, “Egyptian races”, because they were “a fair row”. This, too, is called “culcha”. We won’t go on to tell you some of the other things that Tommy Teacup used to say, but some of them were educational.) At Caves, a training session would include a row, usually in Swansea Channel, then a half a dozen laps around the local football field, then an exercise routine to a tape supervised by our trainer. (One of our crew fell into the habit of ducking into the public loo by the football field during the first lap, then re-emerging during the last.)
In Sydney, at Bronte, under the tutelage of a sweep called Alec the Crab – still one of our favourite people, which is another story, also falling under the “Culcha” heading -- we learnt other things, such as about adjusting your stroke to the conditions prevailing. Indeed, Alec the Crab had us jumping into the boat, rowing like crazy at about twice our normal stroke rate until we got through the break, then settling into a longer, slower stroke that gave the boat run into the swell and the chop. It was a brilliant start; usually, it had us in front through the break. Unless we followed the old maxim, “First out, first under” (a wave), which meant we’d be last back to the beach. But Alex’s sessions were mind-expanding, both sportingly and, in Alec's own, idiosyncratic style, in a Tommy Teacup kind of way.
Glistening Dave was at South Curl Curl
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One day, on a return visit to Newcastle, we took the junior boat crew of our younger cousin, Barney, also then rowing with Caves, for a warm-up row at a surf carnival. Barney’s crew had been experiencing difficulties in dealing with the surf, which was a strange thing given that their surf club, our alma mater, was renowned for the quality of its boat sweeps and its training. Sometimes, however, crews would fall through the cracks when the focus was on the higher ranking crews. The back-up outfits would get only short, dismissive rows: lip-service training. On that row, we told Barney’s crew about the technique that our Bronte crew used when heading into a sharp chop: it was about emphasising the finish of the stroke, pausing whilst back and allowing the boat to run through the chop more smoothly: you finish with a flourish, then pause to allow the boat to run. The more traditional technique in those days, particularly at Caves, was to recover immediately, which sometimes had the effect of countering the momentum of the run. Think about it: surfboats are long, skinny vessels, and they can cut through the sea quite sharply. They’re quite tippy, because of the long, skinny shape, and they’re vulnerable to hits from abeam, such as from backwash and chop. A surfboat heading straight into a chop needs to run assertively, and the longer, slower, flourishing stroke would support that. With the shorter, sharper stroke, when the crew recovers quickly from the end of a stroke, they all rush on their bottoms, their cossies wedged up their cracks, over the slippery seat towards the back of the boat, the blunt end, ready to catch the next stroke. You could see how it could disrupt the boat’s flow. If often left the boat floundering, the momentum dissipating as the bow hit a new chop and stopped it dead.
Anyway, we told Barney’s young crew about this longer, slower, more powerful technique, and we got them to try it. Very quickly, they had the boat running through the chop better than they ever had before. They seemed pleased, possibly because no-one else had ever really taken the time before. We hoped we’d helped. Although the next person to sweep them in a race may well have told them something completely different and they may never have managed to try their new technique in race conditions.
We weren’t alone, no doubt, but it worked for us at Bronte, and the better run we got through the chop, particularly the short, sharp chop, was remarkable. If you think about the chop, every time a boat hits chop, it tends to stop, so each new stroke is like the first stroke from a stoppage: it’s always a hard one, because you have to pull against the water and the waves to get the boat moving. With our longer, slower stroke, emphasising the finish, allowing the boat to run, it has greater opportunity to keep moving before the next stroke kicks in. The new stroke benefited from the momentum, so it wasn’t like starting from a stoppage, rather augmenting the momentum already there. And how much more energy did it take us to keep restarting a boat which had suddenly, in effect, stopped, than in simply augmenting momentum already there.
The same applies to swimming through chop: the best way through is with maximum streamline and constant momentum, minimising the "walls" that the body puts up to the oncoming surges through asymmetrical technique. It applied to us swimming east-of-sarf from Curl Curl to Brackie. We measured the entire course at c. 2.34km on Google Earth, which confirms our impression that it was the longest 2km we’d ever done. The back reach from the turning booee behind the break at Curly to the booee off the northern point at Brackie was just on 1km, so we had plenty of time to think.
That reach was pretty much straight into the swell. Prior to the swim, the South Curly awgie, Bryn Russell, who’d swum the course beforehand - as he usually does, to see what it’s like - told us that, whilst swimming north-sarf put you into a half-knot current, it still was more comfortable than swimming sarf-north because, he reckoned, of the direction of the backwash from the Curly cliffs.
Every which way.
This confirms our view, refined during the 1,000-stroke slog along that reach, that whilst we were indeed into the swell, it was not an uncomfortable swim. The reason is that we were straight into it; the swell was straight into our shiny domes, so we were, like the surfboat, hitting the swell with our sharp bits, not side on or abeam. Resistance was easier. There was not much side chop, either: the swell was running into the Curly cliffs on an angle from the sarf, so it bounced back out towards the nor’-east or it slipped along to the north, not so much bouncing as glancing off the Curly cliffs. In any case, it wasn’t into our faces and the backwash wasn’t too disruptive to our stroke.
We thought of cousin Barney and his boat crew. Straight into a swell like that, the best approach is to lengthen the stroke and finish off with a bit of a flourish, to give the body run, as far as bodies can, through the swell. We had 1km to practise it so by the end we should have been quite good.
The other notable aspect of this swim was breathing. Normally, when a breeze is blowing onshore and you’re swimming into a swell, you’d expect that breathing away from the swell would be easier, more comfortable, than breathing towards it. From Curly to Freshwater, the easier side should have been breathing right, towards the cliffs, because it was “away” from the swell. But we found the easier side to be breathing left, towards the Galapagos Islands. We reckon this was because what backwash there was interfered with right-breathers, but there was no backwash or side-chop to interfere on the left. Those long reaches are useful for throwing up these insights.
The key insight, of course, as we’ve said so often before, is the value of being able to breathe both sides – bilaterally – so your breathing can adapt to conditions. Even if you still breathe two-stroke – ie, same side, every stroke – it’s better to be able to breathe one side, either side than to be left with no options. We received a Twitter message from one punter just today, which said, “… I have breathed left for 30 years which in 90pc of swims robs me of the view...” Quite. Right-breathers get far less out of the Stanwell Park swim, under the Illawarra Escarpment, than do left-breathers. And there is nothing wrong with 2-stroke breathing. Two-stroke breathers should not be ashamed, as three-strokers or even four-stroke breathers slip by. Our old coach at Sutho, Coach Sandra, told us you breathe to get the air you need. Some people need two-stroke breathing to suck it in; some can get by on three or four. Towards the end of a long swim, particularly, we usually find ourselves doing four or even six-stroke breathing. This is especially the case around the islands in Fiji's Yasawas: there's so much to look at, you don't want to miss any of it by turning your head away.
The painted ocean.
You can see why, when the Finish crew returned to South Curl Curl post-swim, they mucked up the results because one page of results became stuck to another page. They found them eventually. Cunning blighters, wet pages.
Bilateral breathing is one of the great skills which is particularly useful in ocean swimming. In the ocean is not the same as in the pool, where it doesn’t really matter which side you breathe, or whether you breathe one side or both. The priority in the pool is comfort through being able to suck in sufficient air. If you breathe only one side in the sea, and that’s the side that’s being hit by chop every time you open your gob for a breath, then you’re not going to be comfortable, and you're going to swallow sea water.
We were a one-sided right breather all our lives until, in our mid-40s, we taught ourselves to breathe left, as well.
There are many other benefits from bilateral breathing: it also evens up your muscle usage, your body movement and your stroke, so you’re less likely to veer off one way or the other if you’re breathing alternately right and left. It took a while to learn how to breathe on the unnatural side, before it became comfortable, but now that we can, we’re so glad. We get to see the view in whatever swim we do, and we get to breathe away from the chop.
We’ve discussed this with many punters, including several after Sundee’s swim. Their view generally is that they’ve breathed one side all their lives and they’re too old to change. No, they’re not. It just takes a bit of application and perseverance, something that older, more mature punters are supposed to have in spades over the urchins.
The other great advantage of bilateral breathing is that it helps to even up your stroke. If you breathe one side only, your stroke will by asymmetrical and your body will move unevenly. Thus, it’s harder to keep a direction, your body creates walls of resistance to the water, and you’ll be more prone to injury and body distortion.
Have a look at rank-and-file monolateral breathers at the pool next time you’re there: have a look at how different their stroke is on the breathing side to that on the non-breathing side (when we taught little kiddies to swim, it was called "bubble arm, breathing arm", ie one stroke was the stroke when you breathed out under water – blowing bubbles -- while the other stroke was the stroke when you breathed air in). Remember the times when you were hit by some codger at the pool with a wildly swinging right arm, but a neater left arm: chances are, the codger was breathing left, and bubbling right. How can you swim properly with a stroke so uneven? Or even comfortably?
The walk home.
Even when breathing bilaterally, your stroke will be different according to which way you’re breathing. Our right arm is different when we’re breathing right than when we’re breathing left. Ditto our left arm: when we’re breathing left, we gaze in awe at the perfect arc described by our left arm as it recovers, and the glorious “S” it describes when we pull through. But when we breathe right, our left arm is a Scud missile. We’ve taken out scores of punters at pools around the world, one of them a judge of the NSW Supreme Court, when he wasn't on the bench.
Some coaches don’t get this. They’ll look at one arm or a couple of strokes and make a judgement about you.
When we first attended the Byron swim, we sat in the pub with a bunch of like-minded punters on the Sat’dee afternoon and talked stroke. After about three hours, one of the punters, who was new to swimming, asked out loud, “Do you lot talk about anything other than swimming?” And we thought, “Well, no”.
It's a fascinating thing, stroke.
Mind you, later in the day after the Curly-Brackie swim, we had a long conversation with a Russian about Ukraine. Now, that was truly fascinating. Did you know…
But just back on Curly-Brackie: have you noticed, too, that on the days with the worst weather, the water tends to be at its best? At Curly, the water was warm and clear, and benign. No sign of stingers usually at this time of year. It just became a bit brackish as we neared Freshie. But it continued that glorious spell of water that we've had around these parts for a month or so now. It underlines what we've said for years: autumn is the best time of year to swim.
Footnote: Walking past the storm-water outlets at the northern end of Freshwater beach, you could see why the sea was brackish: two great big pipes spewing out stormwater from the catchment. They had grates over their ends, and it struck us that those grates were great for stopping bodies and branches, but not much use in blocking used band-aids, syringes, cigarette butts – smokers are the world’s worst litterers -- stained cotton buds, leaves, twigs, empty Coke, Pepsi and Red Bull cans, and McDonald’s cartons. Some councils apply a mesh over the end of their stormwater drains, which filters out more of the muck. Not at Freshie, however.
The streets of Curl Curl.
Angela van Boxtel was at Curl Curl... Click here
For results... Click here
Marc Westius, our co-collector of unwanted swim caps, tells us we received over 600 from South Curly yesterday. Imagine how many we'd have collected had Coogee gone ahead! Our staff propellor-head, Colin Reyburn, donated 210 alone. We'll do more with this initiative... Watch this space. Or somewhere on this website, anyway... Read more