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coogee island challenge 2014 04

Lost at sea like Fred McMurray

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Not sure where this is going, but anyway…

We remember a movie from when we were kids, about a family who went on holidays somewhere on the coast of the United States of ‘mer’ca. The father was Fred McMurray, and there were several kids, boys and girls. Apart from that, and one or two other vignettes, all we remember of this movie is that Fred took the kids out sailing one day, and whilst they were out, the fog rolled in. From a gloriously clear, sunny summer’s day, suddenly they were enveloped in a grey mist so thick that they could not tell which way was what. Becalmed, all they could do was sit it out and consider existence.

It was, for a kid already experiencing traumatic doubts about eternity, a frightening sequence that offered no end and no hope.

We recalled this movie whilst bobbing around behind Wedding Cake Island, when the fog rolled in. We’ve experienced little like this in our careers of ocean swimming. About the closest we’ve been to it was during our first Byron Bay swim, in 2003, on a day when an erratic weather pattern saw squalls roll regularly through the Bay, some of them so thick that, like our swimmer-bobbing sea at Coogee, we had no idea which way was which, or which way was up.

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It was the second most disconcerting experience we’ve had in ocean swimming. In the middle of the swim, as we thrashed around somewhere off Clarkes Beach, a squall came through and, for a minute or two, it obliterated our view of the beach entirely, so thick and so driving that we really couldn’t tell which way was shore and which way was the ocean; which way was up or down. The wind drove the thick rain into our faces and, but for our gogs, we couldn’t have looked into it. Even with the gogs, we turned towards the rain but discerned nothing. One swimmer told us how, when the squall cleared – it lasted just a few minutes, then it was gone, as abruptly as it had arriven – he found laydee swimmers clinging to him. So he said. Another said he turned instinctively towards the beach, but when it cleared he found he was swimming to sea.

The squalls rolled through Byron Bay the rest of the day, which most of us – it seemed most of us – spent in the pub. Parenthetically, it was a bit different then from these days, when you could shoot a scatter gun around the Beach Hotel beer garden after the swim, it seems, and not hit a soul. The day at Byron in 2003 was alternately gloriously sunny with a gentle breeze, then thrashing grey with driving rain and a howling wind that ripped leaves from trees and swirled them around the beer garden like hula hoops around your schooner glass. As the squalls rolled through, and the shouts circled the bar, the stories from different swimmers grew competitvely more fearful about their experience in the squall at sea. “I be thar, alone in the thrashing sea, the fins circlin’ an’ the rain lashin’ the skin fum ma face…”


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I know Coogee was here a moment ago... Is it down there?

Out behind Wedding Cake Island, the experience was different. The fog wafted in gently from the north, almost breathless, lilting and cloaking us in a clammy blanket. It wasn’t so thick that it obscured the land completely, but it rendered Sydney’s eastern suburbs as a fuzzy outline. Wasn’t this like a scene from Jaws? Isn’t calm, grey, foggy weather supposedly the perfect weather for attacks by great white sharks, albeit mechanised? Over the previous few days, the news meeja had been full of stories about packs of great whites invading Bondi, just a couple of beaches to the north of Coogee. We’re sure we weren’t the only swimmers into whose ears the whispering fog subtly dropped suggestions of doom like gentle drops of glutinous fluid. “Shark… (siggghhh)…”

One way to describe it is “surreal”, but that’s a vastly clichéd term plucked from sweat-stained thesauri all too readily these days by zealous hacks seeking an emotive adjective to sex up an otherwise pedestrian story.

The other movie that came to mind, bobbing around out behind Wedding Cake, was Brigadoon, the 1954 fable in which Gene Kelly and Van Johnson stumble upon a magical village that appears only once per century. Ignorant of its ephemerality, Gene falls in love with Cyd Charisse, or perhaps with her legs, and is devastated when he goes back the next day to find Brigadoon ain’t there any more. The village wafted in and out of the mist; now you see it, now you don’t; in and out of their consciousness. Gene will have to wait another century to pursue his love interest. That’s a lot of barre work in the meantime.

Much like Wylies Baths on swim day, which wasn’t there, then suddenly it was, emerging from the mist like an antipodean Brigadoon. Definitely antipodean, the boardwalk above the pool and the concrete pool deck were crammed with revelers at the centennial Brigadoon fete. Or perhaps they were having a swimming carnival at Wylies whilst we circumnavigated the island with Van and Gene. (Cyd was up there on the boardwalk, just out of reach.) We know they were having races at Wylies because we’d been told so by our favourite brewer, Chuck Hahn, a Coogee resident, who’d been to Wylies earlier in the morning for a timed 400m with the Wylies swim club before wandering on to Coogee to circumnavigate Wedding Cake.

It was a different experience to most Sydney swims, but it shows how you can do a swim that you’ve done many times before, but each time, it’s different.

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Gene Kelly searches for Cyd Charisse. Only one of them is real.

Briefly, on a couple of other issues…

Coogee’s water safety staff was plentiful and diligent, perhaps a little too diligent at times. We found ourselves shadowed by rescue malibus a few times, their paddlers apparently pushing us back into their preferred corridor, although we weren’t appreciably off course anyway. At one point, we rolled to breathe left, to find ourselves staring at the propeller of a rubber ducky just a metre from our face.

We reckon the general rule of swim water safety should be that the malibu staff stick closer to the peloton, but the duckies sit apart, approaching the paying punters only when they’re needed. Duckies should not come into contact with swimmers, or even particularly near them, unless they’re pulling someone out of the water. Quite apart from the risk of gratuitous contact, duckies stink, and the last thing swimmers need is two-stroke or four-stroke fumes sucked deeply into their lungs. Duckies zipping around swim courses are recipes for disaster.

According to anecdotes from swimmers, the times for later age groups in the 2.4km swim may be unreliable. As the 50-plus waves prepared to leave the beach, the last wave was laydees and boofheads combined. But then the starters separated them. However, some 50-plus laydees, who should have separated, didn’t and went off with the boofheads, three minutes before the bulk of the laydees. How often do you find starters, not just at Coogee, combining and/or separating waves towards the end of a swim, ad hoc? They’re especially fond of combining the last waves in a swim, generally the old farts and the buzzards. Maybe they’re bored by then and just want to get it over with. Anyway, some of the times may be unreliable.

Remember, Coogee runs this swim again in April, in autumn, which is approaching the best time of year to circumnavigate Wedding Cake Island. Some of the nicest informal swims we’ve done have been on, cloudless, sunny winter Sundee mornings, with gentle offshore breezes flattening an already gentle swell. And with no bouees out, we can swim around the island so close we can touch it.

The island is surrounded by a very beautiful bottom of smoothly, rounded marble boulders, of sporadic ancillary reef and wafting weed. That means lots of sea life. You miss most of that in the formal swims, because the bouees are set to keep us safe, away from the rocks.

A bonus for some was that on one late winter’s Sundee a year or two back, we got back to the beach to find the Sydney Swans had dumped their bags around ours and were milling ready for their “recovery” pic-fac. Some of the laydees were very excited.

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Look, it's none of our business, but this arm is heading for shoulder damage. And both arms were like it. Probably a gun swimmer, much quicker than us. So what would we know. But there you go.

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Green-capped monster

I enjoyed the Coogee swim as I do all ocean swims. In a swim of so many people and larger waves you expect as it can't be helped the accidental knocks here and there, and also an increase of those that like to touch others feet.
As you catch the slower swimmers in the earlier waves, know that they just may pull up, stop or breaststroke kick etc. It is all part of an ocean swim.

Anyway, I just thought that I'd mention a swimmer who with intention ploughs over the top of other swimmers. The swimmer was in the bright green capped wave. He is a very strong fast swimmer and caught and swam almost over me (orange cap laydees 45-49) just as I approached the wedding cake. He was the first green capped swimmer that I saw so perhaps he finished a leader or placing in that age group. He was wearing black jammers (must be the fina approved type) and had a strong looking build and a tooheys layer belly. I guess the jammers being worn in an ocean swim says something. Also the green cap age group means there has been time to learn consideration for others.

Just saying there was plenty of room for the green capped swimmer to pass safely without the need to turn into a waterpolo bully or professional iron man. I wonder what could happen if the faster stronger swimmers like the green capped man in jammers lack appreciation mindfullness of the safety for lesser abled and experienced swimmers.

Thankfully this man's intentional tactics is a minority in ocean swimming. Maybe next time the serious green capped man with ability but no regard for others should step up and start in the elite wave so that others don't get in his way of his personal best time.


Agree on duckies

Agree that Coogee was a great swim with the fog.

I really appreciate the help the lifesavers give on the swims, but agree with your comment on the duckies – I nearly ran into one out on the ocean side of the island.

See you at the beach (or at Cockatoo!)


Water safety defence, and weed out incompetent swimmers

I was part of the IRB water safety team at Coogee, water safety is a complex and difficult task to manage. With over 1000 people in the water it is impossible to remain at a safe distance all of the time. For those who are experienced lifesavers you would appreciate when someone is in trouble things go bad very very quickly. It can often be a matter of seconds before the person goes under. Sometime times rescue craft have to get close to swimmers to perform an urgent rescue, with hundreds of swimmers around the patient it is impossible not to come close to swimmers. Once a swimmer goes under amongst a sea of bodies it is almost impossible to locating the patient in time.

I have competed in ocean swims and appreciate the swimmers perspective as I too dislike the smell of two-stroke fuel when I'm gasping for air. But I know the IRB is close for a reason and that is because someone else is in trouble.

I would also like to add a concern from the other side of the fence and that is people entering events clearly well above their swimming ability. What checks are in place to ensure swimmers are well prepared or suited for swimming events like the 2.4km Coogee swim? Its was clear that a lot of swimmers lacked the skill and fitness to be competing in such a race. People were being rescued at the first marker, this suggests to me a lack of appropriate screening of entrants which places people at extreme risk. To say it is the individuals responsibility to assess their own level of ability/fitness is not an appropriate method of risk management. With ocean swims increasing in popularity, it is only a matter of time before we see a major disaster and or drowning due to someone entering when they shouldn't have.

I believe these discussions are vital in moving this awesome sport forward into the future in a sustainable and manageable way.

Anthony Taylor

Qualify for longer swims

I have been ocean swimming since 1997, probably done 80-90 swims and Coogee is always a tough swim to start the season. You can train in the pool as much as want but you won’t reproduce the ocean swim conditions. My advice before you attempt an ocean swim is that you need to be able to swim 50% further in the pool than the ocean swim particularly the popular 2K + swims.

Can you swim 3k in pool without stopping? Training should be at least 10k per week with minimum session times of 1 hour.

The event numbers have probably doubled since 1997 and will probably continue increasing resulting in water safety becoming a major issue . Inexperienced swimmers in a large ocean swell is a real worry.

Perhaps newcomers should have to finish 3 x 1K swim events before they qualify for the longer swims.

At Coogee, I thought that the swim was made very tough with swimmers packed together, particularly my wave M50-59/M60+. I feel that a wave number of 150 is the maximum that should go out particularly if it is 3 minutes behind a similar size 150+ wave.

I can remember when with smaller numbers the waves at Coogee went every 5 minutes. I must admit that I was never a fan of that,   one year I was suffering with heat exhaustion before M50+ went in.  

I appreciate that it is not easy to organise but perhaps more age groups to suit entry numbers would help.

Alternatively as Tamarama , swimmers go out in time graded groups is worth considering .

Without doubt, females should go in a separate wave , perhaps 1 minute behind the males.

Mike Ayres

Apology to Kylee

Kylee, I am so sorry that you got “ploughed” over during the swim. As the guy who won the Green Cap division, all I can do apologise on behalf all  the green cappers.

Most of the top the swimmers in that division, come from a surf lifesaving background (except for myself). We are all aware of the dangers of overtaking people, we do discuss it and we all try not to kick if we pass close to any swimmers. Sometimes people change course abruptly in front of you and it’s hard to miss them.

I doubt it was intentional.

Slim Tim (Collins)

PS I was not leading as we approached Wedding Cake Island and only weigh 72kg

Not Tim

So slim Tim, it possibly wasn't you. I found the green brigade tricky also, but from another perspective. As an old ladyee who did go off in correct last wave, wearing white cap, I had the task of trying to weed my way through green caps swimming together. Why is it so that when a bloke sees a ladyee trying to pass you get pumped, start slapping the water and kicking madly? I finished with a bruised and cut hand from such an encounter.

Obviously these green caps were not the leaders but the mugs trying to prove a point. Hasn't anyone explained that all that extra aggro, actually slows you down. Go with the flow like the white cap blokes. You will be one soon.

Judy Playfair

C'est moi

To Kylee,

Just in reply to your Green capped Monster piece, I led the Green caps all the way to the last buoy with Tim glued on my feet. If there was 2 green caps guys that bumped you then I was the 1st one and I apologise. If it was just one then it may have been the next guy in line a little way back. I don't think I have a beer gut.

To say that is was intentional is a bit silly. I would never do that. With over 1000 people in the water and starting at the back we must have passed 500 of them. Tim passed 501. It was chaotic. There was the odd bump along the way. Spaces are there then swimmers veer in and out. You can't look ahead every single breath. If I do happen to contact with someone I pull my arms directly over my head to streamline for a few strokes.

Gary Reed

Frikkin awesome, too

The first 6 paragraphs of that story and the “where is Coogee” caption are the bomb (that means “really good”, I believe). Laughed my head off. Made my day. And the swim was frikkin awesome too.

Big shout to the water safety who were great especially Tom.


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