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The pageantry of Bondi.

Nobbys-Newcastle Swim
Bondi Bluewater Challenge

Don't mention the S-word

Glistening Dave was at Bondi...

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Prior to the Nobbys-Newcastle swim, we socialised with cobbers on the grass in front of Nobbys surf clubhouse. Chat turned very quickly to the subject de jour amongst Novacastellians these days, which is “sea life”. As we chatted, we peered between the heads on the other side of the circle, out behind the break past the first turning booee of this swim, and we thought we saw – we kid you not – a fin slicing through the water. We looked away. We shook our head a bit, because sometimes this improves our eyesight, even if all it does it adjust our multi-focals, and we looked out to that same spot. And there it was again, definitely, a fin slicing through the water, just between the two breaks on the reef on which, a couple of years ago, when Joe Tripodi was NSW Minister for Ports, the Pasha Bulker ran aground during a violent storm.

We looked away again, doubting our judgment. Then we looked back again. And there it was again. We interrupted the chatter and we pointed out to sea, between Craig and a chap whose name we don’t know, and we said, “Look, there’s a fin out there now…”

The circle laughed knowingly. They thought it was a joke, albeit an obvious one. We’re a dad, after all.

“Yes, yes,” they said, almost in unison. “We know.”

But one of them added, “There’s a pod of dolphins out there.” And as we looked, surely, the fin was appearing, disappearing, appearing, disappearing, like a friend of ours named Piers, who was sent overseas once, many years ago, so they dubbed him “Disappiers”. And when he came back, they changed it to “Reappiers”. That’s what dolphins do, like Piers. They appear, they disappear, then they reappear, in that order.

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The break at Nobbys is interesting: lots of reef and different breaks, with currents swirling around them. Little wonder the Pasher Bulker couldn't handle it.

We all like dolphins. We much prefer them to other “sea life” that has been causing a stir in Newcastle over the past two months.

As she gave her preliminary briefing on the beach, the awgie of the Nobbys-Newcastle swim, Lee Howes, sought to assure punters that she and the water safety crew had been over the course that morning, “to make sure there’s nothing there that makes some people jump out of the water”.

She said: “We mustn’t mention the S-word”.

In Newcastle these days, they don’t mention the S-word, although it features prominently in most punters’ psyches.

In Newcastle, too, because of the S-word, they didn’t want Lee Howes to run this swim. We’re told that she came under considerable pressure from all sorts of “authorities” to can it, including Hunter Surf Life Saving, the professional lifeguards, who represent Newcastle City Council, and many others. But she went ahead because she wanted the swim to happen, she didn’t want it to fall over and, we guess, because she, like many who have some experience putting themselves out there in the ocean, have a different perspective on the S-word issue than those who don’t.

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Off to meet Bruce.

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How not to look after your marker booees.

Newcastle has been all a-twitter over January and February over “Bruce”, supposedly a ginormous Great White S-word who was spotted several times off Newcastle City beaches. As a result, beaches were closed for nine days straight, but the hysteria continues.

Last Fridee, the day before the Nobbys-Newcastle swim, there was an unconfirmed report of a shark sighted in the break at Burwood Beach, just to the south of Merewether. Fancy that, S-words in the ocean.

Indeed, “scientists” have known for yonks that Stockton Bight and the bight north of Port Stephens, running from Hawks Nest up to Seal Rocks, are Great White S-word nurseries. Indeed, a swim awgie cobber from Sydney told us once that, when he had his family at Hawks Nest on holidays, he used to stand on the deck of the Hawks Nest surf club, watching the fins slicing up and down behind the break. Yet, apart from an incident involving a surfer on the inside of the northern headland at Port Stephens – so it may have been a Bull, not a Great White S-word -- there’s never been anything nasty happen to swimmers at Hawks Nest that can be blamed on an S-word, of which we’re aware.

As little children, we used to swim regularly in the brown, river-influenced surf of Stockton, which you’d expect normally to be a haven for Bull S-words, too, yet nothing ever happened to us, or to anyone else.

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Lee Howes, our pick for Awgie of the Year.

Now, we’re not “scientists” so all we can go on is hearsay and personal experience, but it seemed to us – and it still does – that all this consternation about “Bruce” is a meeja frenzy, with politicians and “authorities”, as Elmer Fudd used to call them, over-reacting in response. Granted, there is the issue of “risk management”, by which these “authorities” over-react because they perceive them as threats to their insurance coverage. This is what we reckon has happened in Newcastle.

The awgies of the Newcastle Harbour Swim Classic, Stockton SLSC, called off their swim in the harbour a couple of weeks before it’s Stra’a Day date. Just last week, the awgies of the Across the Lake Swim in Lake Macquarie, Swansea-Belmont SLSC, called off their swim, which wasn’t scheduled until March 21, for the same reason, citing “the activity of marine life” in the lake and advice from marine authorities. Across the Lake is, to our knowledge, the second longest-running swim in Stra’a, after Magnetic Island, off Townsville, so this decision is quite something. This year would have been the swim’s 56th outing, but that won’t now be until 2016, other things equal.

So, Lee Howes was under considerable pressure, we understand, not to proceed with the Nobbys-Newcastle swim, which would have been the first significant water event in the Hunter since “Bruce” began to appear.

Lee took the view, she told us, that if the beach is open – and it is, these days – then the “authorities” cannot stop her running her swim.

“We have to be really careful about dotting all the is and crossing all the ts,” she told us. “But if the beach is open, then they can’t stop us.”

That said, had Lee been a cabinet minister, Sir Humphrey would have described her decision as “courageous”.

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Meanwhile, at Bondi.

This is why she was so effusive at the pre-race briefings and at the presentation in thanking punters for turning up, for a swim isn’t quite the same without swimmers. She also had eight rubber duckies patrolling the course, a jetski, and lots of lifesavers on rescue mals. She went over the course beforehand in a duck. And before anyone was allowed to start, the timers counted the punters so they could match those who enter the water with those who come out. This is standard procedure at some swims, although it can become a little anal. Most swims don’t do it, and some swims have no real idea of how many punters they have in the water.

(This is one of the beefs we have with Fairfax Meeja and the Cole Classic: by distributing timing chips before race day, and even with sensor mats at the start, they still cannot know for sure how many turn up on the day and enter the water. You can’t be certain under any circumstances, even with sensor mats, but if you require swimmers to check in on race day, you have greater certainty about whom to look for.)

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The count out.

We had a couple of particular reasons for doing the Nobbys-Newcastle swim. It’s a spectacular course, over swirling reefs and multiple breaks, following the rockshelf around the promontory that is Newcastle East, past the Newcastle Ocean Baths and in to Newcastle Beach, which nestles in the shadow of high rise apartment buildings.

We did this swim last season, when it was one of the most difficult swims we’ve ever done. The entire course, until you arrived off Newcastle Beach, was into a heavy, sharp chop, and each time you hit a chop, you seemed to stop. Our arms were leaden that day, my friends, and we felt at the end as if we’d been defeated in battle.

It also has sentimental meaning for us, skirting the rockshelf between Nobbys and Newcastle. We spent much time here as cute little children. We learnt to swim in Newcastle Ocean Baths, you see, and we swam each Sat’dee for years with the NPBASC, which rolls off the tongue in our inner monologue. It stands for Newcastle Police Boys Amateur Swimming Club. We had a black and white tracksuit jacket with NPBASC arranged across the back in an arc, and on the front, we had our name, arranged in similar, shiny, why vinyl lettering, sloping down over our left breast: “os.c”. We were champeens of D2 grade! And in breaststroke, we made C grade! That’s what made us what we are today. Doing this swim allows us to step back in time, to our innocent youths.

Our old man, Rotten ol’ Herbie, spent quite a bit of time in Royal Newcastle Hospital from about the time we were 3 through until we were 12, so we spent a lot of time in that towering hulk of a building behind Newcastle Beach, now replaced by fancy apartments. We know the area intimately. It means much to us.

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Let us just say that this swim, this season, was a beautiful swim. The water was a little murky due to swell in previous days, but it was warm and smooth in a very light breeze. In contrast with the sou’-east chop into which we swam the prior season, the swell was behind us this time, so it pushed us along, particularly after we headed in towards the beach after rounding the Ocean Baths. The view of the baths from the sea, then of the Newcastle city skyline, is spectactular.

The CBD sits on a strip between the harbour leading into the river on one side, and the beach and rockshelf on the other. Is Newcastle the only city in Stra’a where the CBD is on the beach? It truly is stunning.

We all made it into Newcastle, and Lee Howes proved that you can hold a swim in the sea and swimmers won’t, ipso facto, be taken by S-words. She was vindicated. And if we had an award for Awgie of the Year, Lee would win it for the courage she showed in backing her own judgement.

We’d parked at the start at Nobbys, and we walked back there indirectly via the Ocean Baths. We walked past the mothers pool (can’t recall its proper name), from where heavy swell washed us over the edge onto the rocks (in about 1963), where we woke some time later, supine and well-rested. It’s filled with sand now, just as is Newcastle Beach itself: the sand is piled high against the promenade wall, filling the bottom few steps of the wooden stairs, its poles sticking out of the ground like fence posts.

We took the side entrance into the baths, by a row of picnic shelters. Two ne’er-do-wells occupied one, strutting about scruffily flashing their pecs and tats, brandishing large, rolly cigarettes. Thinking foolishly that smoking would be banned in public pools in Newcastle, we dobbed them in to the poolie, who seemed to care more that we were requiring her to do something about it.

We ambled through the kiosk, now a café with tables and chairs and luvvies sipping coffee. Peer as we did at the blackboard menu, there was no sign of pluto pups. That’s the trouble with progress and the ebbing of time: the culchural richness dissipates. Without pluto pups, the café lacked atmosphere, not to mention piquancy. We ambled out again.

We dobbed to the lifeguard, and we headed over towards the 55-yard pool, where the swimming club, now known as the PCYC Swim Club, looked as if it was in the final throes of this morning’s races. Where once there’d be 150 screaming lads and three dozen parents officiating, the crusty old timer pacing back and forth along the far end calling out the seconds for the handicap starts, there appeared now to be two parents quiet and motionless by the pool, holding stopwatches. There were a similar number of swimmers in the pool. True, it was late morning by now and the frenzy of peak NPBASC would have dissipated even in our day. It was quiet. How many do they get at peak race time? They appier to have the same lane ropes as when we swam there in the mid-60s.

We scanned the bleachers towards the far corner, where our races used to start. The upper row of the bleachers was where we’d spent happy hours watching the boardies in the Cowrie Hole. We had dress circle views and made us want to be a surfer. The tide was up; the swell was patchy.

We left the baths, and we mooched along Shortland Esplanade, past the Cowrie Hole, skirting the rockshelf, where the waves in sets would slam against the wall and shower pedestrians with sea water were they incautious along certain stretches. Try as we might, we couldn’t get soaked by the spray.

nobbys newcastle course

We found ourselves back at Nobbys.

Nobbys has meaning, too. It was the site of our first surf carnival as junior surfboat rowers in 1968. For Mrs Sparkle, Nobbys is where she learnt to swim and to handle the break, taught by her one-legged Great Uncle Idris, a local GP. Nobbys surf clubhouse used to be a dark, mysterious place, forbidding to outsiders. Now, all the doors and windows are open and inviting, and signs by the wall invite any punter, it seems, to turn up when the bar is open.

We appreciated Nobbys on Mrs Sparkle’s behalf. She was back in Sydney earning a crust.

From Nobbys, we have views over the harbour to Stockton, from where Peppermint Pattie’s family hails – her grandfather, Dada, was mayor, and my nan, his eldest, acted as Lady Mayoress because her mum wasn’t fussed to. That was in the days when suburbs like Stockton had their own mayors. Stockton is quieter since the bridge opened and the vehicular ferries were taken off the service, and sent to Taiwan for scrap. They made it to South West Rocks, where they took shelter in a storm, and sank. Remnants are still visible along the beach there. When the punts operated, you’d get a frenzy of traffic every half hour when the punt came in, the traffic hurtling up Punt Rd and into Fullerton St as if in a race to get through Stockton and on the road to Nelson Bay. On Sundees, the queue stretched a kilometer along Fullerton St. You’d wait three or four punts before getting on.

Funny thing about time. The distances are much less than we remember as kids. When we swam with the NPBASC, the walk from Newcastle by the Ocean Baths to Nobbys as way too far in one bite. Nowadays, it’s just a few minutes.

We hate to see things change. Perhaps, as Voltaire said, people are afraid of change because it reminds them they are going to die. We still have so much to do.

We went to Bondi, too...

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The Bondi Bluewater is a favourite. The first year I did this swim it was delayed till almost the end of May, becoming the very last swim of the season and the first time I took on the longer 2km - so very memorable.

I still remember so much about that race. On that day the air was cold, I had an annoying bronchial cough that wouldn't go away, the water was sublimely warm, it was almost a flat Bondi-bay like day, and the beach was mostly deserted (it was, after all no longer summer). I also remember the swim across the back from point to point and at some point wondering about the line of little white balls in the water below me. I found out later what they were. I don't know if they are still there. But that's ok.

It was a different day today - the ocean is never really the same from one day to the next - but the swim lived up to itself and apart from a few little stingers out the back (not, thankfully, bluebottles although I had seen some shocking stinger welts on people who'd got stung doing the 1km swim) it was just so good. It was a day to just keep swimming. Rocking, rolling, glistening, lively, warm, silky water with loads of room to move and, at times, nary another swimmer nearby.

Not a crowded swim (although inevitably someone who must go over you) and it was a bit of a workout to get out after the break as there was a good sideways push. I even managed a grimace at the camera rounding the buoy off McKenzie's . . . as I came round I'd just been directed by the guy bobbing on his board and thought 'how odd'. It's ok to point your arm in the direction that people should go but the angle can be off - for him, he was pointing at Ben Buckler, which is where I knew I was heading. For me, viewing him and his arm from the water, he was pointing out to sea. It gave me pause and then the camera appeared. Too funny. I felt like a doe in headlights.

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Glistening Dave photograrph. That's why it's in focus.

Anyway, across the bay I went and through occasional muck floating on the ocean and with the odd purple stinger making its presence felt. I looked out to sea often whilst I was swimming across the back and at one point there was a swimmer to my right about 50m further out . . . and I thought I was out too far. That's what makes these swims out the back the best - having the company of others just swimming along too.

I found it easy to find my way round - swimming in the bay means you can mostly line up the buoy with something above it as you swim towards it - and as the ocean would rise up the crest of the swell was the perfect place to check your sighting. Eventually turning and heading towards the beach at the buoy off Ben Buckler and then there was a HUGE school of stripey fish - I seemed to swim over them for ages. Another swimmer near me on the left had the same experience - and it never fails to thrill me to swim with the fishes. Simple pleasures really. I'd earlier realised that the stinger that got me was one of the beautiful purple jellyfish that I'd recently seen and taken pics of when swimming at Manly! Distractions really - this wildlife. Especially in a race!

Anyway, post swim food and change and I really needed a coffee - but having got myself a place in my age category I thought I'd hang around for the presentations instead of hiking way back up the hill to the car (which are always worth doing as most clubs are cool friendly places in which to relax and chat to other people). Perhaps a drink instead.

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Upstairs in the club - there was a mountain of prizes and loads of people waiting around - some watching the screen with photos from the races we just did, others grabbing drinks at the bar, sitting talking, or standing talking. Generally a lively and fun place to be, not to mention out of the heat of the almost-midday summer sun.

The presentations started in due course - and began with the two new 500m races - first the kids challenge "for ages 9-12", then the open age group (i.e. 13+) "a shorter course for beginners to test their skills and ability". They were great prizes and that was fantastic !

But, the discord for me was when some prize winners were names I recognised from other swims (and who are good ocean swimmers).

Hang on. Where's the new/inexperienced swimmers ?

I mean, there are any number of amazing swimmers today who could have done the 500m quicker than I could have drunk a coffee (and therefore won a prize).
It was after the 1km prizes that I got a little more interested in this. Some same swimmers again. I felt a bit miffed. They were not 'beginner' swimmers.

My first thought ? Honestly ? Why didn't I think of that ?

I could have done that - it would have been a great warm-up too. But, seriously, I hadn't thought of it and I'm not new to the ocean or the racing (but I am still learning!).

I'd simply assumed the race was not for me. I've done both the 1km and 2km races before on some occasions, either to warm-up or swim harder - but not this time (yes, maybe a bit lazy :D).

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So my second thought was to wonder why?

Now I put two-and-two together and figured it out.

The "3 swims @ 1 iconic beach" do make for a fun challenge - and it's additionally supportive of the races and the club (it does cost more to enter more swims). With a good turn-up and solid number of entries for all the races then they will go ahead in subsequent years too!

Plus, for a swimmer - it's a bit of a test - how fast can you do the 500m. Then the 1km. Then the 2km.
Yes, makes sense. Even more sense if you are a group of friends or swimmers and go up against each other or you want to put a bit of a challenge into the whole day out - you are there to swim after all. Totally a great idea!

BUT, I still feel like that it doesn't serve the purpose of having the short swim for the new, inexperienced, or young.

The reason - for many the 500m was the ONLY swim they did. It's a great place to start.

So, I had a look at the results - and at the finishers of the 500m then had a look to see if they did the other 2 races.

On that basis, in my thinking, the top male was the young 13-year old swimmer Daniel and the top female the young 18 year old Svenja.

Here's who I think made the top 3 in each category for the 500m FUN swim.

Female

1st Svenja Hentschel
2nd Kirsty Garlick
3rd Suzanne Ellenden-Jones

Male

1st Daniel Nezval
2nd Michael Clark
3rd Lawrence Palmer

Jen Gwynne

Charles Erasmus

Very sad to hear of the death, by heart attack, apparently, of Charles Erasmus in the Big Bay Swim in Melbourne on Sunday. Charles was a regular swimmer by all reports, and appeared to be very fit. At age 51, he was in the danger zone, however. Without knowing Charles's circumstances, apart from what we read in the newspaper, the the incident serves as a reminder that, as we age, we should not ignore things. Have them seen to, and keep swimming with us. Our thoughts and best wishes go to Charles's family.

Controversy Corner

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