Sub-peloton enters the ocean at The Pass, en route back to Byron Main Beach, Sat'dee. This was their 8am swim. At 9:30, they were heading back to Wategos to swim again from there. Some people can do this kind of thing.
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Swims with 'No Dickheads'
Byron cancelled. Again.
Ambling along Byron Bay main beach last Sat'dee morning, a cobber was bemoaning the likelihood that Sunday's swim may well be cancelled in the face of heavy seas, its 2nd cancellation in three years. Why can't we come up with a system, he asked, that would filter swimmers so that the more experienced might still swim, while the less confident could be excluded honourably?
Putting to one side the elitism inherent in the question, it's an issue worth pondering. Cancellations often occur in conditions that may not trouble many experienced swimmers. Why can't these swimmers still do a course in conditions that might faze less confident swimmers?
It's a perennial dilemma; a difficult one for awgies who must consider not just swimmers who've entered an event, but also their water safety staff who must patrol the course.
Who remembers North Bondi about ten years ago, when awgies, in the face of a short, sharp chop – but that is all – cancelled the swim for the over 50s? We can only imagine the thinking that went into that recommendation from their water safety managers, usually the surf club Captain or the Beachies. For their altruistic concern, North Bondi found itself on Page 1 of the Herald the next day. Two of the swimmers who'd been denied a start were lawyers, and they'd gone straight home and picked up the phone to whinge to the meeja, who hot-footed it out to Balmain to get a pic of the lawyers consoling themselves in the Dawny pool. (Who gets the irony that people such as lawyers normally wouldn't give meeja hacks the time of day?)
The real irony of that decision at North Bondi was that the most competent swimmers in the peloton, as a group, are the over 50s, because they are the mugs who've been up to this stuff all their lives. They're the coves who've been hanging out on beaches, shooting curls, cracking waves, since they were littlies. Dealing with surf is second nature to them.
We recall North Steyne in 2001. There was a 1.5m swell running in a gentle offshore breeze. It was breaking onto a bank, but there was water under it; the tide was nowhere near low. In that breeze, breaking into water, that was not a difficult swell. But when the gun went orf, two-thirds of the field either couldn't get out, or didn't try.
That was the event that made us realise that the majority of swimmers are not confident in swell. Even if they attempt it, they won't enjoy it. Remember the first time The Big Swim ran a 1km event? The starters put the field into a heavy dump. Many of those swimmers, many of them first timers, still tremble when they talk of that day. And swim awgies, in deciding whether a swim should run in seas, must consider these people first and foremost.
And they must consider their water safety staff. And too often, these days, water safety staff are packed with littlies who are keen but inexperienced.
If you look carefully, you can see a sub-peloton of swimmers heading from Wategos back to Byron. And you might also see a scattered pod of about 20n dolphins, who frolicked, gambolled and surf amongst the line-up as they plodded past.
Do you remember Whale Beach, The Big Swim, Palm-Whale, also around ten years ago, when the sea at the finish was frightening? Whale Beach can be a difficult beach at the best of times, but this break truly was mesmerising. The swim was called off, but a small pod of thrill-seekers took to the sea for a body surf. They put on a sensational display, whilst swim awgies paced the beach grumbling under their breaths at the poor example this was setting, ie ignoring the Beach Closed signs. Those who ventured out knew what they were doing, however. They were masterful in the conditions.
Up in Byron Bay two years ago, the swim was called off as the first wave, the Codgers, were on the start line. The reason was not conditions at the start at Wategos, but conditions at the finish at Byron Main Beach, where a rising swell was dropping onto a shallowing bank on a dropping tide. As that day went on, the judgment of that decision, in the context of less competent, less confident swimmers, proved valid. The gripe then was that the awgies had left the decision as late as they had.
In the event, hordes of maddened punters took to the water anyway to swim the course back to Main Beach. It really was a glorious swim, dodging the bomboras on the reefs across the bay, then negotiating the dump on the way in. The water safety staff from Byron Bay surf club were marvelous in guiding their way, informally.
One of the great traditions of ocean swimming is dissent. Well, whingeing, anyway. Swim cancelled, despondent mugs set off from the surf club heading for The Pass or Wategos, to swim the course despite it all.
Our punter schlepping along Byron's Main Beach for the Saturday morning swim last weekend, like many more mature ocean swimmers, has been up to this caper all his life. He told of a body surf he enjoyed with another cobber in heavy swell at their home beach in Sydney a few weeks earlier. With all the rules and safety requirements of contemporary sport, his cobber had lamented, wasn't it sad that they'd never again get to compete in conditions like these?
There is another context, too: that of the three young lifesavers who lost their lives in competition during the Australian Surf Life Saving Champeenships on the Gold Coast in recent years. Knowing a little about breaks on the Goldie, it doesn't surprise us that inexperienced swimmers might get into trouble there. It's a ferocious break, often of four or five different breaks arrayed one after the other as you head out, with all the currents, eddies, rips that entails, and a constant, strong northerly sweep. The Goldie is a break unlike any other we know in Stra'a, save perhaps for the Mornington Peninsula back beach breaks in Victoria, fronting onto Bass Strait.
(Our cobber at Byron also noted that the Stra'an Champs these days were open to all who wished to enter, unlike the good old days when entrants in many events had to qualify. This kept numbers down but also ensured that entrants were literally the best in the country. These days, he said, it's not just the level of competence at issue, but overall numbers that make events difficult.)
In the face of Sunday's expected cancellation at Byron Bay, what could be done, mused our cobber, to ensure that an event went ahead even if the seas were up? The answer might be, he suggested, some kind of filtering system that allowed some swimmers, deemed competent, to take part, while others were ruled out.
Good grief! Imagine administering such as system. And how would you deem swimmers one way or the other in the first place?
The gang's all here, and arriving for their informal, spontaneous Byron Bay swim.
A few years ago, with some visionary awgies around Sydney – Whale Beach, the Cole Classic (when run by the Cole family), North Bondi, to name a few – we came up with a system designed to identify the best swimmers in the peloton, and to offer them the chance of better racing. The objectives were twofold: to create good racing at the front of the pack; and to remove the fastest swimmers from each age group from their age group waves, to make those age group waves safer for both faster swimmers and plodders alike.
Identifying these swimmers involved a bit of work in Excel. We took the results of many swims, starting with the largest events, and identified the fastest swimmers in each age group based on consistency of results: we gave them points for finishes in the top 10 per cent of each event, and we gave points for each start. Thus, the highest scorers were those who were quick and swam often, but even those who swam often but weren't amongst the quickest could build up their scores. With the committed awgies, we offered the top 10 per cent opportunity to start in an Elite wave.
Working with awgies, wearing a hat, we used to sit under umbrellas at promenades at swims around the circuit "administering" this system, deciding whether applicant swimmers qualified for the Elite wave.
The system created problems of its own. Should swimmers starting in the Elite wave, for example, be eligible for prizes and places in their age groups? It ain't simple. But unless they remain eligible for prizes in their age groups, older swimmers, especially, won't enter an Elite wave, thus defeating the purpose of the wave. And some swimmers, particularly older females, who qualified empirically, didn't enjoy the process as they found themselves left behind by the Elite wave and swimming with no-one.
That's Byron for another year: not enough swimming, but oozing with culcha.
The system broke down as awgies turned over, and as even those awgies who remained tired of the arguments from swimmers. It wore them down; they lost interest. We must remember, most swim awgies have vision limited to their own beach. They see issues in terms of how it affects them there and then, not in the context of the sport's interests overall.
We recalled this system with our cobber as we trudged along Main Beach at Byron Bay last weekend. Is the answer a return to a system such as this, which uses results over the course of a season to determine the better swimmers? Those "better" swimmers then would remain eligible to swim even when "less better" swimmers were deemed ineligible by awgies on a particular day. Imagine the arguments then, although these days the Herald probably wouldn't cover the story.
"I know," said our cobber last Sat'dee, epiphanically, suddenly inspired, like Edison when he turns on his light bulb. "We have a 'No dickhead' rule!"
"Just like the Swans?" we said.
"But who would decide who is a 'dickhead' and who isn't?"
"You would," he said.
"Right," we said.
We moved on.
Byron Bay was cancelled last Sundee. In the lead-up, the rain pelted down, the heaviest falls we've experienced, perhaps in our lifetime; the seas rose and dumped; the bomboras filled the bay; the water murkened as creeks and rivers unburdened themselves into the sea, turning the water dark chocolate, Single Origin Pure, 83 per cent; and the wind howled. But it didn't matter: punters were in town for swim weekend. The swim, which didn't happen, was the catalyst for the culcha.