byron 150502 01
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.

Have your say on Controversy Corner... Click here

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.

byron 150503 03
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.

Case studies

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.

byron 150503 01
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?

byron 150503 02
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.

byron 150503 04
That's Byron for another year: not enough swimming, but oozing with culcha.

Yes. Right.

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.

Controversy Corner

What do you think about your swim this weekend? Let's have a discussion... Click here

What it's really like

Swimming at the Bay most Sundays the conditions can be a bit deceptive. When there is a big swell the current running west can get very strong to the point where if you swim heading to the to the bouy off the pass (seems sensible) the current will take you inside the bouy and towards the rocks at the Pass. Not pretty, quite dangerous and have seen numerous people a bit bashed up after attempting this in big seas.

To avoid this when leaving Wategoes one needs to swim out, head towards Mt Chincogan and the sweep will neatly take you past the bouy on the correct side. If you get it right you will have a record breaking fast swim. If you do not you may very well end up a bit bashed up by mother nature. Talking about this at the start when it was called off some of us locals were told we did not know what we were talking about. We shrugged and walked away. They evidently knew better.

The other issue is the westerly sweep at the beach. If you turn to late you will end up on the rock groin possibly after being dumped on a sand bank. Again, in big seas turn early if possible but again some people not familiar with Byron Bay know better.

I agree with the event being called off, although if the Hackett event had been called off we would not have the race record as it stands (big swell strong sweep). As a point of comparison and to demonstrate the strength of the sweep when it was called off, people who did the Hackett event in the mid 30's swam when it was called off and did it in high 20's. Yes fast swim but very high risk due to the sweep for those who do not know the Bay.

Rob Siebert

Good call

As part of the peloton that walked up main beach and swam back from the point I thought that it was a sensible decision. No other option considering the cross section of swimmers that normally take to the ocean swims. (Yes I was disappointed but not being a fast swimmer you may think I am biased).

I truly believe that the No Dickheads rule" should firstly apply to the administrators who run these events so congratulations to those who made the decision and congratulations to all the organisers of any ocean swim for organising the events.

Thank you for the opportunity of sending this email.

Peter Rolston

No choice

It was the only decision that could be made. Well done.

David Bezear

Training days

We recently had a similar problem with the Auckland Marathon swim being called off because it deemed unsafe. Which is was not, that would apply to at least 70% of the field (probably 90%).

Personally I think that there should be a qualification system. Such as running training days when the conditions are challenging so that people can test themselves. Once "qualified" then it's up to the individual if they feel confident or not.

Gary Seaman

Too late

Can understand the decision to call off the swim, particularly the longer distance around the headland, but with a 14 year old son who is extremely competent in the ocean it is an extreme put off for the sport when you travel a long way and spend a lot of money, that is scarce anyhow, only for it to be cancelled at the latest possible moment. It would have been incredibly obvious to the organisers that the swim needed to be called off on the Saturday. I actually rang the swimphone on the Saturday and was told that conditions were pretty good, getting better and at that stage it looked like it would be on. Most swims give an earlier more honest call on their swims. Maybe Byron needs to look at this.

Oh well, my son, had an awesome surf at Lennox Head instead!

Melinda Kinsela


I'm sorry but give me a break - as I was one of the poor buggers who came two years ago, though I swam it and must say was a great swim, this time I just went and had breakfast with my friends instead, came back and looked at what I saw as great conditions and thought what a waste as coming from and still being involved in surf swimming this what I love.... rougher the better.

I understand the issues, in a running marathon your tired you walk or sit, swimming's different but I think somewhere along the line we started pandering too unfit and unconfident ' just there' pool swimmers who are at risk too themselves in most open water conditions ( unless its a glassy perfect Byron day ), and this is an exposed coastline that requires a certain skill level to take on - any day

I for one wont be returning, I said that two years ago - but this time they lost me, though the money doesn't worry me as they are a great charity and well done for that.

maybe just maybe its time to try something else

Craig P
Gold Coast

Earlier call?

From a safety perspective the organisers had no choice but to cancel the swim. Whilst most of the swimmers may have been capable of completing the course, there would have been a small percentage who would have struggled. Look how far the waves were breaking out from the Pass. Also a dangerous shore dump on an outgoing tide coupled with a strong sweep after rounding the final buoy.

With the tragedies at recent Australian Surf Life Saving Championships still in our minds and the damage done to the reputation of SLSA from the fallout from that, the cancellation of the Byron swim by the organisers was a 'no brainer'.

The only criticism that could arguably be levelled at the organisers is that they would have known by late Saturday that the race was going to be cancelled so could have announced it then. Obviously though, the impact on the local business community of such an early announcement was an understandable consideration.

Trevor Armstrong

Late call?

Regarding the late call to cancel:

Locally generated wind waves like these usually abate fairly rapidly, and it was felt that there was a good chance that conditions would improve overnight. They did improve later on Sunday, and the next day would have been OK for such an event.

As most people were already in town I think it was reasonable to wait and see what transpired.

I agree that 10-15 years ago it may have gone ahead. Times have changed.


"Show Me the Money"

Byron Bay Winter Whales Ocean Swim is definitely the pinnacle of open water swimming. Byron has a lot to offer - beautiful beaches, cafes, restaurants, shopping, welcoming locals and of course a scenic point to point swim. The organisers are to be congratulated for such a successful event achieving nearly 2000 entrants in past years and donating over $650 000 to charity.

However, it is with great disappointment that I'm writing this email. The debate is having the experienced swimmers complete the course in these difficult conditions instead of cancelling the event. Another option is postponing the event and rescheduling the race later in the month. This would inject more money into Byron hospitality and retail market.

I believe the call to cancel the race should of been done on Saturday. The race event organisers were only too happy to collect the $65 nomination fee and inform swimmers that there was a "75% chance that the swim will go ahead." I feel for the young families who disbursed nearly $200 only to be told that your money was "going to charity and we'll see you next year." This is the second time in three years and this is putting people off attending this iconic swim. I know many swimmers who won't be returning next year......... Please consider other options.

Sunshine Coast

Happy with tee shirt

Dear WWBB, My complaint is, I've come from Hervey Bay I know a lot of people have come a lot further. Ssent an email Friday night asking if the swim was being cancelled; told no, we're still taking money.

It should have been cancelled well before. The writing was on the wall that the weather was heading to Byron. Even when I went to register, they didn't give out the timing chips.
But I am happy with my $65 tee shirt and cap.


Viv Oakes

Water safety immobile

Unfortunately the weather gods didn't favour the Byron Bay Swim. On the Saturday, there was a chance of the ocean settling but it didn't do its normal thing. Normally it doesn't stay up for that length of time.

When the swim was cancelled, it didn't matter how good or how bad a swimmer you are, the Water Safety were unable to get their craft out on the water. No Water Safety, No Swim. The Surf Club have the final say & they look at the Safety of Everyone, Swimmers & their Members.

Looking forward to a Successful Swim next year.

Phil Boyd
Secretary/Treasurer, Winter Whales Swimming Club

Call ok, but shoulda been Saturday

It was the right call to cancel the swim. You must also think about the lifesavers and risk they would have had.

The announcement should have been made on Saturday in my opinion.

Anyway, see you next year!

Mark Grooby

Give us a wave

Good initiative. This is worth the discussion.

However I love doing the ocean swims, which I started 25 years ago as a body surfer on the northern beaches to add to the mix. I am becoming increasingly disappointed because we never seem to get a big swell or a proper wave to try to catch in, to challenge us, not for any of these ocean swims. I thought the point was that we test our competence in the ocean environment as opposed to the pool environment. That means we need to understand tides, rips, swell, waves as well as how to navigate dumpers generally. It is so important for Australians to grow up learning how to do this as we live on the coast and once we learn, we respect it all the more.

Although I fully appreciate the swims raise money for the lifesaving fraternity which relies on volunteers and donations, so I agree those without the experience should not enter the water when the conditions get tough, but the rest of us should be able to swim on the day.

I do remember sittng at whale beach about 10 years ago when PB to Whalie was cancelled and some guys put on a wonderful display of bodysurfing – great technique- we appreciated it.

Dare is ay I am over 50, female and train at icebergs too, so nothing against the pool swimmers please, just fair go for us bodysurfers too.


Share this post

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to TwitterSubmit to LinkedIn