Glistening Dave's glorious photo essay on Bilgola.

It was a dramatic day at Bilgola.

But it started so benignly.

We’d heard there was a sea expected on swim day, so all week we’d been watching our weather apps, and the Bureau of Meteorology’s website, leading up to the Stanwell Park Ocean Challenge and the re-run of the Bilgola Big Swim. The worry for organisers wasn’t just that the sea was predicted to suddenly jump from a lake to 2m overnight on Saturday, but also that the BoM was warning that that sea would be deceptively dangerous. We didn’t see the precise words they used, but that was the phrase related to us.

Stanwell Park would be run on the high tide, with Billie a couple of hours after it at noon. This meant there would be water in the break, so both beaches should be absent a dumping, crashing bank. But both beaches are open and both are nasty in a swell. Using their local knowledge, the Stanwell Park organisers reckoned they would have difficulty running their swim in anything more than 1.5m. Not very big, really, but it reflected how gnarly their beach becomes in a swell: it’s not just the size of the sea; it’s what the sea does between where it breaks and where it hits the sand. As a long, open beach, Stanwell Park is lined with banks. At low tide, the gaps between those banks become rips, where the water gets back out to sea once the waves have rolled into shore. At high tide, those banks and channels produce currents coursing in different directions, between the banks, along the shore, along the beach behind the break, and over the banks as the waves roll in.

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Stanwell Park, prior to the sea. You couldn't make a call on this.

This is why banks can collapse suddenly, and why rips form and why inattentive mug punters can be swept suddenly to sea. Combined with all the unruliness of a sea, it makes for a very difficult, and dangerous break area, especially for swimmers who are less experienced than the grumpy old buggers who’ve been doing it all their lives.

At Stanwell Park, too, they have the added issue of Coalcliff, which is where their swim starts. While Stanwell Park faces east and south, Coalcliff faces nor’-east and north. It has a rock shelf running out from the southern end of the beach, so it catches an easterly, nor’-easterly or northerly swell. The water rushes around, caught in the corner, all turbulent and confused and anxious to be out again. In any kind of real swell, such as we had on Sundee, you can imagine the foment. Our cobber, Ken Newman, a Coalcliff member, was looking out over the sea at 8 on Sunday morning, and he asked his club cap’n, standing next to him, what he would do with the flagged area in that surf. Without hesitation, he said, “I’d close the beach”. The general view amongst water safety bosses is that, if you have to close the beach for ordinary punters, then you have to close it to a swim, too. So Coalcliff never did factor into the equation at Stanwell Park from that point on.

Instead, the organisers spent the next little while looking at whether they could run a modified course, starting, say, at the northern end of Stanwell Park beach. They anguished over this for an hour or more, before deciding finally that it was just too difficult and too dangerous. In all these considerations, it’s not just the safety of swimmers that they must factor in, but also the safety of their water safety crew. It’s one thing to have water safety staff all qualified lifesavers; it’s quite another to put them unnecessarily and gratuitously in a dangerous situation and expect them to remain on point for an extended period of time.

It was such a pity: there was an offshore breeze blowing, and the sea stood up, almost rigidly to attention, hesitating before it crashed evenly and, from the shore, benignly into the well-padded break. We say benignly, but when you looked at the areas between the banks and the break and the shore, you could see what the currents were doing. It was, as the BoM had warned, a deceptively dangerous break.

So Stanwell called.

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Off Bilgola, the view towards Newport. It is there: trust us.

To their credit, the organisers had thought through the possibilities and they had a policy ready to be drawn out of the bottom draw in this eventuality: they had looked at the swim calendar for another possible date, but none presented itself. March and April are our two busiest months with swims, you know. So it was cancellation, not postponement. In which case, they told the assembled punters, all those who had entered online for this swim would get half-price entry next year. And help yourselves to the fruit and the barbie.

It was a lively scene at Stanwell Park all the same, with assembled mugs busy in their chatter about the conditions. A sea always prompts chatter. One chap was particularly interested in debate. He fronted the organiser and gave him an earful about how it shouldn’t be a 50 per cent discount next year, it should be 100 per cent. We believe this was the same punter who later sidled over to us, and he said: “Can’t you use your influence here?” He evidently wanted the swim to run. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the years, it is that you don’t second-guess organisers with local knowledge. It is them, not us, who know their beach; and it is them, not us, who bear the legal responsibility for what happens not just to us mug punters, but also to their own members, the water safety staff. If we were to use our “influence”, if we had any and whatever it may be, it would be to back up the organisers. No-one is more disappointed than the organisers when their swim has to be cancelled. We, and you, just turn up to the beach on swim day. For them, swim day is the culmination of months of preparation and spending. They’ve already outlaid thousands of dollars for all the things they need to run the swim. Sometimes, they’re lucky enough to receive donations in kind or sponsorships (such as the fruit spreads), but the bills still are high.

We believe it was this dissatisfied punter who emailed us later in the day to say…

“HI, went to stanwell park today for ocean swim. was cancelled. talked to organiser as he only offered half price for next year claiming he was losing money on event and i should have just registered on the day so i would not lose my money for preregistering. i thought it was encouraged to preregister? he thought preregistering runs the risk of losing if cancelled so best not to. if that is the case why are we penalised with a late fee for on the day registering? and how is he out of pocket when it is run by volunteers and the other stuff supplied by sponsors? and why not reschedule not just cancel and keep the money.???????? very confusing and discouraging. Dave”

According to the organiser, the fellow who buttonholed him told him the surf club was a business like anyone else and should be refunding in full. We don’t know whether it was “Dave”, but we’d point out to them, anyway, that a surf club is not a business; it’s a charity. It’s run by volunteers, in their spare time, usually on the smell of an oily rag. Indeed, one of the great traditions of ocean swimming is that, simply by entering a swim, we’re supporting a charitable cause. This is why private organisers cop grief from some punters if they don’t have some charitable element involved as a beneficiary. Perhaps “Dave” doesn’t appreciate that. It’s worth pointing out, too, that while Stanwell Park is close to Sydney, it’s effectively a country swim. It’s a club that’s not rolling in dough. It doesn’t have a farncy restaurant upstairs from which it can siphon income, or pokies, or a licensed bar open to the public, or a rich sugar daddy.

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Lone warrior.

The beauty of Sundee was that Stanwell was scheduled for 10am, and the other Sydney swim, at Bilgola, was scheduled for noon. We had fantasised about rushing between the two, but there wasn’t time for that… until Stanwell cancelled.

We had a big day. We were up at 5 to meet our daughter, Little Miss, for brekker at Gymea, thence to Stanwell Park. We had a lovely breakfast. Now 21, she’s such a lovely person. We enjoy her company immensely. Then we kept heading sarth.

Stanwell is about half an hour from Gymea, which is in the Sutherland Shire, and as we arrived there, we saw punters walking away from the beach. We thought then that the event had been called off. As we pulled into a parking space, our phone rang, and it was the organiser to tell us the decision, which he’d canvassed in several phone calls earlier in the morning. As we stepped out of the car, we heard the announcement over the PA.

We hung around for a bit, chatting here, chatting there, which is difficult, because sociability doesn’t come easily to us. We were raised as boat rowers. We saw bunches of familiar mugs, groups of friends who hang out together at the beach each and every weekend. We saw two from Newcastle, even. We knew that these punters were at Stanwell Park partly because it’s a very good swim to do, but also because it’s the penultimate event in our fine ocean swimmers series for this season.

Then we hopped back in our motor car, and we turned its head for… Bilgola.

Here's the nub

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Now, we get to the real story. Nothing to do with the schlepp up there from Stanwell Park, although we weren’t the only ones who transferred between the two events, and we know some of those who rushed from one t’other had been caught in the aftermath of the incident on Southern Cross Drive when a 4WD collided with a sub-peloton from the Eastern Suburbs Cycle Club. We hope they’re ok.

We’d been in touch with the Billie organisers throughout the morning, too, and we knew that, while the same swell was affecting Billie as Stanwell Park, the Billie organisers were much more optimistic that they still could run. Bear in mind, the Billie swim was a postponement from December 8, and the organisers had copped considerable criticism from irate punters then for their decision. Same considerations apply.

Billie, too, is a difficult beach, one that reacts adversely to swell. Many of those northern beaches are like that: they’re quite open and susceptible to unruly waves, as is Stanwell Park. A couple of years ago, when last there was a bit of a swell running, Mrs Sparkle came off the worse for wear when a wave picked her up and dumped her onto the head of the Bilgola club cap’n following just behind her. She broke a rib, and he was walking around for weeks with his neck on an angle. (This is an example of what can happen in a surf: it doesn’t have to be big and powerful; it might just be a matter of timing, but the bigger it is, the higher the stakes.)

On their beach, however, and using their local knowledge, the Billie organisers adjudged that they could run their event. Good. Noon start; we could get there.
Not by much, though: we walked onto the sand 15 minutes ahead of start time. 
The Billie organisers took the view that, while the sea was heavy, there was good time between sets, and there was time, with careful management, to send off waves between sets.

Billie is a little different to Stanwell in that it’s a much shorter beach, and the currents and the aquamess may not be quite as powerful as you get at Stanwell. That’s not to say that it’s easy. Standing thigh-deep at the start, our Brownie Starflash-in-a-plastic bag at the ready, we had to brace ourselves against the sweep, the in-rushed water flowing strongly northwards and outwards to get back to sea. A few minutes later, after the Elite wave started, and the organisers saw what the sweep did to that starting sub-peloton, they moved the start northwards about 25 metres. We followed, only to find ourselves bracing against a strong flow southwards and out to sea. The difference was that we’d crossed from one side of the channel to the other. The water rushes towards the channel, wherever it is, by the quickest, easiest route.

That was an indicator of how difficult these breaks can be.

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The only bright spots.

It was two hours after the high at Billie, when the swim was ready to start, so there wasn’t as much water over the banks as there’d been on the high. In one section of the beach, towards the southern end, there was already a nasty dump onto a shallow bank. Keep away from that. At the point where the swim started and finished, however, the break itself wasn’t so bad: the waves were dropping into water, at least. But very quickly after that, they ran onto a shallower bank, where they seemed to pick up speed, and power. The difficult bit there wasn’t the break; it was the 10—15 metres immediately after the break.

We watched three waves head into the sea. After 327 online entries, there were 152 finishers at Bilgola. We don’t know how many more there may have been who started but did not finish, but it was clear that many mugs had exercised their commonsense and remained on the beach. Or in bed. Those 152 shared a very special experience in this swim.

We'll Talk About This One for Years from on Vimeo.

We were surprised that more didn’t have difficulty in the break going out, but with all that filtering, plenty of less-experienced swimmers had already dropped out, it seemed. After three waves (starts), we headed out ourselves. It wasn’t difficult, but then there was a solid current heading seawards, and we struck it between sets. We were struck, too, by how shallow the water was behind the break where the first turning booee was anchored. The water was so clear, you could count the grains of sand on the bottom. Even then, it seemed only a couple of metres down. A bit shallow we thought, necessarily to ourselves.

The interesting bit started when we reached the second turning booee off Bilgola’s northern headland.

We have never seen a sky as dark, as black as that which greeted us looking sarth from the northern booee. We love a good thunderstorm, and we love its approach. The anticipation of the hit, the wind, crack and the rolling thunder of the lightning sends trembles up our spine, the froth on our beer shivering in resonant excitement despite our position of relative calm in shelter under the upstairs balcony. There was no question of exiting water before the oncoming storm hit. To exit the water, we had to finish the swim.

The sky continued to darken, the leaden curtain descend as we neared the southern headland. The bright orange of the booee, its dark, pink balloon bobbing gaily above in the breeze, like a puppy who’s just discovered s/he’s about to go for a walk, stood starkly in contrast with the sky. Around that booee, we headed for shore. Half way in, we stopped to assess the scene. We were shooting video, mainly. By this time, the dark had enveloped Bilgola itself, creeping northwards from Newport. As two swimmers loped towards us, we aimed our Brownie at them, away from the cloud, but we couldn’t see them in the dark, except for the occasional arm looping over, their wet skin catching the little light that remained. It was so dark. The Bilgola sky was black.

Nearing the break, we found the first turning booee was gone. We asked a water safety laddie about it. It had been cleaned up in the break. As we’d expected.

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Bilgola. But you can tell that.

It was just about the time that the rain started. Heavy drops. Pitching into the sea; big splashes and blobs bouncing up. We trod water behind the break. A set came through. This will be interesting, we thought. So we pulled our Brownie Starflash out of our cossies and we followed the swells through. Looming out of the eastern sky, it rose, and rose; we floated to its peak as it passed through us, and we turned, the camera following inexorably into the break. As each swell rolled through, and each swell was bigger, we watched the mugs ahead of us way down below, turning to watch the dump about to fall on their heads. We felt safe. Waves move in eerie silence, until they break. There’s a phonic backdrop, a chorus of, “Wave… wave…” as the water safety laddies and lasses scattered through the break shout warnings as the set rolls through. We dropped down the back of the swell and watched it peak past us, the offshore breeze blowing spray back into our faces, the peak smoothing and clearing, stretch marks emerging as the peak falls away from us onto the swimmers ahead. The wave fell. It dumped onto a bank that was shallower than when we started, the spume kicking up and behind as the bank fought back. You can tell a lot about a bank from watching a wave dump on it from behind. Mostly, you can tell where to go and where not to go. Don’t go to where the dumping wave kicks back sand. That’s the shallow, dumping, dangerous bit. Do go to where the kick back is clear or white. That means there’s water beneath. It may not be safe, but it’s safer than the sandy bits. All things are relative.

We did this throughout this set. There was good time between waves. When it eased, we came in closer, shallower. Now inside the break. The next set loomed. The rain got heavier; someone had turned up the dial, playing with us. The wind strengthened; the rain flattened, accelerating to hit us horizontally from the shore, big drops, hard, sharp, like a fakir’s bed of nails thrown into our backs, our necks. We turned our backs on the rain, for we were watching the sea. But the rain was so strong, so heavy, that we couldn’t see through our goggles. We knew waves were coming, but we saw them late, when they loomed over us. We kept the camera rolling, and we left it to the last before diving under each wall of white water. We kept shooting as the wave flung us around beneath, hoping to capture that sense of tumbling, of disarray, of chaotic froth, of confused currents and surges. Stay loose; let it roll you; keep your head. Startled there’s so little white water beneath the surge. No room to hide, no safe bed; grab the bottom, feet float upwards, surge grabs the feet and rips the hands out of the sand. Damn surge! Tumble over; somersault. Lungs start to burst; push up from the bottom through the chaos of currents; where’s the surface? Which way is up? Not this way… The surge eases.

You bob up after one wave, but the next wave’s coming… same thing, dive under, no room, grab the bottom…

You do notice, the next wave, just an outline in the white out, breaks another 20 metres farther out from the one before. We learn later from the organisers, this was the biggest set of the day. But we missed its full glory in the needling, whooshing white out.

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There was a bit of power in the sea.

The beauty of a sea is that it will, relentlessly, push you towards shore. And here we were. We trudged out of the foam. Through the snow – it was like the old days when the tv signal was weak and the screen was a noisy mass of flashing pixels: snow – we made out a familiar form: Billie organiser Graham Foran. We’d recognise that shape anywhere. He was one of the last ones left, in the storm, on the beach. Graham is a retired ship’s cap’n.

Stormwater gushed from gutters onto the beach. We remembered our bag: our back pack, which we’d left packed snugly against the concrete wall at the back of the beach, now in the path of a surging brook, just downstream from Bilgola Falls, where the street gutter spewed the stormwater onto the beach. We’d left it with bags from three others. Surely, we thought, one of them will have picked it out of harm’s way. Where we left it, there was just a soft, black garbage bag. Not ours. We kicked it gently, to test it, at the behest of our inner monologue, our commonsense, all too rarely with us. Something about it was familiar. I could swear I’d felt its like before. But we thought, we’re sure we’re mistaken, and we didn’t think anything more. Almost. But we pulled open the bag, and there was ours, sheltering from the rain on the edge of the bubbling brook. We picked it up to find just one remaining thong. We normally keep our thongs private, tucked away with the rest of our smalls, and we didn’t want to lose our other one. (“Did you lose your thong,” “Nah, found one…”) We followed the stream into its delta, spreading over the flat of the beach. It was a new river, so it hadn’t quite reached the sea. And there, at its head, was our other thong.

(We received an email later from Jim Donaldson telling us that he’d packed our bag in the garbage bag for safekeeping in the storm. Thank you, Jim.)

We’ll talk about this one. Only 152 of us shared the experience of the Bilgola swim, but an even smaller handful experienced the best of it: the tiny few at the back of the pack who remained in the break, who had still to finish, when the storm, its jaws already placed firmly around our torsos, then sank its teeth deep into us. That was special.

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This is why we come to Bilgola: the best bar in a surf club anywhere in Stra'a.

Angela van Boxtel's blob...

... from Bilgola... click here


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