Now that I had three swims under my belt I felt confident of my ability to swim in the ocean. I had forgotten that you should never take the ocean for granted.
I was living in Sydney, but still travelled back to Newcastle regularly for work and to play an occassional game of cricket on a Saturday afternoon. The club I played for always had a special game for the last game before Christmas, and I noticed on oceanswims.com (the source of so much useful info on swims) that there was a swim in Newcastle on the Sunday before Christmas. As I would be in town for cricket the day before I thought that I could stay overnight and do the swim the next day. I had already swum the same course the previous season so thought this would be too good an opportunity to miss.
So I entered the swim.
The day of the event was a warm day. When I arrived at Cooks Hill Surf Club on Bar Beach I noticed that the surf was larger than the previous year, but I was not concerned at all. I caught the shuttle bus down to the start line at Merewether Beach and listened to the briefing. The swim was straight forward: enter at Merewether, swim out to the first buoy just off the beach, then turn left and swim north to Bar Beach, turn left again, swim in and finish. Easy.
The waves before mine entered the water, and several of them were smashed by the swells hitting Merewether Beach. This made me sit up and take notice. I really had no experience swimming in such conditions. However, I knew that I could make the distance without a problem, and I had recently increased my training distance and regularity.
I did notice that the swim had more swimmers this year than my previous swim. I was glad about this as there would be more people to follow.
So my wave started and it was a bit of a challenge getting out to the first buoy. But I did find that I was not exhausted by the time I arrived, unlike my first attempt. I then proceeded to swim at my steady pace noticing the swells that lifted me as I went across them.
One of the features of Bar Beach is the reef just to the north of the surf club that at times is adjacent to the flagged swimming area. I had taken note of the north-east swell so my plans were to swim north of the last buoy and then use the swell direction to guide me to the finish line. So imagine my surprise when the water safety people ordered me to turn to the beach immediately. My plans were in disarray as I reluctantly followed their directions.
As I got to the wave zone I felt the pull of a rip impeding my forward progress. They had sent me straight into a rip. That rip was sending the water out from the beach and I was trying to get in. I remembered that if you are in a rip you should swim across it. But at that moment a set of waves came through and I was pushed past the rip in a very ungainly manner. So I had got past the rip but I was getting fatigued. I was by then about thirty metres off the beach in a gutter between a sandbar and the shore. Now I faced another problem: a strong sweep was pushing me down the beach away from the finish line. I tried to swim across it, but by this time I was getting very tired. I did seriously consider putting my hand up to be rescued but thought by the time they got to me I would have got to the beach. I saw on several occasions the sand moving backwards out to see and down the beach simultaneously.
Suddenly my feet managed to find the bottom and I stood up in water chest deep. I then pushed hard to the shore about ten metres away and finally made it out of the water. I then looked up and I was about 100 metres south of the finish line. I was exhausted, and that 100 metres was taken at a very slow walk.
I had made it but only just. Lots of people were rescued and I could only think of those water safety people giving us bad directions. My time was eight minutes slower than the previous year, but I had finished in the top third of the field.
My confidence in my ability to swim in the ocean was shattered. But I had finished and I had managed to beat a lot of people. I knew then that if I wanted to get into this sport I would have to get fitter at this swimming caper. I also knew that playing cricket in the hot sun and having a few beers the day before a swim was not the sort of preparation that would be recommended to undertake an ocean swim.