Here is a copy of a talk I gave on Wednesday 2 October 2013 as part of a swimming yarns program. There were nine speakers, and I was fortunate enough to be one of them. The night raised money for cancer research, and was held at the Woolloomoolo Bay Hotel in Sydney. It was a fantastic evening with some great yarns told around the theme of my first time.
THE FIRST TIME
My first ocean swim race was in November 2008 at Merewether in Newcastle. It was a cold day, with snow on the mountains, a brisk offshore breeze, and a water temperature of 15 degrees. I had trained for the event by swimming in Merewether Baths but I had not swum in the ocean, and had never swum out past the flags before. I thought I was ready.
The swim started, and the swimmers in the elite wave were smashed by the shore break. I was getting more anxious. My wave was luckier, no need to even duck dive. But by the time I had made it out to the first turning mark, I was exhausted from the nerves, the cold, and the pushing and shoving of people around me. I seriously considered turning around, but kept going because my wife was waiting at the finish line at Bar Beach.
So I kept going, and managed to complete the race. What a relief. I was now an ocean swimmer – or so I thought.
Twelve months later I did my first race in Sydney, the city I had recently relocated to. I had heard all the stories about the rough and tumble at the races in the eastern suburbs. I was also not very confident in the surf, so I entered the Cockatoo Island swim at Balmain. What an event to swim in, starting from the beautiful harbour pool baths where Dawn Fraser used to swim. And to swim around an island where prisoners had escaped by swimming to shore in the nineteenth century. What’s more there were no rips, swells or sand to deal with. It was so much fun to swim there even though the water was murky. The glimpses of purple Jacaranda in bloom dotted around the hills made up for that. I have done this race every year since, and it is the one I like to start my season with. Those mangos and peaches at the finish are superb.
My first open water swim in the Northern Hemisphere was in June 2009. I was holidaying in Orkney, a group of islands off the north coast of Scotland. It was an amazing and ancient place, windswept and isolated. Famous landmarks include the Ring of Brogdar, a circle of standing stones over 4000 years old, even older than Stonehenge. At that time of year the sun never sets, so far north that twilight is as dark as it gets.
My first swim in the Atlantic was at Inganess Beach. Just offshore was the wreck of a cargo ship that had been torpedoed in the Second World War. The sun was out, there was no wind, it was stunningly beautiful. But it was cold….the water was a very Scottish eleven degrees!
In July 2011 I went to New York and competed in my first race outside Australia. By this time I was a regular on the swimming circuit in Sydney, and I was getting more used to the waves and how to read the rips. I entered the Brooklyn Bridge swim which starts on The Brooklyn side of the East River near the Manhattan Bridge, swim downstream to the Brooklyn Bridge and then cross the river to Manhattan. Just like Kramer I can now say I have swum in the East River. To see that skyline and those bridges was gob smacking, and it was a surreal experience to be swimming in such an iconic location. I enjoyed this swim so much that I went back in 2012 and did it again, and won my age group.
The first time I was paid to swim was in July 2013 when I worked in Croatia for six weeks as a tour guide. I was employed by a company that runs open water swimming holidays in a variety of locations in Europe. Imagine swimming where the water is warm, salty and clear, with visibility of up to 15 metres. The lack of surf, sharks and swell was refreshing, even though by now I had gained a lot more confidence swimming in the surf. My home base for the six weeks was an island with 400 residents, two villages and no cars. It was part of an archipelago of sixty islands in the Adriatic, just off the Dalmatian coast. The weather was warm – over 30 every day and the sun was gentle by Australian standards. Each week would bring a new group of up to 15 swimmers for me to guide on swims of at least 2.5 km each morning and afternoon. And at least once a week we would swim at night, and were treated to the sight of the shimmering bio luminescence in the water.
A word from my sponsor…if anyone is interested in booking a trip to Croatia or a range of other places in Europe, please see me in the break.
The swimmers came from all over the world: UK, Ireland, Canada, USA, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Spain, Italy and Portugal. They had one thing in common, they enjoyed swimming in open water. Of course, with such a group there was a range of personalities and abilities. Some had swum the English Channel, some had just recently managed to complete 500m in their local pool. It was a joy to watch the nervous ones gain confidence and the experienced ones improve their technique. I was now teaching others what I had learnt about swimming in open water.
As I left the island after my stint was up, I had time to reflect on all the adventures I’d been able to experience, as a result of taking up ocean swimming. It has been a richly rewarding and satisfying chapter of my life.
I had started my open water swimming career with one race in Newcastle back in 2008 – an anxious beginner, full of doubts and not really prepared. Since then, I have :-
– Competed in over sixty ocean swim races in Sydney, regional NSW, the South Pacific and North America;
– Won an amazing ten day swimming holiday to Vanuatu thanks to oceanswims.com;
– Swum at many iconic landmarks like The Sydney Opera House, The Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge and Brighton Pier.
– Gained confidence in the surf doing regular training swims at Bondi out the back beyond the flags.
– Swum in freshwater lakes in North America, and in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans.
– Started a blog about my swimming adventures (greginthewater); and
– Worked as a paid swim guide in Croatia.
If you had told me about all this before my first race took place about all this I would not have believed it. In less than five years I have come so far from that nervous tentative start. And who knows what the future will bring.
So get out there, enjoy the pleasures of swimming in our magnificent oceans and waterways, you will meet great people, and you never know what will happen.