I have missed a few swims through a combination of illness and cancellations, since my last event at Malabar in mid February. So I was looking forward to the Across the Lake Swim to be held for the 54th time on its usual Saturday. This is the third time I have competed in this event, and it always brings make so many memories for me. The swim is a 3.8 km race from Coal Point on the western shore of Lake Macquarie to Belmont, on the eastern shore. Lake Macquarie is the largest saltwater coastal lake in Australia, with a shoreline of around 175km or so, and is situated on the southern side of Newcastle, just north of Sydney. This particular swim is special to me, as the finishing point is where I spent many days sailing in a training dinghy with my brothers as a child.
The trip up the renamed M1 (it used to be the F3….why can our government change names of roads without a fuss, but refuse to make any social changes like gay marriage, republic, change the flag etc?). I left home in the darkness as the autumn equinox was the previous day, and sunrise was not until 7 am due to daylight saving still going. It is nice to drive that normally busy road at the time of day, with little traffic, and the mist swirling over the hills and valleys.
I arrived just before 7 am to find that the registration had been going since 6 am (the organisers work so very hard to make these swims possible). This race starts at 8.30 am, and the registration is at the finish line at the Belmont 16 Foot Skiff Sailing Club at Belmont. The swimmers are then ferried over to the other side of the lake to the start line. This year there were over 250 starters, requiring three ferry trips. I was on the first ferry at 7.30 am. The lake was smooth, no wind, and fog and mist falling over the hills around the lake like lace curtains. If it was not so warm I would have sworn I was in Scotland or Ireland.
So conditions were virtually ideal, smooth surface, warm water, no tides, no swell, and hopefully no sharks. As mentioned before this was the 54th time this race has been held, which makes it the second longest running open water swim in Australia. Some famous names have swum in it before, with a former national 1500m champion Glenn Housemann still holding the race record. Wonder if anyone would get close to that today?
I stood on the shore looking back towards Belmont picking out those landmarks to guide me, as the sun had risen in a cloudless sky, and we would be swimming straight into it. The Smif Bros arrived on the second ferry, and we went in for a warm up swim. The water was warm and quite clear.
Finally the third load of swimmers arrived, and the swimmers all floated into the water for the in water start. We had a short briefing from local legend Cliff Marsh (who swam in the very first swim), and the local Federal Member Jill Hall got us started. Away went in a splash of arms as the pod of swimmers nosed eastwards into the sun. From my previous swims, I knew it was better to settle into the right pace and not go too hard in the first 500m. So I followed that plan, as some people went past me. I did spend some time with some other in a pack where we seemed to take turns leading and drafting. But after the 1.5 km mark I decided to increase my pace and slowly pulled away from them.
It was a beautiful day for a swim and I was soon swimming by myself with a group of swimmers around 15m to my left. I worked hard on my catch, and engaging the lats, and was getting real benefit from the glide today. The sun was making navigation difficult, and it was not possible to see the big yellow markers very easily, so I was glad that I knew where I was. Despite this, I did start a bit north of the straight line, before correcting over the balance of the course. I kept a paddler in front of me as I trusted he knew where he was going as well.
At the 2 km mark I noticed a blue cap coming back towards me, and wondered if this was the younger Smif. We have a friendly rivalry, because there is no way I could keep up with the older Smif. So over the next km or so I slowly pulled away from this blue cap, not knowing if it was him or not. I was still swimming by myself at this stage, with a paddler just off to my right guiding their swimmer home. There was a large group around 50m in front of me, and I had been slowly gaining on them for a while. The houses along Ross St came into view, and I knew I was almost there, just like those sailing days coming up the leg from Green Point.
As I arrived at the last marker with less than 300 m to go I was surprised to suddenly see around 15 swimmers all round me. This was the group in front of me who I had caught. No would I have enough left to get past them? The lake bed at this point is quite shallow at less than 4m, and I was amazed that I could see the bottom so clearly. I had never seen the water so clean as it was today.
The sprint to the finish in the pack, and it was over. I had caught some, but not enough, and there were 8 or so swimmers who finished with a time of less than 10s faster than mine. I heard my name called out over the public address system as I ran over the line, grabbed a banana and some energy drink. I chatted with some of the familiar faces on the circuit, and then looked up to see the younger Smif cross the line behind me.
We all clapped the last competitor who was doing this swim for the first time in 34 years. A fantastic achievement.
So I had finished mid field again, but I was very happy with how my form had held up all the way across. Sure it was not as fast as my first time doing the race 4 years ago, but it was faster than my effort in the 2012 race. I was pleased that I had the experienced the joy of swimming on such a stunning day. A big thanks to my mate Steve who came over to support me, and have a coffee after the race.
My thoughts went out to the sailors who were floating around the lake after we had finished. It was one of those days when it was quicker to swim than sail. But that is why this time of year is great for open water swimming.