The swim at Mona Vale is held towards the end of June each year. It comprises a short swim of 1.2 km from Bongin Bongin Bay around the point to Mona Vale beach. Swimmers are given the option of swimming with or without wet suit, with encouragement given to the latter. Even though the swim is held in winter, the water is usually quite warm, and on the day it was still twenty degrees. The day was lovely with plenty of sun and no wind, so that meant no wetsuit for me.
After a pleasant drive to the Northern Beaches of Sydney, I arrived at the beach. Registration was completed and so I sat in the sun soaking up the rays. The surf was flat and virtually non-existent which pleased me no end. Before long it was the turn of my wave to enter the water. I had noticed the path the earlier waves had taken, so I kept to the left hand side of the course. The water was clear and warm and a joy to swim in.
My race plan was to enjoy the swim, swim easy until about the half way point and then to try and swim harder until the finish line. As the swim developed my plan was put into place. As I rounded the point I started swimming harder and soon swam past other swimmers. I felt very strong the whole way. There was no problem navigating as there was no chop and the backdrop of the club made the finishing point easy to spot.
I crossed the finish line and was given a piece of paper with my time on it: no fancy timing chips for this swim. I was pleased with my time of just over twenty-two minutes, coming in the top seventy-five competitors. I was very happy with that placing as it was my first time in the top one hundred swimmers. So perhaps the efforts I had put into my squad training over the last few months were starting to bear fruit.
But the best part of the swim was the hot soup and bread rolls for all competitors at the finish. It was so good I went back for more. Fantastic to be part of a lovely swim with warm friendly volunteers from the local surf club. I would definitely do this swim again.
The 2011 season was over (note the season runs from 1 June till 30 May). In that period I had swum in six swims for a total distance of 13.4 km. Each event was at least two km, and I never did two races on the one day. The boffins at oceanswims.com do a tally of everyone in Australia who enters these swims. For that season there were 43,461 swimmers who competed in a race. I was ranked 1,398 by distance covered. (For NSW I was ranked 509th out of 17,154). When I looked at the tallies I was amazed that anyone could swim more than fifty km in the season.
There are a couple of handicap systems used. The one operated by oceanswims uses a formula which adjusts for the age of the swimmer. It is run on seven or so swims a season with a prize offered to the top ranked swimmer who swims at least three of those designated events. The prize is a trip to Turkey, or the South Pacific to swim in an event. For that competition I had swum three races and ended up with around 185 points (max 300) and a ranking of 246 out of 357.
The other handicap system compares your time with that of the fastest swimmer as a ratio of the slowest swimmer to the fastest. For the season I accumulated just under 400 points with the average of my best three swims of 76 (out of 100). This placed me 212nd out of 1,143 overall, and 28th in my age group.
So all these stats are ok, and they are something to build on for future seasons.
I had made a big change to my training regime and joined a squad towards the end of the season. I knew that this was a long-term commitment and did not expect to see results overnight. However, my efforts for the last two swims of the season showed me that I was on the right track with an improved performance in each swim. I was getting fitter and stronger in the water, so I would expect to see more improvement over a longer period of time. I had learnt to navigate better in the water, gained slightly more confidence in the surf, and made some friends. My favourite swim for the season was the Cockatoo Island swim, with the Bondi swim a close second.
My plans for the next season included a swim in New York City in July, and goals to improve in the Coles Classic and even do some of the famous journey swims around Sydney.
Who knows what the report at the end of the 2012 season will look like?
This swim was scheduled for Easter Monday, but was postponed due to adverse conditions, with large swells making the swim unsafe. It was finally held towards the end of May. Now you would think that having a swim in the last week of autumn would mean cold water. Well in Sydney you would be quite wrong as the water temperature stays above twenty degrees until June each year. Remember water takes longer to cool than the land. Likewise it takes longer to warm up at the start of summer than the land. That is why the best time for ocean swimming is from March to May each year due to the warm water, the less intense sun, the absence of blue bottles and the generally calmer winds.
By the time this swim had come around I had stepped up my training regime. I was now doing three morning sessions a week in the pool and also most weeks a session in the surf at North Bondi. I was swimming in excess of fifty km a month now, and I was also gaining confidence in the surf. Our sessions in the surf concentrated on getting in and out through the wave zone, navigating in the open water, and the starts. All of these skills were useful to pick up to a beginner like me. I was full of admiration for a couple of gents in their 60s who were still swimming very fast and could body surf extremely well. They had clearly been in the surf all of their lives.
I was still not confident enough to enter both races for this event, so once again only entered the longer event over 2.1 km. The course was a start in the centre of Bondi beach, out to a can off Bondi Icebergs, then across the bay to North Bondi, and back to the finish line in the centre of the beach. At the warm up for the squad we could see where the rip was , and where the sandbank was. Growing up on the beach I had been told to keep away from rips as they could take you out past the break. However, for an ocean swimmer there is an advantage in using the rip to get out past the wave zone for two reasons. Firstly you got there quicker, and secondly the rip reduced the size of the waves. Conversely when you were swimming back to the beach you should aim for a sand bank and not the rip.
Luckily there was not much swell on this day which I was comfortable with. At the start though there was a choice to make: should you enter the water in front of the start line and swim diagonally to the first can; or run down the beach and use the rip to get out. I decided on the latter option, even though my running was very ordinary.
I soon made it out the back, rounded the first can and headed to North Bondi. The water was warm and clear and it was so much fun swimming on a glorious sunny day.
I made it back to the beach without too much drama and feeling quite strong. I had noticed that my training had resulted in me being able to swim stronger for longer and that old tired feeling had disappeared.
It was good to share the experience with other squad members, and I felt a part of a community of swimmers. They had provided support and guidance to me. My time of just over thirty-four minutes placed me just outside the top half of the field of 500 or so swimmers.
I felt glad that I had managed to swim at Bondi when it was only a few months previously that I lacked the confidence in my skills to be able to compete.
Now that I had joined a squad, I quickly increased my training distances. I was now doing around thirty km in the pool per month which was about double what I had been doing previously. In addition to the increased distance, I was also getting fitter with faster laps and repetitions with the squad. I was also enjoying pushing myself in the pool and trying to understand the instructions from the coach.
I had swum the Sydney Harbour Classic in March 2010, so I was keen to do it again to see how I had improved. The distance of two km was quite manageable and the location in Farm Cove near the Opera House was superb. And the only waves and chop on the swim would come from the ferries going to and from Manly further out in the harbour.
Another advantage of doing this swim was that it was a fund-raiser for the Black Dog Institute.
I arrived at the course on another sunny morning and eagerly waited for the start of my event. I was feeling confident of beating my time from last year, but I knew that this was subject to many variables such as tides, wind and different buoy placement.
Once again the wave started and I took note of my coach’s instructions to let the other swimmers go out hard on the basis that I would catch them towards the end. You cannot win the race by the first buoy but you can lose it was one of his sayings. So I let the others start hard and fairly soon I was swimming in clear water. I soon caught up to some other swimmers and enjoyed swimming in their wake, until I noticed they were not heading for the first can. Reluctantly I decided to veer away from them and aim for the can, and sure enough I managed to beat them to it.
Once again the glorious views of the Harbour Bridge, Opera House and the city skyline made it hard to concentrate on the swim. Soon enough I was tuning the last buoy for home and tried to up the pace. But I soon realised that my training had not been for long enough and I could not keep up the pace for long. I climbed out at the end feeling much better than my previous few swims which was a good sign.
My time of just under twenty-eight minutes was ninety seconds quicker than the previous year. I was very happy with that until I realised that my overall placing had dropped from the top one-third of the field to the top forty-five per cent. Umm that was disappointing.
Oh well I would have to do more swim training now in an attempt to improve further.
I was still keen to swim in the ocean. However, I knew that I had to get stronger in the water and more confident in the surf. I was regularly checking the website oceanswims.com for details of all swims. I saw that there were races at North Bondi, but I did not feel confident enough in the water to try to swim there.
I noticed a swim at Malabar Beach coming up. I did some research on this swim organised by Murray Rose and a charity that helps disabled people get into the water. The beach was quite protected from the worst of the ocean swells, as it was at the end of a long bay (hence the name of a nearby penal institution). Th weather forecast was good, so I entered the swim.
I arrived at the beach on a very warm morning, and we set ourselves up under the shade of some trees. I checked the course for my 2.4 km event and noticed that it was out to the head of the bay across to the other side, and back to the beach. There was virtually no swell in the bay, so I was relieved. I watched the swimmers in the one km event wondering why anyone would do both swims. I did think that I could easily just do the one km event, but I wanted to challenge myself.
I had learnt my lesson at the Coles Classic about the start. This time I made sure I was on the edge towards the rear of my wave. I felt a lot more comfortable with this and managed to miss most of the thrashing of arms and legs at the start. The water was arm, smooth and inviting. I felt confident of making the distance.
The swim out to the first turning buoy was easy at first, but as I got closer to the can the more exposed the course was to the swells. I had trouble dealing with the chop and really did not enjoy the slog across to the other side of the bay. It was only after I turned back towards the finish line that I swam into smoother water.
But then another issue arose: I was tired. I looked up and I estimated that I still had around 500m to go, but my body was telling me that it would be nice to stop. I slowed down and concentrated on getting those long smooth strokes going in an attempt to conserve energy. My feet finally hit the sand and I stumbled across the finish line.
I had made it, but I was exhausted. I wondered back up the hill after grabbing a drink and slumped on my towel.
My time of just under 42 minutes placed me in the top 60% of the overall field and my age group. I was full of admiration of all those swimmers who looked quite fresh after the swim and had friends to share stories with.
I knew after this swim that I had to do more than I was doing. Obviously my self-training at Andrew Boy Charlton pool consisting of jumping in the water and swimming two km straight just was not working. I needed to join a swim squad that would challenge me, and I also needed to get into the ocean more often.
I did some research and found a squad that trained at Ian Thorpe Pool at Ultimo which was a ten minute walk from my home. The squad also did training at North Bondi on Saturday mornings teaching surf skills. This looked promising.
I contacted the coach via email and made arrangements to attend a pool session. I arrived at the pool feeling quite nervous and saw that the squad was large and occupied a few lanes. They looked fit and lean to me and most of them were younger as well. The coach put me in the slow lane and I was surprised that I could keep up at first. I soon found that my engine was not large enough to keep me going at that pace through a whole session.
However, before long I had moved up to the middle lane, swimming with those who had been in the squad a while. I learnt that the squad was made up of ocean swimmers and triathletes. They made me feel very welcome, and I was encouraged.
Now for the next challenge.
I had entered the Coles Classic swim at Manly. Unlike most of the swims which were run by surf lifesaving clubs, this one was run by a media company as part of their strategy of supporting the community. This meant that you had to enter several weeks before the swim and pay higher prices. With most ocean swims I would check the swell forecast and if it was too big for my ability I would not enter. This was not a choice for this swim at Manly. The other problem was that you had to collect your timing chip and swim cap from a sports store in the city in the week of the swim.
Despite these issues, it was still the largest swim on the calendar with over 4000 swimmers in two events. I had entered the longer swim of 2.4 km which was to be swum from Shelley Beach to North Styne beach and return to Manly Beach.
Getting to the swim was easy: a ferry from Circular Quay on a beautiful Sunday morning, followed by a stroll to Manly Beach. When I arrived the swimmers in the one km event were just finishing. There were people everywhere and a real buzz. The walk to Shelley Beach was quite slow but as always I had arrived in plenty of time, much to the disquiet of my support crew. We found a nice spot at the back of the beach under a tree and waited for my wave.
Finally my wave was called and I was shocked by how many swimmers there were. I found out later that there was over 250 swimmers just in my wave. I found myself right in the middle of this pack and when we hit the water there was mayhem. While I was used to arms and legs everywhere at the start of a swim I was totally unprepared for this melee. I had swimmers all around me pushing me hitting me and making it impossible to settle into a rhythm. I found myself getting short of breath and starting to panic. However, by the time I had arrived at the first buoy I had managed to get to the edge of the pack and could settle down and get my breath. It felt like I was starting again.
It was a slog up to North Styne and back to the point off Manly. The melee at the start had taken a lot out of me and I was tiring quickly. I was worried about getting through the waves at Manly Beach, so I slowed down further to get my heart rate down. Luckily I had swum part of the course on Christmas Day and New Years Day with the Bold and Beautiful gang.
Soon enough I was entering the wave zone, and I even managed to almost catch a small wave into the beach. If only I had more energy to get onto the wave. It was a long run up the beach and the face I exhibited for the official cameraman was priceless. I stumbled over the line happy that I had managed to finish even if I was completely knackered.
My time of just over forty-four minutes placed me in the top 55% of the 2000 swimmers in the race. I knew this event attracted a range of swimmers with vastly different abilities, and I was glad I had managed to complete it.
I still needed to do more work to increase my fitness and to feel more comfortable swimming in the ocean. I thought about this on the way back to the city on the ferry.
I had mapped out a plan for swims for the season, and the one at the Opera House on Australia Day was on the list. I was familiar with the course, and it was a harbour swim which suited my confidence levels. The swim was scheduled to be two and a half km so it would test my fitness.
When I arrived at Circular Quay I was greeted with a fog that shrouded the Harbour Bridge. This was quite rare for Sydney as fogs are much more common in early winter. This fog meant it would be good conditions for the event. The fog turned out to be a sea fog that rolled in up the harbour due to the warm water. Beached on hte coast like Bondi had fog until early afternoon, but I was fortunate that the fog lifted around the Opera House mid morning.
When I arrived for registration I was told I was in the Elite Wave with Olympic swimmers. After a short discussion the organisers saw the folly of this and I was placed in my age category. Good I would not be swimming by myself.
I watched a latge number of people swim the early one km event, and I wondered if I would ever be strong enough to do both. They all enjoyed themselves as it really is quite an iconic course.
Finally it was my turn to jump into the harbour for our in the water start. I was feeling a tad worried that I would not be strong enough to swim at a comfortable speed as I had not done a great deal of training since my last swim. The hooter started and off we went in the usual splash of arms and legs. My established strategy was to swim at an easy pace and try and make it to the end of the course. Fairly soon I was swimming with those of similar ability and I had plenty of time to admire the view.
When I turned the last buoy to turn for home I felt very tired and wondered if I would be strong enough to make it to the finish line. I slowed down and told myself that I had done longer swims and that I had to finish. My arms felt very heavy and the finish line at the Opera House seemed to be getting no closer.
Finally I made it and climbed up the ladders and lumbered over the timing mats to record my time. I was quite fatigued and gulped down the free drinks on hand. While my time of just over forty minutes was quite respectable for the distance I soon realised that the course was not the advertised length. I was placed in the top 60% of the field of 400 swimmers. I knew that I could do better, but I would have to come up with a plan to improve.
It was a great way to celebrate the birthday of our nation.
I had come to realise that if I was to be more confident in the ocean swim environment I had to be fitter, and also get more comfortable swimming in the ocean. So I decided to change my training pool to the Andrew Boy Charlton Pool in Sydney. The only problem was this pool was closed during winter, and was a thirty minute walk from where I lived. Thus I continued swimming at North Sydney Pool until early September.
The Andrew Boy Charlton Pool was named after an Olympic swimmer from the 1920s. This pool has an idyllic location perched above Sydney Harbour overlooking Potts Point and Woolloomooloo. To get to it I walked through Hyde Park and the Domain past the NSW Art Gallery and along the eastern side of Mrs Macquarie’s Chair. The pool was a joy to swim in.
My plan was to do the Cockatoo Island swim once again as I was familiar with the course. I realised I was becoming dedicated when I turned down an opportunity to attend a centenary pool for the organisation I worked at which was scheduled for the night before the swim.
When I arrived at the Dawn Fraser Pool at Balmain I was interested to see that the swim had changed slightly: we now had to swim anti-clockwise around the island. This was due to the recent changes to the ferry timetables. We were told at the briefing that if a swimmer did not make it to the ferry wharf on the island within thirty minutes then the swimmer would have to wait for the ferry before continuing. The other problem was that I would not be able to look at the island as I only breathed on my right hand side.
My wave started in the water and I made sure I swam moderately fast to get past the ferry wharf. Fortunately I met this goal, along with most of the rest of the field. When I was two-thirds of the way around the island I was starting to struggle. I was getting slower and could feel the effort of getting that far. I regretted not doing more preparation, but it was too late now.
Finally I made it back to the start line and crawled out of the water and over the finish line feeling exhausted. I could only look in awe at those swimmers who had moved past me with apparent ease and grace.
The free summer fruit was very welcome on a warm morning and the mangos were delicious.
My time was twenty-five seconds slower than last year. I was quite disappointed but realised that I would have to up my training regime to get back into condition. Doing two km in the pool two or three times a week was not enough to swim well over longer courses. The choice was to do the shorter one km swim races or build the intensity of my training.
But at least my 2011 swim season was under way.
After my succesful traverse of Lake Macquarie, I decided to enter another swim. The location Farm Cove in Sydney Harbour. The starting point was next to the Opera House, a swim around Farm Cove looking at the Botanic Gardens, and back to the Opera House. Distance two km, harbour swim with no waves. Easy after my recent effort.
Only problem was that a year before the swim a navy diver had lost a hand to a shark at the nearby Garden Island Naval Base. So the organisers had extra precautions for those willing to brave the murky harbour water: their own divers loitering underneath the course to provide protection for the swimmers. But if you are concerned about sharks as a swimmer you really should not get in water. After all you are more likely to be killed by a bee, or involved in a traffic accident on the way to the swim than to have an encounter with a shark.
Getting to this swim was easy for me as I only had to walk from home across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, then down through Circular Quay to the start line at the Opera House. Tough way to start the day.
Another glorious day with plenty of sun. Registered for the swim and sat on a grassy bank in The Botanic Gardens to watch those doing the one km swim. Before long it was time for the start of the two km event, Another water start with a jump off a pontoon, with the official starter a leading light of the Federal Opposition Malcolm Turnbull. The route for the swim was across Farm Cove to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, then turn right to swim around the Cove and back to the start line. I noticed that the wave looked fairly large so I decided to hang back and let others go first.
The hooter sounded and we were off. The usual thrashing of arms and legs as swimmers jockeyed for position. I let this happen in front of me and settled into my stroke pattern while looking ahead to make sure I was on course. As per usual I soon caught up to other swimmers but they had trouble navigating so I had to weave around them. By the time I had got to the first buoy I was in clear water.
After the turn on every breath the view was of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. It was hard not to focus on the iconic view. Before long that view was replaced by one of the Sydney skyline. What a place to have a swim race. How many people around the world dream of coming to Sydney to see this view and here I was swimming in a race while enjoying that same view.
I felt quite strong and once I passed the last buoy tried to up the pace and managed to pass a few other swimmers. Another feature of this swim was that you had to climb out of the water using ladders, run over a pontoon and then pass over the timing pad. But everyone had to do it, so it was much the same for all.
I had finished. Good result finishing in the top third of the field, and a top twenty in my age group. I felt very satisfied with all my training and the good results.
So the 2010 season was over for me. I had swum four races for a total distance of just under ten km. Of those four races, only one was in the surf, so I did not feel that I was an oceanswimmer. Time to focus on my training until next season.
After having my confidence in the ocean shattered in the Baths to Bar swim, I knew that I wanted to keep up open water swimming, but I also needed to find a slightly different option. I enjoyed swimming in a pool, but following a black line swimming by yourself was getting tedious. I had enjoyed swimming in the open water and relished the change.
So I looked on the oceanswims.com website to research the swimming calendar. Most of the swims in Sydney were at beaches, and I was not too keen to battle all those good swimmers with their variable wave conditions. I did see that there was a swim in Lake Macquarie near Newcastle that looked good. The swim was from one side of the lake to the other. The only problem was that the swim was 3.8 km long. This swim had been running every year since the early 1960s and the male and female course record was set by Olympic swimmers in the later 1980s. Having grown up in that part of the word I was familiar with the course and the conditions. All I had to do was get my swimming up to a level where I could swim four km non stop at a good pace.
I decided to enter this swim and to up my training schedule. I was swimming at North Sydney Pool near where I lived. I had been doing forty laps in a session, but decided to up this to eighty laps of the pool. When I started this new regime the second half was tough, but before too long I was managing to do the swim regularly in seventy minutes or less. I was ready.
The day of the swim was a lovely early March day with lots of sun and a gentle westerly breeze to push you towards the finish. After registration at the Skiffy Club in Belmont we caught the ferry over to Coal Point. We jumped off the ferry to start the race in the water. This swim was popular with iron man triathletes as the swim distance was the same as the swim leg of the iron man triathlon. So there were quite a few wearing their racing suits.
The swim started and as usual a number of swimmers sprinted off. I knew that this was a long swim so it was better to pace. So I let them go and tried to find some swimmers swimming at my pace. Soon enough I was swimming near a group of four swimmers who were swimming at a good pace, so I settled in behind them to swim in their wake. This made swimming a lot easier and as long as they could navigate in a straight line this would make the swim easier. I was used to swimming the distance without the benefit of drafting.
This course is a straight line, and as long as you knew where you were headed it was easy to navigate using the buildings on the distant shore. I looked up every now and then and knew we were heading in the right direction. Those years of swimming in Merewether Baths without lane markers had taught me know when I was swimming straight. Before long I noticed that the pack was heading off course and were heading too far south. But what to do? Should I stay with this pack and swim further than necessary, or get back on course and lose the drag? They were headed further off course so I veered left and headed back on course. Each time I breathed I noticed them getting further away. I had made the right decision.
I then caught up with a swimmer who had a surf ski paddling with them as a guide. Bonus I could swim behind them knowing they would head in the right direction. So I did that until I got to within the last km of the course. It was now time for all that training to kick in as I felt strong. I upped my pace and soon left this swimmer behind.
By this time the finish line was in sight and I was racing a couple of younger swimmers in racing suits. This would be a challenge. But I kept up my pace and managed to beat them to the finish line.
I checked my time and I had done just under sixty-four minutes. I was very pleased with that time as it was quicker than any of my training swims. I then remembered the lake was very salty giving me more buoyancy, and the following breeze as of assistance.
I had done it, and I did not feel anywhere near as tired as I had after my last swim. My confidence was restored. All I could think of was my elder brother who was proud of sailing across the lake in a dinghy. That was nothing: I had just swum across the lake.