I’m standing on Bondi Beach, it’s a balmy 73 degrees and I’m freezing. It may have been overcast but this was a late summer Sunday. Then it dawned on me. I was experiencing fear. Fear of a kind I’ve not had shudder through me since Mr Backhouse’s maths lessons. I was supposed to be on holiday in Sydney but, not three weeks previously, in a moment of uncharacteristic bravado I’d managed to get absorbed in an enthusiastic exchange with my brother (he who I was going to see) about a swim. Not just any swim. Although in January, in London, a call about swimming in Australia would be enough to get anyone enthusiastic. No, this was the Bondi Classic 2k. Yes, you read that last bit right. 2k. Two kilometres. KILOmetres. In the SEA.
I’ve been a keen swimmer since year dot, admittedly. Even been in the team at primary school and awarded colours at secondary. But 16 years languishing in London, 12 of those smoking with only the occasional fitful attempt at New Year keep-fit regimes had seen my boyhood talents lapse somewhat. What hadn’t lapsed, evidently, was my inability to manage reason and get sucked in to madcap schemes on the strength of an exciting phone call.
And so I find myself on the beach.
Three weeks earlier, not long after that fateful phone call, I began training in earnest. Attempting the distance in the pool, I emailed my brother proudly announcing I’d managed it in one hit. “Great,” he said, “but swimming in the sea isn’t anything like swimming in a pool.” I looked up ‘open-water swimming’ online…everything I was reading made it sound more like an assault course than a Sunday morning constitutional; “…the hardest part is getting through the breakers”, “…try to find your position away from the pack”, “…pace yourself against the tidal flow”. I thought this was supposed to be a swim, not an exercise in survival?
Ah, well, there can’t be that many people entering such madness, surely? But, the closer we made for our doom, walking through Bondi’s shabby-chic residential streets, the more the trickle of people I noticed began to gather in volume and gravitate towards the beach until, rounding the corner of Ramsgate Avenue, I was confronted with a maelstrom of activity on a scale of the Dunkirk evacuation. Gazebos lined the promenade offering everything from sun-block to souvenir T-shirts, a temporary scaffolding housed commentators (Commentators?! Was this going on television or something?!), refreshment posts offered watermelon and blue energy drinks. A surf rescue helicopter circled overhead, below a plane criss-crossing the sky dragging an advertising banner. Among the crowds, practically obscuring the sand, lifeguards patrolled, identifiable by their characteristic red and yellow swimming hats. As if to complete the sense of a military operation, as we stood on the ramp to the beach, I spotted children lifeguard cadets practicing marching drills. This was no Sunday morning dip.
Amid the melee I spotted a finish line and, just beyond, into the water, there were already swimmers emerging from some of the other races. Commentary went through the proceedings, “Well, folks, the conditions out there are perfect….” Damn, so it’s not called off then. “We should see some great times today…” Not likely. Some great deaths, perhaps.
A sign by the ramp showed the course, an M-shape with buoys marking each point of the letter out on the bay that we’d have to round. From our vantage point I looked out to see what these were like in the flesh. What did 2km look like at sea? The first marker looked achievable, to my eyes somewhere roughly 100 metres down the north end of the beach, parallel to the rocks. The second, the bottom point of the M, was closer still, right into the shore. Oh, well, this doesn’t look too bad at all. So we go out there, round the first one, turn in to the second…where’s the third? The other point of the ‘M’? I couldn’t see it. Then my brother pointed out to sea. I couldn’t make out what he was pointing at. Then I realised why. Something apparently the size of a pinhead was being obscured intermittently by the motion of the water. It was miles away. In fact, so far was this object it looked like it was about to be hit by a tanker on the horizon. “That’s the middle marker”, he said nonchalantly. “I can’t seem to make out the third…” As my knees began to quiver, I asked what this marker so comfortably close to the shore was then. “The finishing point,” he said, and trotted down the ramp. Were I in a cartoon at that point I would have uttered an audible gulp. Bondi is a big beach. To the extent that the residents of the left-hand end call it North Bondi to distinguish it from the main beach the hoi polloi frequent. At the far end, the renowned Icebergs club sits atop the rocks. The elusive third buoy bobbed gently below it, in line almost with the headland beyond which was the Tasman Sea. And it was virtually out of sight.
By now anxious to get this over with, I was glad we’d given ourselves about ten minutes to get ready. Splendid. No time to over-think it. We found a spot to camp at and, as the rank and file support of our friends and family members began to gather, I took the opportunity to test the water. Hoping for it to be too cold or somehow electrified, it was neither. Even the “breakers” I thought might give me an excuse to get a bad start and withdraw never materialised. Damn it. Everything pointed to me having to go through with this.
As we made our way to the starting line, donning swimming caps and adjusting goggles, the oddity of what I was doing began to occur to me. Here I was, clad in next to nothing, surrounded by dozens of other semi-naked human beings. What’s more, we were being fenced into a roped-off area, herded closer together, marshals telling some of the more enthusiastic of us to “get behind the line”. In my head, these orders were barked in German accents. The fear I was experiencing was palpable. You can tell when it is irrational, I started thinking of tides and sharks and being pressed under by the mass of bodies above me. About me people were poised for action, shaking their arms and stretching their shoulders. Or shaking their shoulders and stretching their arms. Either way, they looked like they’d done this before so I began rolling my head and shaking out my legs. That seemed to help. Partly because if I actually shook my legs people wouldn’t notice they were trembling of their own volition. The last thing I remember was spotting the words ‘Budgie Smuggler’ on the back of a pair of Speedos in front me. Oh, the Aussie wit.
And we were off. Someone somewhere must have blown a whistle or fired a gun because, en masse, the crowd surged to the water. And took me with it. This was it. As if startled like a herd of Wildebeest from the crack of a rifle we jostled and jockeyed for position. Tactics went out of the window when I hit the water, this was about survival. I half-jogged, half-waded to my waist before I dived. It’s true what they say about training. Soldiers refer to instinct taking over in stressful situations and that’s pretty much what happened here. I just started swimming. Whether I’d fortunately made it into some advantageous position I’m not sure but one of my irrational fears was allayed fairly early on. I wasn’t being thrust under water by the panicked crowds. Sure, I had to watch for flailing limbs but, generally, there was room enough in that water for everyone to move almost in unison and, as we progressed, that room broadened out.
The adrenaline seemed to carry me to the first buoy because it appeared sooner than I’d expected. “So far, so good,” I thought. As I rounded it, I glanced up to see a lifeguard bobbing nonchalantly on a surfboard. If he was the marker between us and open water then, surely, if there were sharks about, he’d look worried. Besides, visibility at this point was pretty minimal and I was thankful for my by now half-misted goggles. What I can’t see can’t hurt me, right? Still, I wasn’t taking any chances. Along the back leg, I tried to keep people on the outside of me just in case. If any predatory creature was lurking in that water, it’d take them first.
As I settled into a stride I found myself keeping pace with a swimmer in front of me. The metronomic beat of their kick seemed manageable, at least until we reached the middle marker. At this point, we must have been approaching the half-way mark. That’s one kilometre. 20 lengths of the pool. Just over half my usual session. This really wasn’t so bad. In the mists of memory as I pulled each stroke I vaguely remembered someone saying swimming in the sea was easier, because the marginally denser water kept you buoyant. He could have had a point. I was really doing this. In fact, it might not simply be a case of finishing, I could even put in a reasonable time.
I took a moment to switch to breaststroke. With my head above water I could see the Icebergs marker ahead but, over my shoulder, the beach and finish line now seemed miles away. I went back to crawl and the stroke-stroke-breathe rhythm of triathletes. Ha. That’s a joke. Swimming like a triathlete? What would Stirling think if he could see me now? Distinctly past the half-way point and the back straight down the south end of the bay and things started to get weary. I learned later that the reason I reached the first buoy so quickly was because we were going with the flow of the current. At the other side, that current went in the opposite direction and worked against us. It was draining. I’d already started to be passed by swimmers in different coloured caps, namely those starting behind us in a different age group. Right, fine, that idea of chasing a time thing can go out the window. This really is just about finishing it.
Ironically, the shortest leg of the course turned out to be the hardest. The penultimate turn into a straight parallel along the beach and every time I looked up the final marker seemed to get further away. When it did finally arrive all that was left was the approach to the beach. It’s funny, one never thinks of the movement of waves during the jollity of beach holidays. I thought I’d practically be able to body-surf to the shoreline but, before they break, waves pull as well as push and every stroke I took towards the beach I was being dragged back twofold.
Finally, I broke through, picked up a wave and was carried part-way in. Thinking I could now stand on the bottom and reaching for a breath, I nearly swallowed a gallon of water when I realised I wasn’t anywhere near, my feet flapping beneath me. Of all the things, to think you’re so close to finishing and can switch to a run, you have to get back into it and continue swimming. Throw breaking waves into the mix and by the time I emerged from the water I was cursing like a sailor. As I reeled from the water all I could think of was getting to the line. Only now, back on dry land, was I suddenly in a race again and I’d be damned if the swine that passed me as we emerged from the waves was going to finish ahead of me. This swim may have felt like hours but I wasn’t about to be pipped in the final seconds, no sir. I think I was placed somewhere about 600 and something but, in my head, he and I were battling for pole position. How it must have looked as I practically dived over the line to pass this hapless fellow, I don’t know. Fortunately, no-one took that photo.
But I’d done it. I can see why endurance athletes get that feeling of euphoria. I was absolutely thrilled. For something that had prompted anxious sleepless nights, something to which I’d even considered death a better alternative, here I was having finished this thing and come through it in one piece. But there was icing to come on this cake. Of our group who’d entered, I’d managed to be the first one home. How I did that, I’ll never know. Perhaps I missed one of the markers and only swam half the distance. One thing’s for sure, 40 lengths of the pool back in Blighty doesn’t seem like such a daunting prospect any more. Still can’t do those equations for Mr Backhouse though.