Tony Kelly is a member of the Williamstown Mussels, the mid-Saturday morning group of ocean swimmers.
This story was first published in The Big Issue (edition 448; 26 December 2013).
Mike reckons the water is around 13°. Two degrees more than the mid-winter low but still bloody cold if you ask me. The slowly gathering Saturday morning swimmers are putting on their wetsuits. I already have on my kayaking vest for that extra bit of thermal protection. Next there is the lanolin to prevent chafing around the neck. Then on go the booties, the swim cap and hood. Tim reckons he will swim without gloves today. Not seduced by the rise in water temperature and the feeble early spring sun I slip on my gloves. Eventually we are all assembled and kitted out. Ready.
Three years ago I wrote My Father’s Business which described my early morning laps on the anniversary of my father’s death. The swimming had become a means to stay fit and healthy and manage the high cholesterol that runs in the family and that contributed to my father’s death – two days after his 52nd birthday.
The first 100 metres or so is out to the buoy to which Tim attaches the big blow up ball that becomes one of the three markers that set out the usual course. Icy-cold water seeps in through the seam and around the neck of my wetsuit, but this is nothing compared with the pain I feel in my face when I first put my head under. The men complain about this more than the women. I am not convinced that I can persevere. The accepted wisdom is to swim slowly and calmly, and breathe through it.
I am the youngest of eight and not long after my brother David (the next youngest) turned 52, I discovered that he and my other siblings privately considered living longer than dad a milestone. I too have set myself that macabre target, though with no real sense of what it will mean.
Will I develop a greater sense of him – reaching the age he is forever etched in my mind? Will I compare myself to him and all that he achieved at the same age? Will I develop a sense of being on borrowed time and that every moment more is a bonus? Or will I, perhaps, become more fully aware of how premature his death was and all that he missed out on?
I met the bay swimmers six months ago. It is an informal arrangement, non-competitive. Safety and collegiality are key. It is a break from my regular lap swimming. The normal routine is to swim a circuit around Mick’s ball and two yellow channel markers. Usually I peel off after a couple of laps. The fitter more hardened swimmers will then head off east towards the footy ground or west to the little marina. But today the conditions are perfect with good visibility, no wind and no swell. I understand now what ‘glassy’ means. With our spirits up we all head off towards the footy ground. I am anxious I have to admit. I am probably the least-experienced cold-water swimmer in the group (one has even swum off the coast of Scotland) and being tall and thin I get cold very quickly.
My sense of loss at the time of my dad’s death was not great. He was one of many in a large loving family. The loss is something I feel more as I get older. What was he like? What sort of relationship would I have had with him? Would we have shared the same humour? There have been times I would have liked his advice, his guiding hand. Going into law – his profession – at a late age heightened this sense.
Every couple of hundred metres we pull up to allow the stragglers (meaning me) to catch up and check on how everyone is going. At each break I am aware that my body temperature is steadily dropping. Eventually after well over one kilometre we reach the footy ground. I feel relieved. Time to turn around and begin the long swim back. However, Tim suggests we push on to the rocks, from which we will get a view across the bay back towards the CBD. Only 100m he says. I can see it is more. Everyone else is in agreement. I assent silently. The rocks take forever to reach. When we get there the expanse of Melbourne opens out before us. Buoyed by the conditions and having got us this far Tim encourages us to go a bit further – from beyond the rocks, he promises, the sweep of the view will include Docklands and its Ferris wheel.
I am starting to feel anxious. How far is it really? Every stroke further includes another stroke back and my body another degree colder. No one else appears reluctant.
My first ocean swim was at Portsea three years ago. It was summer but I was only wearing one of those short-sleeved wetsuits. I was in the water for 48 minutes and my GP friend was convinced I had mild hypothermia when I got out.
Sense overcomes pride and I admit I am getting cold and need to start heading back. I feel guilty. I suspect the others are keen to push on; after all we have come this far. To my great relief one other swimmer is in agreement and, to the credit of the others, they agree to head back without hesitation.
When lap swimming the challenge is to keep count, not let the tedium discourage you or trick you into adding a few extra laps. In the ocean the challenge is keeping the line. I breathe only on the left and consequently have a strong tendency to steer left. As a result I probably burn up more energy than everyone else. Motivated by the story I read of the swimmer who swam around Manhattan Island breathing only on the left and thus only got to see the lowlands of New Jersey and Long Island, I have been teaching myself to breathe on both sides.
The yellow marker is too far away for me to see so I line up the straggly palms near the surf club and stroke by stroke creep back towards the beach. I find myself taking two extra strokes before each breath. Perhaps it is a sign that I have found my rhythm. I suspect it is a sign that my body is slowly shutting down with the cold. I pull ahead of the group and don’t stop to wait. I worry if I do I may not get going again.
When I pull up back up on the beach I discover I have been in the water for one hour and 25 minutes and have swum close to three kilometres. I have no idea it has been that long. I am cold. My jaw aches and I can only grin. Talking is out of the question. My fingers hardly work and getting the wetsuit off is an ordeal. But I feel good, even better after some hi-carb morning tea and hot coffee. My body hums for the rest of the day.
In a couple of weeks it will be my 52nd birthday. I plan to mark the occasion with another swim at Williamstown. By then the water temperature will have crept up a degree or two. If we decide to head east I will make it past the footy ground and, this time, push beyond the rocks. I will see the Ferris wheel. I will continue going about my father’s business.