The novice

At the end of the innings I slip off my black flippers and emerge from the water, waist-deep in the shallows of the sanctuary.

At the end of the innings I slide off my snorkel and make my way to the shore.

At the end of the innings I take off my black gloves, head across the sand as the saltwater drains from my wetsuit.

It is in this last act, removing the gloves – with flippers tucked under one arm, snorkel dangling from a wrist – that I come closest to ever acting like a cricketer. Like a batsman, I’m removing protective equipment while walking away from the playing field.

And, as often as not, I may glance eastward toward the little cricket ground a few hundred metres away where, 20 odd years ago, I tried to be a cricketer. At the tender age of 30. A fifth X1, suburban, no-shade-anywhere, melted-Tim-Tams-for-afternoon-tea park cricketer. A getting-baked-under-the-hot-sun-I-should-have-more-sense-at-my-age park cricketer.

I was a no-spin slow bowler whom the skipper would summon from the deep when we needed to buy a wicket. Put all the fielders on the boundary, a few nearly in the water, and let the batsman take the bait. The deed done after all of two nervous overs, I’d be back fielding in the middle of nowhere, chuffed with my wicket but also looking out at that water.

Jawbone Marine Sanctuary, Williamstown

The solitude of cricket leaves you plenty of time to ponder the big questions. Can I actually bowl? Can I actually bat? What, really, am I doing out here, in the heat? What lies beneath the surface of cricket, of life, of that water just over there? What moves and swims and darts and glides in the octopus’ garden?

After two summers of ineptitude I put away the pads, the gloves, the white hat, the unmarked bat, the hopes. Put them in the garage, let the dust settle on the dreams. Contented myself with playing cricket in the backyard and the driveway with my children.

But the cricket ground and the marine sanctuary were only a few minutes on the bike from home, on a bike path that skirts this seaside suburb. One summer after another I would pause my pedalling, watch the bowler running in, and then gaze across to the water, to the rocks and the pelicans, to a handful of people in the water. Snorkelling. Diving. Seeing things I’d never seen before.

Despite not being a strong swimmer, I bought a wetsuit. Flippers. Snorkel and goggle. Gloves. Earplugs.

Then I waited. For a 30 degree day. For clear skies. For calm waters.

I pack my gear into my bike’s panniers, and pedal past the little cricket ground to this suburban marine sanctuary. Three-storey townhouses overlook the small beach from about 400 metres back. Refinery towers breathe fire about two kilometres to the west.

I leave my bike by the fence, walk the narrow gravel path, treading loudly to keep snakes at bay.

Beach sign

You can never be sure how clear the water will be, if clear at all. It’s like trying to read pitch conditions and bowlers from afar. You don’t know what you’re in for until you’re out there in the middle.

Still, there’s enjoyment – even satisfaction – in the anticipation: in tugging on the wetsuit, zipping it up; in popping in the earplugs, putting on the snorkel. You carry your gloves and your flippers out to a waist-deep rock.

You gaze up at the sky. Glance back at the shore. Out to the horizon. You’re still surprised that this is what summer really means to you now. After all, this was never part of your childhood, of school days, of holidays. This was never on the back pages. Or on the telly. This was never, ever, on the radio, day after day after day. You knew you’d never be, say, Jacques Kallis. And yet, here you are at Jawbone Marine Sanctuary in Williamstown being, in your own little way, Jacques Cousteau.

The solitude of snorkelling leaves you plenty of time to ponder the big questions. Am I breathing? Am I floating? Can I see, not just below me, but around me, in front of me? Is the tide of life going out or coming in?

There’s just you and the deep cool sea. (Well, four or five metres deep at the most.) Just you and the sun and the salt. Just you and the zebra fish, the banjo sharks, the starfish, the seagrasses, the rocks, the stingrays…

Just you and your breathing.

Just you and the best innings of summer.

rocks and snorkelling gear

Jellyish video by John Pahlow

Day 365 – not drowning, waving goodbye

Day 365   Saturday 1 June 2013

Exit sign at Williamstown beach

No marching bands. No media mayhem. No merchandise. Not surprising, really.

365 Swims completed its less-than-epic year of dips at 7.30 last Saturday morning, the first day of winter.

Walter and I huffed and puffed through the water and the rain as far as the Forster Street rocks, and then back again, followed by breakfast at the Rotunda, overlooking the water and the rain. (And, appropriately, there was a swimmer out near the buoys.)

Karen (the swimmer of darkness) and her son Jack arrived just as we were leaving, Karen mentioning she is counting the days to the winter solstice, after which  the mornings will, incrementally, begin to lighten.

I’ll keep going for a daily  dip but the 365 Swims blog has run its course. Time  to concentrate on music, sport and life in general.

Thanks to everyone for your company, comments, and  contributions.  They have been very much appreciated.

It’s been fun. I wish you all the best.

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Week 51 – a second snorkeller

Week 51 – Saturday 18 May to Friday 24 May 2013

rocks and snorkelling gear

Jawbone Reserve last summer.

On Thursday 23 May (day 356 of the 365 Swims) I opted for a midday spot of swimmng-with-the-snorkel. Lo and behold, there was another midday snorkeller at Williamstown, keeping the head down and gliding across to Sirens. And back. The second snorkeller had flippers and a wetsuit, so was in the cold water for quite a while. We didn’t quite cross paths but it was reassuring to know someone else dons the snorkel for their swimming. Who knows, maybe it’ll catch on. Maybe there’ll be snorkelling categories at the next Olympics. Maybe not.

Meanwhile there will apparently be a king tide in Williamstown on Sunday 26 May. 4.15pm  Could be worth a look, even a dip in the deep. More details at Green Cross Australia.

Scoreboard: 357 swims down, 8 to go.


Week 42 – Sirens

Week 42    Saturday 16 March to Friday 22 March

Sirens restaurant in Williamstown

Williamstown beach

The Sirens restaurant is at the eastern end of the Williamstown beach. I’ve got a hunch – based on no evidence whatsoever – that it might be more popular with visitors than locals.  It was a dilapidated, abandoned, vandalised building – change rooms, I guess –  for many years. About 20 years ago it was the location for a ghost-story in the children’s series Around The Twist.

Toilet signs at Sirens

Scrubby bush at beach

About 100 years ago this part of the beach featured private hot sea baths, until a sizable storm in 1922 huffed and puffed and blew everything down.

I’ve been snorkelling a little off Sirens lately. Just mooching around, not expecting to find anything.

This week’s dips:
Saturday 16/3. 7.30am. Chicken Channel, supposedly reserved strictly for old blokes -especially skinny old blokes wearing a snorkel – is invaded by rubber-men, triathletes churning up the water. Busier than Bourke St.
Sunday 17/3. 7.30am. High tide. Big southerly winds. Beach all to myself. Where are you rubber-men now? Where are your wetsuits and your watches and your caps and your perfect techniques?
Monday 18/3. 12.50pm. Low tide. Fairly clear.
Tuesday 19/3. 6pm. A little choppy.
Wednesday 20/3. 4.30pm. Low tide. Clear. Mooching about near Sirens.
Thursday 21/3. 4.30pm. A howling cool northerly. Serious wind. But the water is relatively calm. Almost flat. Rain spatters the water. Get happily soaked riding home.
Friday 22/3. 4.30pm. Calm. Pottering around off Sirens.

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Week 23 – Jawbone (1)

Week 23: Saturday 3 November to Friday 9 November 2012

Beach sign

The weather was warm, the sky was clear. Jawbone was calling. I hadn’t snorkelled at Jawbone Marine Sanctuary since May, so it was great to be back. Not that there were many fish to see last Sunday. Only two, in fact. Don’t ask me their names. (Larry and Harry, maybe. Bill and Ben, perhaps. Wilma and Thelma, possibly. Scarlet and Penelope…)

The sanctuary is just around the corner from Williamstown beach. On a warm day the beach will be packed. Around the corner you’ve  just about got the water to yourself, save for the stingrays, the zebra fish, the banjo shark, the Northern Pacific seastars…

It’s a gorgeous spot that was pretty much inaccessible before the old rifle range was developed, 20 years ago, into the Rifle Range Estate. You pedal through modern suburbia – brick houses jammed up together like sardines in a tin can – and then you’re on a little beach, in a little oasis.

Here’s hoping there are a few more fish for The Great Victorian Fish Count in a few weeks’ time. It was fun last year.

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Week 21 – ray

Week 21 – Saturday 20 October to Friday 26 October 2012

Illustration by Rhiannon Shaw, The Big Issue 294. December 2007

Tom saw a decent-sized stingray this week, out between the groynes, where the serious swimmers go. Late last summer there was a ray in the shallows one day, almost on the sand. It wasn’t looking too lively.  Tom and Roger tugged it out out of harm’s way into deeper water. It still wasn’t looking too lively but the outgoing tide looked after things.

I spied a little ray, maybe the size of a frypan last week and then this week, on Wednesday, I saw a larger ray in the shallows. About a metre wide. I floated above it for a few seconds. It stayed still. The first ray I saw last year was Saturday 5 November. The first ray I saw in 2010 was Saturday 30 October.

There’s another ray we see quite often at the beach: Ray the walker, with the big “G’day!” and the big smile.

In a month or two I hope to find more stingrays around the corner at Jawbone Marine Sanctuary.

Here’s a story I wrote five summers ago called Looking For Big Ray. The Big Issue published it back then.

Any day now, I’ll see it. Early morning maybe, with the place to myself, save for the descending hot-air balloons and the incoming ferry. Or later in the day with people about, unsuspecting visitors.

I will be floating. It will be camouflaged, its diamond shape hidden just below the sand. There might be two circles, like dark coins, to give me a clue. There might be a hint of its tail, a vague line in the sand.

Any day now. The wind will be still, the water will be calm.

My chest, already feeling the pressure of the water, will beat hard. My eyes, protected by goggles, will widen. My breathing, aided by the snorkel, will quicken.

The key is not to panic, to know that you can be safe. And then to try to stop time, to savour the moment… Continue reading