The buoy is back in town

Headline by Andy

Photos by Dan

Buoy resurrection by Holdfast Marine

Buoy resurrection

After about a week stranded near the end of the groyne and then about another week up on the sand, the Williamstown buoy is back in town. Holdfast Marine set to work at low tide on Saturday 23 August. Danny Buoy Wade caught some of the action with his trusty camera.

Buoy oh buoy.

Buoy oh buoy.

Going Swimmingly by Tony Kelly

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).

Going Swimmingly

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 Fathers 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.

Photo by Fiona Coates

Photo by Fiona Coates


Meet more Mussels

Dolphins on sand

Beach photo

Friday 30 May. Photo by Ray. Poem by Tom.

Standing captured for ever under grey skys

Clearly this swimming caper not a youngster’s game

The Dolpins on sand bringing together a disparate group

Commonality in the clear salt water and the daily stories unfurled

Whether it be the sea in all its mystery or personal tale

Dolphins rarely leave the beach without a smile and a friendly word

An ongoing daily dance as we plunge or wade into the bay

We would have it no other way. The sunrise paints the start of another day


Tom Cannon

The Willy Dolphins Swimsuit Edition

Willy Dolphins

The Willy Dophins lined up for their inaugural photo shoot on Friday 30 May, just after a month of mild weather and just before the official start of the winter-to-winter swimming season. Many thanks to photographer Ray (a mate of Pat’s) and to Andrew  for organising the whole shebang. Not all the Dolphins could attend – maybe we’ll have a full house for the T-shirt photo shoot.

Here’s a recent  poem by Kevin.

Save the bay

Upon the shore at Willy Beach, you can spy hearty souls swim out of reach

All year long each and every morn, they take a plunge before the dawn

In winter time their numbers thin, but the dedicated still have their swim

The Willy Dolphins have a cause and ask the litterers to take a pause

We like the water crystal clear and free of rubbish throughout the year

The rubbish dropped at your feet finds the drains in the street

It travels on to a creek or stream and finds the bay it would seem

So think of us when you throw away, use a bin and save the bay.



And here’s a poem by Tom


I wasn’t on a plane nor in Spain

It chased me as my hands rhythmically stroked the still sea

Flying forward into darkness no beacon to guide my heart working

Pushing me into the unkown but out there is my direction

I can glimpse the lights just across the bay

The rain continues  I turn my face to the sky my lips open tasting wetness

Then I plunge deep into the depths chasing nothing but myself

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 47 – remembering Artie

Artwork by Amy Melksham, the Big Issue, January 2011

Illustration by Amy Melksham, The Big Issue, January 2011


Week 47 – Saturday 20 April to Friday 26 April 2013

Swimmer and milk-bar owner Artie Davis died at the Williamstown beach ten years ago. Here’s a story I wrote a few years back,  a story that begins in 1996 and then makes its way to April 2003…

IT WAS 1996, our daughters’ first year at primary school. We were on a school excursion at the local suburban beach. Bluey and I were sitting on the rocks near the fishing club while our girls, both named Hannah, looked for shells and crabs with their classmates and teachers.

It was a warm day, February or March, early in the school year. Bluey was telling me about the beach. He had lived around here all his life, all 35 years or so. I was just a blow-in from 10 years ago: a yuppie, they were called back then.

Bluey was talking about the suburbs’ milk bars, especially those that once lined the beach. “Four corners, mate, four shops,” he said, rattling off the street names: Stewart, Forster, Cole, Thompson.

“Mum and Dad had one just over the road from here,” Bluey said, nodding across the way to a café in Forster Street. “They had it for years.”

Bluey’s parents went on the pension, but his dad, Artie, kept coming down to the beach. Every day. For a dip.

“He’s been doing it for as long as I can remember. We kids would have to go, too, but I got jack of it by the time I was a teenager.”

Bluey, I sensed, knew the stories of this town: this once rough dockyard suburb turning into a nice, bland urban peninsula with pretty picket fences and heritage paint schemes and cafes or developers’ apartments on almost every corner.

That school excursion was probably the only trip Bluey and I went on together. We’d see each other at school, say g’day, pick up our daughters and go our separate ways.

Bluey is a tradie, maybe a jack of all trades. A knockabout bloke. I imagined he’d been in a few scrapes from time to time.

Our daughters shared a name and an artistic sensibility. They went to each other’s seventh-birthday parties, where the fun was in making necklaces and brooches rather than drinking red lemonade and eating cake. They were schoolmates for a year or two before settling into their own social groups.

I’d see Bluey down the street sometimes. We’d say a brief hello; me pausing on my bike, Bluey lighting, or stubbing out, a cigarette. We didn’t have much to say, not much more than a nod of recognition. But it was enough.

I found myself becoming a regular swimmer at the beach in 1996. Not every day, like Bluey’s dad, but Saturdays and Sundays. Week in, week out.

A FEW  months into my daughter’s first year at high school, April 2003, I drove home via the beach after dropping her at school. Driving slowly along the Esplanade, I saw two fire engines parked opposite Bluey’s parents’ old shop. There was some action on the shoreline of the beach. Emergency workers in yellow uniforms.

And there, on the steps of the lifesaving club, sat some teenage girls in their school uniforms. Bluey’s daughter was looking out to the edge of the water.

My daughter reported the next day, as the local paper reported the next week, that Artie Davis had died in the water from a heart attack. A short obituary mentioned his navy days, his dockyard days, the popular milk bar and Artie’s love of the water. It also noted that there would be a scattering of Artie’s ashes at the beach early the next Saturday morning.

I would have liked to have gone to the funeral, to learn about the town as much as about Bluey’s dad, but I had no place to be there. I was just a blow-in. Funerals are no place for strangers.

The small service at the beach, though, was a more public occasion. And I was now a regular beach visitor. For seven years I’d been popping down every weekend for a dip.

I kept my distance from the 50 people who had gathered on the shoreline, where the emergency workers had gathered about 10 days ago. I stood at the edge of the group and waited for one of Bluey’s brothers – one a property developer, the other a footy and swimming coach, and motivational speaker – to say a few words.

But it was Bluey who did the talking, his back to the water, a hoodie over his bald head. Bluey welcomed friends and family, and spoke briefly. He knew this wasn’t the main act.

After his talk (‘speech’ is too formal a word) Bluey invited the gathering to swim or paddle out for the scattering of the ashes, about 100 metres offshore, near the tip of the rocky groyne. Almost parallel to the old milk bar.

I stood ankle deep in the water knowing I had no right to go any further, to venture any deeper. I was just an onlooker, possibly a voyeur, intruding upon other people’s grief.

A bagpiper played at the end of the groyne, silhouetted by the rising sun. Family and friends made their way out to a small boat, where Bluey’s mum and Bluey’s daughter held Artie’s ashes.

I had no place here, I told myself again. I’m an impostor, here for the benefit of my selfish curiosity. But, now standing knee deep, my feet had settled into the wet sand. I couldn’t walk away now and pretend I was just a passer-by who had happened upon a private ceremony in a public place. And I wanted to be here: for Artie Davis, a man I’d never met. And for his son, Bluey, a man I hardly knew. I wanted to be here for the beach, too. A place I was getting to appreciate.

The bagpiper continued to wail gently. People had gathered about the ashes boat, or at the end of the groyne.

And Bluey? He’d popped into the lifesaving club, checked that everything was in order and was now making his way through the water. He must have had a thousand things on his mind, but as he passed me he said quietly: “Come in, mate, come in a little further.”

Bluey headed out to the boat to say goodbye to his father. I walked in a little further, waist high, then chest high – deep enough for me at any time.

The bagpiper stopped. Ashes floated across and onto the water. Bluey’s daughter, in the boat with Bluey’s mother, cried as the sun split the horizon.

TWO YEARS later I presented a session at the local writers’ festival, and called it ‘Deeper Water: historical and contemporary stories of Williamstown beach’. I invited 90-year-old Dorothy Richards, a local writer, to talk about the beach days of her youth. And I decided to invite Bluey to tell a few tales, even though I didn’t have his phone number or address.

We bumped into each other down at the shops, and he said he’d give it a go. “But I’m not a writer, mate,” Bluey said in between drawing on a cigarette.

I was also planning to chip in with a few stories about being a blow-in whose sense of belonging to the suburb was linked to the beach as much as it was to my children’s schools, say, or the footy ground and our street. I also hoped to tell the story of Bluey inviting me into the deeper water.

Dorothy and Bluey charmed the audience of about 20 people. Dorothy didn’t need to read from her books; Bluey didn’t need to read from his hand-written notes. He talked about wagging school when the water was looking good for swimming or fishing or even surfing. “Me and me mates had our boards down at the milk bar, so we’d go there for lunch and somehow we’d forget to go back to school.”

And he talked about how his dad befriended a motorbike gang because he knew they could become regular customers. “He told them they were welcome as long as there was no swearing, especially in front of Mum, and no fighting. But he kept a baseball bat under the counter, just in case.”

Dorothy and Bluey could have talked all afternoon, but our short time was up. I didn’t mind that I hardly got a word in, and that I had said nothing about my own beach experiences.

Afterwards, Bluey spoke to me about knocking his notes into a family history of sorts, as part of a tribute to his dad, but I selfishly made no commitment to give him a hand.

Hannah and Hannah finished secondary school in 2008 and have continued on their separate ways. “Hannah?” Bluey said to me a while back. “Oh, she’s in Tasmania these days. With her mum.”

WHEN I stand waist deep in the water every morning at sunrise, I sometimes think of the swimmers who are no longer here, and of how much the beach meant to them. It’s as good a place as any to start the day, as good a place as any to draw your last breath when you heart finally gives way.

And I think of Bluey from time to time. We still see each other now and then. Not often these days. At the shops. In the street. We might nod to each other. Bluey might wink. We don’t have much to say, but we have enough.


This story was first published in The Big Issue in January 2011, under the title of Waist Deep.

Thanks to Amy Melksham for permission to re-produce her artwork. Visit Amy’s website for more examples of her work.

Scoreboard: 329 swims down, 36 to go.

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