Monday, December 3, 2012

Bondi to Bronte Ocean Swim - A real ocean swim

One of the great things about living in Sydney is that there is no shortage of beaches and ocean to swim in if you are so inclined.  The swimming culture here is alive and well with surf lifesaving, surfing and other ocean sports high on the list of many locals' weekend pursuits.  The only downside is the wildlife and it is the nagging concern about unwittingly becoming shark bait that prevents many, including myself, from enjoying the ocean as much as we'd like.

There is one way around it, however, and that is via the multitude of ocean swim events around the region every year.  Earlier this year I did the Cole Classic, out at Manly, and this weekend I ticked another one off the list - the Bondi to Bronte Ocean Swim.  Another iconic event in the Sydney ocean swim calendar.

I had suggested doing the swim with a couple of local friends and work colleagues and each one of them reacted as if I was suggesting we swim the English Channel together.  Sharks, the distance and getting out of the surf break at Bondi seemed to be insurmountable barriers to entry but were all things I hadn't considered as real obstacles.  OK, sharks maybe, but for me that's the whole point of doing an organised event - there's heaps of people around you and, more importantly, plenty of life guards keeping a look out for unwelcome company in the water.

But while I entered with gusto and felt sure I could handle the event, it didn't stop the old butterflies returning - we were out at Bondi the week before with friends and I happened to point out to Sandra and Katarina the route of the swim I'd be doing.  "It's basically just out around that headland and then back into the next bay".  Next thing I know my brain's doing double time - that headland looks like a looong way out.  Bugger.  Stop thinking about it.  There will be buoys ("cans") out there on race day and then I'll be able to get into the normal routine - just get to the next can. 


So Sunday arrived.  Saturday had been stinking hot, muggy, a real pearler.  Race day comes along and it's grey and blah. The temperature, though, isn't too bad.

I wasn't stressing too much - although remembering on the train platform that you've forgotten your swim goggles isn't the most relaxing activity.  A quick sprint home to retrieve them was in order and probably got rid of some excess nerves in the process...

The Bondi to Bronte facebook update that morning reported a 1.5m swell and water temperature of 19.5 degrees, meaning wetsuits were allowed.  We get off the bus at Bondi and I'm trying to remain chilled out and it's blowing.  No nice calm summer's day. 


Immediate thought - at what point to do they decide it's too rough to swim?  By the look of activities down at the registration tents and beach, this didn't warrant giving us the morning off.


Nothing to do but get registered and sausage my way into the wetsuit. The ocean swimming purists would have no doubt scoffed at my attire but for the first time this year the organisers were allowing wetsuits as an option for all age group categories when the water and air temperatures met certain criteria.  It was their way of encouraging greater participation in the event and great for us triathletes who should really be swimming in our wetsuits at any open water swim opportunity.  Thankfully I wasn't the only one.  Around 25% of us were similarly attired, so I was far from being odd one out.

Next thing was to figure out the best starting postion along the beach.  I had been reading about using the rip to carry you out and it looked like the start of the course had been lined up beside the rip (a smoother patch of water amongst the surf).

Finally I couldn't put it off any longer and so said goodbye to St Pete and headed into the coralling area for our wave start.  We were sent off in age group waves, and for some reason my age group was the last wave to be set off.  The oldest age group had been sent off first, behind the elites.

Great, so I've got the joy of being the last one to finish to look forward to.

Race briefing went something like this:
  • There are 10 cans along the course. 
  • Life guards are there to help, don't hesitate to raise your hand if you need any assistance. 
  • Out around the point it's rough (no kidding!). 
  • If you can you might want to breathe just on your right side for that section. 
  • Once you get past the 5th can you turn and you'll see a big pink flag on the headland, to the right of Waverley Cemetery. 
  • Sight off the big pink flag and then you'll see the surf lifesaving club at Bronte Beach. 
  • If you go past Waverley Cemetery you've gone too far!
  • Don't swim towards the lifesaving club - there's a hole in front of it. 
  • You need to swim past the lifesaving club and then come back to the finish line just after it.
No problem.  Yeah right.

Line up on the beach - of course as soon as it's our turn to start the rip seems to disappear and there's surf all the way in front of us.  Typical.  Also not that reassuring was the sight of an IRB returning to the beach with four or five people from the previous wave.  Not a good start to their swim.

The gun goes off and we all head into the surf. 

And promptly get smashed three or four times by waves. 

My body manages to keep heading out while my brain is saying "what the hell are you doing this for?"  Yeah, those first few minutes I was truly questioning my sanity.  One of the only things that kept me going was the fact the St Pete had already headed off and if I chickened out now I'd have to walk all the way around to Bronte in barefeet and my wetsuit. 

Yep, strange as it seemed, it was easier to swim!

Did I mention it was rough?

When you are bobbing around in the middle of the ocean, that supposed 1.5m swell, plus a chop on top of that, suddenly looks enormous.  The visibility in the water was good and the temperature was fine, but there was no way I could get any sort of swim technique or rhythm going.  It was exactly how I would imagine being tossed around in a washing machine would be.  Every so often I'd be stroking and then suddenly get tossed on my side by a wave, or I'd rotate to breathe and a wave would come down on top of me and I'd drink some more of the ocean.

It would be fair to say that a fair bit of long dog and breastroke was utilised and I would watch the "ocean swimmers" ahead of me to see if they were doing anything markedly different.  They were, however, making it look easy and so while I was bobbing away like a cork or getting tossed around like a bag of dirty laundry, they would be cruising along up and down the side of each wave, barely breaking stroke.

About 3/4 of the way along I reassured myself that I never had to do this swim again.  Having said that, at no point did I think I wouldn't be able to finish.  For the most part the cans were only around 150-200m apart, so it was easy to chunk it down and I did seem to tick them off without too much difficulty.

The life guards were amazing.  They were continually cruising around, on surf skis, jet skis and IRBs - at one point I'm sure I was being escorted by Corey of Bondi Rescue on his jet ski.  At that point I concluded there was a definite benefit to being at the tail end of the pack if I was going to get a celebrity as a personal escort!   On a serious note, though, they would be circulating around us all and making sure we were OK.  One time I just gave a thumbs up and that was enough to send them onto the next person.  Another time we'd have a bit of a conversation as I checked to make sure I wasn't on a time limit before confirming that I was fine, just taking my sweet time about it.  At another check-in I confirmed with them that these were actually rough conditions.  They were - I wasn't just being a complete novice!  I even got offered some water at one point - which I didn't feel I needed even though it felt like I had swallowed half the ocean by then.

After what seemed like forever I finally started sighting on the final buoy and had turned in towards Bronte Beach.  It was still rough but definitely improved on what it had been and I was able to put together a decent number of strokes in each effort.  At that point also, I seemed to converge on a whole stack of people - while I had thought I had dropped off the back of the pack all of a sudden I ended up with people around and behind me for the last 100m.  It seems that they were either struggling for that last bit or had swim quite badly off course and so I had caught up to them - for once, and despite the conditions, I had managed to stay close to the cans at each point.

I'm going strong up the beach - looks like someone's struggling just behind
The beach at Bronte is quite steep and so when you get to the water's edge there is a reasonably strong current heading back out after each wave.  The last 10m, then, was quite an experience.  I could see the sand below and it was tantalisingly close but I could also see that I wasn't moving forward.  It was a really good example of being patient and waiting for the next wave to catch me and carry me in.  Which I did and stood up, upon which I had a lifeguard on the beach calling out to me to get out of the way quickly as there was another wave coming up behind.  So no casual walking up the beach, it was straight into a run up the soft sand and across the finish line.

And how good did that feel?  Amazing.

As for doing it again?  Well, despite my darkest thoughts mid-swim, my current motto of "Never say never" was starting to shine through not long after...great event, great volunteers, awesome lifeguards.

Swimming buddies for next year welcome!