Monday, 9 February 2009

North Bondi: the big chill

As bushfires blazed across Victoria, the sun shone benignly over Australia's most celebrated strip of sand on Sunday, February 8, as a record number of entrants (around 1700) rolled up for the North Bondi Classics 1km and 2km ocean swims.

The unfolding tragedy was a world away. Earlier that morning I was mildly surprised to learn that 14 people had died in the wild fires that continued to burn furiously around the Gippsland region. By the time my swimming mate (my brother-in-law aka Davo) and I were down on the beach getting our timers and caps that number had risen to 25.

It's hard to consider the rest of the world and other people's dreadful misfortunes when it's another perfect day in Sydney. The sky was a cloudless blue, a light breeze tempered the promised 34 degrees celcius and the ocean was as flat as a pond and crystal clear.

But then I stuck my toe in the water. Friggin' friggin' - the temperature was 16 degrees. That's the sort of cold that makes your eyes ache, freezes your brain and numbs your vital bits. The summer water temperature in Sydney is supposed to hover around 22 degrees.

How on earth can it be this cold when the air temperature is stinking hot? It's got something to do with currents - the same thing happened over Christmas in 2007 when the water temperature along the NSW east coast dropped to 15 degrees.

I did the usual rant: "I don't think I can do this... I am used to swimming in a heated pool... I am a wimp... I am almost an old woman..."

But Davo was more worried about missing out on a Surf Dive 'N' Ski bag filled with freebies that swimmers collected after they finished the event. I think he counted all the bags and worked out that we'd have to be in the first 800 swimmers over the line.

I knew there was no way I'd get a bag... or a piece of fruit.

A minute's silence was observed for the victims of the bushfires before the 9am 1km event. At 10.30am the 2km swim started and my wave entered the pool (there was not a jot of surf) at around 10.42am.

Once I recovered from the breath-sucking shock of being entrapped in an ice flow the swim was an absolute joy. My goggles kept filling and fogging up, which were minor problems, but I was still able to see the reef just near the North Bondi ocean swimming pool as my peloton churned up the frosty water in the race towards the first buoy.

I could clearly see my arms and hands - pale and ghost-like - and I could look left, right and forwards and see the arms, legs and torsos of swimmers around me. We were a swirling sea of bodies.

And the bottom of the ocean! It was deep but I could still see all the way down. It was thrilling. I think I spent too much time admiring the scenery because, as usual, I trotted over the finish line in the bottom third of the pack. Excuses, excuses.

Afterwards I was freezing. My teeth chattered and my knees knocked. I saw several swimmers who had succumbed to the cold wrapped in foil, one with an oxygen mask.

It took me at least an hour to thaw out.

Later that day I heard on the news that the death toll in Victoria had risen to over 60.

Today it's around 166 and there's talk that figure could jump to 200.

There are no words.


Dana said...

"...almost an old woman..." HA! Good on ya'! I'm impressed! Dana

Martin said...

I'm truly impressed too!
I went to Manly got in as far as my waist and got out! Decided I didn't need to be frozen in a block of ice and sat on the sand instead. I'm glad you told us it was 16C - it felt like it!
Comment by Carol - not Martin