Friday, 11 May 2012

Reflections on the Byron Bay Winter Whales Ocean Swim Classic 2012: the perfect storm

Clarke's Beach and Main Beach the day after - not so benign

What a week. I hate it when work and general lethargy get in the way of life.

A week after the Byron Bay swim's cancellation, I don't have much to say except that I 'dunnit' with Mr Very Big after the organisers told us (and 2000 other punters) not to.

The swim was cancelled last Sunday shortly before the start. Everyone was pumped and ready to go, so when the announcement was made a collective cry of disbelief could be heard at Wategos Beach.

A woman next to me who was about 50 but had the toned body of a 20-year-old elite athlete (jeeeeez - she had a six pack), muttered: "It's because of Kurrawa."

She was referring to the death last month of Matthew Barclay, 14, at Kurrawa Beach on the Gold Coast during the Australian Surf Life Saving Championships. In 2010, ironman Saxon Bird, 19, drowned at the same beach during the titles after being hit by a stray surf ski.

In April two Sri Lankan men drowned at the Byron Bay's Belongil Beach after they got caught in a rip.

No wonder the organisers were nervous.  Two thousand punters. That's a huge responsibility.

Apparently, numerous young competitors were hauled out of the water during the 800-metre mini-swim from Clarke's Beach to Main Beach, which takes place before the main event. 

This caused the organisers to make their last-minute decision to stop the show.

After "umming" and "ah-ing", my swimming mates Mrs Snorkel and Mrs Onyabike decided not to swim. My friend Mr Very Big had joined us on the sand. It was to be his first time and he was incredibly disappointed that he was going to miss out on what is usually an amazing swim. 

As we considered our options - you'd think there would only be one - we noticed a lot of the swimmers had ignored the organisers and were heading out towards the buoys that were still in place on the course. 

While we wriggled our toes in the sand and argued the pros and cons, a couple of hundred nutters set off before us. A sea of multi-coloured caps bobbed in the ocean like a packet of lollies being tumbled out of the pack.

"Let's do it," we said. "We'll regret it if we don't."

And the rest is history.

Thank you dear God that I am hear to tell the tale because it was a bloody wild ride. The main issues were, according to the organisers, the bombora off The Pass, which is the rocky outcrop off the point that separates Wategos from Clarke's Beach. Surfers congregate off The Pass in the hope of finding the perfect barrel.

On Sunday it was wild and the bombora was pumping. Mr Very Big and I were lucky/clever because we swam wide of The Pass. Those swimmers who attempted to cut corners and by swimming close to The Pass were smashed by the bombora onto the rock shelf. Afterwards we heard that some poor bloked cracked his head.

The swim at this point was hairy and I had to keep my head screwed on. Panic simmered around my throat. I had to keep pushing it down. 

The swell was massive. Seriously, it felt like The Perfect Storm when the fishing boat soared down the face of the mighty swell and up the other side. That's what we were doing. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. You could hear the squeals of the swimmers ahead of us as the swell came through and lifted them up. 

Mr Very Big told me later that because I was breathing to my left side, I couldn't see the big swell raising its massive paws to pounce. He breathed to his right so he could see it all. (After the swim he also revealed that he nearly shat himself on several occasions). 

Once we were around The Pass, it was pleasant for a while but I could see the shore and the waves looked pretty mean. I couldn't see them breaking, but I could see their white tops and the sea spray flying backwards. They were dumpers.

Although the swim had been cancelled, the organisers took the precaution of sending out several surf life savers to manage the eejits. They were on their surf skis guiding swimmers into the beach. We stopped and asked one for advice. "Swim straight in," he said, "because the rip will drag you along anyway."


That was when I started to pray: "God, I know I'm dumb - I can't help it - but today could you please help me out of this mess? Could you stop the 4 metre dumpers for a minute so I can reach the beach in one piece? I'll be really nice to everyone and won't get cranky in the traffic or drive too fast when I get back to Sydney. Please God - yes, yes, I know I'm always making promises but this time I swear I'll go to church... soon."

And then a miracle occurred. There was a break between sets and I made it in without getting dumped. Admittedly, it took me a while to get my footing and the rip dragged me a fair way up the beach but I managed to finally feel the glorious sand between my toes. 

It was a wonderful feeling. 

Mr Very Big and I hugged each other because we were both relieved to be alive! 

I owe God one (well, more than one). 

PS: The swim has been rescheduled as a "fun" swim on June 3. I won't be going. No money. No time.

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