It’s Sunday, 7 am, and I am about to swim out from Coogee beach to Wylie’s Baths and then across the length of the bay and back again with a group of others, some in just their swimsuits, some in full wetsuits, and some (OK – just me) in a full wetsuit with neoprene booties and fins. Wadingintoo the ocean n the cold takes my breath away. Less than an hour ag,o I was beneath my warm doona in bed, and now the sun is spreading across the winter chorizo,n, and I’m wearing two millimeters of neoprene on most body surfaces.
If you had told me I would be doing this three years ago, I would have said you’re mad; I hate the cold; I’m scared of deep water. But Covid lockdowns brought strange new hobbies to many. And mine – bracingly – is ocean swimming.
My parents are from Nebraska, smack-bang in the middle of the US, as landlocked as land can get. Sure, there are lakes, even rivers, but why submerge yourself when you can scream around on a two-stroke jetski? Once, as a teenager, we were whitewater rafting in West Virginia when my father fell overboard in a rapid. My mother panicked. “He can’t swim!”
I wasn’t surprised to learn this since I could barely swim myself. But when I moved to Australia in my early 20s, I took an adult swimming class at the Victoria Park pool and learned to swim freestyle. A basic doggy paddle to stay afloat and a granny breaststroke with my head above water was the extent of my skill. Bubble, bubble, breathe, elbows to the sky.
My new ability went largely unpractised since swimming laps in a pool seemed repetitive, and I preferred to exercise on land. But years later, with running injuries and the limitations of the Covid lockdown, I was convinced to try ocean swimming with friends. The beach was within my five-kilometer radius. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
In my husband’s words: “You never regret a swim.” (How annoying that he is right.)
We swim close to the rocks at the south end of Coogee, and fish wriggle through the clear water beneath. Moving my arms and legs has warmed me. In June, the ocean isn’t that cold. Later, in August or September, your face begins to numb. Silvery bubbles trail off my hands. Out in the sea near Wylie’s Baths, we pause and form a loose circle, goggles on our foreheads, grinning at one another, treading water. Someone calls out, “turtle,” and we all pull our goggles back on. The sea turtle drifts beneath, oblivious to our delight, paddling flippers and stretching its long, prehistoric neck. We are off swimming again across the bay, and the white sand beneath is rippled in patterns.
It’s choppy here, and Imusto changed my breathing and lifted my neck more to avoid a mouthful of seawater. I think of the turtle’s neck, stretching up, hovering. The sun is overhead now; the ocean glitters with light.
We swim to shore, and there is a minute or two of warmth before the real chill sets in. My fingers are stiff, unpeeling my wetsuit—even trickier with frozen fingersteethh chatter. The great Australian tradition of changing public places should be part of the citizenship test. Can you get out of your togs and into your trackies without flashing unsuspecting dog walkers? I’ve brought the layers – ugg boots, beanie, fleece, and as I shroud myself in a scarf, people on the promenade point out to sea. Beyond Wedding Cake Island, there are splashes. Not the more adventurous swimmers, but whales breaching. They throw their massive bodies in the air and crash against the water’s surface, slapping their tails and making a ruckus. Water rains from their huge fins. They are frolicking; they are dancing.
“They are inspired,” my friend says, “by our swim.”
Eleanor Limprecht is the author of What Was Left, Long Bay, The Passengers, and The Coast.