Bondi Beach, Australia’s most famous strip of sand, was the location of my first ever ocean swim when I raced in the inaugural Bondi Splash and Dash in November 2014. So it was only fitting that I would return here for an ocean swim during my visit to Sydney.
Today I raced in the Bondi Bluewater Challenge, completing the 1km swim course in in 21:42min, resulting in place 5 out of 13 in my age group. Given that this is swimming we’re talking about, my weakest discipline, I’m very happy with the result.
We started in front of the Bondi Surf Club and were instructed to head out straight between two yellow buoys, to then head north (left) to the first turning buouy. There was a strong pull to the north end, so my strategy was to swim out very straight and let the current sweep me north. I figured (after watching two waves of swimmers start before me) that this way I wouldn’t end up on the north side of the yellow buoy which would mean I’d have to swim back south to turn around the yellow buoy properly.
After we started and ran from the beach into the water, that strategy was all fine and well but I quickly realised that the current wasn’t as much of a challenge as the waves were. They were crazy big.
This was my fifth ocean swim in Bondi, so rough conditions didn’t surprise me, but that doesn’t make them any easier. Early on my swimming buddies taught me how to tackle this stuff and to dive under the waves, grab the sand with my hands and launch myself back to the top when the wave has passed.
It soon got too deep for reaching the ground, but I still tried to dive under every wave. You don’t want these bastards to crash on top of you, because not only will they push you under, but you’ll likely lose your goggles, swallow a lot of salt water and get thrown around, leaving you disoriented for a bit and slowing you down significantly.
It literally feels like a washing machine (at least that’s what washing machines look like…). So I kept diving, but the waves came in such quick succession that as soon as I caught my breath, I was under again with not much forward progress being made.
Past the surf
Somehow I made it to the first yellow buoy, turned left and headed north to the first orange buoy that would mark a turning point before heading south. Things finally calmed down a little bit and the waves just rocked us, but didn’t pummel us anymore.
To be honest, I’m glad I even made it this far because for the first couple of hundred meters I thought I would have to give up as I felt the strength draining from my legs. I don’t quite know why, but I really worried I didn’t have it in me.
I’ve never given up in a race and I wasn’t going to start today, so I kept swimming and after turning south it turned into a really nice swim. The water was perfectly clear and even a few hundred meters from shore we could see all the way to the ground.
Bonus: No sharks!
There are helicopters circling above Bondi in regular intervals to keep everyone safe and to spot sharks from above. There’s also a sonar buoy in the bay that deters sharks.
As nice as the north-to-south stretch of the swim was, this was still a race and I still had some racing to do. I managed to pass a couple of people on the long straight and planned to pick up another couple after the next turning buoy. My wave had pink swim caps so I focused on those ladies who wore them, while following the men who passed me to catch a draft behind them and preserve some energy.
Heading back to the shore seemed easy enough but somehow the yellow buoy that formed the ‘gate’ before exiting the water was still ages away.
As I got closer, I was back in the midst of waves breaking and rolling over me and somewhere in that chaos my goggles came off. I almost did a somersault at the same time. Involuntary, just by the force of the water. So onwards without any goggles and I tried to catch a wave and body surf to the beach. Easier said than done and while my friend Felix has mastered this technique, when I do it, it just looks comical.
Eventually I could touch the ground with my hands and decided to stand up and do the rest on foot. The life guards pointed towards the finish line, which was helpful when you’re slightly dishevelled, dizzy from the waves and squinting into the sun.
So there I was, trying to be as graceful as possible for the race photographers as I hobbled, jumped and stumbled out of the water, onto the hard sand and tried to run with all my remaining strength across the finish line.
It wasn’t pretty but I got it done.
I am ever so grateful for the volunteers who kneel down beside us to take our timing chips off and let us lean on them so we don’t fall over as our legs get used to the land again. I also appreciate being handed a bottle of freh water, sweet, clear, tasteless, non-salty water, after swallowing so much sea water out in the ocean.
The resulting 5th place wasn’t the only thing I am pleased with. I am also happy to report that:
- I didn’t get stung by any jellyfish like I normally do, so for once my body isn’t covered in red spots everywhere
- I didn’t see a single shark
- I didn’t get kicked, hit or punched by any fellow swimmers
- I didn’t panic out there and despite the initial exhaustion, I felt confident about the swim once I got past the surf
So there we go, a successful swim and another achievement outside my comfort zone. (comfort zone = counting tiles in the swimming pool)