Cockatoo Island – First Swim of the Season

Balmain, Dawn Fraser pool out to Cockatoo Island, former 19th century prison and naval shipyard, around the island, back to Balmain. 2.4km or there about.Pre start nerves thinking of all the denizens of the Bull Shark cafe looking at the menu and deciding if they’d like mushrooms with their prime cut of human leg.

Warm late spring sun dispelled the dark clouds of fear and doubt and we all leap in off the jetty for a fine swim around the island.

Our wave, the 46 to 55 old farts brigade, have black caps, kinda ominous but with a touch of NZ All Black cool.  My cunning and fiendish plan is to draft behind the two Muppet Show old boys, lurking there until the final dash from Cockatoo to the finish at the jetty. Once the end is in site, blast past in a burst of terminal velocity, leaving them incredulous in my wake.Bragging rights at the squad for the rest of the week.

Fat chance!

The bastards ditch me as the maelstrom of swimmers hits the eastern end of the island and my forlorn hope of glory vanishes as the lads up a gear and surge ahead. And a maelstrom it is – one minute between each of the three waves so by the time we reach the island it’s people, shark, calamari and jelly fish minestrone.

Hey, tourists on the rocks, all cameras and recording devices to witnesses the slog pass of the multi coloured hats, breathless to capture the next YouTube instant viral hit of a Sydneyite being mauled by a razor toothed and finned native.

Around the northern end of the island comes a spiritual epiphany I sometimes get in the middle of a swim – a Godshot of just relax and enjoy the moment.

Breathing to the left –  the old naval shipyard infrastructure now defunct, gawk exhibition for the Touristas.

Breathing to the right – across the river is the mixture of bushland reserve and  gazillionaire mansions of Woolwich and Hunters Hill.

Some of the quays are vintage mid 20th century reinforced concrete with that World War 2 look of “fuck, the world is going to cave in the day after tomorrow and the Huns will be goose stepping down George Street”. Others are cut stone – sandstone methinks – carved by the hands of the convicts during the island’s stretch as a prison from 1839 to 1869. Passing by Sutherland Dock, two shapes from long ago, ghosts bemused by the antics of the quick and the living slaughtering past them in a funny kind of freestyle.

The oxygen deprivation is really kicking in when you see convict ghosts jeering at you from the water’s edge.

This Yin moment of spiritual enlightenment evaporates as we turn the western tip of the island, swimming southeast past the gaunt skeleton of the huge dockside crane. Outline of the finish back at the Dawn Fraser pool materialises like a mirage out of the briny desert porridge these foolhardy souls are trudging through.

The thought of some atrophied glory flares in the synopsises of us never-a-hope-of-ever-winning-a-race lot left in the water (at this stage the winners and their entourages are safely ensconced back at the finish hoeing into bacon n egg rolls) and the tempo picks right up. Transformed, spurred on by the burn of faded dreams and glory famine that only a true back-of-the-packer knows and it’s the devil (or the bull shark) takes the hindmost, no quarter given or asked for.

Some of the stragglers from the green hat wave loom up and give a last kick of defiance as they are overtaken – for them now it’s just a question of having enough grunt left to reach the finish. There a chap in a black rashie who’s been giving me cheek for a bit but I can’t catch the bastard. Looks suspiciously like the Journo, one of my colleagues from the squad, but the shape is not right.

He’s a guy. She’s a girl.

Giving it everything but there’s no catching him. Bang – another intrusion from the realm of the spirit – coach Spot materialises in my head with an earful about breathing. Spot is the Overlord of the squad and whips and lashes his minions with a withering tongue at the slightest infraction, real or imagined. I cop an earful at the technique session on Friday last where from the bottom of the pool a flippered and goggled Spot eyeballs the technique of his chlorine slaves as we try to put on our Sunday best style.

Spot’s head all of a sudden right in my face.

“Blow harder! You’re not blowing your bubbles out hard enough. Blow harder, you clown!” Spot’s theory is the harder you blow out the bubbles, the more air you will suck in as a reflex action once your mouth breaks the surface and you go for a lungful. Spot has a lot of theories which nobody else seems to agree with – except us paying minions of course – more than a few people think that he’s actually quite mad. Anyway, what’s to lose, so I bow in deference to Spot, for once don’t argue with him, and go for it.

Turning the head, I blow bubbles like a fucking sperm whale on crystal meth. Lungful of air and stroke. Another jetstream of bubbles – all the wild life is now scarpering away at a rate of knots, Sydney harbour is being oxygenated beyond anything since Cook and his jolly band of Jack Tars landed in Farm Cove singing the chorus line from the Pirates of Penzance. On and on.

And you know what?

A happy ending – all of a sudden Rashie man is alongside and then disappearing in the wake of the man whose blood is now as oxygenated as a Tour de France EPO monkey. Happenstance or is Spot on the money. One man’s lunatic is another man’s visionary.

Back on dry land I run into Gordy the scourge of Loch Ness as he’s calmly getting dressed by the side of the pool. He’s one of the gods of the fast lane. I try not to stagger or blackout and fall into the pool as we exchange pleasantries about our respective races. Act casual and don’t let on that you’re really glad there’s still enough dosh in the super fund to pay the life insurance premium so the wife doesn’t end up on the side of the road when the coronary hits.

The Muppet boys have finished long ago and the Journo – no idea where she’s got to. Done – cobwebs blown out on this my opening race of the season. Swore blind that I wasn’t going to make my wife a swimming widow every Sunday this year. And I’m a man well renowned for keeping his word.

But…there’s Coogee next Sunday…then Bondi to Bronte…then…

Ah stuff it – here we go again!

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