Bush fire smoke, dead mutton birds and the heebeegeebees

There’s a blue Toyota Yaris with a yellow kayak on top in front of the surfmuppet coming down the hill into olde Manly towne. Should have twigged it is the Vlad meister himself on the way to Shelley beach for the Saturday morning squad swim off into the wild blue yonder.

Behind the Yaris is a motorbike which is sticking to the tail of Vlad like a limpet on a sunken World War 2 German U-Boat. Turns out this is Peter the Lawyer, also of the V squad.

Plenty of parking, paid and free, on Bower Road at 0645 – but some people insist on parking in the paying spots and a few guys are lined up sticking their credit cards into the machine as SM saunters past after parking in one of the scores of free spots 100 metres up the road. Each to their own.

Charm is waiting on the beach with others of the V squad. Greetings all around as the seal team members undress and slap on the Vaso and sunblock, check googles, yarn and slowly continue the waking up process. Jai and a few others getting into their wetsuits. Bondi John his usual chirpy self. Fearless Fi with her two doggies but she’s not swimming today – takes the mutts for a walk instead.

Deano rocks up, getting more tanned by the day and makes a quip about surfmuppet wearing a white wetsuit today? It’s the milky white skin. Fi whispers a delicious waspy counter into the ear of SM who delivers it as if it’s his own – everyone knows it’s not but it’s kinda funny anyway – “Hey, Deano, wearing a hairy wetsuit today?” – like, as in a hairy chest.

You had to be there.

It’s a beautiful morning. An orange sun gleams out of the smoke haze from the bush fires raging on the central coast. Looks like fog – but with the taste and smell of woodsmoke.

As the 7am jump off time arrives, the first of the pink hats of the Bold and the Beautiful appear around Manly Point. There’s hundreds of them in “the pink plague” as Charm daubs them. Plan is to steer north of them and regroup in the ocean in front of a ochre-ish building on the Manly seafront. Water is pleasant – somebody says it’s about 20 degrees. And off the V squad set out from Shelley.

Training ain’t what it should be lately and soon SM is quicly left behind by the lot of them. The last of them, nose-peg guy, SM tries to keep up with but the pace is too fast and the technique starts to go.

And then the heebeegeebees start.

Goes something like this. Just how big will the great white be which takes the left leg off. In the bloom of blood, will you be able to see if both legs are gone or just one. Will you be able to see the triangular teeth coming back through the blood for seconds. Once this shit starts it’s kinda hard to stop.

The sea is placid with a mild swell and visibility is good. Too good for a mind now firmly entrapped in the Nat Geo Channel. Beasts are lining up like punters at a cheeko roll stand at the Easter Show. Bull sharks are jostling Tigers out of the way until a gang of White Pointers push their way to the head of the queue. A Hammerhead tries to slink up the side for a chomp until a Mako lashes it away with a flick of it’s tail. Get back ya bastard!

SM does his best to tell this flotilla of phantom mangling monsters to just fuck off out of his head but it’s no good. They’ve brought an esky full of beer to wash down the saltwater barbequed flesh. By now Nose-peg guy is heading off north and the V squad has long gone at this stage, direction north towards Queenscliff and around the point to Freshwater.

SM is heading straight towards the beach in front of the building we were supposed to rendevous off. That’s it for the day. Forever. Who needs this shite on a fine Saturday morning such as this. Fling the speedos in the bin on the beach and walk naked back to Shelley to pick up the gear and head back home – take up crochet instead.

But no. Won’t be beaten by this. Pull up just short of the break and pause. Thread water and look about. Repeat several times the Vlad mantra – RELAX. The swell is bigger here and so swim slowly back out into deeper water to avoid getting clobbered by a breaking wave. Along the line of sight north towards Queenscliff, three distinct groups of surfers out to catch  the morning break.

Decide to swim to the first one. Nice easy pace. Keeping out from the sandbar to avoid getting smashed. Concentrate on technique. The rogue left arm which Vlad has been banging on about getting the elbow higher in the air in recovery, earlier entry into the water and pushing through in line with the shoulder, good solid catch engaging the lats, strong pull, rotate, complete the stroke. Start to move.

Keeping a good eye out seaward for dancing beasties, reach the first group of surfer, swim outside them and decide to keep going. More interesting closer to the shore – have to keep watching out for waves, following the line of the sandbars, feel the rips and swim across them, watch the bottom being churned up by the action of the waves. Pretty soon it’s past North Steyne and then it’s only a hop, skim and a jump to under the cliffs off Queenscliff.  Pause there for a moment and watch the surfboat crews rowing out into the bay. Just under 2km, time to go back.

During the week, after some stroke correction work, Vlad bails SM up after the session and explains the difference between thinking and focusing.

Cue Slovakian accent:
“I can see you thinking about left arm. I can see you using energy as you tense up and try to make the correction! All this making you rigid and burning up energy. Instead of thinking, focus instead.”
“What’s the difference Vlad?”
“Thinking is when you are in your head, trying to work the changes into your stroke. You tense up. Use energy. With focus, you don’t think, you feel instead. Feel the changes. The more you focus, the more you feel, the more changes will happen.”

Ethereal  stuff.

SM gets to realising about focusing and the immediacy of the NOW – Doing things NOW – Focusing on the NOW, not thinking about the NOW. Feeling the NOW.

Thinking takes time – you automatically step back from the moment by a portion of time – a millisecond, microsecond, a second if you’re a bit sharp, and five seconds for someone like SM on a bad day.
“Hello SM. How are you?”
Five seconds for processing.
“Fine. And yourself?”
But the person has gone and SM is talking to himself.

Have an 11 year old pug called Elvis who is distracted beyond anything you can imagine. Nothing draws his attention much – except food. Dangle a smacko in front of his popping pug eyes and you can see the electricity arc up in the big black pupils. Maybe in a past life Elvis was a great white.

Something magical happens on the way back. Start to focus on the breathing –  in, then blowing out all the bubbles. Soon, thinking stops and focusing starts. The horror show in the head fades. Get a nice, solid rhythm going. Start to really enjoy the swim. See a big stingray rise up from the ocean floor and flap it’s great wings and glide off into the greyness. A massive school of blue mullet hoon past, a river of fish swimming as if their lives depended on it – not even going there as to what might be chasing them. Couldn’t care less by now.

See Vlad’s yellow kayak off in the distance. Keep swimming. Even stop for a chat with an old boy surfer just off South Steyne.

Swimming over the reef in Cabbage Tree Bay on the way out from Manly and on to Shelley. Tons of marine life darting in and out of the rocks below, hiding in the seaweed, chasing each other around the place.

Then something really strange happens – catch the flash of some other swimmers nearby and a wee bit of resentment surfaces up – SM is enjoying this solitude out in the brine. Doesn’t want company. Happy out just swimming along at a steady pace, focusing on the moment.

The rest of the squad are hanging around on the beach getting changed.
Vlad is washing his kayak out as SM appears and the master confesses they were starting to get worried that something had happened to the muppet along the way. Something had happened all right. Strange things happen when you just keep swimming despite the shit the head can throw at you.

Corpses of three dead Tasmanian mutton birds bobbing around in the water just off the beach.

Looking closer, what looked like clumps of seaweed on the sand turns out to be more dead mutton birds.
One of the guys explains these birds go on a 30,000 km return journey migratory flight from Tasmania to the Bering Sea on the edge of the Arctic circle, finally arriving back in Tasmania to breed.

Those that make it. The long flight, the battering of high winds and storms tire many of them out and they fall down into the ocean with exhaustion and drown. And wash up in scores on beaches up and down the east coast of Australia.

Got to admire the little buggers.
Small bodies with big hearts.
Just keep on going until they can go no more.

There’s a message there somewhere.

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