Palmie to Manly: the odyssey

So… it didn’t happen on August 17 as I previously said it would. Unfortunately Ben has been really sick for what feels like most of winter (to me, so must feel longer for him); on the plus side he is now back in the water and feeling good; however there was a period when we thought he’d be back in form to do a belated swim if postponed to September 7.

Training for me went pretty well in the lead up to this big swim: I did a lot of cold water over winter including 6 hours at Balmoral 2 weekends prior to this swim.  While Balmoral is beautiful and it was a warm(ish) sunny day, endless 3km loops breed a dislike of this affluent picturesque harbourside suburb!  Still, I should never stop appreciating quite how fortunate I am to live somewhere where I can swim all year round in my choice of readily accessible open water locations!

I had taken the preceding 2 weeks in the lead up to this swim off work. This was partly because Jen went on holidays with friends to Thailand for 2 weeks and I stayed at home to hold the fort.  The downside of this is that Jennie was not able to paddles for me as originally planned… just means I’ll have to do it again.  This allowed me to get some pretty intensive pool time in during the the last 2 weeks and also it gave me an opportunity to plan and execute the extensive logistics.  Never think a swim of this scale is a case of putting on a pair of goggles and jumping in the water; everytime I plan a swim it seems more complex as I assimilate learnings from previous swims (and from the encyclopaedic knowledge of James Goins): deciding on route (not as simple as “get in at the north end get out at the bottom”: there are big healdands/reefs and one needs to consider to get around them while not swimming too far from shore); planning and agreeing upon safety procedures and signals between crafts and swimmers; borrowing sharkshields, whistles, flags, radios; locating and transporting a kayak; planning parking/ground transport; contingency plans; borrowing nappies off a friend (to serve, along with big cable ties, as insurance against the worst of all misadventures: a shark “incident”); feeds planned, documented and prepared; kit packed, unpacked because I thought I’d forgotten something, repacked, unpacked again etc. How much zinc will I need? Do I have enough painkillers? Why is my left shoulder niggling? When do you find time to carb load in all of this? Working would’ve been a nightmare on top of this.

As always with swims we watch the forecasts… as we had 6-8 weeks of (unseasonably warm) sunshine and flat seas leading up to this weekend, it was inevitable that the forecasts would go a little wobbly in the last week: On Saturday 31 August some forecasts were predicting 35-40knot winds… pretty far from ideal. Eventually you find a forecast that gives you the answers you want and true to form was there, prediciting variable direction winds that dropped from a maximum of 18 knots on Monday to 6-11 knots by Friday. Similarly the promise of clouds and showers improved along with my spirits (after a brief 2 day period where I’d convinced myself the swim wasn’t going to happen, took my foot off the metaphorical motivational pedal and entered a short burst of denial). By Friday evening, apart from a vague threat of early southerly winds the conditions looked great.


The day of the swim we met at Palm Beach surf club to launch the 2 kayaks at 6 am. Paddling were Martin Vavrek (Vladswim coach and all round great guy), Mathieu Debieuvre (friend of Rachael’s) and swimbuddy Ben Hutt. On “The Truck” (the boat beloved of many Sydney marathon swimmers) we had Cap’n John Oliver and Nic Piha (my EC handler extraordinaire). Leaving 2 paddlers at the surf club we hotwheeled it around to the ferry wharf to load up the Truck with all we needed. In addition to Rachael and I, Daniel Boardman (another Valdswimmer and EC aspirant) had decided to come along, ostensibly just to swim with us for a few kms and enjoy the views. During a nervous, exciting 20 minute trip around the imposing Barrenjoey Headland we liberally applied zinc and lube, consumed last minute gels and quietly reflected on the challenge ahead.

We had decided to swim to EC rules (budgies, cap, goggles, no assistance, no physical contact) and in true English Channel style, we jumped from the Truck about 150 m from shore and swam to the beach and onto dry land.  A moment’s focusing of the mind and into the water for the next 8+ hours.  We parted company pretty soon after getting in the water so I can only attest to my experience; Rachael has become a significantly faster swimmer than me in recent months and we knew what our plans were in the event of separating: one kayak with each swimmer, neither swimmer out of visual range of the Truck.  Dan, being a faster swimmer than I kept pace with Rachael and soon I could not even see their bubbles, only the ocassional glimpse of Matt’s head or paddle ahead of me.  The best early advice I received from Ben and Nic on the boat was “stop worrying about keeping up with them, relax and enjoy your swim”… but it does take a while to get into this headspace!

As so often is the case, the first hour (or two) are the toughest: you need to get your mojo and your rhythm, you worry about little niggles and pains, feel a bit tight and are too present in the moment rather than entering the meditative zone that I think most marathon swimmers enter when they are at their best. The first hour took me past Wahle Beach, the second hour past Bengally headland and the “Hole in the wall”, a cliff-walled bay that reflects swell in multiple directions. I spent the first hour worrying about my (self-perceived) slow pace, running mental calculations about how long it would take me and wondering why that felt so far from here and now. I spent the second hour battling a little wind chop and the reflected swell from the headland. However after Bengally headland and breaking into open water my distance from shore and headlands only increased until Long Reef which was still another 12km and 4 hours south! But along with distance from shore increasing conditions improved: at times glassy and nearly flat.

Feeding from the Truck went really well and was good training for Nic and I, with Nic documenting my feeds and feeding time at every stop… mostly around 30 seconds, alternating between milo/maxim and flat coke. Some gels and fruit cups thrown in and the occasional nutella sandwich. Feeds went by quickly and often I questioned Nic when she stopped me for a feed: surely it hadn’t been a half hour already? I think I was smiling at every feed!  On the flip side, while time flew by the headlands did not… when you are that far from shore (over 2 km when we swam past Narrabeen) you can see headlands that look parallel to you for a long, long time before they actually are and then take a fiendishly long time to pass! Long Reef in particular can be seen about 12 km before you reach it; every feed you think “two more feeds and I’ll have passed it”; at one point I though someone must be dragging it south away from me!

Martin paddled with me for the whole distance; paddling for 25km in itself is a pretty damned great achievement!  He also provided real time feedback on my stroke and I grew to recognise two of his hand signals pretty well, signalling “keep your armpit open during your catch” and “finish your stroke fully”.  Invaluable stuff but every time I breathed to the right and saw his gestures I cursed him in my mind “leave me alone, let me swim how I want!!” However I wouldn’t change it for the world!

At some point not far north of Long Reef Daniel joined me, having decided to do the full 25km but to finish at my pace rather than Rachael’s; having taken a more direct route to Long Reef than Rachael who had hugged closer to the coast, I had more or less caught up, so moving sideways to swim with me was not that tough…

Despite catching a brief but enjoyable supporting current at Long Reef (which lasted for about 2 km) it was a tough swim, particularly the last 2-3km, where as I was on “home territory (Curl Curl) I thought I was home n hosed, so couldn’t understand why the hell I wasn’t at Shelly?  At one of my last feeds I was totally incoherent in reply to Nic’s question about whether I wanted solid food; in the end she thrust a nutella sandwich at me and I spent the next half hour worrying that she would tell me I had to get out because I wasn’t making sense, so I commited myself to being coherent and saying something insightful and thought provoking at every other feed stop I ever make! She told me it will take a lot more than not answering one question coherently for her to allow me to get out!

The arrival at Shelly was a great feeling having loved every bit of my swim (even the bits I hated at the time!) Its a weird feeling to walk on to a beach packed with families enjoying a spring Saturday on the sand, having swum since before many of them had even got up that day and none of them pay attention! In a way you expect a hero’s welcome… a fanfare certainly played in my head as I finished!  8h15 min for a little over 25km; very proud of that time which is a little over 3kmh with feeds!

Hitching a ride back to Palmie from John was a great way to revisit my 8 hour swim in about 50 minutes, passing many dolphins, watching the headlands and beaches fly by; what a feeling!

All in all I would say it is the most enjoyable swim I have ever done, for the views, the distance, the experience, the invaluable channel training; I would like to think I’ll do this at least once again prior to the channel next July… but at the moment I shudder when I think about doing it!