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Swimming around the Buoys

1987 Perth World Championships (unofficial)

While I would never consider myself a fast swimmer, I have always thought of myself as a strong swimmer. I feel safe in the water no matter what the conditions are and the size of the waves. I grew up on Freshwater Beach, Sydney.

Towed out on my surfoplane by my Dad when I was 12 years old, when the waves were too big to negotiate by myself, I would wait outside the surf break until the biggest of the set would come through and launch myself on it. My surfo was my life raft and the thrill of that initial drop down the front of the wave and the ensuing catch up of the white water which enveloped you, was amazing. Sixty years later I can still recall it.

When a few years older and with a pair of flippers, my friends and I would head out to the “Alley” on the south side of the beach to body-surf the bigger waves with some shape. Riding them in then dropping off when the rocks approached, hitching a ride back out on the rip to the wave zone to begin the journey again.

My mates and I joined the local surf club “Freshie” when we were 13 years old, we were the first Nippers of Surf Life Saving. Not only did it provide hot showers, but a place to leave my bike and towel when I would cycle from my home about 3km from the beach.

Joining the Surf Club was probably one of the best decisions I have made in my life as it taught me many life lessons and I met some great friends along the way. Every Sunday we had a Club swim. One single buoy was dropped out past the break by the Club Boaties. The swim could be 300-500m depending where that was.

It was never mentioned, but you knew you had to get around the buoy and return to shore no matter what the conditions were. That was the expectation and as far as I can recall, everyone did. Negotiating the “break” on the big days was tough. Diving deep below the broken waves and holding on to the sand with hands and feet until the strong surge washed over you then pushing forward to the surface to grab a breath and repeat the process until there is a short lull in the waves when you would swim like the ‘clappers’ to get as far as you can before the waves started breaking again. Once around the buoy then it was easy. Just swim into the wave zone and catch one in, holding your breath for as long as you can with one hand or both stretched out in front of you holding on to every inch of assistance, or just get washed in by the waves.

Not many triathlons experience the same surf conditions as I did growing up but I have experienced some where the buoys have been a problem.

I was co-race director at one of the first State series races at Cottesloe beach and good money was on offer for the professionals. Cottesloe Surf Club was in charge of the water safety. Two lap swim, and on the second lap of the swim I saw the far buoy drifting away with an early sea breeze. None of the water safety officials noticed and I had no radio contact with the water safety. About half the pro field chase the buoy down and the other half just give up chasing and turn where it was once stationed. Final places were affected by the change in the swim course and protests were thick and fast. Some admitted cutting it short but many did not. It was a nightmare and, in the end, we had to let the places stand as they were, which penalised those who did the full distance. Of course, not everyone was happy and either was I.

Move forward approximately 20 years and I am competing in the swim at Busselton 70.3. The wind is picking up and the chop is getting larger and as I am approaching the second last turning buoy and I can see that it is drifting, a rescue board rider is between me and the final buoy with arms out stretched and supporting a few swimmers turning me back (so I thought) toward the final swim buoy in the opposite direction. Not thinking anymore about it and later that night after the presentations I was having a few beers with my mates who did the race as well and I brought up about my swim detour. They looked at me and said they had no such experience. I was positive that was what the board paddlers intention was but now I think I may have been wrong. Every time I attend that race I am reminded by my mates. “make sure you go around all the buoys this time Rob!”

Since then I have been involved in a triathlon swim in the Shoalhaven river where the flow of the river is greatly affected by the tides. As the tide changed during the race and heading to the last buoy up stream I was making little headway but persisted to the extent that I was sprinting to get to this last buoy. I could see on the shore that some swimmers had got out of the water and run along the bank so that they could dive in front of it and make it past this last buoy. Once you got around it was easy stroking downstream to the final exit.

Last weekend in a triathlon swim at Callala, after doing one lap of the swim and on my second lap I could see the far turning buoy starting to drift away. The surf patrol had detained it and were trying to paddle it back to position but were still over 100m off course. Not giving it a thought, myself and a bunch of other swimmers chased it down, swam around it and headed back on course. When I got to the end of the swim and running up the beach I saw a guy I knew and said that was tough having to chase down the buoy and his reply was “I just gave up on it and cut it short”.

I didn’t say anything as I had my own history but most people would not cut the bike or run short so why do we think it is okay to cut the swim? Race directors, in the interests of safety when conditions are bad or lives are at risk, will cut the swim. I guess there are many reasons to make decisions on the spur of the moment and that is the prerogative of each individual but generally fairness should be the underpinning factor and what you feel is right.

When you start something, aim to finish it. The whole thing. Without cutting corners or buoys. Lessons can be learnt in training about finishing sessions. I remember a run coach saying to me, “once you start pulling out of races when the going gets tough, it just gets easier to keep pulling out in future races”.

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