Mid-winter Swim in the Southern Ocean

Some hardy Apollo Bay locals (mostly women) make the most of their pristine and uncrowded bay with regular ocean swims, and they have been doing so for about ten years. They swim daily through all seasons. There is no winter break.  If there are conditions in which they don’t swim, then local boats are probably staying on their moorings too. They are all able ocean swimmers. They each learned lessons about the ocean the hard way.  More than a few of these women are also keen surfers. The practice is that at least two or three swimmers and often more will meet at the harbour carpark without notice at the same time each weekday morning.  Most of those who swim during the week also seem to also fit in a swim at some time or another on most Saturdays and Sundays. These ocean swims are not a chore, but a privilege and a joy.

Wet-haired fresh faced swimmers full of energy and laughter after the morning’s ocean swim usually convene for a convivial coffee and chat in one of the local cafes. In winter, they can be further identified as the happily noisy crew who are seriously rugged up with scarves, coats and beanies as they thaw out from the chill of the southern ocean. Wetsuits are worn all year round. Thicker wetsuits are favoured in winter, which is also when various rubber and neoprene hats appear.

Bad weather, big seas and low water temperatures are no deterrent to the swimming women of Apollo Bay.

And so it was on the morning of Tuesday 3 July that four of us turned up at the car park near the harbour wall under an overcast and ominous sky.  The wind was howling through the rigging in the moored yachts in the harbour at a good 35 knots with gusts to 40 knots or so (gale force). The wind was from the NNW, which is virtually straight down the east-facing beach at which we swim.  Blowing sand was swirling in the car park in the lee of the dunes.

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The grass on the sand dune shows the wind direction and strength. The stone wall is where we enter the beach.  On this day in the stronger gusts, sand blowing from the dune gave any exposed skin a fierce blasting. I had to wear my swimming goggles and keep my mouth closed to minimise the sandblasting as I turned this corner.
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The fetch over which these waves were generated by the wind is basically from the hills in the distance to where the photo was taken from.
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Some days this starting point for the swim is a mill pond.  But not this day.
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Walking out to swimming depth is not usually hard work.
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The dark hills on the horizon make visible the spindrift lifting from the water in the stronger gusts of wind.  This is water which is lifted from breaking wave tops and carried for some distance through the air in a swirling mass of white spray before it falls back into the sea. The descriptions on the Beaufort Scale (a seaman’s measure which relates wind speed to observed conditions) provide that edges of crests break into spindrift (as shown in the above photo) at 34-40 knots. The Beaufort Number given to such conditions is 8, and is described as a fresh gale. The stone structure on the right is part of the Apollo Bay harbour wall.
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While four of us swam this morning, we swam different routes in two pairs. My swimming friend and I swam from the harbour wall to the lookout on the beach some 500m away (a 1km round trip, or 1200m depending on the tide).  I tried to take a photo of my fellow swimmer with my back to the wind, but failed miserably as shown, when a wave blew over me and the GoPro just as I pressed the shutter.  I include this photo because it captures something of the mood a little offshore in these conditions.
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My friend striking out to the north on the outbound 500m, with current, seas and wind all against her. The swim to the lookout took us 31 minutes, and the return trip took us 9 minutes (same distance each way).
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I rarely even attempt a selfie with any camera.  But I thought the sea conditions might make it worth giving one a shot.  I shouldn’t have bothered. With my back to the breaking waves and chop, and therefore the camera facing the wind and waves, this was the result.  But swimming  as distinct from taking selfies at sea in these conditions is something I thoroughly enjoy. That was not always the case. Over time I have learned to adapt my stroke and breathing cycle to such conditions, and I now never get a mouthful of water and can make forward progress in really rough seas, albeit slow progress at times.  There was a progression for me from avoiding such conditions, to tolerating them, and finally to enjoying them. I often remind myself that it’s only rough on the surface, and that with my face looking down (which it is of course for most of the stroke cycle) the seabed and water look no different to when swimming in calm conditions.  The matter of getting a breath involves the minor modification of calm water technique of preparing to breathe as I roll but not actually taking the breath until I have confirmed I will be taking in air and not water. If a wave is breaking over me or is about to as I roll to breathe, then I simply continue to hold my breath and keep the normal rhythm of my stroke going and almost invariably get a clear breath next cycle.  Making my mouth a small hole through which to breathe minimises the risk of taking on water, and looking a little further back towards the shoulder when breathing instead of out to the side, possibly with a slight higher roll than in calm water, means the bow wave created by my head produces a waterless pocket of air just where I need it every time.  Using these methods, I can breathe perfectly happily even to the side from which the wind and waves are coming if necessary.  I can of course breathe bilaterally, and swimming an out and back course on a rough day involves breathing from both sides as the need or convenience arises. Another technique I have found useful in such conditions is to have my hand entry a little wider than shoulder width, which creates more stability by countering some of the rolling effect of rough seas, especially when the wind and waves are from the side.
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During my swim from the harbour to the lookout (the leg into the wind and current) I paused to look back at the harbour.  In such conditions all I could see over the waves were the tops of the yacht masts, and the tops of some trees near the golf course behind the fishermen’s co-op.  It’s not usually like this when we swim here. The breakwater, harbour and beach would be completely visible from this point on a calmer day.
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During the course of the 40 minute swim, the wind abated a little to around 25 knots. This photo was taken during the return journey downwind when the stormy sky caught my eye and I paused to take this photo.
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Swim done. This was the view to the north after the swim. Salt spray on the GoPro camera housing is the cause of the spots.  As always, we once again had impressed on us that it’s always rougher out there than it looks from the shore.  A most exhilarating swim in these wild and woolly conditions. The convivial coffee and chat with us all rugged up and slowly warming ensued. The water temperature in the bay has been measured in the last week or so at 12-14 degrees Celsius – very cold patches and slightly less cold patches occur in this bay.  Air temperature on the beach is often in single figures with wind chill values near zero.  Keeping very warm in a lot of clothing (including a hat)  before and after a cold swim is a useful tip. The reason we all keep swimming all year around is that it makes us feel so damn good.

4 thoughts on “Mid-winter Swim in the Southern Ocean

  1. I actually wish I was there. A challenge well met John. In my youth, an elderly man once said to me after a tough cross country run in cold, driving rain, “you know you’re alive”.

    As for the selfie, it looks like somebody’s broken your windscreen. A sign?

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    1. Yes, you certainly do know you’re alive in weather and conditions like that. You would’ve enjoyed those conditions Hunto, but of course they’re nothing you haven’t seen (and swum in) at Waratah Bay.

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  2. A very enjoyable read and photos John. Must get back into winter swimming. Had my first swim for quite a while today, in the Algarve, Portugal. The beach was packed, flat water and a bit cool. On the south west coast now and much more dramatic.

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    1. Nice to hear from you en route to Mont Blanc Jenny. Pleased to hear you had a warmup swim at Algarve before tackling Nazare. I hope Lee’s knee is not giving him any trouble. Safe travels. Enjoy the big walk. See you in the water on your return.

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