Port Campbell SLSC Ocean Swim 2023

An extended summer period without any decent swell in the area ended last Friday when waves like these rolled in along the Victorian west coast. The swell on Saturday wasn’t too bad either.

Little Henty Reef just off Hayley Point at Marengo (near Apollo Bay)

Breaking wave at Little Henty Reef Marengo
Breaking wave at Little Henty Reef Marengo

Hayley Point last Friday

Breaking wave at Hayley Point Marengo
Breaking wave at Hayley Point Marengo

Port Campbell ocean swimming race on Sunday 5 February 2023

I have swum in many organised ocean swimming races along the Victorian west coast over the last 30-40 years. My clear favourite is the swim at Port Campbell. While it can present calm conditions, typically it does not. The bay is completely exposed to wild weather and big seas from the southern ocean. There is no land mass between this part of the Victorian coast and Antarctica. These factors mean that on most occasions when this annual swim is held, it is a proper ocean swim. Last Sunday was no exception. While I comfortably swam the course along with the other 300 participants, I would not have contemplated doing it alone in those conditions without the safety backup.

This swim has always had relatively small numbers of participants compared to some of the bigger races along the coast. But it seems the secret is out, as there were over 300 swimmers this year. I can recall when numbers were much smaller and everyone swam together in a single race. On Sunday there were a series of race waves, so that the numbers on the course at any one time could be kept low (which helps with safety management).

The big swell which pounded the coast on Friday and Saturday, had it arrived on race day, would have seen the race cancelled. But the weather and the swell started to ease by Sunday, and while conditions were still challenging, the swim went ahead.

Safety presence in the water had been substantially increased in comparison with previous years. SLSC rubber ducks, coast guard jet skis and lifesavers on rescue paddle boards were positioned right around the course, with a concentration of rescue craft at the riskier points. One such point was the seaward turning buoys where the water was deep and currents were flowing. Near the buoys there were also sizeable waves which were breaking at times. I commend the organisers for this very effective mantle of safety over the participants in the race in these challenging conditions. I also commend them for not cancelling the race. The organisers said the course had been shortened from 1200m to 1000m because it was unsafe to have the seaward turn buoys any further outside the heads of the bay. But according to my Garmin watch, I still swam 1220m: 560m to the first turn buoy out to sea, 80m across to the second turn buoy and 580m back to shore.

Bow of Port Campbell surf boat
Western cliffs in Port Campbell bay.

The cliffs along the western side of the bay. There was a substantial current running out to sea along this side of the bay. This rubber duck was collecting and repositioning a course buoy which had drifted towards the cliffs before the first wave of swimmers had left the beach.

Western cliffs in Port Campbell bay looking out to the southern ocean open waters

While I was swimming the course turn buoys could not be seen much of the time, especially when I was in the troughs between waves. As for navigating to the first turn buoy, I used the headland on the right as a guide and only looked ahead for a navigation glimpse when on the crest of a wave.

Swimming race turn buoy in rough conditions

The first turn buoy – where a left turn was required for the short swim east to the second turn buoy.

Swimming race turn buoy in rough conditions

This photo illustrates the difficulty for lifesavers of keeping an eye on swimmers in these conditions.

Swimming race safety resources  in rough conditions

Some of these breaking waves reformed inside the bay near the jetty and broke over swimmers heading to shore on the last leg. Such waves breaking in deeper water in light wind conditions are gentle on swimmers – even fun at times. I just kept an eye out for waves behind me as I swam to shore with this following sea.

Safety surveillance by life saver from the Pt Campbell jetty

A surf lifesaver was posted on the jetty with binoculars and a two way radio – using the vantage point to keep an eye out for any swimmer who looked as though assistance was or might be required. Liz was on the jetty and heard this lifesaver directing the crew in an IRB to a swimmer who had stopped swimming. The boat responded and the swimmer was apparently OK and resumed swimming towards shore.

Rubber duck on patrol

The operators of the IRBs and jet skis would have needed to keep a very good lookout as swimmers, and lifesavers on rescue boards in a trough, could be completely concealed until the moment the jet ski or IRB crested a wave.

Breaking surf at the seaward swimming race turn buoy

The light wind on the day (mostly less than 10 knots) prevented the conditions being unpleasant. Had there been say a 20-25 knot wind blowing straight into the bay, these waves would have presented a more challenging obstacle on the swim out. The swim was more comfortable than the impression some of these images might convey.

Breaking surf at the seaward swimming race turn buoy

The number of rescue personnel and craft around the course is evident in this photo. That’s a reasonable sized wave breaking out the back.

Breaking surf at the seaward swimming race turn buoy
Breaking surf at the seaward swimming race turn buoy

It was a wise move not to have the seaward turn buoys any further outside the bay.

Left: My 1200m track according to my Garmin watch.

Right: Also swimming was Robbie, who I have known for over 60 years. Robbie swims regularly with a group of women at Point Lonsdale. This was her first Port Campbell ocean swim race. She is an experienced ocean swimmer and enjoyed the event.

This was a very well organised and exhilarating swim.

Well done Port Campbell SLSC.

8 thoughts on “Port Campbell SLSC Ocean Swim 2023

  1. Your description and photos did justice to a great race John. And also a big pat on the back to all of the Port Campbell SLSC members who kept all 300 swimmers safe.

    Well done. Cheers. Richard


    1. Thanks Richard. I regret not taking the GoPro with me for a few shots from wave level 500+ metres offshore. But the big telephoto lens from the shore was able to capture something of the mood of the sea.
      Cheers, John


  2. Well done John, it does look an exilerating swim with those big waves out the back, and it certainly sounds like the lifesavers do a fabulous job with running the event. Great photos and descriptions! It is a pity the word is out, but it still sounds small compared to some of the other ocean swims.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. John, first off, congratulations for swimming the course in trying conditions. You have breathed vivid life into the event for those of us not present. The men and women of the Port Campbell SLSC do a marvellous job every year, in my experience, and it seems they’ve risen to the occasion yet again.


    1. Thanks Hunto. It’s always worth turning up for the Pt Campbell swim, safe in the knowledge that if it is cancelled, the sea will be well and truly worth a photo.
      Hope your shoulder is on the mend and that you are back in the ocean reeling off 20 min kms again very soon.


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