At Whale Beach the waves come over the rock shelf into the ocean pool like metallic fireworks. Palm Beach pool is the coldest in winter – an icy 12 degrees. North Narrabeen, looking toward the craggy silhouette of the headland, reminds me of the Turkish Aegean coast. Manly’s Fairy Bower still weaves a mermaid magic I remember from childhood summer holidays. Bilgola and Collaroy are where the hardcore lap-swimmers go, not the frivolous frolickers like me. Avalon was where I first dunked my three month old baby’s little toe into the seawater. And Newport, ah – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’m one of those crazy people who swim every single day, even through the winter. I first learned that I could actually do it, that my body wouldn’t protest unduly, that I could in fact swim on cold days and not catch the flu or die of hypothermia, from a group of women and men ranging from their sixties to their nineties at Avalon ocean pool. They would come down every morning and sit on the concrete ledge in their colourful one-pieces and terry-towel bathrobes. Not a wetsuit or rash vest in sight.
When I was pregnant ten years ago and new to the area, I would walk the beach from one headland to another and watch these people. I got to know them, in all their kindness and complexity. So, in the depths of winter, with my enormous belly, tiny bikini and white goose-bumped flesh, I braved the water just like them. And the immediate effect was pure exhilaration.
Most ocean pools or ‘rock baths’ along the NSW coast were developed from natural rock formations in the early 20th century. Some were expanded and reinforced with concrete walls, others are still a little feral, and those are the ones I like best. The Bogey Hole in Newcastle was the first of its kind, made by convicts in the 1820s, and since modernised. Heritage-listed Wylie’s Baths in Coogee were built by entrepreneur and champion long-distance swimmer Henry Wylie in 1907. I remember seeing a photograph of Avalon from the thirties, when it was just an organic, misshapen rock-pool, surrounded by women in knitted wool bathers, elaborate hats, carrying babies and parasols.
After my first winter baptism, I became addicted. When my baby was born, the ARSes (that’s what they call themselves, the ‘Avalon Retired Swimmers’) would take turns holding and playing with her while I plunged. As she grew, she embraced the ocean pool alongside them. She would sometimes worry that a shark would be swept into the pool on stormy winter waves, and even now, when the sea is murky and grey, I have visions of an extra-large Jaws beneath me. But the only sharks that blunder their way in are Port Jacksons, though there was a one-metre shark in Cronulla pool in 2008. Endearingly, the regular swimmers completed their laps that morning, blissfully unaware.
We saw dolphins from Avalon pool, found a huge blue-green octopus, saved a fairy penguin, lost earrings, washed out of it and smacked onto the concrete one particularly big-swell day, embraced it in all its moods. I never thought we would feel as intimately connected to a body of water again, but then we moved last year, only one suburb south, and stumbled upon a wild, isolated ocean pool I’ve loved ever since.
Here, I get to be the only person in the water most days, even when the sky is blindingly blue and it’s late December. I can breaststroke slowly when the surface is as still as a mirror, hardly making a ripple, and feel the disturbed water cormorants make as they dive under my body and emerge, dripping, right near my head. On cold rainy days, I lower myself in and the pool becomes a warm bath, the sea’s temperature like my own blood. When the ocean is big and stormy, I keep to the centre, scared and excited at the same time, borne aloft by foamy peaks, the swell and pull of waves. Some days, there’s so much fresh seaweed coming in the pool I feel as if I’m swimming in a salad of vivid green and amber. When the weed ages and collects in rotting mounds at the bottom, the water takes on the hue of strong black tea. Even then, I go in. I said I’m addicted.
Some days, when the sun rises over the sea at a low angle, I’m reminded of Max Dupain’s photograph of Newport pool from the early fifties. The muscular fragility of young male swimmers, their wet skin dusted with salt and sunlight. The lengthening shadows of a late summer’s day. More so than the iconic ‘Sunbather’ portrait of the thirties, the images of Newport awaken in me a kind of yearning or nostalgia, even when I’m swimming in that very same pool. Best of all, there are days like today, clear, wind-ruffled and brilliant. I float on my back and close my eyes against the dazzle of the sun, only to open them and see the white-bellied sea eagle that makes its nest on the crags, swooping so close I feel I could reach my fingers out and touch its feathers.