Visiting Coogee’s Wylies Baths last week with three of my nieces, I was reminded of the ‘marine biologist’ episode of Seinfeld in which George Costanza proclaimed: “The sea was angry that day, my friends … like an old man trying to send back soup to a deli.”
Swimming in the turbulent waters of the 103-year-old pool was a bit like being in a washing machine. It was exciting and scary standing on the wall dividing the sea from the pool as powerful waves spilled over the top of us. Sometimes we were able to defy the force of nature and hang on to the poles. Other times the strength of the breakers would push us back into the safety of the pool. It wasn’t an ideal day for swimming laps in the wild waters of the 55×35 foot pool. But the regulars weren’t put off and continued their daily ritual of stroking through the swell.
Outside the water, the atmosphere was much more chilled with sunbakers stretched out on the hot concrete surrounding the baths. Others relaxed on the timber balconies above or found a shady spot under the stairs to read a book.
Henry Alexander Wylie, a champion underwater swimmer, established Wylies Baths in 1907. With the help of his two sons, he cut the pool out of the rock at the southern end of Coogee Bay. It was one of the first baths in Sydney to offer mixed bathing. Near the entrance to the baths is a sculpture of Henry Wylie’s daughter, Mina who won a silver medal in swimming at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Mina’s father and brothers were also good swimmers and were famous for their exhibitions of ‘trick and fancy swimming’ at Sydney swimming carnivals.
During the 1970s, 80s and early 90s regulars were concerned that a big sea would knock over the baths and its facilities if the council didn’t undertake urgent major repairs to the complex. After a long campaign the baths were restored in 1994 and re-opened in 1995. Today they are a heritage-listed local icon. They attract lots of characters who swim and hang out at the pool all year round.