In 2011 and 2012 I took part in the 2.4 km swim from Balmain’s Dawn Fraser Baths and around Cockatoo, and I was going to enter again this year. But when I was deliberating about whether my head was in the right place to swim, my husband Bruce suggested watching it from Cockatoo Island.
“What a great idea,” I said. “And then I’ll know what I’m swimming around when I do it next year.”
The rain bucketed down the night before the swim, and I went to bed thinking it’ll be cancelled but the next morning the word on Ocean Swims was the ‘Dawny’ was on. We got ready quickly and caught the train into Circular Quay and then the 8.37 ferry to Cockatoo via King Street Wharf.
When we docked at Cockatoo we hurried across to the eastern side of the island for the start of the swim. As the first of the swimmers came towards us I realised I was not in the best spot to get good shots. I wanted to get closer to the submarine crane on the edge of the island but that area was cordoned off and there were signs saying ‘Keep out.”
Bruce went to find a better spot and then I noticed a gap in the fence and squeezed in. I stood near the crane and took photos of the first swimmers to reach the island led out by Mick on a kayak, who told me it wasn’t cold in.
I followed the red, blue, green and yellow caps along the side of the island and then spotted my squad friend Sue in black.
“Sue, Sue,” I called out and she stopped for a second and waved back.
And then I decided it was time to get out of this cordoned off area but before I could find a gap in the fence three men arrived on the scene. They wanted to know how I got in and demanded to see some ID, which I didn’t have as it was in the backpack with Bruce. I told them I only came in to photograph the people doing the swim. “Show us your photos,” they said. I clicked through until they were satisfied there were no shots of their timber crates, just of the swim. “It’s illegal what you did,” they said to me as I hurried away. “Sorry, I won’t do it again,” I said.
When I reached Bruce he showed me where the competitors had swum under the wharf instead of the usual route around it. “I might get claustrophobic swimming under there,” I said.
We realised the first swimmers would almost have reached the other side of the island so we hurried to get a good vantage spot; passing the rows of tents and old beam bending machines used to make massive plates to build the hulls of ships that reminded me of the statues on Easter Island.
We jogged through a tunnel carved out of the sandstone in 1915, later modified to become an air-raid shelter during World War II.
We emerged from the tunnel near the old Sutherland Dock completed in 1890, and hurried down to the Camber Wharf that faces the Dawn Fraser Baths and White Horse Point.
We made it in time to see the first swimmers complete their circumnavigation of the island. As they increased their pace and powered back to the jetty, the sky turned a deep grey and the rain started to fall. The visibility rapidly reduced and we noticed a few swimmers wide out from the island drifting towards Drummoyne and the Iron Cove Bridge. Fortunately the boats and kayakers directed them back on course like cattle dogs herding sheep.
When the rain got heavier Bruce decided it was time to take shelter, and for awhile we stayed dry in a stone building that used to be a shipwright’s shed.
Eventually the rain eased and I headed back to the wharf where a group of swimmers were discussing the right way to way to go. “Head to the yellow buoy,” said John on a kayak, who paddled over to me for a chat.
“What’s it like in,” I asked. “It’s a bit choppy around the bend there,” he said, “but the water temperature is good.” And then I spotted Sue again and a bit later Jude, another one of the group that swims evening squad at Leichhardt Pool.
As we waited for the last swimmers to emerge around the bend, the rain stopped and the sky returned to a light grey. Seagulls gathered on the edge and squawked as we watched a yellow cap man amble in. He was in last place but Bruce was impressed with his relaxed style and reckoned he was going to overtake the others in front of him.
As the tailenders completed the swim we walked back to the northern side for something to eat.
Revived after our coffee and bacon and eggs, we explored some of the 18 hectares of space full of crinums and jacarandas in flower, timber and sandstone, iron and tin, and buildings from the island’s convict, ship-building and maritime past.
And now it’s a place where every second year the Biennale is held, where campers come and stay overnight, where seagulls nest, where films are made, and where you can have a game of lawn tennis or stay in one of the renovated, original buildings.
It’s a fascinating place but when the rain started to fall again we decided we’d explore the entire island another time.
As we waited for the ferry, I thought about today’s ‘Dawny’ swimmers and how they’d have that sense of achievement you get after an open water swim, but I was glad that this year I had a new experience watching the swim.