A night of spinning swimming yarns


Last night I was part of an evening of ocean swimming yarns held at the Woolloomooloo Bay Hotel. It was a great night of story-telling loosely based around the theme of ‘my first time’ with no two stories the same.


We heard about facing fears and making it out past the waves at Bondi, the art and soul of swimming from Cronulla Beach to Shark Island in the light-filled month of May, the gentleness of a mother whale communing with the Bold and Beautiful swimmers off Manly’s Shelley Beach, feeling lost at sea on the 10km Bondi to Watsons Bay swim, taking on the mighty Tweed River,  escaping from Alcatraz and finding romance in the waters off Galway Bay.


Thanks to Liz Crowhurst from CanToo for organising the event and for bringing all the yarning swimmers together for a night of craic as the Irish say.

Here is my story, which I’d like to dedicate to my friend Fi’s Dad Barry, an ocean swimmer from way back who encouraged us to follow him out to the deep water and around headlands back in the 80s and 90s.

Big Swim finishers 1988: Therese (left), Mark, Greg, Fiona and Peter (two of Barry’s brood).

Starting again

Sunday,  20 November 2011. After a break of more than 10 years I am resurrecting my open water swimming career. I am restarting with Balmain’s ‘Dawny to Cockatoo Island’ swim.  So it’s not my first time but it feels like it is.

In the 80s and 90s I swam in a number of ocean swims; the Palm Beach to Whale Beach at least three times, the Cole Classic when it was still at Bondi, the Manly swim and the Warriewood to Mona Vale where I was dumped and held under by smashing waves on the way in. I lost my cap and goggles and staggered up the beach gasping for air.  I never went in that swim again.

With my brother and sister and cousin’s son Niall after the Big Swim, late 80s.

Maybe that was the start of losing my nerve. I’m not sure but from the late 90s I stopped swimming around headlands and stuck to following the black line up and down the pool. But in 2011, soon after I’d turned 50 and returned to squad at Leichhardt Pool I started to contemplate ocean swimming again.  When our coach handed out flyers for the ‘Dawny to Cockatoo’, I thought why not get back into it again.


The night before I was due to swim I kept my alcohol intake to a minimum and went to bed before 10. I woke feeling like I’d like to sleep in but I wasn’t going to drop out as I’d already paid my money on Ocean Swims. In Balmain my husband dropped me in Elkington Park and went in search of a car park. I followed the conga line of bodies making their way past the jacarandas and towering palms to the Dawn Fraser Baths.

Near a magnificent fig tree, I looked out to Cockatoo where in 1863 bushranger Captain Thunderbolt aka Fred Wordsworth Ward escaped from the island’s prison and swam to shore  –  where legend has it his girlfriend was waiting to make a quick getaway on a white horse! I scanned the waters where he made his famous escape and hoped the bull sharks that roam the harbour stayed away today.

On the timber boardwalk that surrounds Australia’s oldest surviving swimming pool, a band was playing and there was a festive feel. I lined up to get my name ticked off and number 336 inscribed on my arm.

Early birds climbed down the chrome ladders and dived off the starting blocks, warming up their limbs before the 2.5km swim. I sat under the grandstand, took a few deep breaths and lathered my fair skin in sunscreen.

Soon it was time to leave the pool and move towards the start on the jetty next door. I stayed close to my squad friend Sue who told me to head towards the crane on the way out to Cockatoo. I jumped in the water with my fellow black caps and tried not to think about swimming with sharks.

Then bang went the gun and we were off, heading out to where the Parramatta and Lane Cove Rivers meet. As I stroked in time with the rise and fall of the swell, my hands touched the slippery surface of jellyfish but I wasn’t too concerned as I was used to them from my childhood at Northbridge Baths.


I settled into a rhythm and thought of the stories I knew about Cockatoo; how the island was before white man came – when stands of red gum and flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos occupied the 18 hectares of space. When Aborigines fished and swam in the waters nearby.  And then white man arrived with new ideas and ways, and prisons, reformatory schools and ship building replaced the trees and cockatoos.

Photo from www.cockatooisland.gov.au

I followed the splash and kick of the bodies in front of me and every now and again lifted my gaze to check I was heading towards that crane. As we reached the island overnight campers stood in a line and waved and cheered. I changed my breathing to the left and caught glimpses of sandstone buildings and a massive dock. I wanted to stop and take a closer look but my competitive nature made me push on.

Photo from www.cockatooisland.gov.au

As I completed my circumnavigation of the island I swam past the spot where the Sobraon ship used to be – a sort of orphanage on the water for delinquent boys – and home to champion swimmer Barney Kiernan who set six world records in 1904 but tragically died the next year when he was only 19.


As I swam away from the island and back towards the pool I thought how much cleaner the harbour had become since Balmain’s industrial days when dye from a textiles factory nearby sometimes turned the water red.  For the last 400 metres or so I channelled Dawny – Fraser that is, and swam as fast as I could, buoyed on when I realised I was passing swimmers in younger age groups than me.  A few more strokes and I reached the jetty. A man held out his hand and helped me up. I staggered a bit as I got my land legs but recovered quickly when I passed over the finish line.


As I searched for my husband in the waiting crowd a sense of satisfaction came over me – that feeling of having done something big  that I remembered I used to get after an ocean swim,  and I thought I might do the Wedding Cake Island swim next weekend.

Re-living running through the finish line after The Big Swim, 1985.


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  • Thanks Therese. Barry would have enjoyed your story. I still remember the feeling of safety I got when I was following Dad. Those were the days!

  • I wish you could have too Jen as you were the one that introduced us to the idea of stand-up story-telling through Radio National’s Now Hear This and the Sydney Writer’s Festival event. If I ever do one again might need to get a bit of performance technique advice from Fi! Ciao

  • Thanks again Therese for your story and blog. I stole Killer’s notes and I have just looked back at them. They include *place of many possums, *body is a temple and *death threats. Funny both in and out of context! See you at Dawnies again perhaps this year. Lizzie

  • Thank you Lizzie. Funny – he could have talked the night away! There were lots of great lines on the night so will be good to have them on tape. I especially liked Caron’s story on the art of swimming from Cronulla to Shark Island and back. Beautiful!

  • Just discovered your blog. I love ocean baths and rockpools too and try to seek them out whenever I can. Your post is of particular interest as I have very fond memories of Dawn Fraser Pool. I grew up opposite the pool in the early-mid 60s and swam there often – in fact I learnt to swim there. I’ll try to go to the next ‘Dawny’ swim.

  • There’s something special about ocean baths and rock pools and each one is different. I grew up swimming at another harbour baths – Northbridge – but now live closer to the Dawn Fraser. I am hoping to go in the ‘Dawny’ this year so might see you there.


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