Swimming with gadgets

marseille dif gadgets

About half way through the swim, two enormous, plastic fins rose up together out of the sea, high into the air, and came down with a slurp and a slush, pushing the two following heads down about half a metre under the surface. It was at this point that Mdme Sparkle realised that she was in an ocean swim with a difference.

Swimming alongside an older chappie in a full length wettie, she'd been happily keeping pace approaching the far out turning booee when they ran into the rear of the lady finned swimmer -- avec palmes, as the French put it -- who'd decided abruptly to stop, mid-ocean -- mid-Mediterranean -- and mid-peloton.

When she decided to start again, the palmiste delivered the coup de grace to following swimmers happening to be within range, in this case Mdme Sparkle and her unintroduced cobber. They went down, coming up shaking fists and spluttering expletives, one in English, the other in French. "We were saying the same things," said Mdme Sparkle, who doesn't speak French. "I knew what he was saying. It was the same as I was saying."

The palmiste was not alone, of course. Maybe a third to a half of the swimmers in the Saturday arvo prelude to the Escape from Monte Cristo wore palmes, most of them palmes and wetties, and the vast bulk of the others wore just wetties. Some wore wetties over fastskins, for goodness sake. The number sans palmes, sans wetties, and sans everything else except goggles and plain old, down-on-the-farm cossies, you could number, it seemed, on two hands of the 250-odd swimmers taking part in the Saturday swim, and indeed of the 500 swimming on Sunday.

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And to our narrow, Antipodean view, most of them were very odd indeed. There were palmes in all shapes and sizes: from little, mom-and-pop pool sized palmes, through your full on scuba varieties, some of them close to a metre long. And there were your monofins, which look like whales' tails, whose wearers generally sport snorkels that sit in the middle of the forehead, because they do pretty well the entire swim without looking up. Many of the double-palmed swimmers used snorkels, too, which means they, too, didn't look up much, and which is why they stop abruptly mid-peloton, to find out where the hell they are.

Mdme Sparkle -- she'd been Frau Sparkle in the Germanic countries to the north, then Signora Sparkle for two days on the way through Italy, narrowly escaping Frau Spargel, such was her fascination with the white German asparagus, only because we didn't think of it until we got to Fronce -- doesn't think the lassie -- the Mdmslle --wearing the palmes that came down on her head, and that of the older wettie wearer next to her, meant to duck them beneath the Mediterranean. It was just that she didn't know what the heck she was doing -- the palmes girl -- and Mdme Sparkle and the old bloke just were in the wrong place at the time.

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It would be patronising, simplistic and glib to say that ocean swims in Fronce are "different". They are different to Stra'an swims, certainly, but who are we to say that Stra'an swims are held "the right way" -- adroitly, as the French might say.

In Marseille on the weekend of June 28-29, 2008, we took part in the Escape from Monte Cristo, which was a weekend's fete of ocean swimming, with the 2km warm up on the Sat'dy afternoon, and the main event following within 24 hours, 5km from Chateau d'If into one of the sou'-eastern beaches of Marseille on the Sunday morning. Within 24 hours, we did two swims totalling 7km.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Suffice to say that, on Sunday night, we were glad to get back on the train in Marseille to Arles, 45 minutes up the track, where we were staying, glad to have a good scrub down when we got there, glad to have a beer -- a blonde from an abbey in Belgium -- and very glad, indeed, to get to bed.

On Monday morning, we woke near 9:30. We walked around the corner to the boulangerie, picked up our morning baguette -- French for "long bread roll" -- two patisserie -- 'two foncy cakes" -- had breakfast, decided that we were so stuffed from the swims, and because it was hot and dry in Arles, just a prelude in late June to the fierce intensity of the Fronch summer that was to follow in July and August, that we could call off sightseeing for the day, read a book, go back to bed, and sleep for much of the remainder of the day. Which is what we did. In such an exotic location -- a key city of the Roman occupation of southern Fronce, still with working Roman arena and theatre, and where, just a few weeks back, "they" fished the oldest known bust of Caesar himself from the bed of the Rhone -- so far from Meadowbank, Goymere and Rhodes Waterside, did we feel guilty? Not at all, Your Worship.

We were stuffed. We'd spent the first month of the oceanswims.com Yrpean tour preparing for these swims, which meant, in many towns without access to pools, push-ups on the floors of our youth hostels, as well as the odd -- very odd -- swim in some quite unique locations, including the 1936 Nazi era Olympic pool in Berlin and a large, stainless steel urinal pool in Dresden. The entire month, we'd been fretting about fitness and strength and endurance and, now that we'd done Chateau d'If, we could relax at last.

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But back to Marseille, which, at this time of year, also is very hot, but benefits at least from a cooler sea breeze rather than the parching howler from the north in Arles. At the end of June, Marseille already is packed with tourists, amongst whose number we don't count ourselves. We are not tourists. We are ocean swimmers looking for a beach. Which is, after all, what life is about --

marseille0814The escape from Monte Cristo has been running ten years. In the early days, an experienced swimmer told us, they ran the swim from Chateau d'If, the prison of the "Count of Monte Cristo", and The Man in the Iron Mask, into the port of Marseille, into the pleasure craft basin known as Vieux Port.

The "chateau" on the Isl d'If was built originally by Francois I in the 16th century as a fortress protecting Marseille. According to Frommer's Fronce 2008, "the site later housed a prison where carvings by Huguenot prisoners can still be seen". Alexandre Dumas used it as the setting for his fictional "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "The Man in the Iron Mask". Nowadays, the "chateau" sits starkly and moodily on the virtually desert island in the distance from Marseille and its beachside suburbs, evoking eerily a rich past both locally and nationally. It's being done up a bit right now, and the scaffolding on the wall above the wharf and on the chateau's tower is incongruous against its history.

The swim's organisers realised -- one wonders how they didn't work it out beforehand -- that the water quality in Vieux Port is not what it might be, certainly not for an ocean swim. It's full of stinkies these days, and we all know what stinky captains do to their waste. They're above the water so they just don't care. So they switched the course to run from Chateau d'If -- of which we, ourselves, first heard from the Goons -- in towards the harbour channel markers just off Vieux Port, then with a right turn, along the sou'-eastern waterfront and beaches to Plage David -- David's Beach -- providing a distance for swimmers and palmists alike of 5km, a guide which the oceanswims.com GPS-in-a-prophylactic tells us is pretty much spot on.

Chateau d'If, on the island of If -- perhaps such an existential name could be dreamed up only by the French, who have been through some mightily existential experiences over the course of their rich history -- is just about a kilometre iffshore, so the distance comes from the long schlep along the cliffs and the beaches to the finish. It's a reach that reminds one of the South Head Roughwater, off Sydney, for it runs interminably along the cliffs lined with expensive chateaux -- ritzy houses -- mixed with worn out tenements (not that there are any of those in Dover Heights or Diamond Bay, oh, no sir!) -- for so far that it plays games with the mind. When will it end? It's just a slog -- slog, slog, slog for kilometre after kilometre -- along the shoreline. It throws up a definite advantage to those who breathe bilaterally: at least you can change your view from time to time. And when the cliff tops come to an end at last, there's still quite a bit of beach to go before the finish.

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Not that it is, in principle, that hard a swim: one relatively short reach, turn right, then a relatively long reach to a beach. Nothing particularly hard in that.

But, as we've observed before, long reaches offering no particular difficulties in conditions present issues of the mind rather than of the body.

There are just six divisions -- we think there are six -- in this swim: Palmes, and avec palmes, M and F, under 18 and over (adults). That means that your average, overweight, balding mug who hasn't done anywhere near enough training at anything like the intensity that he should have, aged 54 or above who, adhering to religious discipline, doesn't wear a wettie, is competing with 19 year old guns in wetties. In Stra'a, we'd whinge about this, as some of you may be only too aware. Coaches tell us that wetties can give you up to a 20 per cent advantage. But we're out of familiar territory here, voluntarily taking part in a swim within a foreign culcha. It's not for us to criticise or to whinge. This may be the best way to do it, after all. And, certainly, we knew what the categories were when we entered.

But it is bizarre, surreal, to take part in a swim in which so many are using fins, monofins, those forehead hugging snorkels. Even giant power paddles, which top line performance coaches will use in working out their national squads only in short sharp bursts, but which, for some reason, some ordinary mugs think will help them over 5km. It takes our minds back to Dr Bruce Fasher, renowned paediatric trauma specialist at Westmead Hospital in Sydney, who, also for some obscure, eccentric reason -- Bruce is a lovely bloke, to be sure, but you'd think he'd know better, wouldn't you! -- thought that wearing paddles over 2.8km in the Espiritu Santo swim would cover for having done absolutely no training at all. They pulled him out, exhausted, before he'd gone a kilometre.

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One thing that was confirmed for us in these two swims was that people who wear palmes do so often for a very good reason: they can't swim. Not all of them, but many of them. Some of them swam past us, but we also swam past many of them. And many of them keep stopping. Funny, that. Why do palmes wearers keep stopping' Because they're stuffed from wearing palmes. Anyone who has worn fins in training will know that, while fins offer, in principle, faster swimming, they do so only by conforming to a particular style of swimming, which is much harder and more intense than regular swimming. Your arms have to go harder and faster to keep up with the power offered through the legs. So it's actually harder to swim with fins -- palmes -- not easier.

marseille0844And when you get tired whilst swimming with fins, the first parts of you that wear out, after your heart, are your legs, which means you get no more power from the palmes, and there is absolutely no point at all in wearing them. It leaves one with just one possible conclusion: that palmes swimmers use palmes because they're not up to it, can't handle the distance, they know so, but they don't know enough to realise that the palmes won't help them. So they spend their time along the way stopping abruptly to rest and to find where they're going, getting in other swimmers' way, and when they start again, they do so with a burst, with both palmes rising high out of the water together, crashing down, slurping and slushing, on any poor eejit within range right behind them. As Mdme Sparkle discovered.

Many of those we saw out there had nothing like the technique required for swimming with fins. As swim teachers tell the littlies, almost from day 1 -- pretty well as soon as they've mastered the concept of the streamline, the torpedo, which is the perfect body position -- kicking comes from the hips down. A good kick uses the entire leg, starting with the hip. The knees bend, but not deliberately. There's a wave of movement that flows from the hip to the toe: the hip drops, the rest of the leg follows in a wave, the leg supple and loose. The foot and the "kick" follow. That's for a good kick. When you swim past someone wearing palmes who is deliberately bending their legs from the knee to kick with the lower part of the leg and the foot, you know that they aren't across the issues.

And many of these swimmers were doing just that.

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On top of that, many coaches will tell you that you won't get much more than 15 per cent of your power out of your kick, at best, and that diminishes with most blokes, especially -- Thorpie was an abberration, and a stand-out amongst us boofheads (you all should remember the kicking surge he would bring in for the last 2.5-1.5 laps, which was phenomenal). Most blokes, indeed, don't kick and shouldn't try to kick too much anyway, because they lack the suppleness and the technique. Most blokes should see kicking as a relatively gentle act engaged in to assist balance in the water. Many of those who try for more are dreamin'.

The ones who amaze us, however, are the monopalmists. They wear one big fin, like, as we said earlier, a whale's tail, with two foot-holes. They also wear a snorkel over the forehead, for the technique requires the head to be kept down and a constant streamlined position, with the arms outstretched. Our friend, Josef Kysilka, now living at Sutherland but from the Czech Republic originally, is into fin swimming, as it's called, quite heavily. As we recall, Josef was a ranking contender in world underwater orienteering. Say what? We said, underwater orienteering, which is orienteering underwater. Oh, of course.

Josef tells us that such a contest might involve a 15km course in a lake in Europe, perhaps overnight, which is done entirely underwater with one of those forehead snorkels. The outstretched arms, in front, hold some gizmo which includes a compass and a speed gauge, which allows the wearer work out direction and distance to orientation points. This sounds like an eccentric sport, indeed. Probably not for us, for it also involves the entire distance fly kicking with those enormous monopalmes. Try it in your local, neighbourhood pool next time you're down there for laps and see how easy it is. And how popular you are in the crowded public lanes.

The fact that these characters can handle these distances in such a fashion simply amazes us. And we take off our "bonnets" to them -- Fronch for swim caps -- for they do an amazing job.

But in events like these, the 2km on the Samedi and the 5k on Dimanche, without their compasses and their speed gauges, it means they have to stop and work out where they are.

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marseille0850vertAnd, despite the theoretically easy conditions, these swims presented difficulties that we don't often face in Stra'a. They made the 2km swim not particularly easy, and the 5km swim actually quite difficult, quite apart from the tyranny of the long, straight reach.

Mmm, attractive, oui?

You see, the Mediterranean is a sea, not an ocean. In Stra'a, when we get chop, we generally get long, relatively long, loping swells, maybe with a side chop to throw us out. But there usually is a bit of distance and time between swells and chop, so we get a bit of time to recover and, even in a nasty chop, you can fall into a rhythm.

In the Mediterranean, however, there is not much swell at all. There are little, dinky swells around Marseille, at the top of the Gulf of Lion (maybe it's Lyon -- our Fronch isn't anything), but close into to the Marseille coastline they're mucked up by wind chop and by backchop bouncing off the shore. Every now and again through a swim, you'd feel a little swell pick you up and throw you forwards, but it's so small that you don't have the distance between swells to reach out and glide with it. As one rolls through your body and out from your head, the next one, such as it is, already is coming through. Then, after two, they drop away into nothing, leaving one all deflated.

And there's also the chop, both from the wind and from backwash. It comes from all directions, it seems, and it's all small. Small enough to be minor, but large enough to be unsettling. One lost count of the number of times that one attempted to retrieve one's arm from the sea by one's thigh, only to find an unexpected chop had covered it and it couldn't be retrieved, at least not in a way that allowed one to preserve one's rhythm.

The 5km swim was conducted, in the first reach across the channel from the island of If, in the backwash and side chop from the harbour traffic, which made it bumpy and a bit unpredictable. Then we pass the harbour channel markers -- checking for Walter Matthau, proceeding on remembering that he is dead now, or we think he is -- then we swim for four kilometres along the beach into a wind swell coming into our faces at about 1:30am, complicated by side chop from the rocks and cliffs to our left. With the mind games intensified by not having done anything like the training we should have done for a 5km swim, it was unsettling.

To top it off, not speaking French, we had no idea what the instructions were for the swim, delivered at the briefing, and had no idea at all what we were supposed to do, where we were supposed to go, after that one turn. We knew we had to head sou'-east, but how far off shore, and was there a particular line?

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We hung in. Far too far, for after a kilometre, a kayakiste shouted at us, pointing with her paddle and directing us back out to sea. But, out at sea, it was very hard at water level to spot the booees and, thus, the line. We zig-zagged. But then, we always Zig-zag. And we covered much greater distance than we needed to.

And the water quality -- off David's Beach, it was what you might expect in a river flowing through a city. Not pleasant. Muddy, detritus from stormwater run-off floating about. You wouldn't often, willingly swim in it. But we have no diseases or conditions erupting yet. Off the island of If, it was a glorious, clear deep blue, washing about the rocks as in a tropical paradise. As you travelled from If into David's Beach, it clouded gradually. The longer, 4km reach was run about 200 metres offshore, and out there the water wasn't anywhere near as unpleasant as it was in close. As the water clouded, too, the temperature rose. It was around 23-24 deg C in close, perhaps 22 off the island.

But it was a lot of fun, even if we couldn't understand any of the announcements and, on the Sat'dee in particular, we had no idea of the organisation of wave starts. While the website suggested, after we'd put it through Google language tools, that there would be separate starts for palmes and sans palmes, and under 18s and adults, everyone was, in the end, sent off together. Not wishing to fudge, we'd held back at the start, taking our pitchers, to be sure that everyone was going, which they did, before we left. But it would have been helpful, if perhaps less exciting, had we spoken French, which we don't, apart from your normal courtesies, which are important in French.

Most French can teach us a thing or two about civility. But that's another story.

Why don't you come, too...

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