We don't take you just anywhere.
The view off Forster Main Beach last week (see story below).
Stingers, stingers, and more stingers
Blueys. Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, they’re with us, and they ain’t goin' away.
Yet again, we are searching for the answers to some of life’s great questions –
- What makes bluebottles be there, floating around offshore, ready to be blown in to the beaches by an onshore breeze?
- What makes them spawn in abundance so that they are floating about out there, often in plague proportions?
Astute observers will note that these are two sides of the same question: Why are they there when they are there? Why not always or never? Why more so sometimes than at other times? What makes them spawn?
We have asked this question/these questions several (many) times in the past, but the best anyone can come up with is, ‘Oh, they get blown in by the nor’-easters’.
That is true. But why aren’t they blown in by all nor’-easters, or by all sou’-easters? The answer to that question is that they aren’t always there, floating about insouciantly, ready to be blown in.
Another question: Why are they in some places but not in other places, even nearby?
Case study: In Forster, where we swim a bit in the ocean, we swim mainly at the town’s Main Beach, which faces nor’-east. You would think that we are particularly vulnerable to bluey infestations. In the last two years, however, we have had very few problems with them, despite what incessant black nor’-easters blowing over the height of summer, and often at other times. Yet at One Mile Beach, barely a kilometre away, and which faces east, they have experienced repeated bluey invasions over the same period. Why them and not us?
Juli Berwald’s book, Spineless (Riverhead Books 2017), attempts to answer this question, inter alia (albeit not in specific reference to blueys at Forster). But it can’t, because, it says, no-one knows what makes jellyfish spawn.
What we do know, Berwald says, is that jellyfish (blueys ‘n all) come from polyps, and polyps clone to make new jellyfish.
Berwald quotes one researcher, Lucas Brotz, at the University of British Columbia, who has done a paper on the growth of jellyfish populations in coastal regions worldwide. Brotz theorises that one of the causes of an increase in jellyfish numbers is the increase in hard surfaces around shorelines; or, put another way, increasing development. The reason, he says, is that jellyfish polyps like hard surfaces to live on and the increase in structures such as wharves, artificial reefs, even buoys, moorings, breakwaters and concrete shoreline provide rich opportunities for them. And all of those hard surfaces, with untold (hectares) of undersides, are potentially brand-new habitats for jellyfish polyps.'
Berwald writes: ‘Jellyfish scientists have compared the jellyfish polyp to a Trojan horse. By building habitats for the polyps, we are inviting them into our bays and ports and beaches. They arrive and plant themselves, appearing as benign guest. And then, when they get the cue, they release an invasion of medusae (juvenile jellyfish, if you like, which become jellyfish: oss.c) before we can react.’
A bluey. (Image: David Helsham Design @glistenrr)
But what is ‘the cue’?
Berwald says: ‘Despite all the artificial jellyfish habitats we’ve constructed, we’ve observed the polyps of only a miniscule number of jellyfish species in the wild… just over two dozen species.
‘Entire fisheries profit from two species of edible jellyfish, but the locations of the polyps that produce those medusae remain mysterious. We don’t have accounts of wild polyps of the box jellies that brutally sting swimmers in Australia every summer, of the spotted jellies that can proliferate into swarms of millions of medusae in the Gulf of Mexico, of the stocky barrel jellyfish that surf the seas of the United Kingdom, or of the invasive nomadic jellyfish that blooms by the kilometre in the eastern Mediterranean.’
We think Berwald is mixing up the terror of estuarine waters along the north Queensland coast with the much more pervasive but far less (but still) deadly bluey (our fave!). In the US, our blueys are their box jellies. Be that as it may, the question is the same: why are they there?
‘Lots of questions remain unanswered,’ Berwald writes. ‘What do wild polyps eat? What east wild polyps? How long do they live? Why do they die? What causes them to clone, to produce podocysts, to produce medusae?’
‘We just don’t know. And that’s eerie,’ Berwald says.
A real nasty: a box jellyfish. Keep away from this one.
Why are they there?
The question comes to mind for a couple of reasons: we’re coming into summer, and reports of blueys in swimming areas along the coast are re-emerging from their winter slumber; they follow more frequent reports of blueys appearing on beaches in cooler months, even through winter; and an encounter we had last week at Forster, out behind Haydon’s Reef.
We were swimming around the reef last Tuesday, looking to catch up with Fluffy en famille, when suddenly it hove into view: a jellyfish, a stinger, that we’d never seen before. In our waters, you get used to seeing blueys, jimbles, purple people eaters, salps, etc. But this was right out of the ordinary. It sat there, about a metre below the surface, and we didn’t see it till we were right over the top (our habit is to keep our heads down when we swim, so we don’t see a lot ahead; it’s part of the lot of the ageing swimmer: you lose flexibility in your neck). A metre below, it’s not threatening, but as we stopped to look, it started… to move. You notice very quickly how manoeuvrable jellies often are, how deliberate they appear to be. Perhaps they’re just responding to the hydrodynamics of one swimming over them. And believe us, the hydrodynamics of this particular one (us) swimming around the joint are quite definite. Maybe it’s like they’re sucked into our slipstream, and what appears to be them responding and moving deliberately are just involuntary responses caused by the currents.
It does spook you a little, though, and you move back instinctively to put more distance between you and it.
It’s quite a beautiful, dramatic jelly, with lots of fair maiden’s fine hair floating about behind it. We had our Brownie Starflash-in-a-plastic bag with us, so we got a few images on burst at 30 frames over 3 seconds. Plenty of options. We sent an image to the chap at the Australian Museum who we thought would be most appropriate to identify it for us. He got back to us quick and smart, but he said we should send it to Lisa Gershwin, at the University of Tasmania, who is the acknowledged authority on jellyfish, and has produced an app to help us identify them.
We did that as well, and Lisa, too, got back to us quick and smart.
‘Ha! I think that’s one of my babies!!!!!’, Lisa said. ‘It looks like it might be Desmonema scoresbyanna, a species I named and classified around 2008. It is fairly uncommon, known from South Australia through NSW.’ That tallied with a report we’d seen from the local newspaper, the Great Lakes Advocate, in 2016, when it was sighted, apparently for the first time, off the breakwall at Tuncurry, across the lake mouth from Forster.
Lisa was not absolutely sure, though.
‘The reason for my lack of certainty is that the photo is pretty fuzzy, so I can’t make out the defining character, the arrangement of tentacles,’ she told us.
‘Desmonema has tentacle clusters in a straight line, where Cyanea, the lion’s mane, has horseshoe shaped clusters. Every time I’ve seen a milky white lion’s mane, they’ve turned out to be Desmonema. But you just never know, it could be a milky Cyanea.’
We’ve seen several images of the lion’s mane, and it doesn’t look like that to us, although we’re no expert and, depending on the images you’re comparing, we can see how the two might be confused. See for yourselves: compare the image at the top of this page with this one here, at right (lion's mane)…
A lion's mane.
The lion’s mane jellyfish can grow to several metres in girth, and it would be hard to mix them up on that basis. The Desmonema we spotted would have been c. 7-8cm wide in its bell, with gossamer tentacles extending half a metre behind.
Our cobber, Steve White, a Forster Turtle, reckons he was stung by what we saw, also out around Haydon’s Reef, on October 31. Steve normally has his own Brownie Starflash with him, but not on this occasion so he caught no images. He said it gave him a very sharp sting around his mouth. The pain was debilitating and lasted for two hours, although it left him with no scars or other marks. Didn't really matter much with Steve; he's a quiet sort of chap. Meanwhile, the mystery continues.
We took the opportunity of the contact with Lisa to ask her about the bluey: what makes the bluey be there when they are there, ready to be blown into shore by an onshore breeze.
At the time of writing, we haven’t heard back further from Lisa, but we live in hope. We have tried by email to ask her about the bluey a couple of times in the past, but received no response. Perhaps our emails were lost in the cybernet, including yesterday's follow up when we sent her another four images of last week's Desmonema.
Meanwhile, anyone out there who has some reasonably authoritative information or advice, please get in touch. Just so long as it’s more illuminating than, ‘Oh, it’s blown in by the nor’-easters’.
Why do we go on about blueys?
Well, if we have some idea about what make blueys be there, ready to be blown into shore, then maybe we can start to predict their arrival in swimming waters. That could mean swimmers could avoid being stung. And whilst to some punters, getting stung by a bluey is a badge of honour, to others it can endanger their lives.
In Hawai’i a few years back, the organisers of the Waikiki Roughwater swim started to anticipate the arrival of their version of blueys which, as we've noted, they call a box jellyfish, by the proximity to certain moon phases. In a briefing note to entrants in 2014, the Roughwater organisers told punters, ‘We scheduled this race around the box jellyfish window 8-11 days after the full moon and we do not anticipate that they will be around on race day…’
Organisers said this arrival time window had been ‘discovered’ by Dr Gail Grabowsky, and they began to schedule the swim to avoid it where possible. The Waikiki Roughwater always takes place on the first weekend in September, the Labour Day Weekend in the US, officially the end of the summer holidays. Waikiki generally ran on Monday, with the Maui Channel swim on the Saturday. Thence, the two events sometimes swapped days, so that Waikiki could be safer, or at least organisers could try to optimise the chances that it would be safer.
As we say, ‘box jellyfish’ doesn't mean the same thing to ‘Mer’cans as it does to Strã’ans. If we had ‘box jellyfish’ hanging about the swim course, we wouldn’t be starting at all. That said, there are many versions of ‘box jellyfish’. They all appear to be classified as ‘life threatening’ by Dr Gershwin’s app, The Jellyfish App. In Hawai’i, the ‘box jellyfish’ is a form of Irukandji (alatina moseri). (We tried to find out more about blueys (two versions appear to plague our waters, physalia species A – described as ‘rare – or physalia physalis) from the app, but it doesn’t seem to work very well on our iPhone, which carries the latest ios. Our access to information from it was very limited, although it appeared there was more there.) The Jellyfish App, indeed, lists two bluey-like stingers. One, the 'Blue Bottle', is listed as 'Rare', whilst the other, which it lists as 'Portuguese Man-o-war', is what we would refer to as a 'bluebottle'. No-one would refer to our 'Portuguese Man-o-War' as 'rare'.
Anyway, that’s all well and good, but we’re still in the dark about what makes blueys be there when they’re there.
Any advice would be appreciated… Click here
Fancy running into this on your next early morning swim?… Another lion's mane. Mind you, it could all be in the lens and its depth of field.
Gogs prices slashed!
Big response to new season sale
We've had a terrific response to our new season sale of our fave View gogs. We were absolutely inundated with orders after our last newsletter, and now we're all stocked up ready to go again.
Just for November (but on sale now) here are some of our bargains…
- View Selene Swipes – down from $40 to $35
- View Wide-eyes Swipes – down from $40 to $32
- View Wide-eyes Swipe Mirrored – down from $45 to $39
- View Xtreme masks – down from $40 to 35.95
- View Xtreme masks Narrower face Narrower face – down from $40 to 35.95
- Prescription goggles – down from $65 to $54.50
Here's the link to order your new gogs. Click now and we'll get them away to you before the weekend… Click here
Swim buddy, Heron Island, June, 2021. (Image by Anne Henshaw @annehenshaw)
New dates open for bookings
What a change comes over the travel environment as vaccination numbers grow! We now are confident that the border crossing into Queensland will reopen by mid-December, making possible our Heron Island oceanswimsafaris from March onwards. We’re also quite confident that travel to Pacific states – specifically French Polynesia, Tonga, and Fiji – will be possible from early-mid 2022, which would open the way for our oceanswimsafaris there in May, August, and September respectively.
We have now posted our 2022 dates and packages for –
- Heron Island – March 14-19, April 24-May 2 (Full), June 12-17, October 19-24, and November 6-11
- Tonga – Swim with Whales – August 2-10, August 9-17
- Mana Fiji – September 13-18 (Packages available soon)
We had to cancel three Heron Island oceanswimsafaris in October/November this year when the Queensland border remained closed, but all those booked have now been rescheduled to oceanswimsafaris next year. (That’s why our April-May Heron oceanswimsafari is already full.)
There are only a few spots left on our March 14-19 Heron Island dates, as well, so if you fancy them, you’d best get in quick and smart.
There is plenty of room left in our June and November dates, and a few spots left in October, but they are filling fast.
We've opened Tonga for bookings. Routes are not open yet, but we're pretty confident. If it turns out we can't get there, we can either refund your deposit or roll over to 2023, or to another oceanswimsafari. We can take only eight per group to Tonga, given boat capacity.
Mana Fiji is confirmed. We expect to have packages online in the next few weeks, so keep your eye out (best not to email yet).
Wow! This is excitement. Movement at last. It's been a long pandemic.
Find out more and book… Click here
Moody at Bongin Bongin (image by David Helsham @glistenrr)…
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We don't take you just anywhere.
Lucy in the sky, with diamonds… is what we thought when we saw this image by Glistening Dave, of dawn at Bongin Bongin Bay. (Image by David Helsham (@glistenrr))
Welcome to the oceanswimsafaris.com newsletter…
We warned you, and here it is: our first newsletter under our new guise post-oceanswims.com. We aim to make it similar to our earlier newsletters, but without the detail that we carried about swim calendars, etc. That's not our remit any more.
We will carry pieces about ocean swimming, some reports (when our oceanswimsafaris get going again post-pandemic), contributions from anyone, or other stuff that we spot and we think may be of interest to you. For example, in this edition (see below) we publish a short story by handy ocean swimmer, Susan McCreery, who is an author based in the Illawarra of NSW. Susan deftly tells a story about lap swimming as a metaphor for life. That's culcha, and we're very keen to promote culcha, expecially when it relates to ocean swimming. Or even just swimming.
If you haven't signed up to receive these newsletters yet, or you know someone who would like to sign up, you can do so through this link… Click here
Remember… We don't take you just anywhere,
(Image from verywellfit.com)
Into the clear blue
Here, we publish a short story by ocean swimmer Susan McCreery (@SusanMcCreery2), an author based in the Illawarra in NSW. It's two tales intertwined, one a metaphor for the other. The first is about an issue faced by all females who swim laps, particularly handy swimmers, as McCreery is. Boofheads, take note. This story appeared first in Island magazine: oss.c
She’s a beautiful swimmer, powerful and neat, so when she turns at the deep end I hop in her lane. The water’s a sparkle of blue under the early sun. We keep a respectful distance either side of the black line. Our pace is the same, our turns synchronised. After a kay I stop for a sip from my water bottle and soon she pulls up too.
‘Done,’ she says, and shoots me a grin. ‘All yours, honey.’
I watch as she ducks under the lane rope and climbs the steps. She has a back like a washboard and legs as long as forever.
With the lane to myself I return to smooth, to blissed out, thinking of nothing. After three and a half laps a new swimmer passes on his first. His legs are low in the water, creating a drag, so I know I’ll overtake him soon. Sure enough, within a couple of laps I’ve narrowed the gap.
Here’s my theory: you can tell a lot about a man and his opinion of women by his lap-lane etiquette. Men who shift to one side at the wall, nod off you go, are allies. Fast women swimmers are no threat to these men. Then there are those who refuse to give way, no matter how obvious it is they’re being out-swum, who, according to my theory, expect you to do everything except take out the bins, who get the shits when your salary outstrips theirs, and who rage whenever you’re curled up in sorrow about your grandmother, who is interstate and dying.
If Gavin were a swimmer, he’d never
with humility and grace,
let you take the lead.
His feet are in front of me.
If Gavin were a swimmer.
There’s barely room to pass.
I calculate the distance and effort required to make it to the wall before him. It’s doable. I kick harder, pull harder, until I’m alongside. He kicks harder, pulls harder, forces me into the lane rope – slut, bitch, whore.
My rhythm is broken, my heart rate up. I tumble-turn into the clear blue, trying to settle, trying to regain calm, return to bliss, to me. And for two laps I do.
If Gavin were a swimmer.
Take Gavin in bed
I see bubbles.
No etiquette in bed.
His feet are in front of me.
Battle after battle.
We’re almost at the wall.
Not a hope, mate.
He’s not going to stop. He will not give way.
How many times has he backed me into a wall?
I do the unthinkable.
I tap him on the shoulder.
‘Let me go first.’
It’s not a request.
He turns his dripping head to face me. I can’t see his eyes.
His mouth is a bloodless knife.
I don’t wait for a response, just tumble-turn, go. But now I’m kicking too hard, too fast. I am off-balance, off-kilter. The angle’s all wrong and I wince under water as my hand whacks the rope. Only four laps to go but it might as well be forty. My goggles are leaking. All I can picture is his eyeless face. It could be a sham. He could catch me. I want to throw up.
Calm down, calm down.
In the water spitting means nothing.
My mouth is a cave, filling with water.
My mouth is a cave, filling with blood.
Keep your head up.
I am lactic. My legs drag.
I sink to my knees.
He can have it, the lane. He can keep it.
I’m going to black out.
He’s forgotten how to breathe.
I know. I remember.
They can pull through water, these arms. They can move me forward. Once more I am gaining. Two laps and I’ve narrowed the gap. My legs are forever springs. My back is a washboard. I tumble, turn from the wall.
His feet are in front of me. I tap them.
Let me pass.
Let me go.
I am going.
Sigghhh… Forster. Haven't swum since mid-June.
It's a sell-out!
Gogs on sale
A note from Suanne –
Summer is on its way and you’ll soon be digging out last seasons goggles only to discover they have seen a bit of use and you could do with a new pair. Treat yourself!
We have good supplies of all your favourite “View” goggles, including our most popular Selene Swipes and Swipe Wide-Eyes.
We still have some great bargains in our “Sell Out” stock including goggles to suit kids of all ages. Why not stock up for Christmas? They’d make great stocking stuffers! There are a few adult goggles left too. The “Sell Out” goggles range in price from $8 -$20.
To access Sale! gogs, go to our shopping cart and look for Sell-out! You can also order your fave View Swipe gogs… Click here
Swim buddy, Heron Island, June, 2021. (Image by Anne Henshaw @annehenshaw)
Gearing up for post-pandemic
We thought we were through the worst of it…
Early this year, we began planning a new range of oceanswimsafaris to Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef. We were overwhelmed with interest from punters keen for a paddle and, in the end, we had five Heron oceanswimsafaris scheduled for 2021. We got one away, in June, and we had a second one in September of a group of swimmers from Queensland, although we could not attend that one ourselves due to border closures. We also had three more scheduled for October-November, 2021.
But then the pandemic intervened once more.
At this point, in late September, we can't say for sure what will happen with our two Heron oceanswimsafaris planned for November, but we can say with some confidence that our October departure most likely will not proceed.
Anticipating this, we have booked a series of dates with Heron Island Resort for 2022:three sets of dates in March-April 2022, and two sets in October-November 2022. The thinking is that we can switch the three October-November groups to those dates, with punters already booked on them having a choice of which dates they prefer. When we get to the point of making a final call for 2021, we will contact those booked directly and let them know their options. When we have sorted out those three groups, we will let everyone know, and if you'd like to book on one of them, we'd love to have you with us.
We're also hoping to get some oceanswimsafaris restarted in the Pacific in 2022. We have dates booked in Tonga (to swim with humpback whales) August 3-10, 2022, and Mana Island Resort is keen to restart its Mana Fiji SwimFest (September 13-18, 2022). We also have two groups booked to French Polynesia in May, 2022.
As you'd expect, we can't be sure we can go anywhere yet, but we are preparing.
By the way, we have introduced a policy that all those who come with us on an oceanswimsafari from now on must be fully vaccinated.
If you're interested in coming with us on any of those oceanswimsafaris, you can indicate your interest by submitting an Enquiry Form… Click here
Beady-eyed swimmer, Forster.
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Emailed to over 44,000 ocean swimmers
A new day dawns… And so we move on… Morning at Bongin Bongin Bay. Image by David Helsham (@glistenrr)
We're changing our newsletters…
Many of you have already signed up to receive newsletters through this changed process. If you haven't signed up yet, and you'd like to continue to receive our newsletters, please sign up for them through this link… Click here
We will not be bombarding you with promotional material, although we will be telling you, inter alia, about our oceanswimsafaris. We hope you'll continue to find our newsletters informative, perhaps a bit of a laff, and worth your while to read.
Communications in future will still come from oceanswims.com but not in quite the same format. More on that shortly.
>Meanwhile, over at oceanswimsafaris.com, we look forward to having you with us into the future.
See you on the beach,
It's a sell-out!
Gogs on sale
A note from Mrs Sparkle –
We are moving our goggle sales to oceanswimsafaris.com. We know many of you relied on stocking up at our pop-up shops at oceanswim events prior to Covid. We enjoyed meeting you and assisting you with your goggle supplies at these. Sadly, we aren’t going to be able to operate this way into the future.
The exciting news is we are having a Run Out Sale. We have some fantastic bargains on a range of View goggles, both kids' and adults'. Why not stock up for summer or even make a start on those Christmas gifts!
- Kids goggles: start as low as $8 up to $20
- Adults goggles: start at $15 up to $25
These will go quickly and first in first served! Once they’re gone, they’re gone and we won’t be restocking these items! Grab yourself a bargain or two! Above, they're the View Solace. We reckon they're the best value non-Swipe gog available.
Some lucky customers will even get an extra pair of goggles thrown in for free.
Don’t worry, you can still buy your favourite View goggles from us online, through our travel website oceanswimsafaris.com. We will keep in stock a smaller range and concentrate on all your favourites, the Selene Swipes, Selene Mirrored and the Wide Eyes Swipe Mirrored and Non Mirrored. We will have the mask style, Xtremes and a good supply of anti-fog and ear plugs.
Of course, we will still be selling our prescription goggles. If there is anything else in the View range you love and would like, we can always get it in for you.
To access Sale! gogs, go to our shopping cart and look for Sell-out! You can also order your fave View Swipe gogs… Click here
The world of Happy Strokers
It's the characters wot make it
We had a call from Killer last night. We haven’t spoken to him in a while, although we had tried to get him a week or so back to wish him happy birthday. He was unavailable at the time, apparently. But that’s what happens with plumbers these days. Every tradie seems to be flat out. Up there in Mur’bah, on his birthday, at that time of the evening, in the old days Killer would have been over at the Riverview Hotel, on the banks of the Tweed, celebrating with other members of the Murwillumbah Brass Monkeys. He might be past that these days, over 60 and all. Probably at home in front of the telly. With a cup of tea. Watching Leigh.
But he finally called us back last night.A chat with Killer was apposite at this point, because it helps us to close a circle. We take credit for Killer or, in the view of Killer’s wife, Merryn, we must accept responsibility for making him a star of ocean swimming and giving him an ego, a personality, one perhaps too big for Mur’bah by itself. In exasperation one night, Merryn blamed ‘that ocean com dot thingy’ for problems she was having with Killer largely centred around his newly-minted ‘personality’. We couldn’t have done that, mind you, without the raw material to work with, and we certainly didn’t set out to create the monster that Killer became; it just happened that way. As we say, you need raw material, and Killer certainly was that. Very raw.
Killer is a lumbering monster of a plumber who, as a younger bloke, played prop for the Mur’bah rugby league side. Early on, Killer told us he’d been dubbed ‘Killer’ as an ironic nickname when he started as an apprentice in the family business, because he was a skinny kid. A year or two later, over a grog at the Beach Hotel, Byron Bay, Killer leaned across to us, conspiratorially and, in an earthy voice that spoke of decades in the trenches, not to mention in footy boots, he murmured, ‘Mate, I didn’t get called Killer for being nice to people on the footy field’. We prefer the latter.
Killer in his Ritas. Imagine him in flesh coloured skins… No... best don't.
Killer has called us periodically since shortly after we launched oceanswims.com. We’d met him first when, in 2003, the Brass Monkeys travelled to Vanuatu for the 2nd Inaugural Rossi to Rossi Swim. The Brass Monkeys travel in style, celebrating their corporate identity. For the trip, they’d kitted themselves out in a touring uniform. It was something to see, 20-odd Brass Monkeys and their partners turning up together for a beer dressed as ten pin bowlers.Killer would call us periodically, generally when he had a story to tell, which we would relate in reports on oceanswims.com. Thus the legend grew. Eventually, Killer wrote his own story after a trip to San Francisco, with the Brass Monkeys, to swim from Alcatraz. We ran the story on oceanswims.com, and Killer’s legend inflated. He became an after-dinner speaker around the Far North Coast, with billboards in RSL clubs promoting his talks about his exploits in San Francisco, at fundraising dinners for Rotary clubs, nursing homes, etc. Then he was approached by the local theatre group to appear on stage. Killer played ‘a guard’.
Quiet little drink
One of Killer’s best stories was about a quiet ale he was having in a pub on Mur’bah’s main street, on a Sunday afternoon in the 1980s. Quietly sipping his Hunter River Mud (Toohey’s Old, a black beer, a porter), with his cousin, Gap (who had a gap in his teeth), a limo pulled up out the front of the pub and two Englishmen walked in. They spotted Killer’s black beer, and they asked whether they could get a Guiness there. This was the ‘80s, mind you, prior to the cosmopolitaning of Strã’an pubs, so about all you could get up there would have been the black, Tooheys white, a Reschs, maybe, and probably, given the proximity of the border, a XXXX. Killer told the Poms what the beer was, so they ordered. And they got talking
The talking went on, and Killer noticed that the crowd around them grew. Eventually, Killer heads off to the ‘loo; Gap goes with him. Standing thigh-by-thigh over the urinal, Gap says to Killer, ‘You know who you’re drinking with, don’t you?’ Well, Killer had no idea, apart from the fact that they were two Poms, in a limo, heading between Brisbane and Sydney.
‘Jimmy Page and Robert Plant,’ says Gap, who then had to explain to Killer who Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were. We’ve done a bit of research, and we figure the timing must have been February, 1984, and the occasion was Plant’s Principle of Moments Tour. Plant played Newcastle on February 8, then Brisbane on February 11. February 12 was a Sunday. Someone’s memory may have faded with the years. Or Maybe they were on their way back south.
Robert Plant (l) and Jimmy Page: This is what an afternoon on the turps with Killer can do to you.
The personality grew with the legend, and eventually Killer himself had trouble distinguishing between the two. With our Queen, Mrs Sparkle, we visited Murwillumbah to take part in the Tweed River Swim and to sample the best of life that Mur’bah has to offer. Killer put us up at the Riverview. We had rooms over the TAB downstairs. It was about the time that we discovered that TABs in pubs operate till the last race anywhere in Strã’a, which on that evening was the last of the greyhounds in Perth, which was about 2am.
Another swimmer who came to Mur’bah that weekend was Hayley Lewis, former golden girl of Strã’an swimming. Hayley had popped down from the Goldy to swim, and had to get back quickly to collect the kids from her mum. Having won, Hayley needed to know when the preso would be held. So she approached an awgie, Killer, who, used being approached by fans who’d learnt of him through oceanswims.com, assumed Hayley, whoever she was, was another one of them. Slipping his arm around Hayley’s shoulder, he said, “You’d like your photograph taken with Killer, would you, darlin’?’ You can understand Merryn’s issue.
The sea cave outside the heads at Cala Montgó on Catalonia's Costa Brava. That's Lanie Sowerby-Campbell posing for us. We intend to head back there post-pandemic.
Killer and his Brass Monkeys habitually made two trips annually to Sydney, one of them to do the 3 Points Challenge at North Curl Curl. He is up to ten of these events now, and he keeps coming back because, every year, the awgies make a fuss of him over the loudspeaker, again because they knew the legend through oceanswims.com and they were into the developing culcha of ocean swimming, of which, like it or not, Killer is a key part. Some find it unsettling to think of ‘culcha’ and 'Killer’ at the same time. We keep warning the North Curl Curl awgies, if you keep making a fuss of him, he’ll keep coming back.
Killer has been also a solid supporter of oceanswims.com. On one of his Sydney trips, to North Curl Curl, he had the words, OCEANSWIMS.COM, stencilled on his back, in large, black block letters. He’s always been a great supporter, and we appreciate that. But the spray-painting happened before he left Mur’bah, so when he rolled out of bed in Manly on race morning, he left ‘OCEANSWIMS.COM’ stamped in reverse on the sheet.
We know we say we don't celebrate 'winners', but we do with stories. In this case, this is worth a story: this is most of the peloton for the Celebrities Dash at the Sydney Harbour Swim Classic in 2009. The story is the contest between the Baby-Faced Assassin on the right (city brief John de Mestre) and the lumbering juggernaut that is Graeme Brewer (middle rear). The latter is about twice the size of the former, each stroke pulling twice the amount of water and distance, but they swam stroke for stroke, arms almost interlinked, all the way in from Fort Denison to Man o' War Steps, de Mestre's stroke rate seemingly twice that of Brewer's. But de Mestre won. He was nimbler in the run up the steps to the finish line. Just goes to show, it ain't just size and strength that makes you a swimmer. L-R. Carl Wilson,Murray Rose, Suzie Maroney, Brewer, Max Metzker, Matt Renshaw, John Koorey, and de Mestre. Image by David Helsham (@glistenrr)
That was about the time Killer started to get serious about training for the North Curl Curl biathlon. He started running. He bought running shorts: those lycra skins that footballers wear under their footy shorts. Killer got some skins in flesh pink, the kind you can see through when they’re wet. But he didn’t wear them under footy shorts. He just wore them by themselves. And jogged the streets of Mur’bah after work, in the dark. He reckons he got death threats. He’s lucky he didn’t get a summons.
Killer’s latest phone call helps us to close a circle because Killer has been with us for most of our time operating oceanswims.com, which began at Xmas, 1999. We count Killer amongst our most devout supporters.
We used to have fans in the olden days. Killer was one. Another was Barry ‘The Lurv God’ Lang, a formerly chisel-jawed, clean-cut truckie with a flat top straight out of the ‘50s. Barry, then c. 60 – and 77 today! – was originally from Mollymook – ‘Mollymoke’, as he calls it – became a fan of oceanswims.com even though he did not own a ‘puter. He used to go next door to his neighbour and pester him to go online to access the website. He must have done a lot of pestering, because Barry used next door’s ‘puter to download images and information which he would paste on the wall in a small room in the family home, way out in Sydney’s west, where the buffalo roam. Images such as pictures of himself in a race singlet emerging from the water after a race at Avoca. He’d had this image done up as a poster. Barry’s wife, Margaret, another long-suffering ocean swim widder, referred to the room as ‘Barry’s shrine’.
Barry’s best friend was Terry. Barry and Terry went everywhere together, to swims up and down the coast. They would turn up in the least expected spots. They were so close that we could never work out which one was the boss, and which the sidekick. The only difference between them was that Barry had a zipper down his chest and Terry didn’t; and Terry, despite all his many qualities, did not have Barry’s matinee idol looks. Barry didn’t drink or smoke, but he’d long had problems with his ticker, physiologically speaking. But he was so well turned out that we’d line him up next to another swimmer with a zipper, Michael Christie, and we’d defy people to pick which was the truckie, and which the medico.
Barry hasn’t swum in ocean races for years now; he still swims in his local pool, the Greystanes Institute for Sport for Mature and Elite Athletes (GrISMEA), as he puts it, but his ticker makes races problematic. Terry got his own zipper at last after a swim at Caves Beach. The last time we saw either of them physically was at Forster. We’d turned up for the Club to Club swim there, and here was Terry wandering along the promenade with his wife, in the midst of a camping holiday. We’d seen Terry without Barry only ever once before, and that was in hospital, at Gateshead, with his heart. At Forster, we chatted; and Terry moved on. Minutes later, quite randomly, also wandering along the promenade, here was Barry: he’d woken that morning, way out west where the buffalo roam in Sydney’s west, and decided to drive to Forster to watch the swim. Apparently, that’s the kind of thing that truckies do for relaxation. But neither knew the other was in town.
We still have contact with Barry through the internet. He got his own ‘puter after a while, after he won $10,000 on a scratchie during a swim trip with Terry to Byron Bay. He handed the money over to Margaret and said, ‘It’s time we bought a computer, Margaret’. So Margaret bought a computer. It cost $10,000.
The Fukers, or part of them: From front, lead singer Darkie, film maker Paul Clarke, and the shiftful Mikey Dobrijevich… He's the one without the microphone. Image by Tony Egan.
And there is South Curl Curl’s Fifi la Dobber, a play on her surname from being married to Mikey, ukelelist in The Fukers (The Freshwater Ukelele Ensemble), and also because of a faux pas she committed at a swim. Fifi was one of our first friends from afar in ocean swimming, and with the shiftful Mikey they were our first regular cuppa circle on the Sunday swim circuit. We called Mikey ‘shiftful’ because he could never sit still. But he misread it, and was outraged that we’d described him as ‘shitful’.
>We used to write about Fifi a lot. She is an artist whom you might describe, as with so many artists, as… how can we put it… an, er… artist, with all that that entails. Creative people are like that. She became ‘la Dobber’ after complaining to swim awgies about a swimmer with the wrong-coloured swim cap starting in her wave. She insinuated they were cheating. As it happened, the swimmer with the wrong-coloured swim cap was accompanying another swimmer, who was blind.
We feel Fifi’s pain on this. We once talked in a report from Avalon about a swimmer who was using a pull buoy, which we intimated amounted to cheating. We even took a pitcher of this cheating swimmer half-way along the back leg at Avalon and included it in our report on oceanswims.com. Those were the days when we’d come home from a swim, process and post the results from an Excel file, process all our pitchers, and photograrphs from Glistening Dave – which we wouldn’t touch apart from resizing, if necessary – then write a story about that day’s swim, then post the lot online, all by tea time. Anyway, the day after we posted this Avalon report, we received an email from The Park Wino – Andy France used to have picnics in the park after swims, with his then partner, sometimes also her mum, always with a bottle of wine – who told us who the swimmer was: it was Denis Bendall, an hard-running Balmain Tigers centre, who was on trading cards, who broke his neck in a dive into a river. Denis swims for therapy and because he can no longer run. We apologised to Denis the next weekend. Fortunately, Denis has a sense of humour. We’ve since become good friends with Denis, who remained, for many years, the only Tiger we’d talk to, us being Rabbitohs. (We now have a second one: Noel ’The Glebe Lout’ Maybury, with whom we swim in Forster.)
What got G-Dog excited: Denis Bendall running hard.
Backyard at home
Even in retirement, unable to run hard and straight, Denis spreads joy. On Heron Island in 2017, we were chatting with ‘the resort band’, Janice Smithers (singer/guitarist) and her partner, G-Dog (also guitarist), before our crowd of punters arrived. Janice and G-Dog live on the Sunshine Coast, but he comes from Sydney. G-Dog asked us whether there was anyone interesting in the group about to arrive. We mentioned Denis, because he is interesting. G-Dog’s eyes lit up. ‘Denis Bendall!’ he ejaculated. ‘Wow! I used to be him in the backyard at home!’ Even though G-Dog grew up around Banky, which is Bulldogs territory. When the mob arrived next day, we introduced Denis to G-Dog. One of the most touching moments in the history of oceanswims.com was watching Denis and G-Dog, over the next four days, bond in friendship, inseparable, apart from overnights. There is something truly beautiful when someone meets a childhood hero, to wit, Denis, to find that they are every bit the good person that you imagined as a kid, that you tried to be in your own backyard.
G-Dog's best friend, Denis Bendall.
We had that experience with Murray Rose. Murray inaugurated the Malabar Magic swim. We worked with him from the start on that, and its first iteration has remained etched into our psyche: a big sea from the sou’-east, the course around the headland, into the swell, from Malabar into Little Bay. It was a rollicking, rolling ride. But the course did not run again, because Murray added a 1km option to the event, and you couldn’t do that at Little Bay, only at Malabar.
Those of us of the older persuasion will remember Murray as everyone’s childhood hero from the Melbourne Olympics in ’56 and into the ‘60s. He was the clean living, boy next door matinee idol of swimming, and every boy in Strã’a idolised him and wanted to be like him. Every mum and dad in Strã’a wanted their daughter to marry Murray, or someone just like him. It was no surprise that Murray went to college in the US, starred in movies – Ride the Wild Surf, Ice Station Zebra, Magnum PI, and Swimming Upstream, from memory, aided by Google – and married a ballerina, Jodie Wintz, from the Joffrey. We got to know Murray, and were even discussing a business venture with him, when he fell ill. He died in 2012. But the beauty was in discovering that Murray was every bit the good, decent, normal fellow – apart from the fact that he was extraordinary – that his image had always led us all to believe.
Back to Fifi, however, who also has only ever worked for good. Also up at Avalon, where awgies were the last in Sydney still to use Post-it Note timing, she renegotiated Mrs Sparkle’s time when they emerged from the water roughly even but were given wildly disparate times from different scribblers. Fifi thought their times should be even, so she had it changed, even re-enacting the run up the beach to prove it to the scribbler. You can’t do that with electronic timing.
Fifi la Dobber's work often includes sharks.
Back at Avalon another day – Wow! So much happened at Avalon – Mrs Sparkle, shortly after her first ankle fusion – it may even have been before, and she may have had her ankle in plaster – was hobbling up the steep beach as another, slower swimmer in her age group, one more fleet of foot, bore down from behind. As Mrs Sparkle tells it, as she was about to be overtaken, Fifi emerged from the crowd on one side of the finish line, as another friend, Colin ‘Propellor Head’ Reyburn, emerged, unrehearsed, from the crowd on the other side, each grabbing Mrs Sparkle under an arm and physically hurling her across the finish line ahead of the chasing swimmer, who looked around, desperately appealing for support. She appealed to a witness, another swimmer, at whose feet Mrs Sparkle had landed. The witness, who knew them both, turned on her heel, nose in the air, and sniffed, ‘I saw nothing’.
Fifi used to swim at South Curl Curl each morning (she swims now at Manly). Half-way back from North Curl Curl one morning, breathing left, thus to sea, Fifi turned to her right to find a bronze whaler shadowing her, between her and the beach. She tried her very hardest to keep her cool, but then survival got to her and she lit out for the beach. For a long time after, Fifi’s paintings included sharks.
From the internet
We wrote about Fifi lots. Like many artists, Fifi also had to actually earn a crust (she couldn’t spend all her time sharing a studio with another artist whose media included human urine, after all), so she also worked as an art teacher at a prominent Sydney school. The girls were tittering amongst themselves one day, then one of them raised her hand, as delegate, and said, ‘Miss, are you Fifi from the internet?’ The ‘internet’ is a big place but, yes, Your Worship, she was.
Paul and Kerry Lee Gockel. Always on the bright side.
We must mention, too, perhaps the most remarkable swimming couple we will ever meet: Kerry Lee Gockel and her husband, Paul. Paul has spina bifida; his walking is compromised, but his swimming is not. He won a silver at the Paralympics in Atlanta in 1996. We say his swimming ‘is not’ compromised: that is, apart from an injury that you could say we caused: Paul and Kerry Lee came to The Philippines with us on an oceanswimsafari in 2019; the peloton were diving in from the boat, and we ‘told’ Paul to dive in gracefully, to capture him on our Brownie Starflash-in-a-plastic bag. Paul dived, over balanced, and entered the water mid-forward roll. When he came up again, he was in agony, because he’d dislocated his shoulder in the dive for the camera. He had a shoulder reconstruction when he got home, and is still recovering. Sorry, comrade.
But Kerry Lee… Perhaps the most remarkable swimmer we’ve ever met, perhaps even the most remarkable person we’ve ever met. Kerry Lee was born with no arms. Where most people have arms, she has dimples. But does that stop her enjoying life? Or getting stuck into it? Not a jot. Kerry Lee is a lawyer; she drives; she feeds herself; she cooks – watching her slice and dice vegies with a paring knife held between her toes whilst sitting on the kitchen bench is breath-taking – and she swims. At Malabar this past season, Kerry Lee did the 5km swim. She and Paul and have been on multiple oceanswimsafaris with us, and she is always there, just behind Mrs Sparkle leading the pack.
But the remarkable thing about Kerry Lee and Paul is not their physical conditions; it’s that they are emotionally the best adjusted people we know, positive in their outlook and their attitudes to life. You hear lots of punters whingeing about various aspects of their lot – we’re old hacks; we hang out all the time with the world’s greatest whingers, including us, all of whom are completely able-bodied – but you don’t hear that from Paul and Kerry Lee Gockel. We are in awe. And what’s worse, they are such nice people. God damn!
Terry Hudson, now in his 80s, but in his working life a driver of parliamentarians – ministers and opposition leaders: Terry turned up at Forster Main Beach one chilly winter’s morning wearing a fur hat, like they wear in Siberia when it’s snowing. ‘Where did you get that, Terry,’ we said to him. ‘Oh,’ Terry said. ‘Gough brought it back for me from China.’
Terry Hudson (farthest from camera) facing up to it, in his '80s, at Forster Main Beach. Other Forster Turtle is Rod McNeill, who has a marvellous tenor voice.
Now, here was a story. In his ‘working’ days, Terry had been Gough Whitlam’s driver in Sydney when Whitlam was leader of the Labor Opposition and then Prime Minister. You will all recall Gough’s ground-breaking visit to China in 1971 to meet with Chairman Mao and other Chinese leaders, a trip that was bagged by his opponents as disloyal, traitorous, almost an act of treason. Gough brought back gifts for all his staff, and Terry’s was this fur hat which, 40 years on, remains in mint condition. Terry was caught up in the Khemlani Affair that led to Whitlam’s sacking as Prime Minister in 1975, because he had driven the money dealer, Tirath Khemlani, around Sydney, but would not give evidence at the inquiry that followed without consulting Gough. Abandoned by his bosses, Terry switched to the NSW ministerial car pool, where he finished his career.
Tirath Khemlani being driven somewhere during his visit to Canberra in 1975. But who was the driver? Probably not Terry Hudson, who would have been in Sydney.
It was while wandering through the underground garage at NSW Parliament House that the garage manager asked Terry to take an American visitor upstairs to meet then Premier, Bob Carr. On the way up in the lift, Terry asked the visitor his name; he would, after all, have to introduce him at the door to Carr’s office. He ushered the visitor in, who was greeted by Carr, ‘Welcome, Dr Kissinger’, said Carr.
Some time Later, Carr asked Terry to collect Margaret Thatcher from somewhere. Carr said, ‘Terry, don’t ask her her name’.
… to tell you this
We relate these stories to make a point: that as glorious as the ocean is, the real beauty of ocean swimming is its characters; the personalities who populate this magnificent, anarchic caper. The people are the culture (culcha, as we prefer to call it, since that’s how people say it in Strã’a). The sea, the events, really are just catalysts for the culcha. Even at the informal end of the sport, when we swim off Main Beach at Forster, whilst we enjoy the swim – especially when we visit Fluffy en famille out behind the reef – what we really love is the cuppa afterwards with the Forster Turtles and all the characters that that involves. Everyone has a story; each of those stories is worth telling and listening to. And everyone’s stories make up life and the world as we know it. Who’d have thought that, as we sip our cuppa on Forster Main Beach, we’re sipping it with Tirath Khemlani’s driver.
It's a cavalcade of characters. We have always focussed on these characters, not ‘winners’, achievers as they may be. The sport is made up of its rank and file, not its winners. Winners don’t interest us, unless there is a human story to go with them which may or may not be related to their winning. Winning is incidental. Early in the life of oceanswims.com, we were criticised loftily by a swimmer who wrote reports on winners for an overseas swim publication. He told us no-one was interested in our reports because we didn’t write about winners. Shortly after, this cove offered to write a report for us, an offer we accepted. But when the report came in, he had copied our style, not in a plagiaristic way, but in our spiritual approach to reports. Well, there you go.
Welcome to the world of happy strokers… What we looked like at launch n 1999/2000. Site built for us by Greg 'Webdog' Smith.
We have encountered some appalling people, some of the most sociopathic people we have ever dealt with. You would be shocked – Shocked! – by some of the stories we could tell. But the appalling people – and they are not the sport – are miniscule compared with the punters of generous and colourful spirit, who are the vast bulk.
oceanswims.com launched just prior to Xmas, 1999. It was a collaborative effort, with the original website built to our idea by a generous cobber, Greg ‘Dr Smith… Dr Smith’ Smith, who called himself Webdog and lived in Perth, originally of Bondi. Greg (that's him, right… Had we known he got around the beach like this, we'd have thought twice…) was another hack, who made himself a doctor by doing a PhD.
It became clear quickly that us in Sydney and him in Perth might create issues. One of our first events after launch was the Cole Classic, then at North Bondi. Conditions were atrocious that day, my friends; the event was postponed, and we decided – because we are hacks – that we needed to get an update on oceanswims.com to alert swimmers. However, 8am in Sydney was 5am in Perth, and it wasn’t appropriate that, whenever we needed to do something like this, we had to call on someone with that time difference to implement it for us. So we had to learn to do it ourselves.
We did, in a lay sort of way.
We have benefited enormously over the years from the assistance of a couple of punters in particular –
The peloton on our first inaugural French Polynesia oceanswimsafari included Glistening Dave. That's him, on the left. But you can tell that.
David Helsham (Glistening Dave, @glistenrr), an artist who tries to keep his talent well-hidden, modest as he is, has supplied us with evocative images pretty much since the inauguration of oceanswims.com. His images continue to write a visual history of ocean swimming. When we first knew Dave, in the ‘90s, he was an ocean swimmer who didn’t wear goggles. He reckoned they were too much of a nuisance and most didn’t work anyway. We talked him into using them, and since then we’ve not been able to beat him. David is a graphic designer by profession, but his real talent is his photography. And his art. We’re waiting, hoping that, one day, he will rediscover his ‘mojo’ for painting, too.
Colin Reyburn completes the Warriewood Chieftain Challenge, then dashes off to assemble the fine ocean swimmers' tallies.
Colin ‘Propellor Head’ Reyburn is a software whiz who had a company that wrote a program for managing overnight transactions amongst banks. As a reward, Colin became the overnight IT support desk for a bank in China. That meant that he had a bit of spare time, so he began to collect swim results from all over the joint and combined them into what has become the fine ocean swimmers’ tallies. In the beginning, we did the tallies ourselves. We could just about manage them because we included only events in NSW. When we started to look further afield, it was clear we couldn’t handle them with our limited skills in Excel. So Colin came in to help. The big issue with the tallies is combining everyone’s multiple swims into one record per swimmer. Colin wrote a macro in Excel that would do in minutes a job that would have taken us weeks. Colin is another modest character. Also the slowest swimmer we’ve ever seen when he put his mind to it. He is actually a very good swimmer, but when asked to swim slowly – as we used to ask of our swimmers sometimes when we ran lunch time squads at North Sydney pool – Colin could swim more slowly than anyone we’ve seen. Such a talented guy!
Peter Hoban (right), in a happy place with son Donny.
Peter Hoban, another IT whiz whom we came to know when our sons played in the same footy team, although Pete’s son, Donny, was a ring-in who was never actually signed up and played only when someone else couldn’t get there. Pete wrote a business management program for his then wife’s chain of beauty salons, and turned it into his livelihood. He gave us enormous IT support, including writing our first online entry and contact management platforms, something we could never have done ourselves, or afforded to pay someone else to do, especially at full tote odds. Pete comes from a prominent Avoca family, and one suspects his heart remains up there. A dishevelled genius.
Younger days: Chris and June Stephenson.
Chris ‘BC’ Stephenson, another IT whiz who, with his wife, June, is by far the best, most personable timer we’ve ever had need to deal with over the past 22 years. Chris and June – just the two of them – do what other timers do with a team of half a dozen. Chris also wrote the online entry platform that we’ve used for the past few years. He is one of the most generous (with his time), temperamentally equable people we’ve ever dealt with; always available to help out with problems, including when he and June went on a bus tour holiday of Italy a few years ago. A remarkable couple whom we regard as part of our staff. Gee, it’s good working with them.
Mrs Sparkle, where she likes to be: this time, off the reef in Sulawesi. We couldn't have done all this without her.
Mrs Sparkle, Suanne Hunt (@sparkleocean), without whom we could not have done any of this stuff. We started oceanswims.com by ourselves, with a website built, as we said earlier, by ‘Webdog’ Smith. But after the launch, and the quick realisation that we had to do as much of it as we could ourselves, it was just us, and the support Suanne has given us has been invaluable in manifold ways. She has also been, inter alia, our Director, Merchandise over the years, instilling in us a discipline in goggles sales and despatch that we were too busy to perform ourselves. But there's so much more to it than that.
Whilst oceanswims.com formally has been just us, Suanne and we are 50/50 partners in oceanswimsafaris.com, our spin-off that gives us something to do over winter, pandemics allowing. A handy swimmer herself – Suanne was taught proper as a kid by the Carlisles – she became known originally as Mrs Sheen, because she is meticulously houseproud. One day, someone who really was called Mrs Sheen ordered something online from oceanswims.com – Aquaclaws, Suanne recalls – and that was it. She couldn’t be Mrs Sheen if there was a real Mrs Sheen out there. So if you’re not Mrs Sheen, who are you? You must be Mrs Sparkle.Thank you all. It’s been fun. See you on the beach,
The hack formerly known as os.c
Lost: One childhood hero
State and Oz champeens 1960/61, from left, Uncle Don (for’ard), Uncle Mick (stroke), Boyd Humphries (boat builder), Ken Murray (sweep), John ‘Muddler’ McDonald (2nd for’ard),and Jim Cowen (2nd stroke).
This is a little indulgent, but we re-post here something we wrote last week about the loss of our uncle, Mick Ellercamp. We do so knowing there are many surf life saving people who receive our emailouts, and many of them – particularly the boaties – will know Uncle Mick, or of him…
Still absorbing one loss, we've now feel the loss of our personal hero growing up, our Uncle Mick (Ellercamp), perhaps the greatest surf boat rower ever to grace a stroke seat, and as we all know, stroke is to a boat crew as Charlie Watts was to the Stones. Mick and younger bro, Uncle Don (our other hero), along with Ken ‘Hot Dog’ Murray, who passed only last weekend, were a boat combination unlike any other. There were crews who stood out for a couple of years, but none with the longevity of this nucleus of so many achieving Caves crews. Others came and went around them, but Mick, Don, and Ken endured.
The relationship between Mick (right) and Ken, particularly, was symbiotic. On the Australian Surf Rowers League's Facebook page, Christopher Spencer recalled, 'As a 17 yr old at my first Aussies at Ocean Grove (I) witnessed Caves beat Ballina in a hail storm to win, with Ken Murray patting Mick on the head while still running down the face of the winning wave. Hooked me on the sport forever.' Think of that: a big sea, a hail storm, coming down the face of the wave, the crew called back (to the stern), and the sweep taking a hand off the sweep oar to recognise the work of the bloke who did the work to get them there.
Indeed, there were few sights in surf boat rowing so inspiring as that of Murray piloting his crew, zig-zagging, accelerating, holding up, changing direction, switching speed, digging in, touching up, then GO! GO! GO! as Murray spotted the weak spot and the way out through a pounding break. Who’d have thought surf boat rowing and chundering surf had nuance. It did with Murray as sweep. Mick and Don were outstanding sweeps, too. The trio were surf boat rowing personified.
We were at a boatmen’s smoko in Sydney in 1986, and an array of legends were invited to say a few words. Rotten ol‘ Herbie got up and talked about the perils of March-pasting (he was Caves’s medal-winning coach), and until then none of these tough, boofy boaties knew how dangerous it was to have whitewater washing around your feet undermining the sand as you tried to keep in step, not to mention the undulations, and the hot sand on the soles of your feet in the beating summer sun.
Then Uncle Don got up. He said, ‘The reason we won (so many titles) is because (… at this point, Uncle Don paused, as if for dramatic effect, ‘though there has never been anything confected about Uncle Don; the theatre was just in ‘im… The crowd hushed, expecting the great secret to be revealed… Until then, they’d all thought Caves' success was because they lads drank Hunter River mud… Toohey’s Black… So they all did, too)… is because,’ Uncle Don said, ‘… is because we wanted to win.’
Clean sweep champeens from the '60s: The Caves A crew, from front, Uncle Don 'Boora' Ellercamp, John 'Muddler' McDonald, Jim Cowen, Uncle Mick Ellercamp, and Ken 'Hot Dog' Murray at sweep.
Some of the younger, early days-tatts-on-their-biceps, big city boaties guffawed under their breath, in a bleeding-obvious kind of way. But Uncle Don was right: you cannot win if you don’t want to win; if you don’t yearn to win. And despite all the resources, the best boats, the gyms, the weights, the city sophistication, you cannot win without hunger and yearning. And that’s what Uncle Don was talking about. It applies to everything in life. Uncle Don has always been a man of words; Uncle Mick was more stoic, as rocks are. Murray was a quieter chatterer, almost secretive, and never a hair out of place, no matter the surf; his words came from his sweep oar and the aura of a leader.
When the brothers ran out of competition in surf Masters, they switched to flat water rowing, won National and world Masters championships there, and became legends in that sport, too. The greatest sight and sound in the world, they once told me, was witnessing from behind the start of an Eights race: the power, the grunt, the communal exhalation from 128 lungs, the yearning of six or eight Eights, 48 or 64 bodies and oars, all slamming the water together from a standing start for that edge that would give them that canvas margin two kilometres later.
Uncle Mick’s passing at home overlooking Caves Beach today, last Wednesday, with his family around him, leaves just one of the five Ellercamp siblings at Swansea Caves. Uncle H is gone; Aunty Doy (everyone’s and the world’s greatest Aunty), and now Uncle Mick, have left us since Rotten ol’ Herbie (our old man, and our hero once we woke up to ourselves and became a decent son) passed in ‘96. Now Uncle Don has lost his brother and his life-long best friend.
When we’re young, we can’t imagine our heroes dying; we can’t bear the thought. We can’t match their achievements; they are theirs; we have to create our own. And that’s the lesson they leave us.
Vale, Uncle Mick.