November 29, 2021

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We don't take you just anywhere.

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The story of November: la Niña over Bongin Bongin Bay (Image by David Helsham @glistenrr) 

Into the chop

oos logoHe (or she) who hesitates will stop

There was a nor’-easter blowing this morning, not a heavy one, but there was a bit of a bump, as you’d expect when the beach faces nor’-east, into the puff. We swam to the pole, 150m down the beach, warming up, and we regrouped. And Johnny, in charge today, said, ‘We’re gonna swim in different directions to see which way is the easiest to swim in these conditions’. He said, ‘We’re going straight out for 2 x 50 strokes, then back along (parallel with the beach: oss.c) for 80 strokes x 5, then we’ll see’. The first 50 strokes x 2 would be straight into the chop; the 80 strokes x 5 would be across it; then we’d run in with it towards the back of the pool, way down the other end of the beach; then back across the chop again to the start.

Well, most, if not all of us could tell Johnny straight out which way is the easiest to swim in a chop: it’s certainly not against it, and not across it, either, particularly if there’s a swell running with the chop. But swimming with it from here, just behind the break, would take us straight back to the beach, which is not what we’re here for, unless we’re doing ins and outs, which we weren’t, or unless one of us has spotted something largish, moving lithely beneath. Anyway, most of us are too stiff in the joints to do ins and outs.

We all love Johnny, although Noel refers to him, with great affection, as ‘Knucklehead’. Noel refers to everyone with great affection as Knucklehead. But we know how much thought Johnny puts into the session when he leads it, which isn’t every day. Normally, Noel runs us. Noel used to play first grade rugby league, and he runs a session much as the conditioning trainer did at Leichhardt Oval back in the ‘70s. But Noel is away today, visiting a cobber farther up the coast. Anyway, we’re happy to go along with someone (ie Johnny) who has bothered to think about how we swim each morning, what we should do, what we can do so that it’s not the same thing every day, thus boring, so that we don’t have to (think about it ourselves). So off we go. We swim out, directly into the chop, towards the shark drum lines.


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Johnny: Heavy is the burden of leading the Forster Turtles.


Some days later, sipping our cuppas in front of the surf club, we spot the shark contractor stopped by the drum lines. As a rule, the contractor is called out only when the drum line is activated by a shark. He (…or she; we can’t tell from the beach) uses an open twin outboard with a screen. There are two of them on board, and they stop by the drum line booee whilst they check the motivation of the call. As a rule, the motivation is a shark that’s taken the bait on the drum line. The contractor is called out to release the shark, but then, if it’s a listed shark, eg a white, like Bubbles, then s/he is supposed to tag it, if it’s not already tagged, then drag it a couple of kilometres out to sea, then release it. The thinking is that, once released, the shark will swim merrily off to another beach. That’s all well and good, except that, early in the drum line experiment, they tagged and dragged a white out to see, released it, then found it on the same drum line again the next day. That was Bubbles. Bubbles is our resident white.


It's stuff like this that goes through our minds when we’re swimming early morning, and during the post-swim cuppas, where stories grow out of all proportion according to how long the cuppa lasts. In truth, we don’t worry about it all that much these days. It’s chat fodder, but it’s not anxiety-inducing. We figure that, with all the early morning swimming on our beach going back years, and years, and with all the creatures jammed into the area, if something was going to happen, most probably it would have happened by now. That’s not to say it won’t happen one day, but all of life is a punt, and the odds appear stacked against it pretty heavily. (That’s to do with us swimmers, not board riders or other craft users.)

(Touch wood.)

So when Johnny sends us straight out towards the drum lines, we’re thinking more of stroke than of imminent death.


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Dawn drama at Bongin (image by David Helsham @glistenrr)


It is an intellectual exercise to work out which is the best way, ie direction, to swim in bumpy chop. Certainly, not straight into it. That’s a misère.

Across the chop is more difficult. Much depends on which way you breathe. Most swimmers of a certain age breathe only one way. This is despite us lecturing for many years about the need to breathe both ways – bilaterally – for precisely this type of occasion. If you’re swimming across a chop that’s coming from your left, and you breathe only to your left, then the chop will interrupt your breathing pattern. You’re at risk of taking gobsful of water rather than air, as an unpredictable bump rears up in your face just at the moment you’re turning to breathe. This can be uncomfortable. It means either you take in the sea water, possibly going down the wrong way or, if you’re quick witted and you miss the mouthful, you also miss your breath. Either way, it’s disruptive to your stroke.

Experience tells us, as well, that breathing away can cause these same problems, because you can’t spot those suddenly arising bumps rearing up. You’re still likely to take in water and to miss your breath. But breathing away does seem to reduce that risk.

Unpredictable bumps also can interfere with your stroke. While swimming is a mechanical exercise in search of rhythm, you’re always anticipating the water when you’re recovering and when you’re about to plunge your leading hand back into the water for the next stroke. Suddenly, the water isn’t there and you have nothing to grab, so you miss that stroke entirely, or it ends up as half a stroke. This can be due to body instability in an erratic swell, or instability in the water itself. Where did it go? It was there a moment ago!

Instability in the stroke leads to instability in your body position, your breathing, your rotation and your kick (don't get us started now on the scissor kick, the kick favoured by so many boofheads). It moves all the way down your body. Mind you, the concepts of rotation, and certainly kick, are absolutely foreign to most mug swimmers, so they’re probably nothing for you to worry about.

The other tendency in swimming across the chop – and this stems directly from body instability – is to hesitate. You hesitate when you find the water beneath your entering hand suddenly disappear, so you wait for it to reappear so that you have something to grab on entry. This is a major error. Hesitation means you lose your forward momentum, which in turn means that when you eventually restart your stroke, you’re staring from a much slower base.
You must keep swimming, never mind whether you sense the water there or no. Not only do you maintain your momentum, but you realise how important a role your entering hand plays in supporting your body stability in the water: it’s like an anchor, not weighing you down, but stabilising you against the flow, the pitch, the roll of the water, so you continue to cut through it, not be tossed around by it. In any case, even if you sense the water is not there, so you tend to hesitate, you must bear in mind that, if it’s not there now, it will be in just a mo. Have confidence.


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What some eejits do to Wobbegongs: Forster, early morn.


We all know that swimming with the chop or the swell is easiest. That’s a given: it’s coming from behind, so it picks you up feet first and thrusts you forward. Given it’s generally coming from behind fairly evenly, the you don’t have the problems of erratic water ahead, so the chop shouldn’t interfere with your breathing or your rhythm, and your body position is unaffected negatively as your supple stroke webs seamlessly with your breathing, your rotation, and your kick. Doesn’t it.

There is a skill to be developed in feeling the following swell as it runs onto your feet, then up your legs, like a creep in the back row at the movies, through your core and on through your chest, your neck and out the end of your head, ahead. That skill is to do with the suppleness that allows your body to take on the shape of the swell rolling through so that, as it travels along your body, you tend to surf down the face of it. It picks up your feet and it thrusts you forwards. Your body takes on the shape of the swell. Indeed, there are few more inspiring sensations in ocean swimming than surfing down the face of a following swell in deep water.

We used to experience this when, as a youngster, we rowed surfboats. As you felt the following swell lift the blunt end of the boat, which the technical types refer to as the ‘stern’, or the ‘tuck’, you felt the boat surge forward, so your stroke changed from one of powerful grabs and swirling finishes to faster taps as you kept the boat even and running down the face of the wave. Then the boat drops off the back; it seems to stop dead, and it's back to the powerful grabs to rebuild the pace till the next swell surges through.

In swimming, it’s the same: running down the face with a longer, chasing stroke, then pulling it together with more powerful grabs when you inevitably drop off the back and prepare for the next swell to come through. Goodness, it feels good.


forster course 211118 400What happens when your GPS is confused by the earth's magnetics. The course actually was c.800m.


But straight into the chop?

Another misère, but this time in the negative. Or so it might seem. We return to surfboats…

Rowing into a chop, the boat tends to stop each time it hits a bit of bump. The tendency is for the crew to start again, building up momentum with shorter, sharper strokes till they reach a running speed. The problem with a bumpy day, but, is that you’re continually hitting bumps that tend, each time, to make the boat stop. The way through this is not to shorten the stroke; if you shorten the stroke, it’s then continually restarting. The solution is to lengthen the stroke, and to finish each stroke with a flourish and a slight pause (not a hesitation) to give the boat run to get through those bumps. The stroke will tend to flow, but because it is a little longer, and ends with that bit of extra oomph, the boat running more evenly and the sharp end of the boat (known to the technical types as the bow) cutting through the bumps rather than being stood up by them.

Ditto swimming. Straight into a chop, the tendency is to cop the stop, then restart each time after you’ve dropped off the back of a bump into the trough. We’re reminded of a swim from Palm Beach to Whale Beach, 15 or more years ago, when we swam from Palm Beach to Little Head directly into a 2-3 metre swell, with sou’-east chop on top. It was so bumpy that we reckon we travelled greater distance up and down than forwards. (That swim also was one of the occasions on which awgies did not have a marker booee off Little Head, thus we were free to cut the headland as close as we liked. As we rose and fell on the chop-topped swell, we felt as if we could have touched the rocks as we rounded them. Good grief, it was fun! Other awgies would not have run their swim in those conditions, but Whale Beach awgies always have favoured the adventurous course. It is, after all, The Big Swim.)

Like the surfboat, we have found the best course through head-on chop is a longer stroke, head flat, thus optimising your streamline so that you cut through the chop rather than be tossed around by it. You must finish each stroke with a bit of extra push, and that, combined with the streamline, allows you to cut through the chop rather than the chop holding you up.

And, like swimming across the chop, the secret is to keep on swimming. Just because you feel the chop hit you front on, and you sense the water ahead dropping away, it’s important that you don’t hesitate in your stroke. You must keep on swimming, because your entering hand acts as the anchor that pulls you through the chop, but if you’ve hesitated, there’s no anchor, and you’re left at the mercy of the chop.

This goes to a massive flaw in our own stroke. For years, we’ve been obsessed with swimming ‘catch-up’ in ocean swims. Catch-up is leaving the leading hand out there till the recovering hand catches up to it. This is in the interests of streamline. In chop, however, it’s hesitation: the hand enters the water, but it delays the grab, in the interests of maintaining the streamline, thus the run. Our friend, Roger, a water poloist and former hack from the Gold Coast, told us once, many years ago, that he swims anything over 400 metres essentially catch-up. More accurately, it’s more like ¾ catch-up. And in normal, calmer water, that’s fine. It’s essentially about streamline and lengthening the stroke. But the thing about the sea is that it tends not to be normal water most of the time, and when you’re facing directly into a chop, if you keep, in effect, hesitating with your grab, then the chop will stop you. So you must keep the stroke going, the grab after entry to anchor your pull through the chop, and in the process finding a new ‘catch-up’, a modified catch-up, where you strike a new balance between stroke length and maintaining the swim action.

And, you know something? If you do that, you’ll find the chop much easier to bear, and swimming into a chop will become fun; not the chore you’re used to or you’re expecting.

Johnny never did tell us the result of his experiment. Last we heard of him, he was bushwalking in the Snowy Mountains. In the rain, apparently. But Johnny’s like that. He went kayaking in the outback in heavy rains a couple of months back. He’s his own fellow. And we suspect his ‘experiment’ was a ruse: he was just thinking up something for us to occupy our minds whilst we swam. He succeeded in that.

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New model Swipes

Prescription gogs now in Swipes

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Our Swipes, so far in both Selene and Wide-Eyes versions, have been a big hit, offering what View (the makers) describe as 10 times the anti-fog capacity of other gogs. We've been using them for almost two years now, and we know that it works. We've sold over 1,000 pairs of Swipe gogs since their release just prior to Xmas 2019, so many of you must agree, too.

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Swim buddies, Heron Island.

2022 oceanswimsafaris

New dates open for bookings

Yet again, a new version of Covid raises uncertainty about overseas travel. This time, at the time of writing, we know very little about omicron other than that it has the authorities very worried. We're keeping an eye on it.

In the meantime, We are taking bookings for our Heron Island oceanswimsafaris in 2022, thus March 14-19, April 24-May 2 (Full), June 12-17, October 19-24, and November 6-11

There are only a few spots left on our March and June dates; April-May is full; there is plenty of room still in October and November. 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.

Find out more and book… Click here
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Body surfers, Forster.

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