You can’t swim without walking

For the last 6 weeks, I’ve been lucky to join in with a group who swims in the ocean every day at 8am. It’s not an official, organised, incorporated club, so much as a loose collection of people who like to swim in the ocean and don’t want to do it alone. It’s an ocean-swimming social collective. Not everyone involved swims every day, but any day you turn up, at least a few people will be heading off along the beach to swim the 1-1.5 kilometres back.

As someone who lives in a city, I’ve felt so lucky to have these weeks to spend with the group as well as the beach, ocean and the critters who live there. I’ve felt lucky to have this block of time to see 6-weeks of weather and ocean conditions and how they shape the swim, as well as the place itself. I’ll be going back and forth to swim with them when I can, but I live two hours away in another state, so there are frustrating barriers to going along too often. Hence feeling so lucky I had such so much time.

Spending time with a practice and place gives an opportunity for your expectations to be challenged and expanded, and, of course, this was certainly the case for me.

One of the things that surprised me was the joy and significance of the collective walk along the beach before the swim itself. The walk plays a number of roles: from physical activity, to socialising, to connecting with the place and conditions.

To get to the place they swim from, the swimmers walk, barefoot, a kilometre or more along the sand. Like the physical activity of the swim, the walk is good for the swimmers’ physical, psychological, and emotional health and wellbeing, and acts almost as incidental exercise. Walking isn’t why anyone swims, but it’s a pleasant added bonus.

While everyone meets at the same place and time (a couple of regulars join in further down the beach), the actual departure time is loose, with folk leaving in groups as they wish. Everyone is heading in the same direction, but they can be alone or in small groups of between 2 and 6. On a busy day, you can see people scattered hundreds of metres along the beach, taking their time in at their own pace.

People end up in regular collections – they walk with the people they tend to swim with or that they are feel closest to as friends. The small groups chat about their lives, about current affairs, about books, about changes to the beach, about shark attacks, about each other. They talk and listen and help each other out, learn about newcomers, and give advice.

This time is social but is not composed of the kind of performative conversations that happen at parties. Instead, these are the kinds of daily conversations we have with people who we see often, and who know things about our lives – what we like to eat and cook, where we work, what we did on the weekend, how many kids we’ve got, that we’re buying a new vacuum cleaner, what moisturiser we prefer. And all of these conversations are conducted by people dressed in garments ranging from a pair of speedos, to bikinis, to a full wetsuit. Some of these options offer more coverage, but all of these are far from the usual ways we dress and socialise out of the water. So, there is an intimacy there too – chatting, while almost naked, is a state that becomes the new normal.

Despite the spectacular setting, these relationships are intimate in a mundane way, notable for their domesticity, banality, care and trust. Some of these relationships stretch back decades, with all the attendant knowledge that comes with time – for better or worse. Others, like the relationships I made, are new and settling in. But all of them were filled with warmth and familiarity.

These were the kinds of relationships that I always think define being part of a community. People know so much about you, and yet might not be the people with whom you share your hopes, dreams, and fears. These relationships can be quite surface level, developed in regular one-hour interactions over weeks, months and years, but this does not mean they are without meaning or significance. To the contrary, they are relationships that impact the swimmers every day.

The people in this group know me in a way that, perhaps, none of my more significant loved ones do. The swimmers understand the strength, vulnerability and pleasure that characterises the swim. They understand the encounters and interactions that we experience in the water and on the beach, and what they can mean. They speak a language that I have been learning as I come to share in what they know.

This language comes to bear in multiple ways, including conversations about the conditions and how they will impact the swim. As we walk, people keep an eye on the water, watching the swell, the rocks and the currents. They’re reading the ocean, getting a sense of the conditions, and making decisions about how they might approach the swim that day; where will they get in, what line will they take, who will they swim with, how close to shore. You can never really know what the conditions will be like until you get in, but for those who have been doing it for a long time, they can get a sense of it.

So much of the joy of the swim happens out of the water, which is something I find with surfing too. The friends I’ve made at my usual surfing places know me in a way that other friends might not. They know what it means to be hit by a set, to unexpectedly make a wave, to get caught in a particular section, to see the bommie breaking. They’ve seen my achievements and failures, my growth and wipeouts. Like my new swimming friends, they’ve seen me vulnerable, and they’ve seen me strong in ways that make swimming sense to them.

Once I’m swimming, I’m alone. We can call out to each other, or swim near each other, but the nature of the water makes this difficult as the currents and swell shift us around. Surfing is the same – it’s not a team activity. There are folk who swim and surf alone by choice; who avoid the social part of it all. This might be because their days don’t allow for it, or that they’re not interested. Certainly, the chatting adds time onto the activities, which extends the investment in the day. But for many, these social interactions become an important part of the benefits of the swim itself. For those who invest, the rewards are friendship and community, and access to knowledge about the place itself.

Of course, there are myriad conversations at the other end of the swim too. As they get out of the water and change back into their clothes, people chat about the swim and their various encounters. Many go for coffee to a café across the road, where they sit and chat and debrief more. These are different conversations though – on land, in clothes, with coffee, post-swim. There is a different energy.

Many of the swimmers have told me how much they enjoy the socialising that happens during their walk along the beach. For those with busy lives, it is an important joy to share with friends. For those retired or with more time, it is an important motivator and activity that gives them a sense of purpose and connection in their days. In either case, it is a time to connect with themselves.

Short as they were, I learned so much on these morning walks; about the people, the swim, the beach, and the critters who live in the water. People told me about how the dunes have been eroding for months, pointed out a python stretched out along the sand, and compassionately suggested the illegal tents camped in the dunes belonged to homeless folk, not backpackers. I learned and I shared and I watched and I delighted in feeling the play of cool air and warm sun on my bare skin, on seeing the clouds, the mist over the hinterland, the light on the water, and, most of all, the care and friendship I found there.

The walk before swimming is a time to breathe deeply, to shift perspective and to connect with what is to come in the water. The walk is a transition time that could be called ‘liminal’, a word that describes a between space; between land and sea, waking and working, starting and finishing. The swimming takes me to a whole other world, but for me, there would be no swimming without walking.

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