When I was asked to write about swimming across Bondi, I was apprehensive. Sure, I’d been a pool swimmer back in the day. But it’s been a long time since I’ve done laps and this would be my first time ocean swimming. I wondered how hard it would be to swim through waves, how deep the water would be, and whether I’d be venturing into shark territory. I needed an expert to guide me through my first ocean swim, so I contacted Andre Slade, owner of OceanFit swim school. The first thing I want to know? Can I actually do this?
Slade tells me the distance across the bay is 800 metres – equivalent to 16 laps at a 50-metre pool like Icebergs or Boy Charlton. Ideally, you’d want to be comfortable swimming one kilometre in a pool before you take on a swim like this, he says. And in order to do it safely, I need to educate myself about ocean swimming, and Bondi in particular. He invites me to join his Learn to Ocean Swim clinic, where he explains how to read a surf forecast, how to assess the ocean conditions, how to choose a safe swimming route, and how to navigate the surf zone where the waves are breaking.
During the clinic, I ask whether we need to worry about sharks. Slade says news stories about sharks are often exaggerated, and he’s right. A baby shark sighting in November was inaccurately reported as a “massive great white shark” in a clickbait news headline. Sharks very rarely come into the bay, and attacks at Bondi are extremely rare (a quick Google search shows the last one was in 2009).
“In my experience, people fear the unknown and not being in control,” says Slade. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a rip current, a dumping wave, a jellyfish or a shark; the more you educate yourself and understand these things, the more comfortable and confident you’ll feel.”
Feeling better equipped after the clinic, I meet Slade at the beach a few days later to do the swim. To build confidence, Slade suggests that first-timers swim from the sheltered northern end to the mid-point, then turn around and swim back, slowly increasing the distance each time until they feel ready to swim all the way across. I’ve convinced a friend with ocean-swimming experience to join us as Slade suggests first-timers swim with someone who has done it before, preferably a local who is familiar with the beach. We put on goggles and neon yellow swim caps so we are easily visible (hello, surfers). The water isn’t all that cold, but we put on wetsuits anyway for added buoyancy. We assess the conditions (perfect – barely any swell or wind), plan our route (north to south, finishing at Icebergs), enter the water near the kids’ pool, and swim out through a rip. A minute or two later we are behind the surf zone, ready to start swimming across.
Almost immediately, I realise that I’m not as fit as I thought; I started to tire after a few metres, and the short gasps of air I’m taking don’t feel sufficient. I roll onto my back, floating easily thanks to the wetsuit, and take some deep breaths, wondering whether I have it in me to make it across. Slade tells me to swim 20 strokes and then take a breather. I do. Then I do it again. Then I do 25 strokes, and break. Then I do that again. And just like that, we are a quarter of the way across.
Buoyed by the realisation I can take as many breaks as I need to, and heartened by the distance we have covered in just five or six minutes, I put my head down and started counting my strokes. Each time I stop to catch my breath, Slade offers tips, such as sighting (looking ahead towards a predetermined landmark every few strokes) to stay on course. By the time we are at the halfway point, I have smoothed out my stroke and gotten into a rhythm. Every time I stop to take a break, Icebergs looms larger and closer.
As we reach the southern, less protected end of the bay, the swell gets larger and the current stronger. I’m losing steam quickly, but the big, white building is tantalisingly close.
After 25 minutes we are finally there, treading water on the other side of the Icebergs pool wall. Exhausted but elated, I look back over the distance we have just swum. It looks longer than it seems, even going as slowly as we have (a faster, fitter swimmer could have done it in 15 to 20 minutes.) It looks impressive. We revel in our achievement for a minute or two, pose for some photos, and begin to swim towards the beach.
As we enter the surf zone, a wave breaks over me. Despite everything I learned in the clinic, I panic. I stop swimming and flail around in the whitewash, trying to stay upright. ‘Stay calm and keep moving’, Slade instructs. He tells me to switch to a backstroke so that I can see the waves coming. That helps me relax, and a minute later it is shallow enough to stand. We walk ashore with huge smiles on our faces.
One week later, I’m at Icebergs swimming laps and getting ready to do it again.
Andre Slade’s top tips for swimming across Bondi
1. Get in shape by hitting the pool to work on your technique and fitness.
2. Take an ocean swimming lesson from someone (like OceanFit swim school) and get tips from a local.
3. Check the weather and surf forecast so you know what to expect. Avoid rough days and big waves.
4. Assess the conditions along the whole beach before your swim.
5. Have a swim plan. Figure out in advance where you will start and finish, and where you will enter and exit the water.
6. Always swim with a friend and keep an eye on each other at regular intervals.
7. Wear a brightly coloured swim cap so you can be seen, and a pair of goggles.
8. Leave 20 per cent energy in the tank to return to the shore, just in case you need it.
9. Let someone who is staying on shore know your swim plan.
10. Relax, get in a rhythm and enjoy the moment — you’ve got this.