What’s the most nervous you’ve ever been?

I’m standing with a hundred other swimmers on Manly beach at 7 in the morning, lip-bitingly, buttock-clenchingly unchilled. There’s an easy casualness about this horde – they stand in groups of two or three laughing like they’re side-line at their kids’ soccer – but I’m not fooled. Every one of them, I’m certain, has been here many times before, so I’m going to be eaten alive. They wear their Speedo’s over-confidently low on their hips. 3-digit numbers are Sharpied on their shoulders – unmistakeable tattooed proclamations of belonging to this exclusive set, the Ocean Conquerors. They are, almost to a one, lithe, that beautiful description fitting for antelope, whippets and amongst homo-sapiens, only swimmers. This will be my first ocean swim. Not first time in the ocean, obviously, ducking and diving through the waves, laughing in bracing delight with every rolling surge. But my first Ocean Swim. A race. A serious business. You cannot buy your way through to stand here on this stretch of sand. You must sign a declaration to the effect that: ‘Yes, I can swim 1.5kms, and if I’m wrong and I drown, so be it. Mea culpa.’ Your word is trusted. There’s no test. At least not for this race. It’s only short. But the 5km? Fancy yourself for that and, well, the sun-leathery organisers need to know who you are and where you’ve swum. Right now, I’m just an interloper who’s signed a form.

“Just enjoy it” my mate says, exasperated. He’s been nagging me for years to join him on one of these swims and I get the feeling he’s probably doubting it was a good idea. I’ve got too many excellent questions. What about the current? How am I meant to handle it? Do I head straight for the first buoy and adjust adjust adjust every few strokes popping my head up like a prairie dog? Or do I sweep in a wide arc like a figure skater hoping I’ll magically rendezvous with the buoy via some sixth sense navigation common among sea turtles? And speaking of buoys, what’s the etiquette in rounding them? Do we politely wait in line? Can I barrel into, or even over, someone if they’re in my way? (The thought is appealing – I’d be nuts to try that at Ashfield Olympic, but out here I feel I might get away with it.) Hang on, will someone do that to me? If I drown, will anyone help me? He doesn’t answer me. ‘You’ll be fine. You’re a good swimmer.’ It happens to be my birthday. I know he’s being kind. He’s a surfer. Surfers are typically very strong swimmers with very strong personalities. For some reason he’s wearing red Speedos – or sluggos as he calls them. Modesty made me give up sluggos for knee-length swimmers years ago. Mine are black – it’s more flattering. I’ve never surfed. I’ve watched surfers in awe from the cliffs at Noosa and if there was ever a magical and serene at-oneness-with-the-forces-of-nature thing, this must be it. Elegant and physics-defying, the spell-binding human and creation union surfaces only for the briefest of moments. All the waiting and watching and never truly knowing – the sensation of commanding and being commanded must be all the more exhilarating for it. But if someone drops in on your wave, bliss dissolves. ‘It can get a little hectic,’ he admits. Here though, it’s the blueys he’s worried about. My mate’s done a few ocean swims in his time (this one’s a baby, he keeps telling me) and once, by some miracle, he got swept wide of a pack of bluebottles that half the field ploughed straight through. Or rather, into. You don’t swim through bluebottles. The pain is so intense you forget what your name is. The beach was covered in ambulances, he said. Nice. Again, this doesn’t happen at Ashfield pool. 

Lurking bluebottles aside, the day couldn’t be more spectacular. It’s early so the sun isn’t long up. The water is a glowing silver sheet; a million tiny flashes reflecting the gold of the sun. Some of the swimmers near to me are warming up in the surf. A few have covered themselves in oil (it reduces drag). They look like gods diving into mercury. When they step out, they’re shimmering half-golden. The air has a chill to it but you can tell it’s going to warm up quickly. It’s the sort of day that both enlivens and stills you in its panoramic beauty.

The race starts and the gods sprint. I’m not doing that. No way. I’m a swimmer not a sprinter and sprinting into water, well, it’s harder than sprinting through air I figure. Spray everywhere, brilliant white as it catches the sunlight. I keep up. But I don’t know when to dive, when to enter the water. This is not a problem usually. In and out of the water are distinct categories. Some are diving around me already, then immediately they’re up again and running, their legs splaying wide out from the hips like horizontal windmills. They dive in again. I do this too. Or rather, I attempt. It’s like starting a running race and being tackled again and again. It’s exhausting and there’s no elegance to it but I get through into deeper water and now I’m swimming. Only this is like no pool I’ve ever encountered. It’s pushing me up and down with each surging wave. One stroke, I’m heading out to the horizon then up to the sun the next. I’ve got to kick hard cause the water doesn’t want me there. It wants me back on the beach. Neptune can tell I’m not one of the gods. The gods are long gone already. They’ve cut through this surging melee like harpoons. I have no idea where my mate is. I stop looking for him and put my head down and just swim.

Search the globe, you won’t find a greater diversity of swimming than in Sydney. It’s obvious every time you fly in. There is water everywhere. 100 plus public pools lie scattered like living blue tiles in every second suburb. Our beaches, scalloped white one after the other for as far as the eye can see, are legendary. But you can also swim (safely, as in enclosed baths) in the Port Hacking, Georges, Parramatta, Lane Cove and Hawkesbury Rivers. Of course, you’re free to swim less-safely in those rivers too, plus all the other inland waterways, if you don’t mind the feeling of a bull shark’s razor teeth on your testicles/buttocks/toes. If you’re completely mad, it’s also possible to swim from Bondi beach north around South Head and back into the harbour to Watson’s Bay, a total of no less than 10 kms. It’s an annual event. And once upon a time you if you were truly, utterly bonkers and had no immediate family or friends who loved you enough to dissuade you, you could plunge off Manly Wharf right beside the steaming diesel ferries and head south then swing left towards New Zealand and out and around North Head before taking your chances in the open sea for three days or so until you reached Manly Beach (almost back where you started). If you’re wondering why you can’t do that every Sunday morning, let’s just say, it wasn’t Nemo they spotted out there that gave everyone the jitters. But that swim will be back again, I’ve absolutely no doubt about it. There’s something about ocean swimmers that makes them want to just keep pushing it and pushing it and pushing it. And the ocean is spectacularly beautiful. Have you ever wanted to swim through an aquarium that stretched forever? Plenty of people do. There are more ocean swimmers now than ever before. I’m just one more. 

I reach the first buoy and I turn right. I’ve never swam around a corner before but it’s surprisingly easy and as it turns out I don’t have to push anyone out of my way or swim over the top of them. Immediately I have to adjust my stroke. My mouth is full of salty water and my arms won’t work properly. They won’t reach out in front of me. Pool swimming – if you’re half-decent at it – is centimetre perfect. You lift your elbow, stretch your hand past your ear and drag your fingers 3cm above the water’s surface before entering it as smoothly as diving cormorant. But not out here. The waves knock into every stroke you take and splash into every breath. I have to swing my arms up and over to clear the surges and I have to roll like a humpback with every breath, my face contorted towards the sky. It works. 

The second buoy is about 500m away. It appears and disappears with the swell, winking at me. I do the prairie dog thing to stay on target. The water’s darker out here. I can’t see the sand anymore.
Suddenly, and this never happens to me when I’m in a pool, I have a picture-perfect, full-colour recollection of a National Geographic poster I saw in school featuring all the Aussie sharks. There’s a lot of them. Stingrays are sharks too I recall with vivid accuracy – it’s the cartilage and the number of gills that makes them so. It’s unnervingly and surprisingly clear in my mind. 

I’m around the 2nd buoy and the swell’s now hitting me from the other side. I adjust. Then, though I’m not expecting it, effortlessly I fall into a rhythm and I feel, impossibly, that I could go on for ever. There is a natural rhythm to swimming, of course, the breathing, the motion of the arms, the steady, even kick but there’s a bigger rhythm to the ocean, the waves rolling and rising over and over and over. Now, stroke after stroke, my body’s adjusted to this synergetic rhythm: the swell and I have come together. It feels, though my heart is pumping harder than it ever has, somehow relaxing. I’m not fighting the ocean anymore. It’s carrying me. 

I don’t know how I got in through the surf and onto the beach. That’s another art I’ve got to find a way to master if I’m going to keep doing this because get the timing wrong and you’ll either end up dumped on the sand (embarrassing at best, paralysing at worst) or sucked back to Fiji by the swell (also embarrassing). But I do manage to get through and while I’m nowhere near the front of the pack I’m also not near the back, which is a bit of a shock to me. I’ve held my own. I’ve defeated Neptune. Or maybe satisfied him. I can’t help feeling relieved as I cross the line and get given my time. For a first attempt, it isn’t too bad and while I can think of moments here and there where I could have pushed harder, I really just wanted to get the thing done. I don’t bother with my towel; I just stand in the sunshine feeling very Aussie. I’m an Ocean Swimmer. 

My mate appears, puffing in his red sluggos. ‘That was hectic!’ he says. Deep down, I was terrified that all my time churning laps in the pool would prove pathetically useless for today’s challenge and that his smiling, mocking face would be the first thing I’d see after I was resuscitated by the red and yellow lifeguards. But today, by some miracle, I’ve beaten him. 

I look back at the beach as we stride back up to his combi. The swimming gods I so confidently swum alongside – or rather behind by a fair margin – are still there in their little groups of three and four. They’re not heading back to the car park. My race was just a warm up. They’re getting set for the real deal. The 5kms. 

I’ve lived in Sydney most of my adult life and it’s such a stretching, beautiful, ever-changing and energetic place that I now have a thousand scattered experiences that have gripped me and shaken me and linger long in my memory. But now there’s one preeminent. Sand, surf, sun, salt and sweat. My first ocean swim.