MY lips and tongue are so swollen it’s like I’ve been drinking salty margaritas. I have chaffing on the undersides of both arms, sunburn on my nose and back, and my legs are jellyfish, but my soul is soaring for I have just completed my first ever ocean swim. I am on Australia’s Lord Howe Island reporting on Pinetrees Lodge Ocean Swim Week with ironman Ali Day, and just for the heck of it, I decide that this week, I too, shall get wet. I mean, I have swum in an ocean, so how hard can an ocean swim be?
As per usual, the adventure begins before I arrive at the destination. Regular readers will know that The Global Goddess is a neurotic flyer and I glance at the Dash 8 aircraft in which I am to travel with barely-concealed contempt. This rises to a mild fear when about 30 minutes before we arrive we hear a loud bang, the plane starts to shudder and we start to descend. It’s a good five minutes later before the handsome voice that only Australian pilots seem to possess comes over the loud speaker to inform us there is nothing to fear, we just have ice on the wings. And to think I thought I might die of a shark attack this week.
We arrive safely on the island, a glorious emerald punctuation mark off the Australian east coast, about equidistant from Brisbane and Sydney. On Day One, we gather in front of the Boat Shed where we are reminded it’s a non-competitive week and we are here to have fun. I love to swim and am confident my laps in the University of Queensland pool in the lead up to this event will stand me in good stead. Heck, as part of my training instead of avoiding the fat kid who’d do a bomb dive and cause a massive wave, I practically invited him to jump on top of me to replicate some swell. The fact I took a brief break from my training while I was in Indonesia over Christmas, unless you count the repeated dog paddling to the pool bar, should be overlooked, I reasoned with myself.
We are taken out in a boat offshore in which there is considerable swell, courtesy of a tropical low hanging around this remote island. I’m one of the first off the boat and I’m struggling as the pack glides past me. Worse, I feel seasick and I can’t find my flow. Just as I’m about to panic at my serious lack of ability and the fact I’ve wasted a considerable fortune and time on swimming training, I turn to find Ali Day beside me, asking me what’s going on in my head. “I’m so far behind everyone, I can’t keep up” I sputter, my mouth full of salt water.
Ali reminds me we’re here to have fun. “Come on, we’ll swim together,” he says, proving it takes more than just being a good swimmer to be an elite athlete. You need compassion too. And so, I push on. Breathless, 2.8km and 1hr and 10 minutes later, I wash up on shore. But I am elated, as I made it.
On Day Two the tropical low hasn’t abated even in the normally calm Ned’s Beach on the other side of the island. Ali takes us through deep breathing exercises before he points to the swell and directs us that we’ll be swimming two rounds of a triangle out to sea, before turning a sharp left and then another sharp left into shore. I strike out early again, and keep up with the pack for the first round, before I succumb to seasickness and withdraw after about 1km. I’m mentally beating myself up when the pack returns after its second round. I resolve two things: to buy some seasick tablets and to relax and enjoy the next swim.
The tide turns for me on Day Three and we’re dropped offshore in the Lagoon where I seem to glide effortlessly along the shoreline. The coral is stunning, the sun is shining, and the swell is at our backs, beckoning us along. None of us stop at the allocated point and instead swim on, back to the Boat Shed. Two hours and 3.8km later I float into shore. I’m the second to finish and can’t stop smiling. (A few of the super swimmers might have been off climbing the 875 metre Mount Gower that day). Even the fat kid back the University of Queensland pool would be astounded. I have found my flow and that night, I sleep like the dead. I am confident that I have finally become an elite athlete and can already picture myself crossing the line first in the Coolangatta Gold, clad in my Kellogg’s Nutrigrain sponsored swimwear. I fantasise about launching my own swimwear range, such are my delusions of grandeur.
But on Day Four the swell has returned and so has my good mate motion sickness as we attempt to swim from Rabbit Island to North Bay. It’s a washing machine out there with the turn of the tide and I find myself saying out loud just as I jump off the boat: “I have zero confidence today.” Ali hears this and again, offers to swim with me, asking me what’s going on in my head. I tell him I feel sick and I’m struggling in the swell to gain any technique. He reminds me to breathe only from one side to gain more air and to just focus on enjoying the moment. I point again to the pack disappearing ahead of me in the waves. “Don’t worry Chris, I’ve been there before, believe me,” he says. It has never occurred to me that elite athletes feel like this and that’s all I need to hear to start punching into the waves. I punch and punch out of sheer stubbornness and a fair whack of anger at the ocean. Ali swims beside me and tells me I only have 50 metres to go. “That’s one lap of the university pool,” I pant. “Yep, just one shitty lap of the university pool,” he says. One hour and 2.4km later I arrive on the beach.
Day Five is just as choppy as we cross the Lagoon to Rabbit Island. It’s our last swim of the week and I’m determined to enjoy this, particularly when Ali reminds us that on Monday we’ll be back at our desks, wishing we were in the ocean. I breathe, I focus on long strokes, a face flat in the water, and relaxed hands that “catch the water”. It’s not an easy swim but I stay with the front of the pack and in what seems like 20 minutes, not 1.5 hours and 2.3km later, I wash up on the pebbly shore. Later that day I realise I have swum a massive 12km in five days. I have remarkably refused every offer to catch a boat or board ride into shore. And I have powered on when both my stomach and heart was sinking in the swell. My mind drifts back to Ali’s words on the first day: “We are going to be a bit uncomfortable at times but that’s where the good stuff happens.” And good stuff it is, indeed.
The Global Goddess travelled to Lord Howe Island as a guest of Pinetrees Lodge. For more details on a range on Ocean Swim Week and other interesting and adventurous weeks hosted by Pinetrees go to http://www.pinetrees.com.au
A special shout-out to the Kingscliff Mafia Swim Squad who recognised when The Global Goddess was floundering, and swam beside her, offering words of encouragement. I’ll see you in the Cudgen Creek soon.