Salt of the earth

A temporary reprieve from the rain this afternoon brought nothing so vivid as the call of the ocean. Riding home in the afternoon sun, I was barely even into Randwick when I swore I could taste salt in the air.

The ladies’ pool had just been pressure cleaned, and every shell and darting shoal came in crystal clear to the agog goggled eye. The swell was like nothing I’d seen before at Coogee, waves crashing into the pool and frothing every second lap end.

McIvers Baths is apparently the only women-only ocean pool left in Australia. While trying to find out how long the pool is, I stumbled on all these other colourful historical tidbits about the pool. Failed discrimination suits by guys who felt slighted by the no-dudes policy. Allegations of lewd, lascivious depravity; accusations of a “lesbian lair”.

True, there generally is a fair splash on skin on show. It’s weird to feel like a prude when stripped down to a one-piece, but then most places I’m used to swimming aren’t studded with boobs, bobbing and floating here and there like fleshy Christmas ornaments. From seasoned pancakes to wayward wall-eyed nipples, the shamelessly bared baps of every age, shape and size may leave you wondering where to look… but that can actually make it somewhat easier to put your head down and smash out some laps.

People ask what the secret is to swimming laps. There isn’t one. You swim to the end – then you swim back again. You get to the end however you can – counting strokes, counting breaths, mentally muttering gangster rap. Most the time it’s just a struggle. Saltwater in your nose, burning the back of your throat. Forcing out three strokes before gulping air, kicking out cramps in crooked toes. But now and then you hit that state where you’re physically on autopilot, and the arrow-straight back and forth becomes strangely meditative.

It’s amazing the things that pop into your head, when all is submerged silence and your arms and legs have found their rhythm. Forgotten song lyrics, long-lost snatches of swim coach suggestions for stroke correction. Childhood memories.

Growing up in a bush town, the ocean was an exotic thing to be feared. On rare visits to the coast I remember squealing while the water licked at my ankles, my dad trying to teach me to catch waves, and watching amazed as the tide rushed out around my feet. But swimming itself always came easy.

Australian childhood is built on being in and around the water – from sprinklers to paddling pools, brown dams and rivers to bright blue chlorine. We grow up slathered in 15+, via bomb dives and kickboards and swim clubs and 50 cents’ worth of mixed lollies from the canteen after an hour’s squad training. I feel like some huge portion of my latter primary school days was spent swimming up and down the St George council pool.

I wonder how elite swimmers cope… watching that black line unspool for hours, kilometres, every day for years on end – they must see it even when they’re not submerged.

At any rate, today’s swim was a special one. Maybe it was all the lesbian nipple and armpit hair on show, but I started feeling a bit Helen Reddy. Propelling myself through the water I felt strong, and somehow womanly. Every 150 metres or so, I’d stop to clear the salt and fog from my goggles, and it was literally a revelation.

Like that bush kid slowly warming to the waves for the first time, I think a big part of the spirituality many people draw from the ocean is tied to fear. Well, maybe fear’s not the word. But the undeniable sense of your insignificance it gives you – no matter how important you think you are, the sea could crush you in an instant… or just dump you and make you feel silly. Sometimes you need that.

2 replies on “Salt of the earth”

I once read that we are drawn to the ocean because it reminds us of being surrounded by fluid in the womb, but I completely and utterly believe it's exactly because of what you've articulated here. The sea manages to be beautiful, mesmerising and frightening all at once but it never feels nurturing in the way suggested by the womb metaphor.Thank you for your comment. It was much needed.

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