By Jeremy Rochow
The ocean stretches out across the horizon almost as far as one’s eye can see, except for the tiniest little blip. A small bump rises up from the ocean which confirms in a person’s mind that there is land in the distance—not close, but reachable. The view of Rottnest Island from the mainland is awe-inspiring at dawn, and this particular morning is no different. It was definitely rousing; however, not in the same way that the view usually stirs a person’s soul.
Cottesloe is Perth’s premier beach. In the early hours of the morning it’s usually relatively quiet, apart from the sound of waves pounding against the cement-like sand and the occasional chirp of a seagull. The beach is populated with a few early morning walkers and joggers dressed in flamboyant tracksuits. They look as if they may have come straight out of the eighties with fluoro headbands to match. A lone swimmer stands on the sand about to hit the surf, goggles and swimming cap in hand.
One Saturday each year, the calm and stillness that usually hangs over Cottesloe is broken. The quaint suburban beach becomes a place of immense activity in the early hours of the morning, just before dawn breaks. Generators buzz like swarms of bees, powering the lights that illuminate the beach.
People are scattered everywhere; some are sprawled on the grass hill behind the beach, others perch themselves on the rocks that protect the bay from the open ocean. There is constant chatter as people wait patiently for the race to begin. The Indian Ocean to the west is usually home to numerous cargo ships; today it is scattered with hundreds of small boats.
The action on the sand is intense as people make their last-minute preparations before hitting the water. Kayaks and canoes are being inspected as their owners make one final check. They attach flags and their team numbers to their vessels. A middle-aged woman holds up a camera and aims it at two smiling young men arm-in-arm. One is in his bathers ready to swim, while the other is dressed in high-visibility clothing.
I turn to my paddler, the man in the high- visibility clothing, and smile. ‘Are you ready?’ He nods with enthusiasm as we grab the kayak and head towards the water’s edge. A small set of waves break and rush out at our feet. Once it has passed, he jumps in the kayak and I push him out into the ocean. ‘See ya out there,’ I shout as he paddles into the open water where he will wait for me.
I quickly walk to the top of the sand and start preparing myself for the swim that lay ahead— twenty kilometres of rolling open water. Just thinking about the constant up and down motion is enough to make my head spin. The thousands of swim caps make the beach a sea of colour; pink, green, yellow and red caps everywhere.
My attention turns to the ocean in front of me. The little line in the distance is the destination. It’s only small now, but it will grow larger as the day wears on and I draw closer. A light breeze blows the salty air against my face as I begin to lather myself in sun cream. The sun is beginning to break through the clouds and warm my body. Its full brunt won’t be noticeable for a couple more hours.
All of a sudden a horn sounds to let me know it’s time to line up along the beach for the start. The rubbery material of my swim cap fits snuggly on my head as I pull it into position. I give my goggles a once over, making sure they are tight enough and won’t let any water in. Lined up next to me are about fifty swimmers all in the same coloured caps. Some have colourful zinc over their arms and legs, and the familiar smell of deep heat lingers in the air.
Nervousness washes over me as the final countdown begins. I swing my arms as if I’m warming up, but it’s more to keep my mind occupied. Every swimmer standing on the shore has the same goal. We yearn for that tiny island we can hardly see.
It’s become an obsession which has gripped all of us for months. The relentless training, early mornings and sacrifices we’ve made all to reach the sandy island twenty kilometres away. Stingers will sting us for hours, causing red welts. There is the nagging thought of sharks that we try to push to the back of our minds. Bruised and battered from kicking and punching each other, we’ll hopefully stumble onto the beach and across the finish line. We may even get hypothermia from being in the water for six and a half hours. Bang! The gun fires, waking me from my daze, and we rush towards the water.