This story was first published (as ‘A Life Aquatic’) in The Big Issue (#451, 7-20 Feb 2014)
Wake, ride, swim. Wake, ride, swim. Wake, ride, swim. It seemed feasible. Maybe even worthwhile. Go for a short swim, just a dip really, 365 days in a row. At the small suburban beach a five minute bike ride away mostly, and elsewhere from time to time. In an outdoor pool if need be. Indoor pools? No. Lakes and rivers? Unlikely.
Three hundred and sixty five daily dips, from one winter to another.
Rules? Always ride to the beach. Before breakfast. Try to swim all of 100 metres without drowning. No wetsuits. Ride home. The second swim on ‘double-dip’ days is not part of the tally.
I’d been going for dips at Williamstown beach for ages (17 years, not that I’m counting). Initially it was just on Sunday mornings, like going to church, and then it was Saturday as well. About five years ago I figured I’d go every day that I could. Which was most days.
And so I began to swim my way through the saltwater calendar, starting just after dawn on Friday June 1 2012. Water temperature? About 12 degrees Celsius. Thirty days of numb fingers and freezing toes. As winter set in the lengths of my dips shortened. One hundred metres became ninety, which became eighty, which became seventy…June turned into July. Sixty days. July became August. Ninety days.
I clocked up the hundredth successive dip on Saturday 8 September, the start of Week 15. There were fierce cold northerly winds that week, telling me Spring had only arrived in name.
The half-way mark, 183 dips, was, appropriately, at the start of summer. As the water and the weather warmed my dips were getting bigger. Well, slightly longer. I raced past the 200 day mark on Tuesday 17 December 2012.
Through December 2012 and January 2013 I was regularly a double-dipper: the pre-breakfast ritual with the beach nearly to myself and then a bonus afternoon swim, often with hundreds of blow-ins.
All was going swimmingly as I charged towards the 250 milestone. Then my wife Julie suggested a holiday. Not locally. Not interstate. Overseas. To Vietnam. I’d never been over seas. I’d never been above the water.
Where does one swim in Hanoi, I pondered, before thinking about passports, visas, currencies, flight numbers, stopovers and immunisation. Hanoi, an inland city, was home to the Red River and Hoa Kiem Lake. But a beach? No.
I swam at Williamstown on the day we flew out (Friday 22 February 2013, swim number 266) and I swam in a ten-metre pool in Hanoi on the day we arrived (Saturday 23 February), thereby maintaining the sequence.
But trouble lay ahead. Trouble called an overnight train trip from Hanoi to the once-remote town of Sapa, in north-west Vietnam, about an hour from China. Trouble called the Himalayas. Trouble called a river that was too shallow and too dirty. Trouble called a waterfall that was too deep and too rocky.
And trouble called our cheap hotel. It didn’t have a pool. Not even a ten-metre pool. Not even a bath in our bathroom.
You could say the quest was over. You could say the odyssey was incomplete. You could say I’d failed. And I had. But what did the great freestyler Bob Dylan once sing: ‘There’s no success like failure’. (The rest of the lyric is ‘And failure’s no success at all.’)
I took heart from what a journalist friend said years ago, ‘Everybody wants to win but the loser’s story is usually more interesting’. Maybe.
Back in Hanoi I continued powering up and down the ten-metre speed pool. I continued counting the daily dips even though the sequence had been broken. Our travels also took us to a beach at Monkey Island (opaque aqua water, watch out for the rocks), a beach at Cua Dai (rough grey surf on a rough grey day, watch out for the hawkers and the touters, the knick-knack sellers), a 25 metre pool at Hoi An (watch out for the dolphins painted on the bottom), and a farewell dip back in Hanoi (watch out for each end of the rather short pool).
We arrived in Melbourne on March 10 and I was in the warm water at Williamstown at three in the afternoon.
I resumed the routine. Wake, ride, swim. Wake, ride, swim. Wake, ride, swim. Barring the Sapa saga, I was closing in on 300 daily dips at Easter. A trip to Wodonga a few weeks later saw me in a hotel pool even smaller than the ten-metre Hanoi championship pool, but also in a brand new Olympic-sized pool at a sparkling just-opened complex called Waves (Wodonga Aquatic Venue and Exercise Space). At 50 metres long, the pool seemed never ending.
I only had 50 dips to go. Summer was well and truly over. Temperatures were dropping. The Williamstown beach was once again the preserve of the diehards.
Day 365 (Swim 363) was Saturday 1 June 2013. Water temperature 15 degrees. There was no media to report the momentous achievement. No mayor. No fanfare. No marching bands. Just some rain and a few fellow swimmers.
The epic quest (which, technically, came a cropper up in Sapa) was over. It had seemed feasible. It had seemed possible. I’d fallen short by two days but I didn’t care. I wasn’t trying to break any records. I wasn’t trying to win any medals. I wasn’t trying to be a hero. I was just having a dip.
See also the 365 Swims blog