|Behind the island.|
Mind you, this swim was not as difficult as most Coogee swims, which are in November, when the sea breeze blows and the swell usually runs from the sou'-east. This time, in April, there was a light offshore breeze and a very slight swell from the nor'-east. The sea was smooth, so the conditions we describe below -- the standard Coogee conditions -- were not as pronounced as they are normally. But the story remains the same. All things are relative, after all.
It's easy to stand on the promenade at Coogee, gazing out over the sea, and think, "This swim will be a doodle". Coogee is a sedate beach. It rarely offers a significant sea, at least not one that breaks onto the beach. We've seen one only once in our lifetime, back in early 1974 (we lived at Coogee when we first lived in Sydney, straight out of school).
Coogee is protected by Wedding Cake Island, which breaks up the worst of any swell. But this also makes it one of the most difficult stretches of water in Sydney.
But before we go into that, let us also say that, whatever the swell size, Coogee always offers a challenge in the break. Perhaps because of that protection from significant swell, Coogee also lacks banks, which means whatever swell there is surges up towards the beach and just dumps onto an edge so steep that it immediately washes back into the sea, gaining momentum from the steep beach. We felt this as we wallowed in the break taking pitchers of finishing mugs. One moment, we wed "out the back", the next, we were in knee depth water dodging the shore dump. Then suddenly we were back out behind the break, none of this with any help from us.
No matter the size of swell, Coogee always offers a shore dump, which can be dangerous, particularly to those with balletic necks. This is not a problem, but it is an element that must be factored in to how you handle this beach. It's a deceptive break, particularly when you come back in through it. Going out isn't so difficult, because you can see what you're heading into. But coming back, whatever swell there is tends to sneak up, suddenly rearing as it nears the beach and just dumps. You never turn your back on the break, but you especially never turn your back on the break at Coogee, sedate and protected as it is.
When the swell enters Coogee Bay between the island and the northern headland, where Giles baths used to sit on the rocks, and between the island and the southern rock shelf, where Wylies Baths remains one of the pearls of Sydney, and the Ladies Baths sits coyly between Wylies and the surf club. The swell surges around the island; it bounces off the rocks at both ends of the beach; and it washes back from the beach after surging in and dumping, sucking back seawards where the reflections and rejections from the rocks at both ends already are mixing the sea into a bit of a boiling pot. Mix that with the back wash from the beach, and the bounces off the inside of the island, and you have the bumpiest water in Sydney, no matter the size of the swell. It's second only to that stretch of water at the narrowest point of Sydney Harbour between Millers and Milsons Points, where the current and the chop from traffic mixes with the bounces off rock walls on either side of the harbour to foment a surface that is ferociously choppy. Have a look next time you get the ferry from the Quay.
Back at Coogee, we don't believe that the difficulty of that swim back was caused by tidal currents. High tide on swim day was 10:46am, and it wasn't a big tide: it was 1.3 metres. Most swimmers would have been heading back to Coogee Beach from the island whilst the tide, at worst, was on the turn. Tidal currents would not have played an appreciable role at all. There was a north-south current running behind the island, though, and that would have affected the first part of the run in as it washed around the island, providing a bit of push-back as mugs emerged from the island's shadow on the southern side.
But we felt that effect only for a couple of hundred metres from Wylies to the Ladies Baths.
So, no excuses for slow times, if they were slow times. Coogee is like that. It's one of the elements that makes all swims so different and interesting. Who'd a thunk that a benign beach like Coogee could serve up such treachery?
How was your swim?