Sunday, February 23, 2014

Wonderful world of blueys...

Peter McCrae's course, he said on swim day, would betray the fact that he stupidly followed others the wrong way towards the first booee at Bondi. It doesn't look all that bad to us, but reality is all in the mind, after all.

Some things, we hold as self-evident. So self-evident that we hardly need to say them. Like, dive under broken waves, don't stand up and face them head on. Don't body surf dumpers onto shallow banks. Don't swim in the fast lane if you're slow. And, best of all, don't breaststroke around booees. You know, the kind of things that qualify for “The Bleedin' Obvious” category in Mastermind.

Another is: Don't follow those ahead blindly, for they are following those ahead of them, and they in turn, and really, unless you sight for yourself, no-one really knows where they're going. Take responsibility for yourself.

They are all self-evident truths. Which is why Peter “McGoo” McCrae, the most eccentric and idiosyncratic oceran swimmer whom we know, was so sheepish when we approached him on Sunday, after the main event at Bondi, to collect our GSP-in-a-plastic bag, which we'd affixed to his wrist shortly before swim start in the expectation that we'd do probably only to the first booee then across to the final one. We wanted someone who was intending to do the entire course, and we couldn't trust ourselves, loaded as we were with our Brownie Starflash-in-a-plastic bag.

McCrae was sheepish because, he said, the GPS would show that he headed to the wrong booee after getting through the break at Bondi, towards the middle booee on the back reach rather than the sou'-western booee off Mackenzies Point. “I was following everyone else,” he confessed, and that, he said, got him into trouble. He wasn't looking forward to seeing the course. More importantly, we suspect, he wasn't looking forward to everyone else seeing his course, as well.


The bleedin' obvious...

We hold as self-evident that you should sight for yourself, not just blindly follow. But swimmers do follow, thinking it saves them time, that they won't then lose ground when they “stop” or slow to sight the next booee. They just trust the mugs in front of them. And how many times do you hear them lament on the beach afterwards that trusting in the mugs in front of them led them astray.

Branded by a Medusa.
Looking at McCrae's course (above), though, it doesn't look too bad. Sure, there is an early tendency to head straight out rather than towards the point, but McCrae must have caught it quite early, for the trend, as you see on the stock exchange graphs on the evening news on the telly, was in the right direction overall.

We were reminded of this truism earlier than McCrae's complaint on the beach after the race on Sundee, however. On the way back in from Ben Buckler, after rounding the nor'-eastern turning booee to head back into the finish, and just after we'd crossed the shark net, we were almost run down by a laydee swimmer heading, head down, at 90 degrees to our own course. She was heading towards North Bondi. Perhaps she was just a very slow swimmer from February 9. In any case, the water safety laddies, who were very attentive at Bondi, very quickly put her back on course. But had we been a metre ahead of ourselves, she'd have sliced us in two. And we wondered, to ourselves, in our inner monologue – isn't it extraordinary how many people, when they tell you what they were thinking, say, “And, I thought to myself...” Another one of those self-evident truths from “The Bleedin' Obvious” category. – “How could anyone go off course so radically? I mean, it's not as if there's a big sea, or sighting is impaired, or you can't see the next marker, which is Stra'a...”

Another thing we regard as self-evident is how to extricate oneself from the grip of a bluey.

We've been extricating ourselves from the grip of blueys all our lives. The first bluey sting we remember was when, as sweet little boys, we sprinted down the beach at a surf carnival at Caves Beach to greet our uncles as their boat crew returned victorious from a race, ignoring the blanket of blueys that lined the length of the beach. They were just stings on the foot, but the beach was thick with the blighters and their tentacles oozed up between our toes. The stings were in unreachable places.

We've never done that since.

The accused.
But we've been stung by blueys plenty of times. The most salutary sting we received was at Dee Why, which we've long regarded as synonymous with bluebottles. It's not Dee Why's fault, of course. But in the old days, their annual swim, which was a biathlon or a swim, depending upon your preference, ran on the third Sundee in February, so it was high season for blueys and there was usually a nor'-easter blowing which, as we all know – it's self-evident – is a bluebottle-bearing breeze. Every year, there seemed to be blueys at Dee Why. One year, our cobber, Michael Williams, was carted off to hospital by ambliance (as our kids used to put it) with severe bluey stings. Glistening Dave went with Michael to see that he was ok. It was a bromance.

Another year, our other cobber (yes, we have two), Shelley Clark was carted off to hospital, by ambliance, from the now defunct Bridge to Beach swim from Lavender Bay to Manly. That year, the entire peloton had run into a carpet of blueys stretching for a kilometre across the outer harbour from Middle Head towards Manly, and across towards North Head. As the leaders were stung, some of them were hauled from the water, but the followers kept running in to the carpet of blueys. As we recall, a third cobber, Peter Thiel (“Man of Steel, except when it comes to lice, and blueys”) also was carted off to hospital. Shelley's problem wasn't just to do with the day, however. She was a regular swimmer in long open water events at international level, and she'd been stung so many times that the toxins had built up in her system. The stings this day just tipped her over the edge.

This day at Dee Why, we were half way back from Long Reef Headland when we ran into a bluey with very long tentacles, which wrapped themselves around our head and neck. It wasn't nice. We grappled with them for what seemed like minutes (seconds, in reality), but try as we might, we couldn't get rid of them. The stingers kept stinging.

If you've never been stung by a bluey, you will have to imagine what it's like. We've been stung by some fierce creatchers in our time, but blueys always took the cake (until we were stung by a Medusa in the Mediterranean last year, which was like being branded). The bluey sting is very sharp, piercing, and it stays with you. It sears through your body, the sting that keeps on stinging. The Medusa, on the other hand, was like being branded, but after the initial shock, the sting subsided. You stayed stung, and you felt it, but it didn't keep giving it to you as the bluey does.


Cobbers awash

Then there was our cobber (we've more cobbers than we realised), Derek Mortimer, who swam Cabbage Tree Bay from Manly one Sat'dee in high summer, and ran into a swarm of blueys hiding around the point. The swarm overwhelmed Derek, who sank as he grappled with them. Passing board and ski paddlers ignored him; he was rescued by scuba divers in the bay, who called and ambliance, which took Derek up the hill to Manly hospital, which is soon to be closed. So Derek was in care, but his wife, waiting at Manly, knew none of this; it happened out of sight around the point, you see. She waited, and waited, and... And eventually she set out to search for him. This was early afternoon. She could find no trace. And it wasn't until that night that she found Derek in a bed at Manly hospital.

The hospital released Derek at 11:30pm. They said he could go. His wife asked how he felt. He said he felt ok, now, except that he couldn't hear very well. That might be, Derek's wife said, because you still have your earplugs in.

So, half way back from Long Reef Headland, we grappled with the tentacles; we tried to unwrap them from around our neck, but every attempt just stung our fingers. It was difficult to unwrap them without touching them with a hitherto unstung part of your body. And nothing would move them. Eventually, we ducked under the water, as deep as we could go, and as long as we could stay. And the tentacles floated off. They're attached to the balloon, you see, which is what you can see floating on the surface of the sea. So if you duck down, the connection to the balloon, which continues to float, pulls them off you. Self-evident, you see.

You have to make sure that you surface some distance from the bluey, of course, and you must hope that you're not simply resurfacing into another bluey. This day, we didn't; we surfaced into clear water, tentacle-free. We remained stung, of course, and the sting kept searing through us as we finished the swim and trudged gingerly up the beach, looking for the first aid facilities.
That was in the early noughties, but ever since then, we've barely had a bluey sting, and certainly not one as bad as that one. 


Tell Jonesy 


We have no reason to use this pic, except that
we came across it whilst searching for a pic of a bluey,
and it is a pic, after all, of an ocean swimmer.
We've always thought of blueys as high-summer threats, at their worst when the onshore breezes are at their blackest. The last couple of years, though, things have been a bit different. Was it last year or the year before, the first bluey plague of the season was in September! Now this season has been relatively bluey-free. Perhaps Jonesy could explain this to us?

At Bondi on Sundee, there was a rumour that there'd been blueys sighted in the nor'-eastern corner at North Bondi. We weren't surprised, since there'd been a stiffish sou'-easter blowing all morning (plenty of people associate blueys with nor'-easters but, really, in our experience, any onshore wind brings them in: the balloons act as sails, you see. Apparently, some are oriented one way, others the other way, so they respond in different ways to the different onshore breezes. The bottom line is, any onshore breeze will bring them in somewhere or another). When we approached the start line at Bondi, however, we were wary. We have difficulty rationalising the sense in setting out into water that you know carries blueys nearby. Our plan was to take pitchers of the start, then to swim to the first booee, then across to the final booee, thence to return to shore, thus to limit the exposure and the risk. We strapped our GPS-in-a-plastic bag on the wrist of Peter McGoo McCrae, and headed down to the edge, where a voracious rip ran through a gutter out to sea.

When we arrove on water's edge, however, we were struck by the clarity of the sea. We'd swum at Mona Vale on the Sat'dee, and the clarity was nice. But the clarity of the water at Bondi was several powers ahead of Mona Vale. As we stood there on the water's edge, the break washing around our feet, we looked into the rip that ran out through the gutter past the break, and it was so clear, it was calling to us, like the Lorelei on the Rhine, “ Come hither... Enter us, Come hither...”

It was so clear, the water so lively, and we couldn't resist...

We left the beach after the antepenultimate starting wave. We caressed the ocean in the rip, and we whooshed seawards. As we think of it, we've never seen a rip so clear. Normally, rips are murky with the whipped up sand caused by the raging torrent of water rushing back to sea. But this was the clearest rip we'd ever seen. As we passed the break, we just wanted to keep on swimming.

We're always alert to the sudden brush of a bluey, especially on a day when they're known to be around. But we felt nothing all the way around the course: just the gently rolling sea of absolute clarity. We'd been watching the swell forecasts leading up to Sundee, and for days, they'd been predicting a two metre swell on swim day. It was nothing like that on the beach, but out by the back reach, it was two metres, all right, and some swell bigger. But they dissipated by the time they reached the shore.

All the way, nothing, not a bluey in reach.

Phil Reichelt with his new "nipple tat",
and el Bernard Buncle, fresh from the embrace of a bluey.
Manly, eh?
So we were surprised, when we arrove back on the beach, to find a bunch of victims, including Phil Reichelt, with a bluey sting circuitously around his left nipple; Jillian Pateman, with a fat lip; and el Bernard Buncle, everyone's whipping boy, this time whipped by a bluey which had wrapped itself around his torso. 

He had grappled with it, el Bernard said, but it just wouldn't shake free.

Why didn't you just duck down and let it float off?” we asked, in all innocence.

Why didn't what?” he said.

Some things, we'd regarded as self-evident.

The colour of booees

By the time we arrove home, we had already, in our email inbox, this comment...
I had to send you this as it occurred to me while flailing around at Bondi today.

The swell was quite high and challenging, but the buoys are very similar colours to the lifesavers tops, so I found myself swimming towards a yellow "buoy" in the distance only to find it had paddled away somewhere else. Then I spotted a red "buoy" and as I got closer it started its motor and drove away!

Malabar had the smarts last week to have a helium balloon attached above the turning buoys.

Now we don't want to remove all the challenges from Ocean Swimming but perhaps when a larger swell is predicted the Surf Clubs can add some extra help to the flailers

Regards, Jeremy Wheeler
Fair point. But that said, the only two colours that really work in all conditions are the yellow and the orange. (We declare an interest: They're our booees.)  Bilgola also use helium balloons. But they often don't work in a breeze, which can lay them flat on the sea.

In the meantime, tell us what you thought...


  1. Somehow I have avoided waves his summer, but this swim caught me up. I found it tough. On the buoys, I barely saw them! Yellow is a hard colour to see in the glare of a yellow sun. But even then, the swell kept me blind for the most part.

    Bondi is always fun but my results are always a little down for this swim compared to others - do a bunch of bondi national swimmers come out for it?? I lost time swimming backwards to the missed second yellow and because I aimed at the wrong orange on the way in. But I did manage to catch a wave in to shore after I had stopped to put my goggles back on knocked off by the previous.

    Anyway, a good swim and I scored a miracle car park.

  2. took my daughter out for our very first ocean swim ...EVER .. oh my god.... hand in the air, rescued by a red rubber duck.. my daughter (probably the youngest person there) finished in 15 mins.. embarrassingly beaten

  3. I really wish the boofheads in the 50+ division would stop swimming over me. It was the second time in two weeks and I'm sure it was the same boofhead both times (although I do realise I may have been a bit difficult to see yesterday in my black swimmers and dark grey cap). I can understand bumping into someone in the swell and sometimes there's a bit of elbowing at the buoys when it's crowded but there's no need to go straight over the top of someone. It's a big wide ocean out there and it's not going to make that much difference to your time if you go around someone rather than over them. But apart from that (and the blue bottle sting) I really enjoyed my swim yesterday - not too crowded and a nice friendly atmosphere.

  4. Gosh there have been some wonderful swims this season! I've met some lovely people at each swim and do appreciate all the efforts it takes to put each these days.
    A couple of points I'd like to make (althought I am sure they've already been made by the regulars) - I am suprised with lack of communications on event day by the race starters. At a couple of swims, there was no announcements that my wave was being combined with another. Many of us were standing there asking each other what was gong on (I don't want to name the swims) I understand that combining the waves is helpful to organisers, and I have no problems with it, but would be great to be told by the starter/announcers.
    To your point on the best colour of buoys. A couple of swims used some hot pink buoys which I could see really, really well and is a different colour to the standard orange of SLS water safety and I found the hot pink far easier to spot than the yellow too (sun drenched events especially).
    Looking forward to the next swim!


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