"In 'Swimming Wild,' Nicole Holyer shares her personal journey as she attempts a challenging 23 km swim from Terrigal to Umina Beach on Australia's Central Coast. This narrative offers an intimate glimpse into Nicole's experiences, from grappling with postpartum recovery to to the rigors of intense training. As she navigates both calm and stormy seas, Nicole's story unfolds into a thoughtful reflection on the unpredictability of nature and the resilience required to embrace such a formidable challenge. It's a tale that resonates with anyone who has ever dared to step out of their comfort zone and face the unknown.
I’m standing on the shore, looking out to the waiting boats. I’m about to attempt a swim from Terrigal to Umina Beach on Australia’s Central Coast with five other swimmers. Together, in various configurations, we will cover a distance of 23km, a full day at sea.
The route passes Bouddi National Park in Darkinjung country. Bouddi in the local language means heart. Bouddi Wild Swim, a swim for the wild at heart.
I will swim past cliffs and eddies, bommies and breaks, draw a line from one end of the Central Coast to the other. I will swim through deep water, where the ocean is darkly blue, and the sun slices down in shards and falls away.
Here I am on the beach, ready to attempt something that’s never been done. We hug and high five before we step into the sea.
It starts innocuously. A WhatsApp message pings into my phone, asking if I’m interested.
I’m not sure I can manage the distance. I am an ordinary person, certainly not an athlete, and I wonder if I am capable of attempting this extraordinary thing.
At 14 months postpartum I am looking for a way to get back into distance swimming. And after being housebound during the pandemic with a baby, I’m looking for adventure. I know that while I am not fast, I can swim for a long time. So, I say yes, wondering, can I do this?
The training begins in earnest, and soon I am swimming distances I’ve never reached before. Three kilometres becomes four, then five, then six. But as summer arrives, so too does the rain. It rains and rains and as the rivers empty into the sea, the ocean turns toxic, filling with debris picked up from farms along the Hawkesbury. A picnic table, a portaloo, the corpse of a Clydesdale and all manner of rubbish: it washes up along the shores of our beach, jettisoned by a brown, foamy tide.
We take to the pool. It’s hard work, it’s dull, and I miss the drift and pull of the ocean.
I lift my arm over my head, observe the arc of my stroke, hold my catch. I think of the muscles lengthening and contracting in my arms, notice the bubbles pushing out from my mouth, moderate my kick. I sing songs – nursery rhymes, the theme song to Bluey. I count, one, two, three, breathe. It’s endless and repetitive and it soothes my jangled mind. The question – can I do this? – isn’t important anymore. My training becomes a moving meditation.
"I know that while I am not fast, I can swim for a long time. So, I say yes, wondering, can I do this?"
One day I punch out 10 kilometres in the 50-metre pool. I’ve qualified for the Bouddi Wild Swim.
The wet summer gives way to a mild and dry autumn. The rain stops and the ocean clears. We head out for one splendid team swim. It’s incredible to be back in the saltwater. A pod of dolphins passes us as we curve around the Skillion. The ocean is healing and we’re free to roam.
There’s an energy between us all – some combination of awe and giddy joy and disbelief. The swim is coming into view, no longer an idea or a goal, but something true and tangible. Are we crazy? Can we do this?
But in the week before the swim a churning knot burrows into my guts. The question of can I do this? morphs into should I be doing this? A man was just eaten by a shark off Sydney. I have an almost two-year-old child. Am I putting myself in harm's way? Is this selfish?
Logic sits uneasily beside instinct. I vacillate between: stay with your son and: you can do this. My body demands movement. I keep swimming.
I’m up before the sun and I can see the trees moving outside. I wake my household and we head to the meeting point at the wharf which is busy with boat trailers and four-wheel drives. The lights of mobile phones flash in the dark as the organisers talk and strategise. There’s trouble. One of our support boats has broken down, one of our swimmers tested positive for Covid, and there’s a weather system brewing to the south.
We huddle, we talk, we switch up our swim plans. My overtired and overexcited son writhes and yells as I try to hug him goodbye. I wave as his dad wheels him away, and I try to steady myself, to focus on what’s to come. I breathe in deeply, swing my arms around in circles. Before I know it, I’m stepping onto the sand.
At the shore there’s white water and a decent swell. We swim out to the boats and clamber aboard, all in our individual swimming groups. The race rules dictate there’s to be only one swimmer in the water at a time, so in my team, we’ll be cycling through in internals of 20 minutes in the water, forty on the boat. I’m swimming with Nada and Michael, in a tinnie captained by Dan. Nada takes the first 20-minute stretch.
As soon as I’m aboard, I’m hit with a wave of nausea. It’s something I never considered in all the months of training. The sea is rolling in big, slow undulations, and the movement combined with the smell of the fuel from the outboard motor has me retching over the side of the boat.
Soon enough, Nada finishes her stretch and I jump into the water, desperate to be out of the boat. The effect is instant. The shock of the water is a balm and I feel instantly better. I wash my mouth out and focus on my breath. Dan drives ahead and I follow, alone in the sea.
Now I remember how much I love the rush of a deep-water swim – the exhilaration of it, the terror of it, the absolute joy. I see myself, so small in the water, and all the noise falls away. In the wildness and in the simplicity, I find freedom. This is why I’m here. I can do this. All too soon it’s Michael’s turn and I wish him luck before he jumps in.
We continue this way for a couple of hours. We spot two sharks, each no longer than two-metres long – babies really – who come to check us out. Dan shoos them away with the bow of the tinnie. We spot our halfway marker off to the right – a jag in the cliffs, a flash of yellow: Little Beach. We’re making great time.
"Now I remember how much I love the rush of a deep-water swim – the exhilaration of it, the terror of it, the absolute joy."
But the sharks and the seasickness are the least of our problems. All hell is about to break loose.
There’s a dense grey storm system ahead, directly in our path. I’m in the water when I feel the shift.
The swell up until now has been friendly, pushing us forward towards Umina. But the energy changes around me. The swell is growing, and there’s chop on the surface now, mussing up the water, sending white spray in my face as I try to breathe. I find myself kicking harder, digging deeper on my strokes. I have to push up to see where I’m going, the water’s flying everywhere. I keep my eyes fixed on the boat.
Soon it’s Michael’s turn. The tinnie jolts and thuds as we head into the swell, Dan working hard against the wind. Nada and I keep our eyes trained on Michael, who is doing it tough. It’s hard to keep a track of him – the swell has doubled in size and we lose him for minutes at a time. Eventually he makes his way back to the boat and we haul him in. We check where we are against the shore. We’ve gone backwards.
In a minute, the world turns black and white. The storm is above us and the rain smashes down, bouncing back up off the ocean, turning everything to static. We huddle together, watching as the crew of one of the other support vessels starts bailing water. The organisers strain to hear each other on the radio over the noise of the storm. Someone calls Marine Rescue, and they arrive in the grey in a whirl of flashing light. We lash our boats together and wait. Eventually, the rain passes over, the ocean calms and the light returns. But we’ve lost too much time. It’s too late.
The Bouddi Wild Swim is cancelled.
We motor along the course we were to swim. The land is wild and beautiful, the trees bright and slick with rain. In the storm’s wake, the water is still and glassy. In the months since that first attempt, I’ve wondered if I could have continued. The seasickness would have worn me down, so too the cold that set in as I sat in the boat, waiting for my turn.
But deep down I know I had it in me. I could have done it, I could have finished the swim.
The wildness won. We weren’t in control, and there was nothing to do but surrender to it. The months of training in our changing climate taught me time and again, we’re not in charge. We can only change course as circumstances change around us.
"The wildness won. We weren’t in control, and there was nothing to do but surrender to it."
As we stream past the proud green and golden slopes of Lion Island toward Patonga, I think I did it. I turned up and I tried.
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