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A swimmers sanctuary

By Emily Miers

The waters in and around Coogee Beach (NSW) have been familiar to me for as long as I can remember.

As a child, a Sunday morning family ritual saw us making our way to Coogee to spend hours traversing the shore break and developing rivalries through swim challenges. Sunday after Sunday, the scope of the contests gradually increased and saw me compete in the 1km race in the inaugural Coogee Island Challenge at age 10. By age 11, I declared to my family that I would like to swim, not just to, but around Wedding Cake Island, approximately 800m offshore.

In the lead up to my first 2.4km Coogee Island Challenge I set myself two milestones that I had to successfully complete. The first involved swimming in a small local swim race to become accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the start line of a major community swim, and the second, swim 8 laps of Coogee Bay, being the equivalent distance. I safely ticked off both targets and in 2007, I lined up on the start line of the Coogee Island Challenge to embark on my first circumnavigation of Wedding Cake Island, and what an eye-opening experience it was!

The memories of an Anzac Day dawn spent on Wedding Cake Island listening to a recital of In Flanders Fields before hearing echoes of bugles along the coast playing renditions of The Last Post will never be forgotten. I have swum with dolphins in the comfort of Coogee Bay, listened to the pulsed calls of migrating whales at the back of the Island, been surprised by the local seal sunning its flipper and I’ve raced a shark back to the beach until my hands scraped the sand.

I have travelled the world swimming in breathtakingly beautiful waters in Basque Country (France and Spain), the Amalfi Coast (Italy), and remote Fijian islands, however, there really is no place like home.

The waters off Wedding Cake Island are a swimmer’s sanctuary. On an ideal calm morning, clarity around the Island can provide a sensory overload, with hours to be spent exploring an abundance of sea life and rock formations. When conditions are more turbulent, the Island provides protection to nearby Wylies and Giles Baths which form part of a great swim route for what I describe as ‘easy mileage’, where kilometres fly by while being distracted by spectacular sights.

While Coogee and Wedding Cake Island can be host to heavenly conditions, calm winds and warm waters, some days the conditions can be levelling and should only be braved by experienced and skilled swimmers. In 2019, I swam the English Channel and faced a large swell that pounded my support boat and can only be likened to a spin cycle of the washing machine. While ‘digging deep’, I relied on the reassurance gained from countless hours swimming off Coogee beach facing tough tides, strong winds, jellyfish and on some occasions storms.

This versatility in surf conditions is a swimmer’s dream as no swim at Coogee is ever the same.  Anyone who has regularly competed in the Coogee Island Challenge will be sure to relate, need I mention buoys that seem to be unreachable, cool water temperatures and the harsh shore break greeting exhausted swimmers.

During the recent COVID-19 induced lockdown, I was fortunate enough to swim every morning at Coogee Beach before settling into a working from home routine.  While swimming, I was constantly astounded by the number of fellow open-water loving swimmers who braved the winter chill to discover the paradise offered below the surface of the water at Coogee. During this time, swimming provided an opportunity to stay active, prioritise mindfulness and a safe way to check in with locals during what eventuated in an extended period of isolation.

As we approach the Spring edition of the 2021 Coogee Island Challenge, I would love to see the swimmers who enjoyed the ocean all around Australia during the lockdown, come and see what I enjoy so much about Coogee and what Wedding Cake Island has on offer.

In my opinion, there is no better race to combine ocean swimming with navigation, strategy, challenging conditions and friendship based rivalries. Building on my experiences since first competing in the Coogee Island Challenge in 2005 and as the Club Captain of Coogee Surf Life Saving Club, I offer four insider tips and reminders to anyone embarking on the swim.

Emily’s insider tips

1. Don’t go in underprepared

You will enjoy the swim a lot more if you have followed a training program in the lead-up – it’s not too late nor is it time to deploy an extended taper.

2. Stay calm throughout the swim and don’t go too hard too early

The distance of the swim can be broken up into thirds – one third to get to the Island, one third to swim around the Island and one third to make it to the finish line.

3. Find a sustainable tempo

A component of the swim always poses challenging conditions so be sure to save something in your tank for then.

4. Be kind to your fellow swimmers

The Coogee Island Challenge is not the time to ignore common swimming courtesies by swimming aggressively. Everyone is returning from a racing hiatus so give people distance. Take the time to familiarise yourself with the course so you can safely navigate through other participants.

I’m looking forward to returning to the start line of the Coogee Island Challenge in December and I hope to see you there too.

The spring edition of the Coogee Island Challenge is on Sunday, 5 December 2021. View the event listing and enter now.

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