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Dawny to Cockatoo back after a three-year hiatus

Founder of the Dawny to Cockatoo Challenge, Peter Simms, talks about the history of the Sydney harbour swim and what to expect when it’s run this season, after a 3-year hiatus.

The Balmain Sports Medicine Dawny to Cockatoo Challenge is back this Sunday, 20 November after a three-year hiatus due to refurbishments and the Covid-19 pandemic.

We recently caught up with Peter Simms, founder of the Dawny to Cockatoo to discuss how the iconic Sydney harbour swim came to be.

“It was back in 2004, I was the manager of the Dawn Fraser Pool and a member of the Balmain Water Polo Club, I had also done a couple of ocean swims,” said Mr Simms.

“I got thinking about finding a different way to raise funds for the water polo club other than by taking money for raffles from our club members because as many people know sport costs a lot of money.

“Because I was working at the Dawny Pool and cockatoo Island was just across the way, I came up with the idea to do an open water swim and thought that would be the perfect place.

“I figured going around an Island would be a fairly safe place to hold a swim, as it is fairly protected and it’s easy to control people, but I knew the hardest part would be getting the waterways blocked off for the period of the swim, but I thought it would be worth a try.”

During Mr Simms’s time as manager at the Dawn Fraser Pool, he met plenty of regular faces that helped him put the swim together, one being David Harris, founder of Harris Farm.

“David Harris used to swim down at the Dawny Pool, he actually still does. So, I mentioned that I was thinking of running an ocean swim around Cockatoo Island to raise funds for the water polo club,” said Mr Simms.

“He immediately said that if I went ahead with it, he would be willing to help me out as much as he could.

“He did just that and gave me a little bit of money to help fund it and get it off the ground as well as giving me fruit and vegetables to hand out on the day, which was very generous of him.

“That is where I got the idea to not only give people a swim but to also feed them post-swim.”

Peter Simms founder of the Dawny to Cockatoo swim, second from right

The Dawny to Cockatoo Island Swim has long been loved not only for its adventurous course around Cockatoo Island but also for the incredible breakfast post-swim.

“I knew that I had to make the swim interesting and different to get people to want to do it,” said Mr Simms.

“First I made it different by going around the Island and then when David offered to donate fruit as well I saw it as the perfect opportunity to offer swimmers breakfast after their swim, which would be included in their entry fee.

“We put on bacon and egg rolls, sausage rolls and plenty of fresh fruit from the Harris Farms market and that quickly became a crowd favourite.

“Over the years many people have become just as excited for the breakfast I would put on as they were for the swim.”

Having been run since 2005, some things have changed over the years, but that hasn’t stopped the event from being a huge success.

“Working at the pool when I first got the swim up and running, it was great because I got the council to open up the pool for nothing for all participants on the day,” said Mr Simms.

“So, we had the toilet facilities and showers and all the other amenities that people could use and get changed pre and post-swim. That is something that has continued over the years, even after I have stepped away from organising the swim.

“Some of the big changes that have helped the swim run better is with the help of technology and better timing systems.

“Back when I originally started the swim, the timing was all manual. We had our volunteers, mostly members of the Balmain Water Polo Club, standing at the finish line timing the swimmers. They would yell out the number of the swimmer and the time as the swimmer crossed the line – say “swimmer 33 and 15 minutes 20 seconds.”

“That has since changed and allowed it to be less labour intensive, thanks to timing systems and bands, which make it much more efficient. So that has been a positive change.”

This year the swim is taking on a slightly different course to past years due to the ferry timetable, with the swim not going around Cockatoo Island but rather out from Dawn Fraser Pool, along the south side of the Island before coming back to finish at Dawn Fraser Pool.

“It’s a shame that waterways couldn’t come to the table so the swim could be scheduled around the ferries because it is such an exciting swim to go all the way around the island,” said Mr Simms.

“It was exciting not only for the swimmers but also for the campers that would be on the Island, as they would only be five metres away from the swimmers at some points, so it was an attraction for them as well.

“But, it will still be an exciting and interesting swim for the swimmers, even without going all the way around the Island they will at least get to swim past the side of the Island with the shipyards and old docks.

“Over the years, we have shown everyone the Balmain hospitality and I don’t have any doubt that it will be any different this year and that makes me happy to see it continue with the swims to come because it is an exciting swim.”

  • Written by Ocean Swims on 15 November 2022
  • (Updated on 10 August 2023)


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