South Head Roughwater becomes a family tradition

The South Head Roughwater, an epic 10-kilometre swim from world-famous Bondi Beach to Watsons Bay in Sydney Harbour, is set to conclude the New South Wales ocean swimming season on Sunday, 15 May 2022. 

Martin Palfrey, 62, a late starter to swimming, has participated in every event, bar one, where he substituted running in the London Marathon with his wife Helen.

Mr Palfrey looks forward to the South Head Roughwater each year and now has his daughter, Maddy Palfrey, 34, is hooked and will be joining him, in what’s fast becoming a family tradition. 

Ocean loving family 

Growing up in a large family in Melbourne, Mr Palfrey had a preference for sailing and never learnt to swim, but that didn’t stop him from eventually getting hooked on ocean swimming later in life. 

“I moved to Coogee (NSW) in my twenties, and taught myself to body surf and swim a few laps of the pool,” said Mr Palfrey. 

“It wasn’t until my daughter Maddy started swimming lessons that I joined an adult squad and we started entering local ocean swims as a family activity.

For Ms Palfrey, it was a very different upbringing, having started swimming early in life and growing up with the ocean on her doorstep. 

“Mum and Dad forced me to do Nippers as a kid. Even though I hated it, I didn’t have a choice and had to do it,” said Ms Palfrey. 

“Eventually, I grew to love the ocean and started competing in open water events when I was really young, probably about 10 years old. 

“Although I’ve had some time out of the water over the years, I’m always drawn back to long-distance open water swimming, because it’s where I feel most alive.”  

Martin Palfrey and his daughter Maddy Palfrey at Bondi Beach

An inaugural swimmer 

Mr Palfrey has been involved with the South Head Roughwater from the very beginning and still looks forward to it each year. 

“In the early years, there were only a few of us entered, so I got to know John Fallon who runs it,” said Mr Palfrey. 

“John lives in Bondi and sailed out of Watson’s Bay so he thought organising a swim between the two would be a great idea.

“John gives all the profits away to the volunteer coast guard, so he enlists his family and friends to keep costs down.

“It really is a unique swim, and I love that it is promoted not so much as a race but rather a challenging experience to share with your teammates and support crew.”

The swim of the season

According to Ms Palfrey, the South Head Roughwater is ‘the swim of the season’ as she prepares to tackle it for the third time.

“It is a tough swim and it really does separate people, it’s just an amazing feeling once you finish,” said Ms Palfrey. 

“It’s a proper challenge and I have a lot of respect for the people that take it on.

“My Dad is my inspiration for doing it and this year will be my third. He’s done it nearly every year and just loves it. 

“John Fallon has become a good family friend over the years and he has a heart of gold and always runs such a good event.

“I’m excited and nervous for the race this year, but I know once I swim through the heads, I will be so happy I decided to do it.” 

“The South Head Roughwater, really is a challenge unlike any other that I’ve experienced. The view from the water level up to those imposing sandstone cliffs for eight kilometres with no exit point is just incredible.” 

“The finish is just an amazing sight, all the team members jump in and finish all together for the last kilometre in Watson’s Bay and it’s just the best.

“I am always so thankful for my boat crew afterwards, I buy them a couple of drinks to say thank you because there is nothing more boring than watching me swim slowly for a few hours.” 

Maddy during a previous South Head Roughwater swim

Two very different approaches to training 

Whilst the two Palfrey’s both swim in the South Head Roughwater, they have different ways of preparing for it.

Ms Palfrey, who has youth on her side, says she mixes squad training in the pool and cross-training with social ocean swimming it her friends.

“I swim on average four times a week with my coaches Vlad and Jai from VladSwim and my Bondi Salty friends,” said Ms Palfrey. 

“Mt training is nothing compared to when I was younger but it is enough to do pretty well in these open water races.

“I also try and run and do a bit of weight training a couple of times a week.

“I’m no Olympian and while I like to do well, it’s not the end of the world if I don’t win. I like to have fun and enjoy myself.

For Mr Palfrey, it’s a little more relaxed than that.

“While Maddy does a proper preparation of flogging herself, my weary limbs are over that,” said Mr Palfrey. 

“I just swim a couple of kilometres in my local ocean pool every morning before work. 

“I’m no longer competitive and just swim the South Head Roughwater to finish and enjoy the day.” 

Their favourite parts

Ms Palfrey’s favourite part of the South Head Roughwater is seeing the lighthouse as she approaches the heads.

“I know at that point I’m headed towards the end of the race and I can really start pushing with whatever energy I have left.

“I start to smile and think about seeing my friends at the finish line and it’s a great feeling to know it’s almost over for another year.

“I love doing this sport alongside my dad and swimming friends.” 

Mr Palfrey’s favourite part is spoken like a true long-distance swimmer.

“I love how the fatigue builds as I swim northward up the cliffs,” he says. 

“It’s beautiful swimming through Sydney Heads over that churning flat reef of South Head, not many people get to do that.

“I would have to say, though, my least favourite part is the harbour water temperature is always cooler than the ocean.” 

To join Maddy and Martin Palfrey in the South Head Roughwater swim on Sunday, 15 May 2022, head to the South Head Roughwater listing for more information and to enter.

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