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The time Harold Holt never swam in The Big Swim and other tales from 50 years

Rob Berry takes us on a walk down memory lane as we near The Big Swim’s 50th anniversary.

The Big Swim, or ‘Palm Beach to Whale Beach’ as it was originally named, is one of the longest-standing swims on the Australian calendar and this year it’s celebrating its 50th anniversary.

We caught up with event organiser, Rob Berry, to take a walk down memory lane and visit the history of how this great event started.

The Big Swim was a wild idea brought to life by police sergeant and captain of Whale Beach Surf Life Saving Club, Mr R.E ‘Bob’ Lynch, in 1973 to give surf club members a challenge.

“Bob’s idea was to do a journey swim from one beach, Palm Beach, to another, Whale Beach,” said Mr Berry.

“To his knowledge, it had never been done before and he put the hard word on champion belt competitor Col Timms to give it a try and see if it was possible. Mr Tims was in his late 30s at the time and he did the nearly 3km swim with ease.

“Talk of the swim stirred up the good swimmers in the local surf club and several beach regulars who decided to line up and put their foot forward for the inaugural start of the Big Swim.”

The first 48 swimmers to do the Big Swim

The following year, 1974, the first The Big Swim event attracted 48 swimmers, many of whom were slightly nervous about what might be lurking around the headland.

“While there was a lot of excitement on the start line of the swim for the challenge ahead there was also some apprehension about the presence of sharks but they didn’t let that get to them,” said Mr Berry.

“We actually had organised for several scuba divers to be on guard at the headland to shoo off the rare shark if they did decide to join the swim.

“This helped to dampen the swimmers’ nervousness, and it obviously helped because there were no sharks sighted and Paul Hughes went on to win the swim in a time of 42 minutes, which we all thought was incredibly fast back then but in recent times winner’s times have been just over 30 minutes.

“Mr Hughes recalled the swim as being a challenge because the conditions were against them and there was a strong south easter with real choppy seas but overall an incredible swim.”

News of Mr Hughes winning and the first ever The Big Swim being a huge success spread around town fast and the Big Swim was on the calendar again for the following year but unfortunately without its founder, Mr Lynch, who sadly passed away before its second running.

“Once people had heard that the swim had been done we had many keen swimmers wanting to do it and the numbers rapidly grew,” said Mr Berry.

“Unfortunately, Mr Lynch passed away in an accident on his police motorcycle before the second swim could be run.

“Whale Beach SLSC, myself and Richard Stewart, the godfather of Bob’s son, went on to organise it, just as Bob would have wanted it.

“We introduced an entry fee to cover the costs of organising the event and named it the ‘Bob Lynch Memorial Marathon Swim’ in memory of our dear friend.”

Over the past 50 years, The Big Swim has continued to grow to have nearly 2,000 swimmers in it each year but that wasn’t without some major milestones along the way.

“There have been many big moments over the years in seeing the swim grow,” said Mr Berry.

“In 1987, the Palm Beach to Whale Beach swim became commonly known as ‘The Big Swim’ its name of today and a trademark was registered.

“Then in 2008, the year of the 100th Anniversary of Surf Life Saving, Whale Beach SLSC was awarded ‘Event of the Year’ for The Big Swim, which was very exciting for everyone involved.

“Now nearing its 50th anniversary the Big Swim is bigger and better than ever and we have had to restrict numbers to 2,000 swimmers for safety reasons.”

Mr Berry has some fond memories of being involved with The Big Swim but it was in 1995 that the event created a memory he will never forget and it is truly a story worth telling.

“It was 1995 and we were at the finish at Whale Beach. We thought all the swimmers were in and I had the elite swimmers lined up for their 400m sprint out and around the buoy,” said Mr Berry.

“Suddenly, attention was drawn to the fact that there was still someone swimming in towards the shore and the finish line. We waited for them to come in and we saw a figure in a wetsuit, goggles and snorkel stand up in the shallows.

“From amongst the crowd of some 1000 people, a very loud voice yelled, ‘It’s Harold!’ He was referring to the Prime Minister, Harold Holt, who had drowned while swimming in a wetsuit at an isolated Victorian beach and his body was never found.

“The whole crowd erupted with laughter and as it turns out, the old bloke had not actually entered the swim but simply got caught up in the wake of swimmers and followed them to the finish line.”

The man who was thought to be Harold Holt

To enter the Big Swim and be a part of the 50th anniversary celebrations visit the The Big Swim listing.

Got your own story from this event? Share it with the organisers.

  • Written by Suzie Ryan on 5 December 2023
  • (Updated on 5 December 2023)
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