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dawny balmain mob
Obedient mob waits patiently on the foreshore by Dawny. Not like the old days. Balmain was full of rabble-rousers back then.

That thing at the back of your mind

Dawny's Cockatoo Challenge, Sunday, November 20, 2016

Perched on a submerged rock, surrounded by wooden piers and oysters, the harbour bouncing around him, Dawny awgie and founder, Peter Simms, was directing traffic. Just a gentle tilt of his forefinger one way or the other, right or left, sent mug swimmers either way beneath the Cockatoo Island Ferry Wharf. Some swimmers don't watch where they're going, you know. Some of them could have crashed their heads, smack bang into the wooden, oystered wall of the wharf, and that would not have been very nice at all. Mind you, it wouldn't have been all bad: the oysters are Sydney rocks, and there's nothing wrong with them. Simms could have been an oyster poacher. He lives just above the Dawny pool, and you could see him, in the fantasy of your mind's eye, stroking languidly out to the island on a lingering, balmy summer evening to scrape some off the pylons for dinner.

dawny balmain 161120 simmsSimms does this each year. Direct traffic, we mean; not poach oysters from beneath the Cockatoo Island wharf. It's a role made necessary as Sydney Ferries increased their services around the inner harbour and up the Parramatta River, installing Cockatoo Island as a regular stop as the island gained popularity as a day excursion venue. In the old days, when the Dawny swim was relatively young, a ferry pulling into the Cockatoo Island wharf was relatively rare. Now, they're coming in all day, from early morn till late evening. In the old days, the Dawny awgies would time the swim so that the bulk of the peloton could get past the wharf between ferry services. We recall being held up while the ferry called in, the front end of the peloton stretching into the distance while the rest of us waited till the water was clear. These days, there's a half-hourly river service that pulls in both ways, and the inner harbour First Fleeters stop there, too, also half-hourly. At swim time, there are eight services an hour using Cockatoo Island wharf. So instead of timing the peloton between ferries, we are routed beneath the wharf. And there's Simmsy, every year, perched on his rock, his forefinger tilting gently right or left, directing us through the pylons and away from the oysters.

What's all this, then

This year, Simms received a bonus: normally, he swims out there, then keeps on swimming when the mob has passed. This year, he climbed into a boat after the last swimmer had hacked through and observed the swim from above the water. And so only he saw the pod of dolphins cruise past between the island and Woolwich. Dolphins, half a dozen or so of them in the pod, 13 kilometres upstream from Sydney Heads. We've seen fairy penguins up there, and plenty of people have seen other things... nudge, nudge... but how often do people see dolphins? A few years back, we saw a pod swim past the Stockton Ferry Wharf, holding up the start of the Newcastle Harbour Swim, but that was barely a kilometre inside the harbour. We have never seen dolphins around Cockatoo Island.

Punters preparing for the Dawny swim generally have other things on their minds, as did Lizzie Simms, Pete's daughter, who came equipped with a sign texta-ed onto her left scapula, "F'off shark... Please". At least she was polite.

Yes, the men and women in the grey suits are often on the minds of swimmers in the Dawny swim. Indeed, the strait between the island and swim HQ, the Dawn Fraser Pool, is what you might regard as archetypical territory for them. We all know, Sydney Harbour is jam-packed full of bull sharks. They're the nasty variety. Perhaps just as nasty as Great Whites, but you can't see bulls in the harbour, despite its relative "cleanness" these days. The harbour's turbidity perhaps is one of the reasons why they're so dangerous: they can't see us properly, either, and they need to take a bite to see whether we are what they want to eat. By the time they establish that we aren't, it's a little late.

dawny balmain lizzie simmsSilly boy

We recall well one of the most unnerving experiences we've ever had in getting up to this caper. It was at the Dawny swim last year, 2015. We were so busy taking pitchers of mugs jumping into the harbour for the start that we actually missed the start. Reckoning there was little point in chasing them down – trying to chase them down – we decided instead to swim out to the booee in the middle of the Strait of Dawny, between the pool and the island, and catch them all as they came around the back of the island and headed back to the finish by the pool. We figured, the first ones probably would be only another 15 minutes. And there would be water safety people hanging around on skis and kayaks and mals to keep us company.

We weren't quite right on that. And we found ourselves bobbing around out there in the harbour, in the middle of bull shark territory, by ourselves, with only the booee for company, for what seemed like an hour before the mob caught up. We have never, without any hyperbole, been so scared in our lives. Scareder even than the year we did South Head in three-metre swells in the last throes of a storm when we found ourselves a kilometre off the cliffs at Dover Heights, the sea grading from blue to purple to black beneath us, and an escort boat that couldn't find us in the swell. We could see them, as we rose to the top of a swell, about 100 metres away. But they couldn't see us. We thought we understood then what it must be like to be lost at sea. Shortly after, our team swimmer was circled by a shark. It was either two little sharks, or one very big one. It was an interesting swim.

dawny balmain recapHRH Prince Michael of Duckenfield came to Dawny especially to dump all his now unwanted swim caps into the Re-Cap bin.

It was about that time that we had dinner one night at the London Hotel in Balmain with Simmsy and four of his cobbers. Simmsy had an idea for a swim and wanted to bounce the idea around to see whether it was doable. Simms's idea was the Dawny swim, and this one, today, was the 14th. We have done them all, save one when we were away, and last year, when we didn't do the entire course for the reasons enumerated above.

Since then, Peter Simms has always been involved in the organisation of this swim. In the early years, he did it with his cobber, Chris Wright, who lives at Manly but whose son played for Balmain Water Polo, in whose name the swim is run. Chris's son has moved on, and he himself withdrew a few years back, although he helps out on swim day (he was there today). But Simms is still there, albeit without the overall responsibility, which falls now on a transplanted foreigner, Ian Calpin.

Social capital

It is a remarkable swim in that it is one of the few around these parts that is not run by a surf life saving club. This means that Balmain Water Polo does not have the inbuilt resources of qualified water safety personnel and equipment with which to run their swim. Balmoral (run by the Balmoral Beach Club) and the Murray Rose Malabar Magic (run by The Rainbow Club) are in the same boat, although Malabar does receive strong support from members of North Bondi SLSC. It's much harder for organisations such as these to run a swim. All the more remarkable, then, that people such as Simms are still so heavily involved in their event over such a long period. Balmoral is driven by Peter Ellis; Malabar by Rob Lloyd since Murray Rose passed away. With rank-and-file punters like Simms and Chris Wright, these people are the social capital that binds our communities together.

We well remember the very first Dawny swim. It was on a grey, drizzly Sunday morning in November, 2003. It was the morning after Wilkinson's boot beat the Wobblies in the final of the World Cup at Homebush. That was a bit of a downer on the day, if only because half the peloton had hangovers. But you know, most swim days at Dawny start out overcast, grey, uninviting. Then the clouds clear, and you end up swimming and, later milling around on the boardwalk, in the glorious balmth of late spring sunshine.

dawny balmain 161120 poolSome will say that Simmsy's dolphins are a measure of how clean the harbour is these days. All things are relative, after all. Some will regard it as "clean", while others, fresh back from the Great Barrier Reef Swim on Heron Island, have a different perspective. It is, certainly, much "cleaner" than it was 20 years ago. That said, the most common experience of this swim is not the quality of the water, or an encounter with a shark, but the unnerving sensation of cupping a jelly blubber in the palm of your hand as you grab your stroke. They're just the right size to fit neatly, coyly into a boofhead's hand. Mind you, they give you grip, and any stroke that begins with a handful of jelly blubber gets you farther and faster through the water.

Not all bad, eh.

Haunted

But the sharks. Most of us have sharks lurking in the recesses of our consciousness as we swim around Cockatoo Island. Back in one of the early Dawny swims, Mrs Sparkle dreamt about it the night before the swim.

"I dreamt I was swimming in the swim around Cockatoo Island," she told us, in the car en route to the Dawn Fraser Pool the next morning.

"As I was swimming along, a bull rose up towards me from the deep. He was a Friesian bull. And he rose up, and he bit me in half."

How did she know it was a bull?

"He had a tuft," she said, poking the middle of her tummy. "...Right here."

She was getting a little stressed by this point.

"But both halves of me kept swimming."

Which end won, we asked.

"The top half," she said. "And when both halves finished the swim, we joined together again... Just like that!"

Do you know, in 13 years, over 14 swims, this event has never been disturbed by so much as a sighting of a shark. They are there, no doubt – they are not going to clear out of the harbour just because the Dawny swim is on – but they have never been an issue in this swim, just as they were never a problem in any Sydney Harbour swim from Man o' War Steps, one of which was run three weeks after a Navy diver was attacked just around the corner in Woolloomooloo Bay. We have a cobber who has a boat, and he used to moor that boat at the marina under Gladesville Bridge. One day, he hired a diver to do some work on the hull of the boat. The diver jumped into the water, then climbed right out again.

"There are two bull sharks sitting under your boat," he said. And he wasn't getting back in.

Between feeds, they sit there, chilling, just staying cool. Maybe thinking of cow sharks. Waiting.

People are always asking us whether we're scared of sharks. The answer is no. We are conscious of the risk, we say, but we don't generally swim at shark feeding time, particularly in Sydney Harbour. That may sound glib, and we don't wish to play down the experiences of those up and down the coast, and in the harbour, who have had far more traumatic encounters than we have had in recent times. But there you go. We're all still going after 13 years at Dawny, and Simmsy is still directing traffic under the wharf at Cockatoo Island.

dawny balmain smith
You've heard of the Lost at Sea range of swim cap colours? In Sydney Harbour, it's the Collateral Damage range.

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