Experience 38: Swimming among Icebergs in Sydney

by Oliver Smith
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Most sensible visitors to Australia plan their trip to coincide with the Southern Hemisphere summer. We, however, had done the opposite. While the UK was basking in temperatures that qualified it as an outlying island of the Caribbean, we were down under during the depths of winter. And what’s more, I found myself standing in my swimming trunks on Bondi Beach, Sydney, at 7am – being blasted by a howling gale that had seemingly blown straight from Captain Scott’s hut over the water in Antarctica.

This is, however, not entirely unusual behavior round these parts. I was about to take a dip at Icebergs – a Bondi swimming club which only operates in winter. Icebergs started life in 1929 as a way for lifeguards to maintain their fitness during the winter months: today anyone can swim at its swimming pool, set on the rocks at the southern edge of Bondi Beach. To call it a pool with a sea view is an understatement. Pacific waves – occasionally the height of double decker buses – crash over the pool wall, shunting the swimmers, depositing freezing cold winter water and sometimes unsuspecting sea life (including lobsters, which are promptly escorted to the barbeque).

Jumping in felt like a sledgehammer blow to the nerve ends; the temperature set my teeth chattering away like machine gunfire. While I splashed about in a mild panic, hardened swimmers were gliding past me in the adjacent lane like Michelangelo’s David in Speedos, all with torsos of tungsten, all seemingly impervious to the cold. These guys claim the distinction of being ‘Icebergs’ – the swimmers to whom the club owes its name.

"To become an ‘Iceberg’ you need to swim three Sundays out of four – for five winters," explains Moose, a veteran Iceberg who swims every day at 6am.

"About 20% of the candidates we take on make it through. If you don’t like it you find out pretty quickly."

These laws are stringently enforced. Registers are taken and failed Icebergs are escorted off the premises. If you leave Sydney, then tough – you forfeit your Iceberg status. Fortunately members of the public are welcome at Icebergs every day of the week except Sunday, provided they can stomach the water temperature, which is scribbled on a blackboard by the entrance. Today it said 16 degrees.

"Never believe what it says on the blackboard," says Moose. "It’s always two degrees lower than that – that way we can get more admission fees."

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