Who dares swims

24 Mar

For more than 8,000 years before the arrival of Europeans, the Lake Maquarie region was home to the Awabakal Aborigines (Awabakal meaning ‘people of the calm surface’ in reference to the lake).

Not, in reference to my demeanour when I signed up to do this swim.

A bloody long way

A bloody long way

3.8km. That’s almost 4km. I haven’t swum that far before. The nearest to it was the 3km round Heron Island (I wore fins) and doubling up the 1km and 2km swims at Bondi earlier this year (but both times I swam with a Can Too mentee and of course, I had a rest in between). I’m not quick enough at squad to knock out anything like 4km in an hour, averaging 2.3km or 2.4km and if I am lazy and pick Lane 6, closer to 2km). So, this was A Big Ask. I didn’t know if I could make it and was fairly certain that if I did, I was a contender for last place (which by the way, I figured, would have been an awesome achievement). But hey, (a) there would be no surf and (b) surely I swim with Can Too stamped across my ample arse for a reason. If ever there was a time to be reminded of Eleanor Roosevelt’s adage (you must do the thing which you think you cannot do), it was before I pressed ‘send’ on os.c entry online on Friday morning.

Lake Maquarie, the largest permanent saltwater lake in the Southern Hemisphere (the Caspian Sea being the largest saltwater lake in the world. Ed – but that’s a sea?). Known for a long time as ‘Reid’s Mistake’ after Captain William Reid who was sent to fetch coal from Newcastle and came back empty handed having mistaken the Lake for Newcastle Harbour. According to wikipedia, it’s 22km long with an average depth of 8m and an area of approximately 100km², twice the size of Sydney harbour.

Whichever way you look at it

I perked up when I read about Swansea Bar. But it’s a navigation hazard in the channel not a hostelry.

Nearby, the Department of Fisheries has two underwater acoustic listening stations at the entrance to the lake that records when a tagged shark swims within 300 metres of the station.

How many? One or two tagged bull sharks a year pop in apparently perhaps making the same mistake as me, looking for the Swansea hostelry.
You wouldn’t know it for all the hype in the Newcastle Herald at the end of last year with headlines such as ‘what lurks in the lake?’ in September 2012 after a hammerhead sighting and more in October 2012, after fishermen allegedly caught a 2.4m bull shark and circulated pitchers on social media.

In fact, the last recorded shark attack was at Mark’s Point in 1946 when a swimmer was bitten on the leg. So, Mark’s Point exactly, is to reassure us all that whatever lurks in the lake, it’s busy lurking, not preoccupied with chasing swimmers. After all, Mr Ellercamp tells us that the Across the Lake swim is the 2nd longest established OW swim in Australia. 53 years and not even a nibble.

Sat’dee dawned and the Lake lived up to its Aboriginal name. Calm.



Belmont Christian College ferried us over to Coal Point (all except one who decided to swim there as a warm up!).  We didn’t have to hold hands and sing kumbaya but there was a strict rule of no loob on the boat.  And we didn’t have to be newd as I feared we might have been.  Swansea Belmont SLSC gave us all a green bag (sponsored aptly by a coal company) so we could strip at Coal Point and drop our discarded belongings in to the world’s neatest bag drop (rivalling only the neatest calligraphy on our arms).

Looking back at Coal Point from Belmont

Looking back at Coal Point from Belmont

We sat in the brightening early morning sunshine at Coal Point waiting for the last ferry to collect the balance of the peloton.  Lovely weatherboard cottages with sleepy gardens peppered by easy chairs, hammocks and paddles, spilled their cropped tufty grass directly on to the lake foreshore.  And the peloton busied itself with loob and stripping and even, in one case, a headstand demonstration.

It was about this point that I started to freak out.  The usual bevy of beer bellied old mugs that reassure me that my investment in hostelries and laziness in the pool ought not to preclude me from participation in this sport, were mostly absent.  This was all buff and no beer.  There were triathletes a plenty and even ironmen.

My inner critic started wittering on about my inadequacies and streaming pictures of laydees in lake tragedies like Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks washed up on the shore wrapped in plastic and Ophelia who, over dating Hamlet, drowned herself in a lake.

But those fears were shortlived as we stood for our in-water start with the Mayor welcoming us from the jetty.  There was water safety everywhere and just before we began, the Westpac Rescue Helicopter buzzed by presumably doing a final check for either of those 2 tagged noahs.  I assume, courtesy of Cliff Marsh OAM, Chairman of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service and Belmont Swansea SLSC legend.

And so off we set. In search of our first giant buoy, not easy as we were swimming east into the rising sun. The water was murky and warm with a fair bit of weed. I trawled some of it into my togs along with a few ‘squishies’ (as Dory would say) and, as I suspected at the time, and can now testify to, a triple helping of sea lice. I tried to keep my mind of the anticipated itch by concentrating on technique and wondering why I am generally so much slower in saltwater than in the pool. Some say that it is because saltwater is more dense than fresh water but interestingly an Ig Noble winning experiment proves otherwise…. Courtesy of Michael Hopkin at http://www.nature.com

It’s a question that has taxed generations of the finest minds in physics: do humans swim slower in syrup than in water? And since you ask, the answer’s no. Scientists have filled a swimming pool with a syrupy mixture and proved it.

“What appealed was the bizarreness of the idea,” says Edward Cussler of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, who led the experiment. It’s a question that also fascinated his student Brian Gettelfinger, a competitive swimmer who narrowly missed out on a place at this summer’s Olympic Games in Athens.

Cussler and Gettelfinger took more than 300 kilograms of guar gum, an edible thickening agent found in salad dressings, ice cream and shampoo, and dumped it into a 25-metre swimming pool, creating a gloopy liquid twice as thick as water. “It looked like snot,” says Cussler.

The pair then asked 16 volunteers, a mix of both competitive and recreational swimmers, to swim in a regular pool and in the guar syrup. Whatever strokes they used, the swimmers’ times differed by no more than 4%, with neither water nor syrup producing consistently faster times, the researchers report in the American Institute of Chemistry and Engineering Journal.

The most troublesome part of the experiment was getting permission to do it in the first place. Cussler and Gettelfinger had to obtain 22 separate kinds of approval, including persuading the local authorities that it was okay to put their syrup down the drain afterwards.

But it was worth the hassle, Cussler says, not least because his quest for an answer made him something of a celebrity on campus. “The whole university was arguing about it,” he recalls. “It was absolutely hilarious.”

But while it might sound like a trivial question, the principle is actually fundamental. Isaac Newton and his contemporary Christiaan Huygens argued the toss over it back in the 17th century while Newton was writing his Principia Mathematica, which sets out many of the laws of physics. Newton thought that an object’s speed through a fluid would depend on its viscosity, whereas Huygens thought it would not. In the end, Newton included both versions in his text.

Hamstrung by their lack of access to guar gum or competitive swimmers, Newton’s and Huygens’ work was mainly theoretical. Cussler’s demonstration shows that Huygens was right, at least for human-sized projectiles.

The reason, explains Cussler, is that while you experience more “viscous drag” (basically friction from your movement through the fluid) as the water gets thicker, you generate more forwards force from every stroke. The two effects cancel each other out.

That’s not always the case. Below a certain threshold of speed and size, viscous drag becomes the dominant force, making gloopy fluids are more difficult to     swim through. Had Cussler done his experiment on swimming bacteria instead of humans, he would have recorded much slower times in syrup than in water.

But for humans, speed depends not on what you swim in, but on what shape you are.  Once the effects on thrust and friction have been cancelled out, the predominant force that remains is ‘form drag’. This is due to the frontal area presented by a body – try running with a large newspaper held in front of you and see how much more difficult it is.

So the perfect swimmer, whether in water or syrup, has powerful muscles but a narrow frontal profile. “The best swimmer should have the body of a snake and the arms of a gorilla,” recommends Cussler.

Pleased to see me buoys?

Pleased to see me buoys?

As the metres clocked up, I surprised myself. I was swimming well – my beer blubber was keeping me buoyant and I even started to pass the odd swimmer – perhaps I wasn’t going to come last after all and most importantly, finishing looked achievable. Strangest of all, my inner critic started actually cheering me on. By about 3km I was weaving around like a drunk – caught in a bit of a current from the channel pushing left, tired and stiff from some 200m veering wildly right erroneously sighting the boat that had collected the buoys up and was taking them back to the skiff club instead of the finish. But I made it in a time that astounded me (less than 1 ½ hours). I was rapt.

Better still, my Big Blue mates all did well, with Priscilla and Ted (even though you are down as taking an hour 26 minutes in the results Ted (!)), scoring a gong each.  Our mascot grunted in appreciation.

Big Blue mascot

Big Blue mascot

Melinda whose surname I forget, scored the accolade of last place (despite what the results say) and got a very well deserved standing ovation after almost 2 hours in the gloop.

So thanks Swansea Belmont SLSC for a brilliantly organised swim (bags, calligraphy, safety, powerade, fruit, race commentary, presentations and the most amazing showers).

Unfortunately I am too busy trying to imagine that I have arms like a gorilla and scratching those lice bites to say if I will be back next year.

Thanks for having us Swansea Belmont SLSC

Thanks for having us Swansea Belmont SLSC

And Ted made a ‘blue’ movie

One Response to “Who dares swims”


  1. Capital Punishment | lizziecantoo - November 25, 2015

    […] there are also more macabre and fearsome things.  When I swam across Lake Macquarie the first time, my inner critic started streaming pictures of laydees in lake tragedies like Laura […]

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