Ways of getting wet

This is an old story which I recently found. Laura is now an adult.



(South Bondi Board Club members pose for a Women’s Weekly article about the new ‘hot dog’ style of surfboard in 1958. L to R: Scott Dillon, Bluey Mayes, Andy Cochran, Rod Cartlidge, Barry Ross, Des Price. Photo: Ernie Nutt)

“Let’s go swimming” I suggested to eight year old Laura during the summer holidays. “Yeah” she replied ardently (aren’t eight year olds ardent?), “let’s.” That’s how I found myself in this cavernous post-modernist hell, reading Allan Bennett’s Writing Home, squeezed miserably between a plump Muslim woman in a white broderie anglaise dress and headscarf work over curiously chic opaque white stockings and a Chinese family with bulging hampers cracking watermelon seeds.

It’s a bit like reading a menu, and seeing roast chicken, and the mind’s eye and palate filling with a crisp plump bird stuffed with sweet butter and herbs, surrounded by perfectly roast potatoes and melting onions, and what arrives is a scraggy leg with two flowerlets of attenuated broccoli. When I said “go swimming” I meant the beach, yellow sand, foaming surf, glittering sunshine. She meant an indoor pool. If you want an indication of just how the world has changed in 30 years, look at the change in the meaning of the word ‘swimming’.

I grew up in Double Bay, and swam at Redleaf Pool or Nielsen Park, surfed at Bondi and Tamarama. I body surfed – never took to the board, I was a sailor and the two didn’t, somehow, mix – I alternated between those two beaches, depending on the wave. But very early on in my beach days, it was always Bondi. I’d catch the 365 from Double Bay – a double decker of course – and get off in Campbell Parade, hop down across the blistering asphalt to the south end of the beach, rubber fins and towel, zinc cream plastered across my nose.

I go so far back I remember Bluey Mayes being the hero of the beach with his long Okanui board. I can still see him standing, muscles bulging, tattoos rippling, balancing the long board, about twice his length, on its tail, whether waiting to dive in or just attracting attention, I never knew. Whatever, he got it. We worshipped him, us young surfers. Most of my mates went on to ride boards and formed the Windansea surf club (Max Bowman, the late Kevin “Head” Brennan, Brian “Squeaker” Morris) a purist surfing club designed to distance themselves from the old fashioned silly hat wearing do-gooders at the Bondi Surf Lifesaving Club.



(Windansea Surf Club, undated, uncaptioned)

We’d jump off the rocks at the South Bondi Pool, and swim out to catch the really great waves there, peeling off just before we got eaten by the jagged rocks. Or else we’d surf the long sliders off the point at Tamarama.

On really good days at Bondi, I remember the surf as being huge. We had a technique with dumpers which required you to shoot through the face and free fall down it, slapping the water when you hit bottom and then rolling up into a ball as the huge wave of water thumped down on you. You had to be able to hold your breath. We learnt how to ride the left and right breaks, when to pull off the wave, and when to take it all the way. Out of the water, there was the life.


When I was very young it was Vallis’ milk bar, where we’d sip milk shakes in aluminium canisters, leer at young girls, then pad up to the fish shop for potato scallops – I can’t remember but I think we used to take the scallops into Vallis’. It was a great milk bar, with pinballs and dark wood veneer booths. We never did any good with the girls – we were too young, and they were after the older surf club members. Bluey did OK.

Later I remember hitching to Bondi and home again, along O’Sullivan Road and New South Head Road, getting out at the ABC Milk Bar where the bottle shop is today. I remember a lift one day with a bloke who was selling plums bottled in brandy. He’d been eating more than he sold, and we polished off two bottles on the long slow drive home.

By then I was lunching at the Astra Hotel, now an old people’s home. The Astra pies were famous and we’d have a schooner of beer and a pie for lunch before heading back into the surf. By then some of us had cars and we might even drive to Bronte in somebody’s old Veedub.

That was the beach. Burning sand. Pounding waves. Salt stretched skin. Peeling noses. Yeah, and sometimes bluebottles and always sharks. At the back of the mind.

And then there was just plain swimming. And for me that meant training at Redleaf Pool for the annual school sports day at North Sydney Olympic Pool (about the only time I ever crossed the bridge). I swam competitively at school, and used to train at the same times as Murray Rose. I never knew him he was a fair bit older but we did laps together. Rose was a vegetarian, a bit radical back then in the 50s It was whispered he lived on seaweed.


(Redleaf is now known as Murray Rose Pool: when I was very young I remember seeing him there: A blonde god)

The other attraction to us boys at Redleaf was Irene van der Bellen. She was a Dutch girl with intense blue eyes and long blonde hair and very mean parents. Well, they must have been. She was still wearing the thin blue cotton Speedo one piece at 15 she’d probably first got when she was 12. And it was bulging out and getting thinner and Irene bulged out and got rounder. We used to lie around the boardwalk around the pool (on our stomachs) just waiting for Irene van der Bellen to get out of the pool and walk up to the changing sheds, wishing we were towels.

I remember we found out where she lived, and Archie Cooper and me went around to her place one night and sang “Goodnight Irene” outside her window until her father threatened to call the police. I wonder where she is now? Did she realise what a ruckus her old blue cotton Speedo used to cause? Maybe it wasn’t her mean parents who squeezed her into the old one every year.

There was a tuckshop at Redleaf and it sold those open jam pies with mock cream piped around the top of the crust. Whatever happened to them? You can still get pineapple doughnuts and Neinish tarts but those jam pies have gone the way of the Bondi tram.

Redleaf was seaweed and dark green water and lying under the plane trees and the long walk up the stairs home. My mother told me she used to take me there as a baby, but I don’t remember.

That summer holiday when I realised that swimming for Laura meant an indoor pool, I suggested we go to the Olympic Aquatic Centre at Homebush Bay. Surely it couldn’t be worse than the pool at Willoughby the school sent her to. I was wrong. It was wet hell on earth.

There’s a postscript to this story. When Laura grew up, she became a very keen board surfer. Couldn’t imagine swimming in anything but the ocean.  



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