Ocean Baths

Mafia deals, man boobs, old fogeys charging about in the morning, kids churning up the water on steaming high summer days, fish on quiet autumn swims, football teams training, backpackers in disbelief, weddings, and graceful women in sleek swimming suits … such is the variation within my daily routine of the ocean baths. For nine months of the year, from September to May, I long to slip away on an old bicycle, swing by the headland and under the cliff face, cruise by the beach and dive in the ocean baths.

For me those long months constitute the real summer. It may be a little fresh at either end, I may be the only one in the water at those times – apart from the fish – but as long as the water is swimmable, it is summer. I know, since one year I tried swimming through winter: by June the numbness on my skin would pass only after a few laps, precisely at the moment my blood had decided to abandon the extremities and keep my body core warm. At a certain moment – sometime in September and then April – the water shifts out and then back into hypothermic temperatures as the Southern Ocean pushes north for a few months. Those shifts are the real boundaries between summer and winter.

The daily swim is not merely exercise; I could do that at a gym or in a corner at home. It is an experience of life, especially for one who is by temperament a hermit. The bicycle for the ride down (which takes 5 minutes at most) is scrounged from old parts, dumped hulks and rejects from the garages of others – a true ‘hybrid’. The baths themselves were built during in the early years of the twentieth century. The fashion then, when chlorinated public pools were not yet the rage: headlands in some cities were quarried out, change rooms erected, water pumped from the ocean (since the salt was naturally cleansing) and – in a moment of pure democracy – they were opened to everyone.

Sometimes the water is clear and clean, providing a view across the sweep of the baths, one of which is 75x50m and the other a pool with Olympic dimensions. Or it may be churned and murky with the myriads of summer kids leaping about, pissing, leaving bandaids and other curious objects in the water (thankfully the baths are cleaned each week). The algal growth is stronger in these times, eagerly latching onto dead human cells and whatever else is left floating in the water. It may be seriously choppy when the cloud-bearing southerly hits, the waves slapping one in the face on a breath. It may be full of seaweed, washed in by the massive waves breaking in the south-east corner, riding on top of the king tides. In the quieter times, towards the end of the long season, schools of fish make their home in the baths, although only until the next cleaning. Usually small enough to slip through the pump, they dart away from my thrashing arms. But occasionally I start when a larger fish, having ridden in a wave the day before, darts away, scrubbing flat along the sandy floor or slipping quickly away with a flick of a tail.

Even this hermit cannot avoid the social hub of the baths. People, people, people, of all sorts, from all walks. At first light, the determined old fogeys turn up for their water marching. Not giving an inch (for they still think in imperial measurements), staring you down if you happen to bump into one of them (for you always are at fault), their mottled legs, heavy jowls and sagging body parts fill the pool. Hopefully the exercise keeps the incontinence at bay. In the midst of a scorching summer day, with UV readings beyond extreme, the place is full of children, families out for the day, teenagers flirting and skylarking, a place to ‘escape’, especially for those with little cash to pay for pleasure. For some reason these crowds are far more accommodating to a swimmer like me, making room in a way the fossils do not.

But I prefer to go down late, in the last half hour of light on a long summer day, for then the press of human flesh is a little less. At these times, especially in early spring and late autumn when the breath-taking water repels most, I like to swim long laps, the 75 m lengths, or even diagonals at almost 90 m, or perhaps criss-cross patterns in which I cover the whole territory of the large pool as though it were my own.

At this time the more interesting fauna comes out of hiding. I do not mean the wedding parties, globes of flesh teetering and wobbling, cigarette in one hand and champagne in the other, out for photographs by the ocean and around the art deco baths in the soft light of dusk. Or even the occasional football teams, usually at the start of the season, young men realising that they had a few too many meat pies and beers over the summer, red-faced and gasping, strutting and posing. Or the sun-burnt backpackers who stumble across the baths from the hostels nearby, full of expressions of wonder in the tongues of the world at how close the town is to the beaches.

I mean the firm-bodied milfs who like to slip in for a solitary swim, away from the madding crowd and in the relative cool of a sea-breezy summer evening. Knowing what they do and don’t want, they are a studied example of inner focus or a direct and unambiguous look. And I mean the man-boobs, charging up and down the long pool (75 m), seeming like a mountain in the water – from the waist up. Once he was a tough, proclaimed the tattoos snaking down back and arms. But now, on doctor’s orders, he was out to reduce his cup size.

The catch is that all the exercise seems to have little effect, if the other man with boobs is any guide. Every day at the same time before sunset he is out there – blue T-shirt, cap and antennae. In this case, should one be fortunate enough to meet him in the change rooms, the man boobs pale before the significance of the gut. I can only admire such dedication, such devotion in a lifetime of work to produce that specimen.

My favourite would have to be the mafia trio. As I arrive they are finishing their session, which involves light and slow jogging up in a rough circle at one end of the pool. Short-cropped, tightly curled white hair above swarthy faces, they smile and nod and mutter to one another. Of course, they may be talking about the tomato and basil plants, or the grandchildren, or former mistresses. Or they may be talking about other, shadier deals.