From 1839 to 1869 a prison on Cockatoo Island had held convicts who had reoffended in their new Australian home. In those early years, a few desperate people had tried to swim from Cockatoo Island to Balmain.
One of the few convicts to complete the swim was Fred Ward, who in 1863, swam the 500 metres to Balmain. His unfortunate companion, Fred Britten, died in the attempt. Fred Ward was later to become infamous as bushranger Thunderbolt.
On a bleak November morning 152 years later, nearly 300 swimmers massed alongside the Dawn Fraser pool, almost on the spot where Ward’s wife, Mary Bugg, had waited with the getaway horse.
The swimmers had registered for the 1.1K race, which was to the island and back, or for the 2.4 K swim that included a lap around the island.
Recovering from recent hip-replacement surgery, Achilles member Charlie McConnell, who is totally blind, had opted for the shorter race. He was to be guided by fellow Achilles members, Claire Northrop and Michael Levy.
This is Charlie’s report on the race:
“What does a person who enjoyed running do after having had 2 hip replacements?
“Swimming was my answer. I have not yet grown to love it. Sometimes it is just like hitting your head on a wall; it feels wonderful when you stop.
“On Sunday 22nd November I entered the Dawny Swim at Balmain. It was a very cloudy morning, and I was told that the colour of the water matched the sky. I had entered the 1.1km swim out to Cockatoo Island and back. As we waited, nobody mentioned the “S”-word. During the summer, we had encountered a few sharks when swimming in the ocean and had put aside rumours of recent sightings in the harbour.
“We lined up on the pier and the countdown began. I heard people jumping into the water. It did not seem a long way down. So, when the countdown reached “4” I leapt off the pier. I surfaced to hear the shouted word “Go!
“Off I swam. After about 30 meters I felt someone pulling on my trunks. I stopped. It was my guide, Michael. He told me that I was swimming well but, unfortunately in the wrong direction. Michael steered me into the right direction and away I went again.
“That S-word popped into my head, and I reasoned that the Achilles dry-land rules would apply equally in the water. When running, Achilles guides have been trained to always put themselves in harm’s way, rather than putting the vison-impaired member in any danger. I had not had the chance to discuss this with Michael and Claire but, thankfully, they were not put to the test.
“As we swam on, I was poked by Michael on one side and prodded by Claire on the other. So, poking and prodding we reached the island and turned to swim back. With the harbour now seemingly full of jelly fish to swim over, it was certainly a swim with a difference.
“Suddenly, all the prodding and poking stopped. I was being grabbed by my arms. I looked up and asked, ‘What is wrong now?!’ The answer was, ‘You have finished’.
“I could not believe it! I had achieved my fastest pace over any distance. My wonderful guides had also made the race very enjoyable.
“I am now looking forward to Christmas and the New Year. Early in the year, I plan to swim longer distances and I know my guides will be there for me again.”
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