Written by Matthew Smeal
I’m not sure what the official number of Bold and Beautiful swimmers is, but there will be at least that many reasons why so many of us make our way down to Manly so early every morning.
Like most of you, my reasons are a combination of the above. I have always swum, I have always loved the ocean; the water is a huge part of my life, my being. And while I have always enjoyed surfing, swimming or paddling with friends, it is the solitude and self-reliance in those activities that resonate with me the most. I think that is what drew me to Bold and Beautiful: knowing there are likeminded people swimming alongside me is calming, but I am still on my own.
It is a strange paradox, wanting solitude within a group, but it exists. Someone may know if there is an official term for it. Maybe it’s simply called compromise; I’m not sure how often I’d actually swim if I was the only one in the water.
That paradox manifests itself in other ways too. I would likely be amongst the least competitively-minded swimmers in B&B; I shun organised sport, I follow no team in anything, and ladders and tables and point scores draw a wildly disinterested blank if they draw anything at all – but I log all my swims. And I proudly collected my first challenge badge—via tongs—at the ceremony in March.
My only competitor is me. But I’m not competing, I just want to do well. I want to look back and see what I have achieved over a given period of time; to see the kilometres adding up, creating a consistent tally of time in the water.
I like that I can swim from Manly to Shelly Beach and back. I like that I can do it twice, even three times some days. I like that by 7am most mornings I have been amongst schools of fish, seen beautiful rays, the occasional shark; an underwater Jules Verne landscape emblazoned in dazzling early morning colour and felt the sun on my back as I’ve cleared Fairy Bower and it the horizon. I like that I have been completely surrounded by water and played in the ocean.
I like that I have shared laughter and happiness with friends—old and new alike—and immersed myself in solitude to spend time alone with my thoughts. And I like that I have accomplished something that, while stock standard for most of us, can be unachievable for some, a distant dream for others, or a long-awaited goal that can finally be grasped.
Many know that I am a photographer. While floating around taking pictures near the point one morning, a young lady came in at the tail end of the 7am group. She stopped when she saw me, a look of accomplishment and pride wide across her face contrasted with certain bewilderment and unsurety.
“I don’t know you,” she said as she trod water next to me, “but I have to tell you that I just swam from here, to there [pointing to Shelly Beach] and back to here. I never thought I would be able to do that, and I just had to tell someone.”
I hope I remember that moment forever.
But yes, I am a photographer and journalist. My work has taken me all over the world to photograph, film and write about humanitarian issues: Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh… it is usually health-related—HIV, tuberculosis, emergency obstetrics, neglected tropical diseases, avoidable blindness—but it has also involved issues like sex trafficking, the high incidence of child drowning in South East Asia, and watching hundreds of thousands of refugees flood into Bangladesh while documenting the early days of the Rohingya crisis. It has always involved poverty and vulnerability.
Fronting up to the beach to enjoy a guilt-free swim has taken a long time – and I’m not there yet. But instead of the usual guilt and confusion, I have realised that the ocean is there, and I just need to be in it.
The ocean is how I stay healthy in body and mind. I know that I have embraced what marine biologist and author Wallace J. Nichols calls a ‘blue mind’ – the understanding that being in, near or on the water makes you happier and more relaxed. And I am not alone. Since swimming with B&B I have met people who have experienced love and loss, personal hardships, injuries, stressful work, and the frustrating rigours of everyday life.
Life is up and down but there is something that remains constant in all of us: that early morning swim from Manly to Shelly Beach – and back.
Why do we swim? Because we can.
Matthew Smeal is a photographer, writer and videographer who specialises in humanitarian issues. He has swum with Bold and Beautiful Swim Squad, Manly, since January 2020. www.matthewsmeal.com.au