Winter swimming with the Bondi Icebergs

Winter swimming with the Bondi Icebergs

Whatever the weather, the time-honored tradition of taking a weekend dip continues in Bondi
Bondi Icebergs
The ocean-side pool has swimmers on Sundays -- no exceptions.

Some might question the sanity of anyone willing to swim outdoors on a cold winter’s day, but for the Bondi Icebergs, winter swimming is a time-honored tradition.

Every Sunday from May to September, the ocean pool at the southern end of Bondi Beach is packed with taut, tanned bodies clad in Speedos. The club’s salty, tanned veterans swim year-round no matter the weather.

The club has held on to the constitution drawn up by its founders in 1929, which makes it compulsory for fledgling members to do their time during the winter season even when temperatures plummet to single digits.

Bondi IcebergsBondi Icebergs club president Alan Gow.This initiation includes swimming in the outdoor pool three Sundays every winter month, and more than 75 times over a five-year period. Then, and only then, will swimmers be granted the club’s coveted full membership.

On a summer’s day, the Pacific surface can be as smooth as glass, but when the thunder clouds roll in over Bondi and the sea swells, the pool gets a direct hit from the pounding surf.

“It can be tough when it’s cold and raining and the weather is unforgiving,” says club president and member of 39 years, Alan Gow.

“The body really feels those temperature differences in the water, as opposed to in the air,” he says. “You often bob up to the surface with a lack of breath and a cold panic going across the brow -- we call it ‘the band of steel’.”

“The hairiest conditions are when we have a big sea combined with a high tide,” says Gow.  “The pool gets swamped by large waves. It’s what we call ‘fast water’.”

When this occurs, swimming heats aren’t cancelled. Instead, lane ropes are removed, as are handicapping systems. When the starting gun fires, it’s every swimmer for themselves.

Rule 15B: Thou shalt swim on Sundays

Bondi IcebergsSwimmers charge for the finishing line in a Sunday heat.The Bondi club’s rules are unwavering.

Members who skip one of their required Sunday swims are in violation of Rule 15B, and must write a letter of apology to explain their absence, or risk being “Lofterized”.

This means a moment of reckoning with Lofty Petrie, the club’s race recording secretary.

The towering 70-year-old is a club stalwart who picked up his nickname in the Australian navy. A lifetime member, he treats membership rules like gospel.

“If an Iceberg doesn’t swim for five years, I’m the bloke that gets rid of them,” he says gruffly. “I record everybody’s presence every week, and if they miss their race and don’t answer or respond by coming down personally, then they are automatically suspended for 12 months.”

Despite his steely gaze, even Petrie too feels the bite of the cold during the winter months.

“The older you get the worse it is, I’ll tell you that now,” he says, with a grimace. “What I do now is jump in first before my heat starts, then get out, just to acclimatize my body to the cold.”

The thrill of the chill

Bondi IcebergsA swimmer eyes the chill of the Bondi Icebergs Pool.On a wintry Sunday morning, the average water temperature hovers around 16 C, but is sometimes much lower. Most Sydneysiders are donning Ugg boots and cranking up the heater, but Icebergs are peeling off to their Speedos for the weekend races.

“Be a man, not a mollusk," proclaims the membership rules, which are tacked to a wall in the club. “It’s never cold enough! You’re an Iceberg! Toughen up!”

Despite the bravado, even hard-as-nails members brace themselves before taking the plunge.  

While Sydney’s mild winters aren’t exactly Arctic, cold shock can occur in water around 12 C: the body loses heat up to 30 times faster than usual. The initial gasping for breath is followed by disorientation and a reduced swimming ability.

But seasoned Icebergs reckon it only takes a minute or two to get used to the cold, though some employ tricks of the trade to withstand the physical shock. Some immerse themselves slowly, limb by limb. Others bite the bullet, diving in immediately.

Former firefighter Phil Robinson, a member for 45 years and a previous club captain, likes to double the insulation by wearing two swimming caps.

“The body is amazingly resilient to cold water,” he says. “You nearly die when you first dive in. It tends to numb the whole body for the first 20 or 30 meters, but if you can retain your body heat in your head, it keeps the rest of the body fairly warm.”

It does take a bit of getting used to. Police officer Ross Graham, 30, has swum at the pool since splashing around with the Bondi Icecubes, the junior arm of the club, in 1986.

“When the wind is blowing, you really feel the cold,” he says. “But it keeps everyone young and fit. It gets the blood flowing.”

“Even when you’ve been swimming as an Icecube, we still have to do the five years,” he says. “It shows that commitment to the club, which is important.”

Like all Icebergs, when the mercury plummets, Graham simply grins and bears the cold.

“There is no better way to start the day,” Graham says. “It clears your head. Plus, it’s the best hangover cure ever.”

“It’s like a can of vegetable soup."

Bondi Icebergs

You don’t have to be a member to swim at Bondi Icebergs, 1 Notts Ave., Bondi Beach +61 (0)2 9130 3120. Entrance to the pool is $5.50 for adults, and towel hire $3.50. Open Monday - Wednesday and Friday: 6.00 a.m. - 6.30 p.m., Saturday - Sunday: 6.30 a.m.-6.30 p.m.; the pool is closed for cleaning every Thursday. Pool temperatures are listed on the website