The Breathlessness of Water


The English Channel is 32 kilometres wide. That’s at its shortest, anyway, which is the route most people take when trying to swim across it. As far as we know, Matthew Webb was the first person to swim it in 1875, taking the best part of 22 hours to do it. That’s 22 hours of swimming (unless he stopped for Tea). Just under 140 years later the record stands at six hours and 55 minutes, which sounds a lot easier than nearly a day, but it’s still swimming for seven hours.

Rebecca Ostprey took just under 13 hours to swim the Channel in 2010, taking on the challenge on the day of her 46th birthday. Rebecca knows the ocean well. She grew up on the bottom tip of Western Australia, near Wilson Inlet where the Ostpreys have been rearing a few lambs, and growing hops for whichever beer company pays a good price, for four generations.

The idyllic sounding Ocean Beach at the mouth of Wilson Inlet sounds more inviting than it is. The cold currents and monster swells that typify the Southern Ocean pay little heed to the hopeful names that us deluded humans bestow on places, but Rebecca, who loved swimming, didn’t have a choice. There’s no public pool in that part of the country, and certainly none of those iconic backyard pools that are always open to the neighbourhood kids. So Rebecca learnt to swim in the bay, eventually graduating to the more demanding long, open beach heading east towards Denmark.

“I can’t remember when I first heard about people swimming the English Channel, it’s just something I always wanted to do. I probably didn’t think it would take me til my mid-40s to do it, but it was always on my bucket list I guess,” Rebecca says.

“Growing up in that part of the world, where you’re always feeling nature’s presence, especially with me spending so much time in the ocean, I guess it didn’t seem that daunting. I knew it would be hard, but lots of things are hard where I come from! Having said that, I probably didn’t think it would take as long as it did. Thirteen hours is a long time to spend in the water.”

The Lorne Pier to Pub swim on Victoria’s Surf Coast is 1.2 kilometres. The fastest swimmers do it in around ten minutes, the slowest can take up to 45 minutes. Quite a few, like Tanya Preber, start it but don’t finish it.

Tanya grew up in Yamba on the verdant New South Wales north coast. She moved to Melbourne in her 20s for the usual reasons young Australians head to that big city on the bottom edge of their continent – like Linda Thompson, she wanted to see the bright lights. Melbourne’s magnetic appeal pulled Tanya down the Newell and the Hume, all the way to Sydney Road, first stop, and finally over the Yarra to her final stop on Chapel Street. Tanya also stopped swimming. The indoor living pleasures in and around Prahran and Windsor were easily preferable to outside dips in Port Phillip Bay. Yet she still held on to a strong sense of what she’d left behind in Yamba.

“When I was growing up you could rock up to the caravan park on Christmas Eve and set up your tent for a week or two. There was a great mix of local cane growers taking their annual breather and dairy families whose neighbours had been kind enough to take care of the twice daily milking of their small herd. You didn’t need two thousand milkers to raise a family and pay the bills back then like you do now. And you certainly didn’t need to book a site at the park 12 months in advance. So when I moved to Melbourne I kinda felt like it was time to move on, see something new,” she says.

Like Rebecca, Tanya also knew the ocean. She was comfortable in it. Perhaps not in that weirdly biblical Tim Winton way, but comfortable enough. Yamba can get pretty big when it wants to, especially when one of those deep cyclones out near Noumea gets a hold of the swell and sends it crashing towards Australia’s east coast hundreds of kilometres away. But Tanya was no long-distance swimmer. Growing up she’d start each day at sunrise with a swim out beyond the breakers, out to where it was calm but deep and where she would float around on her back, relishing the buoyancy of the salty water as the rising sun gradually heated her face, arms and legs. Once she’d had enough she simply swam back in.

In mid-2012, when a work friend said he was going to do the Lorne Pier to Pub and asked her if she was interested, the lure of the ocean was too much to resist. Unfortunately, the swim didn’t go to plan.

“What I found so surprising about the Lorne swim was that I was used to swimming for pure enjoyment, just enjoying being in the water, I wasn’t used to having an aim, you know, like having to swim from Point A to Point B. So when I got tired at Lorne, which happened really early in the swim, I didn’t know what to do. Usually when I’m tired I just catch a wave and get out. This time I had to keep swimming, but I was nowhere near the shore and I just started panicking.”

The panic surprised her. Tanya had trained, more or less, for the swim in her local pool in Prahran, one of those great (heated!) Olympic-sized pools that Australians used to regularly build, back when we inherently understood what genuine communal heavy lifting can achieve. She’d done a few months of swimming before Lorne, once the weather had finally turned for the better around mid-October, going up and down those hypnotic 50 metre lengths. The problem was she’d become used to measuring momentum by watching the pool floor shift underneath her, everything was perceptible. The ocean is different; you have no sense of motion, no way of looking down to see if you’re getting somewhere. Tanya’s small amount of movement was imperceptible, allowing her brain to convince her that she was in fact not moving at all.

Hence the panic. Panic has a debilitating impact on our breathing. Short, sharp breaths instead of long, regular ones. Dyspnoea. Yoga teachers know that the most important way we control our emotions is through breathing, it’s the toolkit we need for the opening of satori. In the ocean when you lose control of your breathing, you lose control of your limbs – smooth swimming ends, useless thrashing takes over – and, dangerously, you lose control of your thinking. The clarity of mind needed to meet any challenge becomes that much harder when unhelpful thoughts are determined to have their way.

Almost as soon as the starter’s gun went at Lorne, Tanya thrashed and stopped and panicked and stopped and thrashed and panicked some more, for about 20 minutes. Even though she was making some progress, every time she looked up it was as if the finish line on the beach was no closer. She got cold, got kicked in the head five, six, however many times. (The Lorne organisers proudly brag of overpopulation in a way that, say, council officials in Kolkata don’t.) She got breathless, kicked some more, looked up and was convinced, again, that the beach was no closer. Finally, she swam over to one of the many lifesavers on duty in their surf skis waiting for any signs of trouble.

Tanya had actually managed to make it half way, about 600 metres, but finally empty of energy – physical and spiritual – she asked to be taken in.

“You did better than a few others,” the young boy said as he paddled strongly towards the flat rocks that form the point at Lorne, pointing to a swathe of people sitting breathless, seemingly in shock at their inability to complete the swim. “That always happens, people don’t know what to expect and they panic. Some of them only make it 50 metres before it gets too much for them.”

So for Rebecca Ostprey, far from being a deprivation, the fact that she had had no access to a pool while growing up proved to be a blessing. Year after year of ocean swimming had seen her acquire a useful combination: a natural sense of movement in water aided by some more earthly skills. Her judgment was enough to calm her mind by providing a sense of what her arm strokes and leg kicks were achieving.

“I’ve always been relaxed in open water,” Rebecca says. “I learnt early on that I gotta pick a spot in the distance in front of me, a building or group of trees on the headland, that helps me keep going in a straight line. I also pick a marker on my breathing side, just under my arm as it’s going around. This can be a spot on the beach or a distant rock formation or island, it doesn’t really matter. Going parallel to the beach is best because you can really notice that you’re getting somewhere. Obviously, the Channel was different. There I just had to trust myself.

“I think whatever you do your brain needs to know that you’re achieving something, otherwise it begins to question what you’re doing. I also count in groups of one to twenty, looking up every twenty strokes to my marker, and then starting the counting over again. The counting keeps the mind focused and helps with the breathing, almost like a mantra. This is really important when you’re in a new environment or the swell is picking up or you’ve got a huge distance in front you and your adrenalin starts to kick in. It’s so important to control your adrenalin otherwise you just burn your energy up and you can forget about swimming far.”

Fast forward to January 2014 and Tanya is having another go at the Pier to Pub. She’s nervous, but having done a bit of research into open water swimming and picked up few tips about breathing and counting, is quietly confident. The first 50 or so metres are pretty tough. Alarm bells start to ring in her head as memories of her first attempt come flooding back, a great storm of doubt trying to convince her that she’s about to fail again. But Tanya manages to control her thoughts, gets her counting and breathing nice and regular, and with the help of one or two rests along the way, eventually stands up on the beach and jogs across the finish line 31 minutes and 42 seconds later, exhausted but happy.

“Crossing that line felt great, a real sense of achievement and a feeling that I’d managed to overcome something that was threatening to overcome me,” Tanya says.

“I reckon I actually knew I was going to finish it pretty early on, once I let those bad memories ease away. Then with about ten minutes to go when I was fully relaxed I realised how much I miss the ocean – or how much I miss the warm ocean to be exact. So I’m gonna move back home pretty soon. Melbourne’s fun and all that, and I know everything’s changed back home since I was a kid. But you still don’t need a wetsuit in summer, that’ll never change.”



  1. To know the ocean is, in a way, to know life. Time and tide. Air. Water. Weight. Breath. Thanks Patrick.

  2. Neil Belford says

    Thanks Patrick for the sense of direction. I think pretty often we lose our compass in understanding the point of sport. Tanya and Rebecca are at the centre. Why the hell would Tanya go back.

    The stunning beauty of Ocean Beach and its outlook across to the Nullaki is only eclipsed by it being located on WA’s south coast – which has emptier, more implausibly-beautiful beaches stretching over hundreds of kilometres.

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Enjoyed that greatly Patrick, thanks

  4. Thanks Patrick. You alerted me to the key differences between lap and ocean swimming. “Perhaps not in that weirdly biblical Tim Winton way” is interesting. Winton knows his coast, and masculine crises!

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