We’re a water people, us Aussies. For many of us, the chlorine of public pools and the salty tang of the ocean are smells redolent of childhood summers spent in blissful abandon: splashing snoozing adults gleefully, pretending to be mermaid or seals. In the crashing surf, in the calm shallows, in secluded coves and billabongs and creeks, people of all ages and backgrounds and walks of life rejoice in surrendering themselves to the cool weightless wet.
A few years ago, Caroline Clements and partner Dillon Seitchik-Reardon were looking for a new place to call home. Journeying this dry continent for a place to nest, the swimming spots they discovered along the way become their first acclaimed guide book, Places We Swim. Now settled in Manly, and having just had their first child, the pair have released a companion book for their fellow metropolitan bathers: Places We Swim Sydney. A gorgeous, full-colour volume, sparkling with photography, rich in contributing voices, and flush with helpful tips, it is the definitive guide to Sydney’s famous and secret swimming spots. We spoke with Caroline, who takes us for a paddle through her water-loving life.
I understand you’ve just become a new mum. Congratulations! What are some of the watering holes you’re thinking of to make your son’s first experiences of swimming?
I was recently told that babies aren’t meant to go in the ocean until they’re 6 months old, which sounds like a long way off! Though I had ideas of taking Leo down to Fairlight pool and Delwood Beach this summer. We live in Manly so there are lots of local options. I’m hoping to spend some summer days at Shelly Beach and Collins Flat in Manly too, so I’m sure they’ll be some of his first swimming experiences.
Has the ‘pull’ of the waterways changed for you since we entered this bizarre period of social isolation?
It may have got ever great. It actually really made me appreciate the outdoors. When Sydney went into lockdown in March, we were living in Bondi and even the beach was closed. We then spent some time living in the Central Coast over winter and I really appreciated having the space and beaches open and unrestricted (apart from social distancing, which is quite natural on a beach anyway). I swam most days during winter at the beach in Avoca or the ocean pool at Macmasters Beach. It was a real treat and some respite from everything else happening this year. Swimming has also been such a lovely thing to do this year while pregnant – it’s very meditative.
The book includes a polyphony of other voices – including a foreword by Marlee Silva and a piece by Benjamin Law. Why did you choose to make this book so collaborative?
The book is a collaboration with many incredible local writers, photographers, artists and producers. Dillon and love the opportunity to work with other creative people we admire, and we’ve made a point of bringing some of these voices into our book – Marlee Silva (a writer, podcaster, storyteller and a Gamilaroi and Gunghatti woman) and Ben Law (a writer and broadcaster who needs no introduction) are great examples. They give our book greater depth and understanding of Sydney and its diversity. These are people that know various regional areas of Sydney better or differently to us. Their input allows us to look at the city through another unique lens.
Places You Swim is co-written with your husband. Is your shared love of swimming an important part to your relationship? Can you imagine having a partner who hated getting wet?
Yes, we do have a shared love of swimming. Dillon is originally from New Mexico in the US, so didn’t grow up swimming in the ocean (it’s landlocked). He came to Australia for the first time over 10 years ago and fell in love with the Australia way of life – swimming, surfing, weekends at the beach etc. It is certainly a very important part of our relationship and the place of our first date! I can’t imagine not sharing this connection to the water. It’s a big part of our day-to-day lives.
How did your own love of water begin?
I am originally from Melbourne, and grew up living in the inner city, but spent holidays down the coast on the Mornington Peninsula and the Great Ocean Road from a young age. I was also a competitive swimmer during school and trained most days in a public pool. I think this is a familiar childhood for many Australians. The water (especially the ocean) feels like quite a natural part of life for so many of us who live near the coast.
Balmain’s beloved Dawn Fraser Baths is included in the book. It’s been shut down for refurbishments for a while – we miss it! What are some of your best memories of swimming there?
Dawn Fraser Baths is such an icon and it feels like it has been closed forever! I love walking along the deck on hot day and jumping off into the dark harbour water. There’s always something eerie about the deep end of a harbour pool. Dawn Fraser is so unique because of its historic look and feel, so I’m intrigued to see the upgrades when it does reopen. I can’t wait for stinking hot summer days, wandering down the hill to the pool to spend a day dipping in and out of the water there, eating icy poles and hot chips from the kiosk. This is what Australian summer day dreams are made of.
What kind of ‘bather’ are you? Do you test the water, or plunge in? Do you brave the winter chill or save the ocean dips for warmer months? Any quirks to mention around your swimming habits?
I do usually test the water before getting in (to see what I’m in for), but then plunge in. It’s the best way to submerge quickly. I do brave the winter chill, I love the feeling of cold water on my skin and then the warm buzz you get for hours after a winter swim. I often swim in ocean pools in winter (in Sydney) without a wetsuit. I will admit, despite my years of swimming, I’m still slightly afraid of deep water. I love ocean swimming but prefer to do it with others.
One of the big ideas of the book is that swimming in our beaches, pools and waterways is a zero-cost egalitarian activity that brings together Aussies as one. In light of this, what do you think about the recent proposal to section off a bit of Bondi for a private beach club?
Oh wow, I haven’t heard about this and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I do think that our beaches are to be shared. They are such an asset to our communities, especially because of their egalitarian nature, being free for leisure to all people. To make at section private sounds like it goes against all our expectations of an Australian beach, although if it was going to work anywhere, it’s in Bondi.
The big question: fresh or saltwater?
Tough one. I do love both for different reasons. They are usually very different experiences. Saltwater comes with sand and waves, but there is something very calming about swimming in the freshwater of a lake or river. It’s still and clean. But if I had to choose one, I think it’d be saltwater and the beach/ocean pools. That crunchy sting as saltwater dries on your skin is a feeling that can’t be beat!
Interview by Kate Prendergast
Places We Swim Sydney by Caroline Clements and Dillon Seitchik-Reardon was published by Hardie Grant in 2020. Signed copies are available at Roaring Stories Bookshop