April 6, 2023
People & Places

Seas the day

Imagine if you could take a pill every morning that would make you feel happier, healthier and energised for the day ahead. In the cold waters off the Limestone Coast, one group has dived into something even better, and free, that brings them together 365-days-a-year.

Swimmers brave the conditions rain, hail or shine.

It’s early morning when you dive in and your entire body tingles as your blood vessels constrict and the icy sea forces your lungs to gulp in short, shallow breaths. The rain is pelting like bullets into the water and a large crashing wave bears down as you suck in another breath before diving under, your head plunged into the cold vice grip of the ocean. For members of the Beachport Sea Urchins Swimming Society, there is no time when you feel so utterly alive than during a winter swim in the chilly waters of the Limestone Coast.

While swimming in the rainy, colder months is exhilarating, the calmer summer waters are irresistible, too. The Sea Urchins meet at 7.30am every day of the year for their ocean swim; a committed handful meeting during winter, but summer holidaymakers swelling their numbers to as many as 50. Rest assured, you will find swimmers gathered in the Beachport rotunda every morning – rain, hail or shine – preparing for their ritual dip.

It all started 20 years ago, when Pam Hales and her good friend Val Chambers decided to swim alongside the Beachport Jetty every morning.

“I’ve always swum,” says Pam, 69. “Even when I was growing up in Robe, I used to wag school to go swimming. It gives you this feeling … it’s a freedom. Your endorphins lift and I believe it makes you happy. It’s a therapy and a healer of its own.”

Wendy Green, Maryanne Clark, Chris Dicken, Roger Smith, Pam Cook, Wendy Stratford, Pam Hales, Carrie Adamo, Sally Ellis and Greg Cook.

Seeing Pam and Val out in the ocean each day, other locals – including several women in their 70s and 80s – felt inspired to join them. The group adopted the name Sea Urchins, drafted a manifesto and were later joined by men who called themselves the affiliated Sea Slugs. Today, a curtain emblazoned with the Sea Urchins logo is strung up each morning as a makeshift changeroom. Their oldest swimmer, Irene, is 81.

“Even when there’s hail or lightning, we still go swimming,” says Pam. “In winter, when you swim out and the waves are crashing high around you, it’s like you’re in another world. There’s never a day that we don’t come out of the water going: ‘Wow’.”

The ocean in Beachport is more exposed and colder than Adelaide’s metropolitan coast and the group has had to adapt to the conditions. Pam says the water temperature dips to nine degrees Celsius in winter, so de-thawing after swimming is key. “Some bring hot water bottles to put up their jumpers and we plug in a couple of heaters in the rotunda and sit behind the curtain with our coffees and come back to life,” says Pam.

Beachport has South Australia’s second-longest jetty at about 770 metres. In summer, some swimmers will go all the way to the end of the jetty and back, but it’s a different story in winter.

Sea Urchins Swimming Society members tread water during their morning dip against the backdrop of the Beachport coastline.

“We’ve taken our temperatures after swimming and found that if we swim too far, we get pretty low; close to hypothermia,” says Pam. “When it’s that cold, I can’t swim any further than about 350 metres out, although the ones with wetsuits can. I bought a wetsuit and tried it, but it’s not for me.

“Your body gets used to the cold and you do become hooked. Now, when I go in, I don’t even think about the cold. I say to new swimmers just to relax because the moment you hold your body tight, you start to get cold. It’s a mental thing.”

But a warning: there are risks for inexperienced and untrained swimmers in cold water, so it’s recommended to undertake a slow acclimatisation program.

After their swim, the group sits in the rotunda to enjoy coffee and discuss “matters that are deemed important to the town”. There’s laughter, lively conversation and a cake or scones if it’s someone’s birthday.

Turning 70 later this year, Pam says she feels a decade younger than her real age and all the Urchins and Slugs seem to display this same youthful exuberance. Pam believes that although it’s not a cure-all for serious health conditions, the activity has many benefits: a connection to nature, a sense of self-empowerment and achievement, fitness, and the benefits that come with cold water immersion. But for Pam, the good feeling that comes after swimming is reward enough.

However, as the Sea Urchins and Slugs interact before and after their swim, it’s obvious that there is something else at play: a sense of community and purpose that could be perhaps equally as important as the swim itself.

Local handyman and builder Roger Smith, 66, joined the group more than a decade ago and now rarely misses a morning swim. Roger could barely swim out 50 metres when he started, but now he swims to the 500 metre-mark most days and, on a fine day, can swim the full length of the jetty and back – about 1500 metres.

Using a curtain to create a dressing room, swimmers gather in the rotunda every day of the year with hot water bottles, jackets and beanies at the ready.

While he enjoys feeling fit and believes the activity might alleviate various aches and pains, Roger is addicted to the way swimming clears his mind and puts him in a good mood for the day ahead. He enjoys a bit of healthy competition with the other men but, most importantly, the sense of community.

“I miss it if I can’t get down here,” says Roger. “The cold water in winter is apparently very good for your immune system and inflammation, but I just really enjoy the social aspect of it – catching up with everyone over a coffee afterwards.

“I have become much fitter. I’m 66 and I’ve got friends around my age who are getting sore and have trouble getting out of bed and putting their socks on, whereas I still feel fit and quite youthful, really.

Beachport handyman Roger Smith has been swimming most mornings for more than 10 years and has greatly improved his fitness.

“You’re not competing against anybody other than yourself. Once you get into a rhythm and get your breathing right, it’s comfortable and I find myself swimming along thinking about the day ahead.”

Over the past decade, there has been increasing discourse into “life’s purpose” and plenty has also been written on community and social connection as a path to happiness and health. The Urchins and Slugs are certainly a tight-knit group. When someone doesn’t show up for a swim, they’ll receive a phone call from the group to check in. Perhaps it is their daily purpose combined with socialisation, that is key to the wellbeing of this swimming society.

Visitors to Beachport are welcome to join the Sea Urchins any day of the year, but all swimmers must abide by the group’s manifesto.

There is one line that sums it up best: “Above all, members shall listen to each other with compassion, help each other to see the sunshine in their darkest hour, and to feel new adventure in their hearts every day”.

Core members of the Sea Urchins Swimming Society, Sally Ellis and Pam Hales finish their daily swim which Pam says is “a therapy of its own”.


This article first appeared in the February 2023 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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