Since moving to Sydney’s Inner West just over a year ago, I have discovered the joy that comes with the iconic pools of Sydney’s eastern perimeter. For seven weeks of lockdown, it has felt like the ocean pools embedded on each headland jutting out from Sydney’s jagged coastline, have been my lifeline.
To get to the coast from where I live, I need to cross the city – a drive that often leaves me with not enough daylight hours to surf, but just enough to submerge myself for a few freezing minutes in an ocean pool. Three head dips constitute a swim in the thick of winter, when your head aches and the backs of your arms feel like they might seize up.
“Anxiety, gone,” my friend and I always say as we pop up from our first dive, usually early in the morning, at our most frequented pool on Maroubra’s northern headland. Mahon Pool is built into what seems like a kind of natural amphitheatre. It has views of the pin line horizon and the winter sky that has the pale glow of dawn at all times of the day. Humpback whales funnel water skyward as they trek first north and then south during winter and spring. It’s here, that I come when the walls of my house seem too close to the sides of my face, when each of the chairs in my house seem strangely uncomfortable. Often, when the sun is starting to sink below the steepled rooftop skyline of the expansive city that stretches west, I’ll zoom east toward the ocean just in time to dive into a pool before it becomes pitch black.
Mahon has a kind of temporality to the people that swim down there each day, a little bubble where the rules of looking away as you pass people on the footpath that normally govern the way we interact with strangers in the city, don’t apply. Older ladies in swimming caps watch your face as you emerge from your first freezing dive, “chilly this morning isn’t it,” they will say as you squeak at the winter temperature. People smile as they walk towards the water, a kind of shared knowledge that we’re all here to let the pool wipe our minds clean before we begin the day.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the people who built these pools. Many of them were built during the Great Depression in the 1930s, when the government wanted to create jobs, so commissioned the construction ocean pools up and down the coast. Some of them were built prior, in the late 1800s and another surge occurred in the 1960s. They were built so people could bath in flat water rather than having to brave the often-treacherous waters of the beaches. Sydney’s coast is toothed with headlands that spike into the Pacific Ocean, frequently hammered by winter swells that travel up from the south and summer cyclone swells that trundle thousands kms from the north. The pools, often not usable during these big swells other than the wild hearted teenagers who hold onto the chains on their outer edge and let the massive swell lines rip across their backs, a game that can only be played with the unruly spirit of a 16-year-old. I’ve been thinking about the people who built these pools in the Great Depression and wondering if they had any inkling as they carved them out of the rocks that the best part of a century later, as we’re carrying the weight of another global crisis, that they’d still be carrying us through.