A Cheeky Swim

Peter Hancock joins the Sydney Skinny, a charity swim done in the buff

The first wave of swimmers hits the water at Cobbler's Beach. © Peter Hancock

Nudity and outdoor swimming have been good friends for a long time – even longer than outdoor swimming and tow floats. While the acquaintance had dropped off a bit over the past century, swimming without clothes is something that many people do every now and then when they’re feeling a bit “cheeky”.

Messages promoting positive body image led down to Cobbler's Beach. © Peter Hancock

Swimming naked is something usually done in secluded places, either alone or with one or two trusted friends. It’s a private, personal experience between the body and the water; rarely is it a mass-participation event. This is what makes The Sydney Skinny unique. The swim raises money for The Cure Brain Cancer Foundation, established by internationally renowned neurosurgeon Charlie Teo, who also swims in the event.

Swimmer's start to assemble on Cobbler's Beach for the first wave. © Peter Hancock

Being naked is a great leveler

The Sydney Skinny began five years ago, and has as one of its main objectives, an emphasis on dispelling unhealthy perceptions of body image and a practice of greater self-acceptance. A wonderful thing!

Being naked is a great leveler, and doing it with a group of strangers can be an extremely self-fulfilling experience, although the initial disrobing can be a bit disconcerting. To make things a bit less intimidating, the event (which this year took place on March 17) is spectator-free. Water Police, NSW Maritime, and friendly security personnel keep unregistered people away. Members of NSW Surf Life Saving, and St John’s Ambulance oversee the safety of swimmers in the water.

Among the participants this year, were people from as afar afield as Scotland, America, New Zealand, India, and Thailand, not to mention those from the cultural melting-pot that is modern Australia. There were more than 1300 people with their own unique blend of shape, size and background, making this one of the most diverse swimming events in the country.

Surf Lifesaving provided water safety throughout the day. © Peter Hancock

Swimming with the greats

As we stood on Cobbler’s Beach in Sydney Harbour’s National Park, waiting for the organizers to shout “Go!”, someone ran past and dived into the water with a yelp. It was none other than Layne Beachley, Australia’s seven-time world surfing champion. Layne was captain of our wave, and the swim ambassador for 2017.

My wife Mel and I took it slow, wading in until we were waist-deep and then leaning into the warm water to start with breaststroke. Behind us, on the grassy bluff overlooking the beach the ukulele that was providing our entertainment broke into the old Elvis classic “Blue Hawaii”.

Without our usual swimming attire, our naked bodies felt free, supported by the gentle, silken mold of nothing but water.  There was no compression or rubbing from tight-fitting swimmers, and the rush of water over our skin was unimpaired by thread. There was also, surprisingly, no sense of feeling exposed. Although naked, our bodies were underwater, so not visible to anyone more than a few metres away.

People around us chatted as they swam- to their friends, and to strangers, in the polite, respectful way that accompanies a slightly awkward social moment.  We met a mechanic, nurse, university academic, and an accountant. Each person had his or her own reasons for swimming. Some did it for fun, some for the challenge of being nude in public, some because they wanted to swim the distance, and some just for the adventure. The atmosphere was extremely relaxed and friendly, without any sense of judgment or comparison.

A ukule band providing a tropical tinge to the swim. © Peter Hancock

Swimming freedom

On the entry form, swimmers chose whether they wanted to swim a short 300 m swim, or a longer 900 m one. Once in the water, those distances became arbitrary. While some people stuck to their clearly marked course, swimmers were encouraged only to swim as far as they felt like swimming.  For some, this was a hundred meters, while for others 500 m seemed just about right.

Like distance, pace and time were left up to the individual. In fact, the slower, the better for most of us. Mel and I completed a circuit of the longer course in an alternating breaststroke, backstroke, and freestyle, punctuated by occasional dives to the bottom to chase whiting and bream across the sand. Mel stopped near the beach, content to stay in the shallow water and listen to the music while I joined in with the next wave and did another lap.

In contrast to the previous circuit, and going completely against the spirit of the event, I swam this one freestyle all the way. Without stopping to chat, or tread water, or loll about on the surface. I swam. It was the first time I’ve ever passed an entire pack from back to front and come out well ahead of second place. It will probably be the last time too. But as I joined Mel in shoulder-deep water offshore, I secretly reveled in my own personal victory.

A final parting message for participants. © Peter Hancock

So long sarongs

Throughout the event, nudity was only allowed on the beach and in the water, with swimmers being handed purple sarongs immediately after the swim. It can be intimidating stepping naked out of the water knowing that there are other people around. The sarongs helped, as did the realization that nobody was really paying any attention to you anyway.

Yes, The Sydney Skinny is a nude swim, but its emphasis isn’t on nudity. It’s more about thumbing the nose at the stigma associated with nudity, promoting a healthy body image, and about freeing people from their internal sense of judgment. Our bodies come in all shapes, colours and sizes, and it’s this diversity that The Sydney Skinny celebrates.

To read more about the Sydney Skinny visit: http://www.thesydneyskinny.com.au/

The Cure Brain Cancer Foundation is the peak organization for brain cancer research, advocacy and awareness in Australia, funding research and fostering international collaborations to increase the five-year survival rate for sufferers of brain cancer.   

Words : Peter Hancock
Images : Peter Hancock