Diving into the Yarra: In your first cold water swim, it’s okay to swear | rivers

I asked my friend if she wanted to come swimming in Yarra/Birrarung, near the city, when the sun came up last week.

“It’s safe, they try!” I said. She paused, and for a second I thought he would join me in this recklessness. She then responded, “That’s like saying drinking your own urine is safe.”

For years, the Birrarung has been used as a landfill. Its reputation is that it’s full of filth, carries E coli, and acts like a sinuous ashtray, tossing cigarette butts and industrial chemicals into the bay.

It’s not the kind of image that makes you want to jump.

But a group of hardy swimmers have been doing just that since lockdown.

Almost every day, the Yarra Yabbies gather at Deep Rock, 4 km upriver from the CBD.

The entire group is over 100 strong. During the summer, when the river reaches 27°C, it is filled with Yabbies circling, floating on their backs and relaxing in the river.

But during the depths of winter, when it’s 4.6°C on the shore and 6°C in the river, only true believers gather.

Some are there to keep fit, others to have fun, there are many, and for some, it’s about communing with nature before sunrise.

“We all have busy lives, and this, this is weird where we can be right now,” says Marie Louise Zeevaarder. “Because once your feet hit the water, you’re nowhere else but here.”

When I decided to take the plunge, I resolved not to Google E coli beforehand so I wouldn’t chicken out.

When I met the Yabbies at the bank at 7am, my first question was an obvious one: was it safe? Was I about to meet my maker, Yarra-style?

Deep rock in the Yarra/Birrarung. Photograph: Jackson Gallagher/The Guardian
Fran Cusworth prepares for an early morning swim.  She is completely dark when the Yabbies meet at Deep Rock.
Fran Cusworth gets ready for an early morning swim. She is completely dark when the Yabbies meet at Deep Rock. Photograph: Jackson Gallagher/The Guardian

“It’s always the first question, isn’t it?” says Donna Wheatley.

“I think the river has a reputation from the 1980s for industrial waste, dead bodies, shopping carts. The work of the River Keepers has really changed that,” she said.

If you swim north of Dights Falls, above where Merri Creek empties into Birrarung, it’s usually safe. Swimmers are advised to check the updates from the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), which are held weekly in the summer. The Yabbies also do their own tests.

“Sometimes it’s better than the bay,” says Wheatley.

Donella Connors has been every day for the last year. She sticks her head out and has gotten nothing but good vibes from her swimming. I thought I must be lucky and made a mental note to swim with her.

Knowing he was new, the Yabbies made sure he got out alive. There are some rules: if it has rained heavily 48 hours before, the water is prohibited; if it’s your first bath, you can swear.

The uniform for experienced winter swimmers is a couple of togs, but I bought some neoprene boots and gloves (for about $50) and have no regrets.

Thermometer used to measure the temperature of water.
Thermometer used to measure water temperature: morning air temperature is also noted and recorded. Photograph: Jackson Gallagher/The Guardian

The entrance is everything. I was in a hurry to get in there and get this over with, but Meg Elkins taught me to stand up to my thighs for a painful but important minute. Once the shock wears off, you’re good to go.

And boy did we do it. Eight women swimming up the Yarra river in the morning light – the sound of my own voice – “oh my god”, “oh my god”, “oh my god” – jumping off the 400,000 year old rock of antiquity. It seemed that I was also there to pray.

I come from a long line of proud swimmers: the night before, my godfather told me to stay as long as the group, so I earned his respect.

But swimming in the wild cold is about the quality, not the quantity, of your shock.

You swim as much as you can, and as the Yabbies told me: “listen to your body”. You come out when you fall asleep completely. I didn’t last as long as the pros, but I came away exhilarated, almost euphoric.

“Your body collapses, then you start to feel a tingling that comes over you,” says Elkins. “It’s like a vibration that runs through your entire body; you can feel the flow of blood going in.”

Marie Louis Zavarda, reacting to the freezing water of the Birrarung River.
Marie Louis Zavarda, reacting to the freezing water of the Birrarung River. Photograph: Jackson Gallagher/The Guardian

The brown color is not pollution but clay particles. Zeevaarder says that there was a summer day when it was so clear that everyone could see their feet.

If you have good heart health, the benefits of swimming in cold water are enormous: it floods your brain with endorphins, boosts your immune system, and reduces stress.

Wheatley suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder: he has been Yabby for a year and says he has never felt better.

“When I first joined, I was really struggling, like in very intense, suicidal therapy,” she says.

“When I compare this time of year to last year…how is my treatment going…the river, the cold, nature and the community have really helped me in my journey with PTSD.”

After swimming, everyone has their own process to warm up. Fran Cusworth is the most complete: a hot water bottle, a cup of tea and a warm tub to put your feet in.

Others have Oodies, ugg boots and long puffers that look like sleeping bags.

I brought a towel. I had regrets.

Daniella Connors warming up on the shore after a swim.
Daniella Connors warming up on the shore after a swim. Photograph: The Guardian

The Yabbies were started by two closeted buddies who, perhaps a bit bored, decided to join up. The group grew, there is a WhatsApp full of members, but without other social networks, they recruit people by meeting in banks, asking questions. for them to join, inviting them to enter.

“I was jogging here,” says Holly Jones. “And I saw the group swimming. And they were very nice and said, ‘Come and join us.’ And I said, no, no.”

Then, on her birthday, celebrating 10 years cancer-free and the completion of her Ph.D., she decided to take the plunge.

“It was really beautiful,” says Jones.

“The river is always changing. It is always different. I am always celebrating water.”

Beneath the euphoria of the swim, however, is a much stronger current: the Yabbies try to take back the river, see it as a living thing, and learn to love it again.

Amanda Donahoe, Meg Alkins and Fran Cusworth share a hot drink after a swim.
Amanda Donahoe, Meg Alkins and Fran Cusworth share a hot drink after a swim. Photograph: Jackson Gallagher/The Guardian
Where Merri Creek meets Yarra, it is too polluted to swim.
Where Merri Creek meets Yarra, it is too polluted to swim. Photograph: Jackson Gallagher/The Guardian

Loretta Bellato, a year-round Yabby but strictly summer swimmer, is from the Center for Urban Transitions at Swinburne University and has big plans to make the river fully swimmable by 2030.

“We’ve used it as a sewer and landfill,” she says. “We need to move towards a beneficial relationship with the river and recognize it as a living entity.

“When people start swimming in the river, they start to realize there is a much stronger connection to nature and they need to start standing up for it.”

New developments are a continual threat to the health of the river and the Yarra Valley is too polluted to swim in as chemicals run off from surrounding farms.

Bellato wants to see the river filled, right down to the CBD, swimmable, and with a coordinated effort, he knows it’s possible.

“My hope is that when people start swimming, it actually inspires them to start thinking about how they can live more sustainably, and really start taking action, not just sit back and wait for the government to improve our city. ”

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