The Otters and 50 years of male bonding

First published August 2012

It's an inspiration for us growing older - men well past retirement age, powering up and down the ocean pools of the Illawarra.

Go down to the pools at Austinmer at 9am on a winter Sunday morning and you'll see men of all ages lined up in their swimmers.

They'll be there whatever the weather, sharing a joke or news of the week.

Photo essay of the Otters

Now celebrating its 50th year, the Austinmer Otters club has a healthy membership of more than 70 men and boys, ranging in age from 12 to 80.

The club is four years younger than the oldest South Coast swimming club, the Wollongong Whales, but has a history every bit as inspiring.

In that time, as well as braving water that can sink as cold as 13 degrees, the swimmers have raised $350,000 for charity - mostly for the Illawarra Society for Crippled Children (now called The Cram Foundation).

Mechanical engineer Joe McGarity started swimming with the Whales in its second year, but eventually tired of the travel and decided to form a local club.

"I thought 'there's a perfectly good pool at Austinmer'," he said.

So he called a meeting of his surf club mates and, on the first Sunday after Easter in 1963, a small group of men met at the Austi pool for the inaugural swim.

They haven't stopped since.

Handicapped races are held over 50 yards - there and back - and organised so that everyone would touch the concrete at the same time.

If anyone beats their personal time by two seconds or more, they are disqualified from the race but their handicapped is adjusted nonetheless.

"It stops anyone cheating," McGarity said.

The Illawarra is a hot-bed of winter swimming with eight clubs that make up the South Coast Winter Swimming Association - the Bellambi Blue Bottles, Bulli Sea Lions, Coledale Oysters, Corrimal Marlins, Stanwell Park Sea Eels, Wollongong Whales and Woonona Ockies.

Further south, the Gerringong Gropers claim to be the closest winter swimming club (presumably in the world) to the Antarctic. Although winter swimmers proclaim that there are extraordinary health benefits for their sport - McGarity has gone 50 years without a cold - the evidence is more anecdotal than scientific.

The club's record for the 50-yard swim of 24.5 seconds has been held by Joe Crosland for 48 years, but he's moved away and his body is riddled with rheumatoid arthritis.

Another whose health has been less than perfect is Gary Sutton, one of the founding eight men.

He was president for the first few years but moved away and didn't return until the 30th anniversary. Lately he had to stop for eight years until receiving a shoulder reconstruction.

When he first started in 1963 he was doing the distance in 30 seconds. When he returned earlier this year he came back at 73 seconds, but has clawed that back to 59 seconds.

"I am over at the far wall before some people have started, but I have potential. I am hoping to gradually improve," he said. It's never been too cold for the Otters, and neither has it ever been too rough, although at high tide it's possible to be swept on to or even over the wall by the choppy surf.

It's an accepting environment where near-nudity dissolves the competitive markers that often keep men apart, and talking is as important as swimming.

There's really only one rule, and a controversial one that cut them off from the Winter Swimming Association of Australia.

The South Coast says "no" to women.

McGarity knows this is a hot issue and is reluctant to enter the debate, except to say men sometimes need their own company.

"If women want to come, they can make their own club. There's a pool down there and they're more than welcome to come in once we're finished."

■ The Austinmer Otters' 50th anniversary dinner will be held on October 27, 2012. All past members welcome. Details: 4285 3939.

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