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Don’t say the C word

I’ve been swimming at Merewether Baths during summer for almost thirty years. But when the days become shorter and the temperature starts getting a little cooler, I stop using the baths. This is the time of year that a brave group of swimmers known as the Merewether Mackerels begin their weekly ritual; one that was started close to fifty years ago

Merewether Baths is home to the Merewether Mackerels, one of the district’s oldest winter swimming clubs. Formed in 1972 as an offshoot of Merewether Surf Club, the Mackerels swim every Sunday morning from May through to September, rain, hail or shine. They don’t swim if there is lightning but that is a rare occasion.

The Merewether Mackerels’ diversity is what makes them an amazing club. They lay claim to having the oldest local winter swimmer. At 102 years old, Alf Carpenter has been swimming with the Mackerels since their inaugural year. Alf moved to Newcastle to start a business with a digger he met while fighting in Papua New Guinea during World War II.

Aside from the huge ninety-year age gap between their youngest and oldest member, they are the only winter swimming club in Newcastle to allow women into their ranks.

“Most winter swimming clubs don’t allow women. None of the other Newcastle clubs do,” explained Billie Holmes-Fairfull; the club secretary.

“Billie and I were the first two female members,” said Helen Cullen. “Some of the other members actually left when we joined because they didn’t think it was the right thing to do – but they’ve come back around.”

“Hopefully the other clubs will start letting women on board. We’ve been members now for the past eleven years and it’s great. It has really helped build the club,” Billie continued.

The Merewether Mackerels’ diversity is what makes them an amazing club. They lay claim to having the oldest local winter swimmer. At 102 years old, Alf Carpenter has been swimming with the Mackerels since their inaugural year.

At the end of their swim, some of the stronger swimmers jump off the rocks at the back of the baths into the surf and make their way back via the beach. Jennifer Martin; one of the New Zealanders of the group, said that this activity had attracted her to join the club.

“I saw them jumping off the back and thought, yep, I’ll do that,” Jennifer said.

The group finishes every week with a bowl of soup and some friendly banter. But it’s not all surf and soup. The members love to compete against other clubs in the area.

“There’s definitely a strong sense of rivalry between the other local clubs such as The Coldies at Dixon Park, The Newcastle Pirates at Newcastle Baths and The Stockton Blubbers across the harbour,” Billie said.

Aside from competing against other winter swim clubs, the Mackerels also have their in-house awards. When I met the club at Merewether Baths for an early morning shoot, club larrikin Don Platt was sporting a dog collar amongst other badges and medals.

“We get a dog collar if we become mongrel of the year,” Don said. “I actually got mine in 1981.”

Next to the dog collar is a badge that Don wears with more pride.

“We get one of these if we go for ten years without missing a swim,” he explained. “We have two members that have participated for twenty years without ever having missed a Sunday.”

There’s also an annual Mackerel of the Year award and, according to Don, not wearing badges or club colours at any official event can result in fines.

Never make the mistake of asking the Mackerels if it is ever too cold to swim.

You can’t say that word – that will immediately incur a twenty cent fine. You can say fresh, but not the c word; that’s forbidden.

“We have two members that have participated for twenty years without ever having missed a Sunday.”

Words: James Turvey | Photography: Zoë Lonergan

As seen in Swell Issue 3.

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