Gnarabup Beach

A week after I meet Fred Annesley and a cohort of the Gnarabup Swimmers, I’m at a family birthday, holding court with my recount of the interview. I never write immediately after an experience, rather let things stew and talk them over, forming the story in my head before it hits the keyboard.

“I wonder,” says Mum, on completion of my scintillating tale. “If that’s the same Fred who saved Bryan and I at the River Mouth twenty years ago.” Excited jostling ensues, and I pull up the photo I took, directed by Fred to include the Gnarabup headland, his body facing the surf, ski at the ready, a cheeky glance back over his shoulder in my direction. Mum and her friends study the portrait. “I reckon that’s him.”

Fred Annesley and the Gnarabup Swimmers. Credit Ryan Murphy
Photo credit: Ryan Murphy.

When I contact Fred’s wife Bev by text to arrange the meeting, the answer is politely matter of fact – he’s there every morning, usually finished swimming by 7:30am, just ask around, most of them know him.

Within a few minutes of talking with Fred, you get the impression that the swimming ritual is so intrinsic to his existence that he isn’t sure what to say about it. At the very least, he doesn’t quite understand what’s so fascinating about his daily aquatic habit, which he shares with tens of others at Gnarabup beach in Prevelly, Margaret River.

Groups formed over the years, the Prevelly Penguins first, eventually followed by Swimming Women, Sea Queens, and Sea Dragons, though the lines are blurry and friendly, such is coastal town life. Collectively, they’re the Gnarabup Swimmers. Fred’s group, the Sea Slugs, swim south to north from the limestone cliffs towards Surfer’s Point and back again, the smell of coffee from the White Elephant Café offering a warm incentive.

Photo credit: Elements Margaret River.

“It’s about winter,” says Fred. “We still come down and swim the rest of the year, but winter’s what makes the camaraderie.” It’s easy to imagine that warm, dry towel feeling he’s conjuring, the hot drink reward so much better after big waves and pelting rain. Fred introduces me to “Fine Weather Viv” who apparently doesn’t share these sentiments, at least for the sake of the joke. I ask what would stop Fred from going out. “Shark!” is the immediate and obvious answer. He thinks a moment. “Lightning. We don’t go out in lightning. But nothing else stops us. We’ve always got eyes on each other.” To prove this, binoculars sit in grabbing reach.

Ocean Swimming. Credit Ryan Murphy.
Photo credit: Ryan Murphy.

The Sea Slugs comprise almost even numbers of men and women, and while there are some younger and some as old as 80, many are in their 60s and 70s. They’ve been swimming together, or, in a staggered togetherness, for approximately ten years. Fred and his table mates stress to me they’re not a formal club. There are no rules, just turn up and swim for fitness and fun. Contradicting this, they add with a laugh that they’re not recruiting right now, and applications are firmly shut until there are more parking bays at the popular spot.

If not a club, they’re certainly a community. Former surf lifesavers from Perth make up a generous portion of the Slugs. Fred himself is the 1970 Open Iron Man Champion, competing then for Trigg Island. Like all good mates, they hold breakfasts, barbecues, and Christmas parties, and join with other not-clubs for events, including an annual memorial swim for former Prevelly Penguin Rae Martin. Fred is among many who credit Rae with lifting them through serious injury and back into the water using the Feldenkrais physiotherapy method.

White Elephant Cafe Gnarabup Beach Margaret River

I leave Fred and the Slugs to join my partner and friend on the beach, who say they could hear me laughing from all the way up there. I swim, and it’s easy to understand why someone would want to be here every day. The coastline is complex and striking, dotted with reef. The lagoon-like shape and curve of the beach feels like its own world, a microcosm of salt therapy.

We encounter Fred as we walk back up the sand for what is just quietly the best ham and cheese croissant I’ve had in years. He’s about to paddle the ski out to say hello to the surfers, his words. I ask if I can take his picture, composing it mentally as having the sun bouncing from the water into his face, the boat ramp as a backdrop. He has other ideas. “Come on this side, get the headland in.” He poses. It’s a great shot. I concede he’s a better photographer than I am. As we say goodbye my friend mentions she’s impressed by his stamina. He taps his temple. “It’s all up here.”

He launches. I decide I like Fred right there on the sand, a whole week before I realise he saved my mum’s life.

Fred Annesley and the Gnarabup Swimmers. Credit Taya Reid
Photo credit: Taya Reid.

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